Fulton Market's newest restaurant aims to be unique, unpretentious
10/24/2012 10:00 PM
The northeastern corner of Fulton Market and Morgan Street is no stranger to restaurants. Dino’s Morgan Inn served Chicago-style fast food at this location for 25 years. In 2010, Dodo moved to this location from the Damen Avenue and Fulton Market Street intersection a few blocks west. It remained open until January 2012. But even as it closed, it was clear that a new restaurant would soon take its place.
After months of interior and exterior renovations, the La Sirena Clandestina restaurant opened at this location on October 15, 2012. Founded by chef John Manion in partnership with the former Dodo owner Kim Dalton, the restaurant strives to use Brazilian cooking and post-industrial aesthetic to create a distinctive and unique experience. Although the restaurant has only been in operation for a little under two weeks, the owners are confident that it will be able to endure for years to come.
In many ways, the history of the restaurant space at 954 W. Fulton Market offers echoes the history of the surrounding neighborhood. When the Fulton Market District was primarily made up of food wholesalers and meatpacking plans, Dino’s was there to provide breakfast and lunch for the area workers. By the time Dalton bought the location, things in the area began to change, with more and more restaurants popping up along Randolph and Fulton Market streets.
Compared to Dino’s, Dodo’s menu was more upscale and complex. The restaurant offered salads, fruit compositions, Japanese-style pancakes, sandwiches and plates that involved tofu and seitan, among other selections. But like Dino’s, it primarily served breakfast and lunch. Dalton tried to set up a dinner menu several times, but she ultimately decided that it would be easier to have pop-up restaurants.
Manion was one of the chefs to take advantage of the opportunity. After earning considerable acclaim as the executive chef at the since-closed Mas restaurant, he spent much of the last decade offering his skills to other restaurants. Something about Dodo caught his fancy.
“He did a pop-up here, and we got to talking,” recalled Dalton. “And here we are.”
By January 2012, the two made a deal. Manion took over the space, with Dalton remaining as a minority partner. She continued operating Dodo as before until Manion secured the necessary permits to begin renovations.
Manion approached the designer Brian Willente to handle the interior revamp. After some brainstorming, they decided that La Sirena would have a used, yet timeless feel. They retained some of Dodo’s general layout, but replaced almost everything else. The wood for the floor was salvaged from an Evanston church. All of the chairs were antique Toledo bar chairs. Other pieces of furniture were salvaged from, in Manion’s words, “all over the place.”
He explained that, while he contributed general ideas, he left the specifics up to Willente, so he wasn’t sure where some of the new pieces came from.
Willente sought to give the restaurant an intimate feel. In contrast to conventionally lit Dodo, La Sirena uses small lamps that hang from the ceiling. At the same time, the renovations gave the restaurant new, wider windows, so the level of lighting varies greatly depending on the time of day and the weather outside.
When it comes to the menu, Manion drew inspiration from his childhood. When he was eight, his family moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and he spent much of the childhood traveling throughout Latin America. According to Joe DiTola, a sous chef at La Sirena, Manion was influenced by what he ate at various fast food joints and restaurants.
Manion describes his approach as “Latin local.” He emphasized that while his experiences provided inspiration, he didn’t set out to replicate every facet of Brazilian cooking.
“Those are flavors that I like, culture that I like, but it’s not an ethnic restaurant,” said Manion.
Ultimately, they want to give something that their customers can’t get anywhere else without scaring them away.
“When you come here, you get to listen to the music you haven’t heard anywhere else and eat food you haven’t tasted anywhere else,” he said. “All our ingredients are approachable, so people will look and go ‘Oh, I want to try that.’”
The big part of it was keeping the menu simple.
“It’s extremely straight-forward,” said DiTola. “We don’t like to play with the food too much.”
For example, when they would cook fish, they’d keep the preparation relatively simple.
“We’ll fry it, drizzle it a bit with oil, maybe add some spices and give it to you,” he said.
So far, the response has been largely positive. According to DiTola, La Sirena benefited from Manion’s popularity and his extensive network of friends.
At the moment, La Sirena is open between 4 p.m. until 2 a.m., but Manion said that they are considering introducing breakfast and lunch menus.
Whether or not they will actually get introduced will depend on what happens to the former Fulton Cold Storage building, which is located right across the street from La Sirena. If the plans to convert it into an office building pan out, the restaurant would get a steady stream of clients to take advantage of the new hours. But, until that happens, introducing a breakfast and lunch menu isn’t a high priority.
Dalton is still involved in the restaurant, helping DiTola and Manion with the cooking. She told the Chicago Journal that she’s happy with how La Sirena turned out.
“It’s kind of win-win for me,” she said. “I enjoy working with John. I think [La Sirena] was better suited for this corner. We got some very nice feedback. We hope it will become known as a great night spot.”
With the Fulton Market District still changing, it’s hard to say what the neighborhood will be like in the next few years. But whatever happens, Manion is determined to stay true to his vision.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “I think where a lot of places fail — they want to be all things for all people. We’ll try to provide a great customer service, but just because people want hamburgers doesn’t mean we’re going to have hamburgers. Just because the Bears are playing doesn’t mean we’re going to put up a [expletive] flatscreen.”