New joint looks back
After several delays, City Tavern opens in South Loop
06/27/2012 10:00 PM
Minutes after it officially opened at 4 p.m. last Thursday, the City Tavern restaurant already had its first few customers. A group of friends took their seats around the bar, and a middle-aged man made his way into the restaurant area. As the day went on, customers came and went, eagerly sampling the restaurant’s food and beverage selections.
Operated by Mainstay Hospitality, owners of the Chicago Firehouse and Wabash Tap, the opening of City Tavern has been anticipated by the South Loop residents for months. Located in the space formerly occupied by Grace O’Malley’s at 1416 S. Michigan Ave., the new restaurant set out the capture the spirit of 18th Century taverns and create something that would serve as both a dining destination and a community meeting place.
City Tavern General Manager Sharlan Edmonds elaborated.
“We think there was a void in the neighborhood,” she said. “We wanted to create a place where people could gather and relax.”
Mainstay was originally aiming to open the restaurant by late May of this year, but construction delays forced it to postpone the opening several times, until it finally set the opening date for June 17. But a day before the opening, it became clear that the restaurant was not quite ready.
“We did a mock service on Saturday,” explained Edmonds, “And we had air conditioning issues. Obviously, we couldn’t open if we had air-conditioning issues in the 90-degree weather.”
Once the restaurant did open, it was a sight to behold. The space was essentially gutted and rebuilt from scratch. Wooden tables, large chandeliers and paintings on the walls evoke the vaguely old-timey feeling without ever emulating any specific style or period. The chandeliers’ candle-like lamps give off subdued lighting, creating a quiet, cozy atmosphere.
According to Edmonds, Mainstay Hospitality’s owner, Matthew O’Malley, took a hands-on approach to every aspect of the City Tavern’s interior design, planning out every detail.
Chef Kendal Duque, who previously worked at the Chicago Firehouse, developed the City Tavern menu. Duque explained that while he kept the 18th Century sensibility in mind, he wasn’t trying to emulate any 18th century dishes.
“[The City Tavern] tries to create a feeling of comfort, a place to get together,” said Duque. “When I develop the menu, I tried to think ‘What would I want to eat in this environment?’”
For Duque, cooking is a very personal experience, a way to interpret everything he experienced before and try to put his own take on it.
“I cooked at a lot of places in United States and Europe,” said Duque. “Nothing I’ve done here is an ‘original.’ [What I cook] is very personal. It relates to everything I experienced. This is an expression of my personality through craft.”
However, Duque doesn’t believe that the menu is about his experiences alone. He worked hard to make sure that his dishes complimented the beverages offered at the City Tavern — and vice versa.
“The food and drinks have to go together,” said Duque. “In a lot of restaurants, you have good food, but so-and-so drinks. We want to food and drinks to have synergy. When we design the menu, the beverage director and I are constantly in contact to make sure it happens.”
The restaurant boasts a wide variety of handcrafted cocktails, more then 50 craft beers and an extensive rum list. The rum, according to Elmonds, is the nod to City Tavern’s ambiance.
Elmonds emphasized that everything City Tavern offers aims to convey quality and affordability. The affordability, however, is something of a relative term. While the City Tavern employees proudly say that the restaurant don’t offer anything for more than $20, the average prices aren’t that much lower. Sandwiches run from $9 to $14, grilled dishes run from $16 to $19 and the cheapest entrée is $15.
Even as the City Tavern continues to welcome customers, it continues to try to improve. Duque mentioned that more chandeliers would be added in the future. He also said that the second floor space, which is currently largely empty, will eventually be used to host private parties and private events.
“Thank you for coming,” said Duque. “We hope that you’ll come back later.”