A small yet highly efficient and partially open kitchen allows culinary staff to show off their creativity with delicious, healthful ingredients that appeal to hotel guests and neighborhood residents.
The name "Beatrix" holds sentimental meaning for legendary Chicago restaurateur Richard Melman, LEYE's founder and chairman, and his wife, Martha, who both called their mothers "Bea." "Beatrix" in Latin means voyager or traveler, which refers to the guests the restaurant serves, including visitors staying at the Aloft Hotel, which connects to this bustling new operation.
LEYE became involved with this property when the Aloft Hotel's owner approached Melman about operating a restaurant at the corner of Grand and Illinois. "We thought about what a hotel guest wants when traveling and what the neighborhood needs," says Marc Jacobs, executive vice president and partner at LEYE. "Combining this equation with the talents of our chefs, we created something new and different — a neighborhood concept with a warm, comfortable atmosphere, reminiscent of an old coffeehouse, and a menu that is not only delicious but also healthier than what one would expect to find in this setting. The focused menu of slightly more than 20 items is deceiving, as each dish contains ingredients and sides unique to that dish. This is most challenging with regards to finding and organizing space in the coolers and on the line."
The culinary staff at Beatrix size portions so they are satisfying without being overwhelming. The menu also includes indulgent dessert items such as the not-so-low-in-calories Oh, My! Caramel Pie and the gluten-free Tall, Dark, and Handsome Chocolate Cake.
Open from 7 a.m. until midnight, the restaurant addresses diners' needs across multiple occasions, formats and dayparts, including breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, coffee bar, dessert, gluten-free and catering. "Our menu features many popular dishes that change with the seasons," says Jacobs. "Our chef team is always working on new 'healthy meets delicious' specials."
When Jacobs says, "We do a lot out of this kitchen," he isn't exaggerating. In addition to offering in-house dining, the restaurant also provides "Zoom Service" for the Aloft Hotel and adjacent Hyatt Place and Fairfield Suites hotels, which together have 700 rooms. "Zoom" refers to room service's quick-service approach, which includes takeout packaging for on-the-go hotel guests with busy schedules. Staff deliver Zoom Service via pathways that lead from the kitchen to the hotel properties.
Since the Aloft property was designed before LEYE arrived on the scene, Jacobs explains, "We couldn't change the footprint, but we had full opportunity to create the interior design and layout that we wanted."
The restaurant and hotel opened simultaneously. The restaurant was built in 14 weeks, and succeeding on a fast-track timeline was possible only with a well-oiled, communicative team.
"Collaboration is a very powerful tool," says the project's kitchen designer, Beth Kuczera, president of Equipment Dynamics Inc. "The team communicated details with one another very well. If we had opened late, it would have been very costly, of course. But the teamwork made it possible to have rehearsals before the opening, which contributed greatly to getting the restaurant off to a good start from the beginning."
Guests first experience the result of the collaboration when they walk into the space and see exposed wood beams and ductwork and large concrete pillars that rise 11 feet to unfinished ceilings that complement the interior design of Hotel Aloft. The charcoal-colored concrete floors provide a solid ground to the comfortable ambiance designed with brushed metal, glass and fresh greenery hanging from above. The space feels like a living room with its eclectic mix of leather armchairs and colorful couches and pillows. Diners who prefer more traditional seats position themselves in midheight-backed chairs at wood tables. The Wi-Fi-enabled space allows guests to use laptops and other devices during their stay, whether they remain for a full meal, glass of wine or cup of coffee. Some lighting comes from daylight streaming through the windows bracketing two sides of the restaurant. The space also features incandescent pendant lighting.
In addition to the dining space, the 4,400-square-foot restaurant includes a main cocktail bar with an attached coffee bar and bakery display, a second, smaller wine bar, and a 1,400-square-foot display kitchen that is almost entirely visible to guests. A 900-square-foot area containing storage equipment and offices sits beneath the main-floor restaurant.
In order to equip a restaurant of this size for so many menus and functions, designers ensured that the use of space and pieces of equipment remained flexible. "We took our time to figure out how to get exactly what we wanted and how to use the space for multiple purposes," Jacobs says. "For example, the counter in front can be used for display, chef prep or as a buffet station. The pastry counter can also be used for evening dessert prep and food prep. Just about everything has a dual purpose."
Because guests can see almost everything in the kitchen (including getting a peek into the dishroom), appearance became a key design consideration. "For example, we used 2B Mill stainless steel on the front counter so it looks a little aged and rustic, and used a counter with a marble top for pastry work," Kuczera says. "This whole area faces windows, and there are stacked, functional and display shelves to hold spices, so the whole area is very inviting. We used the more expensive pebbled stainless for the walk-in cooler so it would look nice when viewed from the dining room. We specified enclosure panels on the walk-ins and hoods to meet the 11-foot ceilings, to dress up this equipment and make the tight kitchen space feel grand. We wanted this kitchen to be stylized and yet were challenged to remain fiscally responsible.
"We set out to make the kitchen both functional and comfortable," Kuczera continues. "We wanted to avoid elements such as dead ends so staff would like to work in the space and be productive. In addition, we needed an expo component so guests can see the equipment and the chefs at work. And, we were thoughtful about where we put the aisles so customers don't see the nitty-gritty parts of the kitchen. We thoroughly researched the equipment and layout to be sure we had the best layout and flow in this small space and would see continuous activity."
Though LEYE keeps the total project cost private, the design team reports that the kitchen and bar equipment cost was $415,000. This included tax, warehousing and complicated city deliveries requiring off-hour scheduling. It also included the use of union labor for all equipment assembly including stainless steel wall paneling in the dishroom and under the main hood, and for the walk-in coolers. All kitchen and bar equipment is part of this cost, including hoods, fire suppression system, walk-in coolers, shelving, the dishmachine and booster.
"Refrigerated and freezer chefs' counter components were strategically placed to maximize the production support with the compressors remoted on an adjoining property roof," Kuczera says. "The tight space required organizational details, such as customizing the 14-guage prep tables with sink bowl covers to expand service areas, adding a custom breading station for the front of the fryer and utilizing spice rails in the pastry area, and pickup and hot cooking line to keep all ingredients at hand."
In addition, a more expensive safety-featured slicer was selected to create a safer work environment. "Details required to maximize profits were maintained, such as built-in fryer filtration as well as items to minimize long-term repair and maintenance issues such as lock-down lever drains and virtually indestructible prerinse faucets," Kuczera says.
Plumbing and electric connections were not part of the total cost. "We didn't compromise on quality," Jacobs says. "We received and installed everything we wanted in this kitchen, including a blast chiller/shock freezer, combi oven and a continuous, well-equipped hot cooking line that services all dayparts. We don't have room for backup pieces of equipment, so we have to rely on heavy-duty equipment that can handle the volume."
When customers walk in the Clark Street entrance, they see a small wine bar with a dual-temperature, climate-controlled back bar refrigerator that holds red and white wine at proper temperatures. Guests can also order cocktails and soda at this unit. "This underbar equipment is made with continuous stainless steel backsplashes and is one piece that is welded together so there can be no leaks and it will last the duration of a LEYE concept," Kuczera says.
Several feet across the room stands the juice bar, which is becoming more popular with customers who want simple blends and detoxifying green juices in the morning hours.
The coffee bar features two beans from two area roasters. "People are very particular about the type of coffee they like, so we decided to break tradition and bring in two concepts," Jacobs says. "We had to make menu decisions because they use the same equipment. For example, we offer brewed coffee from each roaster, but only feature one roaster's specialty coffee of the month."
The bar also offers wine and hard liquor, held in temperature-controlled refrigerators. An attached bakery display features everything from chocolate-covered angel food muffins to honey butter cinnamon rolls. Adjacent to the coffee bar, a pass-through beverage counter allows servers to pick up coffee, other beverages and pastries. Equipment includes blenders, refrigerators, coffee grinders and brewers.
"The layout allows staff to offer many different beverages from one area," Kuczera says. "The hotel guest and neighborhood regular can get beverages to go; the waitstaff uses this rear area for beverage pickup, and the bartenders are right at hand, so we can add or decrease labor as peak periods of beverage business exist. The labor is shared, and the area is always staffed at the right numbers to provide quality, fast, friendly service."
Toward the kitchen, along a wall with 11-foot-high windows, is an area with a 10-foot prep table that serves as a pastry and cold prep station. It contains a drawer warmer, conveyor toasters, bread storage shelving, undercounter refrigeration, an induction warmer, ingredient bins, a 20-quart mixer and a mixer table with utensil storage.
Further along on the line, staff use a double-stacked combi oven for cooking meats, vegetables and pastry, and a 12-gallon steam-jacketed kettle to make soups and sauces. A rolling rack sits in this area so finished products can be transported easily to other parts of the kitchen. Adjacent to the kettle, a wall divides the prep area from the ice machine and mop area.
Perpendicular to this prep area is another cold prep and pastry area beginning from right to left facing the line, with a blast chiller/shock freezer (offering tremendous menu flexibility for using seasonal products and for quickly lowering the temperature of vegetables and soups), wall-mounted overshelves, a two-door freezer, a table holding a food processor and two different-style juicers. Shelving here and throughout the kitchen provides organized space for ingredients and plates so staff can easily move throughout the space without interrupting their workflow and that of their team members.
Behind this prep line, a prep cooler and pastry refrigerator provide staff easy access to ingredients throughout the day. "A pastry refrigerator allows ingredients to be held without flavor transference, and this is so important with the precise menu that was developing," Kuczera says.
Running parallel to this prep area, another cold zone contains a prep table, a slicer for cutting meats and cheeses and a conveyor toaster. "This area has a dual purpose serving as a pantry for salad making, an area for keeping desserts and a cold line to support hot cooking," Kuczera says.
This area also serves as a staging area for catering and Zoom Service. "The worktable is 42 inches deep with 2 undershelves and a sink bowl cover, compared to the normal 30 or 36 inches, so prep appliances can sit here and there's still space in front to work," Kuczera says.
On the adjacent hot cookline, staff prepare dishes including pot roast sandwiches; "Neatloaf" made with turkey, sweet potato and greens and finished with braised kale and vegetable gravy; tsukune (Japanese chicken meatballs); and chocolate-glazed salmon with corn tortillas and slaw with almonds. Staff use a charbroiler to make a prime burger and turkey burger, as well as skirt steak chimichurri. The wood-burning component is used for specials. The fryer contains a built-in filter to make Kennebec french fries served with poached-egg mayo; a 48-inch griddle makes quinoa cakes, brioche-crusted branzino and in the morning lemon-ricotta pancakes and golden hash browns. A high-mass oven beneath finishes dishes such as caramelized pork shank and slow-braised pot roast. An overhead broiler keeps dishes warm and melts cheese, while staff use the 6-burner, 36-inch range to make sauces and prepare the poached farm egg and truffled pasta as well as breakfast egg dishes. Staff use the convection oven beneath to cook the crispy roasted organic chicken. "This equipment is all heavy-duty/high-BTU series to accommodate performance and high recovery," Kuczera says.
"We didn't get everything right on the first design pass," Kuczera says. "As the menu was continuously defined, we continued to redefine the kitchen space and all the cooking and prep lines. Fairly early on in the design process, we flip-flopped the griddle and burners as breakfast was introduced to the concept.
"We reviewed every wall to maximize the view into the kitchen so that even with an extensive hood area, we could cut back the wall right next to it to 54 inches high to allow action to be visible to guests," Kuczera says.
Across an aisle runs a long counter where staff receive and expedite orders before servers deliver the food to the customers. "The 2B Mill unpolished stainless makes the counter look aged, and we used that same material to shroud the hanging heat lamps," Kuczera says. "It has all the food-grade qualities of stainless, but with a more rustic and weathered design. We used plumbers' pipe legs to mount it from the ceiling and hid the wires underneath to give a rustic, natural look."
In order to drop off dishes and serviceware, staff move across a wide aisle to the side of all the prep areas. This area contains a corner dishmachine for wine glasses and fine plates. Four racks can fit into the custom soiled dishtable, so staff can simultaneously handle various glasses and ware without breakage concerns. A two-sided double-racking overshelf allows staff to fill it on the outside and move it to the inside without losing any performance while waiting for someone else to pull the rack. Another shelf on top organizes all the racks. "This is compact yet effective, and is so important, as the dishroom is the soul of the kitchen," Kuczera says.
A few feet away, a hand sink sits between the dishroom and the three-compartment pot sink so all front- and back-of-house staff can wash their hands. Staff place clean dishes on shelving high and low so it's ready for staff to access as needed to run to the chefs.
When staff receive deliveries on Clark Street, they check in products before taking some items to the lower-level storage, which includes two walk-in coolers, one for beer and wine and the other for produce and dairy. The area also contains a liquor storeroom, dry storeroom, toilets, lockers and an office. Staff also take some products directly into the kitchen and past an aisle bracketing the dishroom to a walk-in cooler and other upright and undercounter refrigeration. "Four compressors are routed to the roof in outdoor units with temperature enclosures," Kuczera says. One compressor is located downstairs.
A small space for a full-service restaurant and bar, holding such a variety of equipment and serving multiple meal parts, always presents challenges. The positioning of the elevators and stairway just could not change. In addition, the hotel had budgeted a duct shaft for a sandwich shop instead of the full-service restaurant that became the eventual tenant, and this necessitated creativity: the ductwork for the combi oven and kettle hood was positioned out the back of the building, requiring petitioning and permission from the city (which was eventually given).
As Restaurant Beatrix becomes rooted in the River North neighborhood, word is spreading about the newest dining gem to brighten the dining scene. In its brief and well-received history, this concept is redefining hotel and neighborhood dining. After one visit, guests understand that they can find great-tasting food, much of it healthful, in a warm and friendly environment.
Jacobs and the LEYE team want the restaurant's menu to have "cravability." "This is when guests want to come back here for a specific dish that they can't find elsewhere," Jacobs says. Making this consistently possible is dependent upon the equipment and layout, which is living up to the challenge of demanding owners and chefs who continue to push the quality envelope into uncharted territory.
Facts of Note