Redefining Dining

A colorful plate at HUGO’s offers many of the flavors of the Mediterranean.

Writer: Wini Moranville
Photos: Duane Tinkey

With HUGO’s Wood-Fired Kitchen, a new restaurant in the Drake area set to open in March, chef-owner Lynn Pritchard is drawing a line in the sand. A guiding principle in his staff’s mission statement is “the death of mediocrity.”

“I am fed up with our acceptance of mediocre food, mediocre service and a complete lack of hospitality,” he said. “These days, I intentionally check myself before going into a restaurant and lower my expectations. Otherwise, I leave really upset after paying an $85 bill.”

Yes, that sounds harsh, but somebody had to say it. Most every diner I know has tried to be gracious and forgiving toward restaurants imperiled by the pandemic and its ever-lingering aftermath. Still, one can’t help but feel disappointed after paying $18 for a burger (nearly $23 after tax and tip) that’s too often indifferently served and merely standard in quality.

Pritchard, who also owns 503 Cocktail Lab + Tasting Room and Table 128 (also set to reopen this season), says he’s committed to the pursuit of excellence from the moment diners walk through the door at 3206 University Ave. to the moment they leave. And even before that: Yes, someone will answer the phone and, better yet, be able to answer your questions.

As he put it: “We want to be nailing those points of service” — a set of industry guidelines that ensure a quality customer experience — “and executing on a level of hospitality that isn’t paralleled in the city.”

The menu is equally ambitious. Although HUGO’s will offer casual food with prices in line with its Drake neighborhood setting, don’t look for burgers, loaded fries, wings and the like. Pritchard is determined to make his menu stand out as “jarringly different” from the carbon-copy menus he sees at many other casual establishments in the Midwest.

The HUGO’s team was still refining the menu when dsm went to print, but Pritchard said diners can expect a culinary journey that spans the Mediterranean, including flavors from Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Flatbread, pizzas, salads, sandwiches and a few composed entrees will showcase house-made ricotta, mozzarella cashew cheeses and warm, earthy, savory, vibrant and sweet spice blends, such as za’atar, baharat and ras el hanout.

A striking wood-fired oven will be the focal point of the interior, which will seat around 64 diners. With dark furnishings, including tabletops crafted from Iowa oak, the design will harmonize the rustic charm of the wood-fired activity with luminous and airy elements from a substantial bank of windows.

Pritchard noted the patio will be “the smile on the face” of the restaurant. With a fireplace and infrared heaters for cooler months and huge ceiling fans for summer, he’s hoping to accommodate open-air dining from March through November.

Like the guiding North Star for Pritchard’s high standards, he named the restaurant after two cherished family members — his son and his late father, both named Hugh — but decided HUGO had a more restaurant-y ring. As such, the whole project seems like more than a culinary venture: It’s an homage to his family and a warm invitation to a place that feels as comforting as home.

Lynn Pritchard

Good Neighbors

HUGO’s Wood-Fired Kitchen will share a building with the WesleyLife Meals on Wheels campus, which delivers about 1,000 hot, flavorful and nutritious meals to the homes of military veterans and older individuals who can’t easily shop for groceries or prepare meals. Delivery drivers make sure to stop in for a quick conversation and a safety check.

The campus, which celebrated its grand opening on Dec. 1, includes a kitchen and an indoor vertical garden, with a second floor devoted to programs that foster connections between younger and older adults via the arts, health and education.

HUGO’s and Meals on Wheels share not only a building but a mission. Pritchard plans to volunteer for the nonprofit and will expect his staff to do the same. “My parents taught me the importance of leaving the world better than I found it,” he said. “I want to foster that vein of philanthropy in my businesses as well.”

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