The Making of a Restaurant
Local Restaurateurs Offer Their Recipes for Success in Creating Distinctive Dining Establishments
Harry & Eddie's owner Brian Goewey and Chef Mike Bomberger
Photo by Ed Ahern
Sam Vlahos pushes a button and a large garage door, nearly 128 square feet of glass, obediently slides up and hides itself. Pedestrians at Main and Curtiss streets — the center of Downers Grove — sneak a peak at the space, still under construction this day. Vlahos’ innovative restaurant, Pierce Tavern, named for the town’s founder, will open soon.
Constructed in 1892, the building housed the first bank in Downers Grove and soon also served as the town’s first post office and library. Sam, 29, and Patricia Vlahos, 32, the brother-sister owners, are paying homage to the past. The original pinewood floors have been restored. A “money pole” with embedded pennies and dollar bills sprouts from the floor. Affixed to a wall are books with pages flipped open. Customers paying their bills can tuck their credit cards into vintage bank deposit bags.
“We have a space that tells a story,” says Patricia Vlahos. The menu will be similar to that at Fuller House, the siblings’ popular upscale, pub-style restaurant in Hinsdale. Fuller House offers wood-fired pizza and creative offerings such as truffle fries, brisket chili and a crispy Brussels sprouts salad.
The two have spent almost a year renovating the building, formerly the Muriel Munday Apparel Shop. They’ve collected menus from scores of other restaurants, shot photos of venues they’ve liked and amassed an “inspiration board” at Patricia’s house that has served as a guiding force.
Pierce Tavern is one of several relatively new restaurants that are resetting the bar for the restaurant scene in the western suburbs. West Suburban Living has flung open their kitchen doors and will take you, not to the cutting board but to the drawing board of several new restaurants, tracing the science behind the art of their food.
What’s the secret sauce that flavors the experience there? How and why did this restaurant come to be? What explains the magic, how can a simple meal serve as a capstone to a weekend or the site of a memorable celebration.
Santo Cielo, Naperville
It’s likely that no other restaurant in the western suburbs is perched so high and bathed in fresh air. Enclosed in glass on the fifth-floor of the Indigo Hotel in downtown Naperville, Santo Cielo overlooks the Riverwalk and the DuPage River and offers diners stunning views of the city. The windows open most of the way, creating a rooftop atmosphere. The white sofas and tables and gnarly potted plants contribute to the tropical ambience. “People tell us they think they’re in Miami or California or the Mexican Riviera,” says co-owner Julio Cano.
Cano and his brother, Rodrigo, are renowned for their bold, innovative Mexican food. They also own Bien Trucha in Geneva, A Toda Madre in Glen Ellyn and Quiubo, located on the first floor of the same building complex as Santo Cielo.
“So it made no sense for us to have another Mexican restaurant here,” says Julio Cano. “We want to play around and be creative. You’ll see Asian ingredients, African ingredients, flavors from South America. We’re global. There are no boundaries
to our kitchen.”
Unusual flavor combinations prevail. The dozen entrées on the menu on this particular day included gnocchi and short ribs, enlivened with fresno chili and pickled fennel; crispy pork belly, seasoned with bok choy, broccolini, pickled chili and cucumber; and Chilean sea bass with a miso-aji glaze.
Santo Cielo opened in May, and, as the weather changed and tastes evolved accordingly, seven of its eight cocktails already had been swapped out by late July. The menu will change seasonally as well. The restaurant will follow the Canos’ well-established routine in developing new menu items. The chef first tries out a new recipe with kitchen comrades. He then e-mails a half dozen people — the Canos, a partner or two, perhaps a general manager or a beverage director — with the ingredients, and the group meets for a taste test with paper and pens in hand for feedback.
“Sometimes it’s a home run right off the bat,” says Cano. “Sometimes you need to make changes. It could have something to do with the acidity. Or the spiciness.”
New menu choices are easy to concoct. “There’s cooking shows on TV. We follow chefs on Instagram. It’s not hard to see what’s going on on the far side of the world. Sometimes you’re inspired by what you eat when you travel or go out to eat
in Chicago,” says Cano.
Pricing is not an exact science, but is not done blindly either. “I can go crazy with all the e-mails I get from vendors about the prices of limes or whatever,” says Cano, who now has a staff person working with software that helps break down the cost of ingredients in a menu item. “A corporation like McDonalds gets it down to the two cents. They can tell you how much it costs them when a worker is waiting on a customer. We work with different margins. We don’t have it down to a science, but we’re getting better.”
The Canos have built a loyal customer base. Savvy diners travel a distance to eat at their restaurants. But they were not overconfident about their latest venture. “There’s such turnover in our industry. Concepts come and go. A lot of top chefs closed restaurants just in the past year,” Cano says. And in some ways their success makes it harder as time passes. “Bien Trucha was a four-table restaurant. It was a cute restaurant. You get a pass when you are the underdog. It gets harder and harder because people’s expectations are high,” he says.
The restaurant held three soft openings — dining by invitation only — to work out the kinks. Invited were media, VIPs and friends and family. Those went well, and crowds have been good since the official opening. Comment cards help identify problems. “You have to take those with perspective. It may be an isolated thing. Or do you hear the same thing over and over? Maybe someone says the salsa is salty. So you check with the chef, and he might say, ‘It’s fine. It’s that person,’” says Cano.
You also have to be who you are. You can’t change your identity. A repeated complaint is the lack of high chairs in his restaurants. Cano says his spaces are not conducive to clunky chairs. “We love kids. And we know there are places in Wicker Park where you’ll see families. Maybe we’re missing out on some suburban families. But we’d lose the appeal that put us on the map.”
Harry & Eddie’s, Hinsdale
The menu at Harry & Eddie’s, which opened in May in downtown Hinsdale, slyly notes that the restaurant dates from 1925. That’s because the space was originally occupied by the historic Hinsdale Theater. The marquee is still faintly recognizable, and the interior boasts some of the original architectural features. But the space is now elegantly pre-modern, a Gatsby-like atmosphere with appealing highlights such as a magnificent Carrera marble bar, gorgeous chandeliers and a classy baby grand piano. The patio eating space is a narrow alleyway flanked by high brick walls. The quaint outdoor space is barely eight-feet wide — think of a tucked-away café in Rome or Paris.
This is restaurateur Brian Goewey’s sixth restaurant. The 43-year-old Goewey is fast becoming a mini-Rich Melman of the western suburbs. He first opened Fire + Wine in Glen Ellyn in 2012, followed by Gia Mia in Wheaton and Geneva and Livia Italian Eatery in Geneva and Elmhurst. He’s won acclaim from reviewers and allegiance from customers. One reviewer raved that the pizza at Gia Mia “was exactly the chewy slice of heaven one would expect . . . The strategy seems to be to simply take the best of what’s out there and apply enough love to make it something novel.”
So Goewey is batting 1,000 — six for six, no mean feat in the restaurant industry, especially here. Some studies show that nearly 60 percent of food businesses fail within the first year, though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of failed restaurants at 17 percent in year one. Goewey describes the local dining scene as “super competitive.” He can cite a laundry list of what can go wrong: “They grow too rapidly, don’t have a solid core foundation. Their food and labor costs aren’t in line with their sales.” Trouble can come easily. “They don’t have a sustainable business plan. Their menu prices and dishes don’t fit their market. They don’t listen to what their guests want.”
Harry & Eddie’s presents “American tavern throwback” food, says Chef Mike Bomberger. There are classic standbys such as French onion soup and a Caesar salad, but there also are unexpected choices such as zucchini fries served with creamy parmesan; kale and avocado guacamole accented by pink grapefruit, cilantro and sunflower seeds; New Zealand lamb chops; and Thai steak flavored with mango, Napa cabbage and basil mint. The strategy is to give diners what they want and what they will come to want. “We have familiar foods with different flavors,” says Goewey. “We provide different flavor profiles. Maybe 25 percent is a little different.”
Standard operating procedure and traditional thinking gets zinged and zapped and tossed and turned by improvisation and sudden inspiration at a Goewey restaurant. The 75/25 percent formula works like a charm. It applies when he first encounters a space and considers the possibilities. “I think 75 percent of our budget is by design. Twenty-five percent is gut feeling,” he says. That ratio works its way into the menu. “Seventy-five percent of the menu might be constant and 25 percent will rotate,” Goewey says. “If you never change, you become boring. Then you’re a chain restaurant.”
The customer is not just always right — his or her palate holds sway. “The town tells you what to put on the menu. You have to adjust. You have to make changes three or four times a year,” he says. Goewey says his restaurants are tailored to their specific locations. “The vibe in Geneva is so much different than what it is in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Elmhurst and even Hinsdale. Even the alcoholic beverages that our guests can request surprisingly can differ from location
to location,” he says.
Goewey began working for the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group in Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, when he was a teen, and if there’s one rule he follows it’s the rule of meticulous preparation. He does not re-invent wheels — he studies road maps and masters the skills of elite practitioners. Before he fired up his wood ovens at Fire + Wine, he learned the art of Neapolitan pizza making from New York icon Roberto Caporuscio. “He said, ‘I’ll teach you, but you have to do it exactly as I do.’ You have to use a certain oven, flour and mix. There is a certain time and temperature, a certain way to stretch the dough.”
Initially, Goewey was close to a one-man whirlwind, taking on the general contracting of renovating a new space and then putting in 80-hour weeks as chef. Today he has a team. Located in Geneva, BG Hospitality Group includes Chef Bomberger and a training and development coordinator, among others. “We don’t just hire a new chef and say ‘good luck.’ We put him through a training program and teach him our practices,” says Goewey.
Each restaurant opening is preceded by a detailed market study and intensive marketing. Before he opened Livia last November, market researchers discovered the restaurant habits of Elmhurst residents. “We had to know whether they like
to spend their money on high-profile restaurants or more casual places,” says Goewey. When he finally greenlighted the restaurant after an appropriate space opened up downtown, more than five years after he first considered an Italian restaurant in Elmhurst, he completely renovated the interior in 44 days, easily beating his normal deadline. “If you’re under construction and don’t open within four months, your budget is shot,” he says.
With Harry & Eddie’s, Goewey opted for some upscale mail marketing. He sent to 15,000 homes in Hinsdale and four nearby towns a colorful brochure with the menu and photos of select menu items. Coupons were not included. “You have to be careful about discount programs because you don’t want to be a discount brand,” he says. That’s not to say old-fashioned price reductions don’t have a place at the table. Asked what was one of the best decisions he ever made, Goewey does not hesitate: “Running half-priced pizza Mondays for our Gia Mia brands!”
Pierce Tavern, Downers Grove, and Fuller House, Hinsdale
The long-abiding stereotype is that the suburbs close up their sidewalks at sundown and that their aesthetics are blandly vanilla. Fuller House, opened by the Vlahos siblings in 2015, shatters that lazy generalization. An ultra-hip sports bar, it is dark, rustic and utterly idiosyncratic. The décor includes wood beams from shuttered St. James Cathedral and wood from a Kentucky farm that was home to a Kentucky Derby winner. A kind of bar within a bar, the quieter second-floor eating space, rimmed by a sweeping balcony, includes a handsome Whiskey Wall. Hand the keys to someone else if you find yourself staring at it more than two times.
The kitchen includes an in-house smoker and a wood-fired oven. The distinctiveness of the food matches the décor. The mahi tacos? “Amazingly marinated and cooked with its Hawaiian taste,” according to one Yelp critic. The brisket chili? “I don’t even like chili . . . It’s the best chili I ever had.” Said another Yelp fan: “The Crispy Brussels Sprouts Salad was the bomb. I did not expect such a burst of flavor.”
For Fuller House and Pierce Tavern, the owners successfully walk a fine, thin line between the customary and the unexpected. “We wanted something casual, not gourmet. Casual, but a bit upscale,” says Patricia Vlahos. “You don’t want to call it bar food. It’s upscale bar food.”
“We’re all about elevated American cuisine,” says Sam Vlahos. “We don’t do a grilled cheese. We do a brisket grilled cheese. Everyone has chicken wings. We do a buffalo shrimp with blue cheese crumbs.”
In the age of Instagram, a place like Fuller House is a dream destination. You don’t brag to the world about the burger and fries at Mickey Ds. But you do want your friends to be just as buzzed about the Strawberry Smash cocktail at Fuller House as you are.
Social media is a godsend and also sometimes a bane for a restaurant. The siblings relentlessly promote their establishments through social media. They respond to comments and criticisms. “We’re not perfect. If something is not right, we fix it,” says Patricia.
Pierce Tavern will capitalize on the continuing upsurge of residents in or near downtown. More than 300 condo units alone will open soon, says Vlahos. Many newcomers once lived in Chicago as 20-somethings and will welcome the urban touches of Pierce Tavern such as the sliding garage door and outdoor seating. “We’re bringing a city vibe to the suburbs. People here once lived in Lincoln Park or Old Town and remember what it was like,” says Vlahos.
The siblings come from suburban restaurant royalty. For 35 years their father, John, owned Jonathan’s steakhouse, a fixture on Roosevelt Road in Lombard. Starting as teenagers, both siblings worked at JT’s Porch in Lombard, also once run by their dad. He now lives three blocks from Pierce Tavern and stops by often to proffer advice. “We see him a lot. He’s our free consultant. But he gets to eat for free,” says Vlahos cheerily.
The restaurant awaits some final touches and village inspections. The major work such as wide windows where there were cement blocks and solid walls and a mounted signage façade in front has been completed. OK, so it was a bland space but has shed its suburban monotony. “We had a vanilla box to work with. We knew what was essential and spent money on that,” says Patricia. “The décor is such a big part of this. People want a cozy, warm space.”Edit Module