Here is the story about how Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, a multi unit operator, renovated its iconic French restaurant in Chicago to create a hipper and more updated location with strong ties to its culinary roots.
The concept of the French bistro has changed. That said, French restaurants in general have changed over the years. And so, the time eventually came for 16-year-old Brasserie Jo in Chicago to change as well.
Opened in 1995 by Chicago restaurant mogul Rich Melman and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Brasserie Jo once stood as the quintessential casual French bistro. It was a classic, with tiled floors, warm lighting, wooden chairs and white tablecloths. The restaurant featured a well-stocked bar, lined with seats, that attracted a talkative crowd to dine on hangar steaks and frites that flowed plentifully out of iron baskets. With the acclaimed French-born fine-dining chef Jean Joho of Everest restaurant at the helm, the spirited eatery, situated on the once-quiet stretch of downtown Hubbard Street, became an institution, earning three stars from Chicago restaurant critic Phil Vettel.
Enter the newer kids on the block. Rich Melman's sons, R. J. and Jerrod, had already clocked a little more than two years of overflowing success with their first solely run concept, Hub 51, a boisterous, bar-meets-restaurant, nightlife-meets-casual dining spot just next door to Brasserie Jo. When Hub 51 opened on Hubbard in 2008, it quickly brought new life to the street, not to mention a much younger crowd. Since then, Hubbard Street has exploded with the opening of other trendsetting restaurants, bars, clubs and more, and it's still growing.
The Melman boys, with the help of sister Molly and other team members, have capitalized on this expanding growth by, among other things, revamping their bistro neighbor. "Brasserie Jo was 16 years old, and we thought it didn't mesh with the energy on the street," R. J. Melman says. "Hubbard Street is a very vibrant, busy street now, and we thought the time had come for the restaurant to match that vibe."
At the same time, the Melman team noticed how Brasserie Jo was beginning to differ greatly from the more modern bistros in Paris. The increasing number of young adults living in the city — and their strong desire for more approachable, affordable and sharable dining — has led to an influx of hipper, more casual restaurants that are a direct departure from the fine-dining restaurants of their parents' generation which felt too pricey and too stuffy.
"We wanted the new restaurant to be more indicative of what's going on in France right now — more small plates, farmer's market driven," Melman says. "Paris Club is more indicative of a new restaurant in Paris than it is the American perception of what a French bistro is."
While the old Brasserie Jo wasn't fine dining, it did represent the old-school notion of a bistro. So the younger Melmans decided it was time for something livelier — a little funkier, a little more cocktail-focused, a little clubbier.
"We thought of 40 names, but Paris Club just stuck," Melman says. While R. J. didn't have much more of an explanation for it, the name represents itself well. The Paris reference symbolizes the restaurant's reflection of modern-day Parisian dining, while "Club" easily expresses the nature of the clientele: fun, lively, trendsetting scenesters, of all ages (though the mix is skewed toward those in their 20's and 30's).
Piggybacking on the success of Hub 51's kitchen, the Melman team again hired Beth Kuczera, principal of Equipment Dynamics Inc. (EDI), to design the Paris Club kitchen. EDI's first-ever project, ironically, was designing the Brasserie Jo kitchen 16 years ago. When it came to Hub 51, that kitchen alone was a feat for Kuczera and her team. To say the Hub 51 menu is eclectic would be an understatement; it includes a variety of items such as sushi, chunky guacamole, pub chips, tacos, juicy burgers and "The Dude," an 18-ounce, bone-in rib eye. For Hub 51, Kuczera and her team designed a separate sushi bar, located upstairs and offset from the main liquor bar, and then went to work downstairs specifying all sorts of top-of-the-line, multiuse equipment as well as plenty of cooler storage and workspace.
R. J. and Jerrod, along with partner Joho and executive chef Tim Graham, who most recently ran the Brasserie Jo kitchen, sought a similar menu concept for Paris Club, though this one would be less eclectic in foods and more eclectic in plate sizes. That meant more appetizers and small plates, along with bigger plates and sharable plates. The same rundown also works for Hub 51 in that it helps maintain a more casual group atmosphere, in which guests can chose between enjoying cocktails and a few sharable snacks, coming in with groups and ordering plates of food, or enjoying a traditional coursed dinner — with more cocktails, wine and beer, of course.
"We really felt like French food is one of those things that we've always enjoyed," R. J. Melman says. "But our generation hasn't explored it as much. This is our chance to reintroduce French food to a new generation of people."
Joho and Graham, who once served as chef de cuisine in the kitchen of the legendary fine-dining restaurant Tru, joined culinary forces to develop the menu, which includes both French classics and more contemporary creations. This is fitting, considering Tru's reputation for high-end creativity and Joho's reputation for continuing to bridge the gap between older and newer generations as a member of the old guard looking to change with the times and also mentor young, up-and-coming chefs.
Classic dishes include frisée salad with lardons and a runny egg, skate wing in lemon and browned butter, duck confit and coq au vin (two ways), steak frites and mussels. The small plates section again spans the classics with escargot, pâtés, terrines and rillettes, but shows a more creative side too: drippings on toast, chicken drummettes, duck cracklings, pig's feet bonbons, macaroni gratinee with French ham and lamb meatballs in a harissa sauce, among other sharables. You might say it's comfort food at its best.
The Joho-Graham duo has also skewed more contemporary with their raw seafood selections, modern plating of dishes, and treatment of vegetables, such as the vegetable pot au feu with a ginger herb broth that caters to vegetarian diners.
With such a diverse menu in terms of cooking style and plate size, remaking the two-floor kitchen to fit the broad range of dining options had to be done just right. But to start, Kuczera worked to tighten things up, both in space and in operation.
"I think when you keep in mind the 90's and the size of kitchens back then, space was a little more available then from a real estate point of view," she says. In addition, Lettuce Entertain You thought that building a large Brasserie Jo kitchen would enable them to use the space for other catering endeavors, both for that restaurant as well as others in its empire.
Nowadays, with labor and real estate costs escalating, "we tightened up the space in terms of manpower," Kuczera says. "We took out one section of the hood and added back in multiple-use equipment, such as a combi-oven. And the prep space was pretty spread out, so we took a prep area that faced a walk-in cooler, turned it around, and combined it with the other main prep zone," she says.
The team also removed a 12-foot section of the hood and swapped existing equipment for multiple-use, ventless equipment to save space and manpower. A combi oven was added for vegetables and some meat preparation, and to offer more flexibility with finishing sauces. A freestanding induction burner was easily installed in this hood-free space. As a result, infrared burner capability allows cooks to get from zero to 60 in terms of heat in order to quickly whip up made-to-order sauces and accompaniments for the slew of appetizers on the menu.
The team also added a "smart refrigerator" that can keep fish fresh and at safe lower temperatures for longer without the need for ice.
Upstairs, the main floor plan remained virtually the same as before. "We kept the existing hood, chef counter and beverage counter," Kuczera says. "We mainly changed the equipment under the hood to get more up to date. With the volume Lettuce restaurants do, they always look for great equipment, but it takes a beating over the years. We chose new equipment based on the new needs for firepower and the change in menu."
That included new fryers for extra crispy frites as well as a new upright broiler and a special briquette charbroiler to handle the multiple sautéed dishes and the lineup of steaks. The EDI team also added a panini maker and more contemporary, graduated French heat tops to handle the varied menu items.
Another main change upstairs was the switch from a hot pantry to a cold charcuterie station for the pâtés, terrines, rillettes and other cold appetizers. "We pulled out a small hood and salamander and made it all refrigeration."
EDI also added a service bar to assist in service speed and for the restaurant's private-party capability.
The emphasis on the bar, evident at Hub 51, continues at Paris Club. Many restaurants in Chicago and around the country have switched to a bigger bar menu and a focus on extra appetizers and snacking selections, particularly during and after one of the country's worst recessions in recent history. Once-frequent diners have looked to tighten their wallets and order less, though they still want to get out, socialize and have a drink. Or two, research has shown.
As a result, the bar takes up as much floor space as the main dining room, which is off to the left. A long literal bar set along the back wall is lined with mirror-backed, brightly lit shelves stocked with all sorts of spirits and liquors. Rows of high-tops take up the majority of the bar space, matched with squared-off, gold-studded, dark brown leather chairs. Sheer black drapery covers the front windows at night, but the space remains well lit by industrial-looking overhead lights. And the crowd? A little loud, but that's the point.
"We wanted to create an energetic place for people to socialize," R. J. Melman says. "A place where you could grab a bite in the bar or sit in the dining room. That's kind of how we like to go out and eat."
Kiran Pinto, one of the managers at Paris Club, designed the cocktails — or "aperitifs" — which include both classic, whiskey-based concoctions and new creations in very old-meets-new Paris lounge fashion. To match this expanded cocktail service, the EDI team added a state-of-the-art ice machine that can create different ice shapes specifically tailored for rocks glasses so that they don't melt too quickly and dilute drinks.
"We also updated the beer towers to serve craft brews as well as punch," Kuczera says. "And we do tap wine by the glass, which makes us one of the few locations in Illinois to do so."
Modern tap wine equipment holds open wine bottles airtight at precise temperatures, so they last longer and cut back on waste at the bar, an easy profit drainer for restaurants.
While the bar and main dining space were largely designed by R. J. and Jerrod, the team hired Monolayer, a New York City-based design firm, to assist.
"We were going for a slightly vintage, slightly industrial look," R. J. Melman says. The space drips with browns and neutrals offset by darker gray and steel colors, from the medium-toned hardwood floors to the dark taupe walls, slate-colored ceiling, steel beams and iron accents.
In the dining room, located just next door and down a step, white subway tiles border the wall-to-wall mirrors, which are scrawled with phrases like "Paris est toujours une bonne idée" (translation: Paris is always a good idea) and "Paris Club - Cuisine Bourgeoisie."
The tabletop design is simple. White tablecloths have been replaced by bare wooden tables handcrafted from reclaimed wood, interspersed with a few red leather chairs and other solid wooden ones. Classic white ceramic plates in different shapes and sizes prominently display the artistry of the food presentations. Little wooden chopping boards hold handmade charcuterie, cheeses, and ramekins of pâtés. Simple dishtowels are used for napkins. Clear jugs are filled with iceless, filtered water. A stack of oval appetizer plates sits ready for sharing, tasting and snacking.
The simplicity and neutrality of it all accomplishes what the Melmans seem to be going for — more focus on the food, the drinks and the people you're with.
Outside, the exterior is simple as well. The straight, square, brown marble exterior is marked by the Paris Club sign, simple silver block letters that light up at night. It's modern, slightly industrial and definitely urban-chic. But look above, and you'll see the historic façade of a building that has stood through a century.
Several historic buildings line Hubbard Street from east to west in this close-to-the-river portion of the River North area. Nearby Clark Street also has a few of these historic buildings where skyscrapers have been blocked from taking over.
Years ago, when the mob ran the block, the western edge of Hubbard Street — and most of River North for that matter — sported a slew of adult film and book stores, nightclubs and parking lots. Now, it's lined with bars, restaurants and clubs. A 50-floor apartment complex, which was allowed access to the end of this historic row, will soon bring even more young adults, outgoing singles and couples to the area.
"I think this area has even more potential for growth," says Melman. "I'd like to see more shopping come to the neighborhood, and another hotel would be great."
The end of the Brasserie Jo lease last year provided the spark that led the Melmans to consider a revamp. "What is the next generation coming up?" asks Joho, recalling what the team considered as they planned the changes. "We have to think toward the future, think about what's going to happen in the next 15 years, not what's happening tomorrow. You have to be proactive and make the right change at the right moment."
The Lettuce team did just that.