When people come to town, visiting for a weekend or attending a convention, I invariably get asked about steakhouses. In some ways, it’s like asking about hot dog joints. As most of us know by now, Vienna Beef is the defacto supplier of encased meats (as well as neon green relish, sport peppers and celery salt) for nearly all of the joints in the city. There are few variations, and if there are deviations from this norm, it would be in size (6s, 8s, or God forbid, the pencil-sized 10 weenies at Gene & Jude’s) or with garnishes like tomato (usually out-of-season red, but in the case of Superdawg, a pickled green version). It’s the same story with steak. Sure, you can choose from Sullivan’s, Gene & Georgetti, Ruth’s Chris, The Chop House and Gibson’s, but they’re all featuring pretty much the same product: USDA Prime grade (which means corn/grain-fed) and wet-aged in a sealed plastic wrapping. Like the hot dog places, there are subtle variations. Some places (Harry Caray’s) also carry grass-fed; others (Smith & Wollensky) will dry-age their steaks, giving‚ them more of a subtle tang. But in essence, the main difference between steakhouses in Chicago is service and atmosphere (or a dose of melted butter, as is the case at Ruth’s Chris).
This is where Mastro’s comes in. The California-based company is banking on Chicago’s (and its visitor’s) desire for something more than just a grilled steak and a wedge of iceberg. They’re counting on the live entertainment factor - piano with the occasional bass - which they hope will enliven the corner of Grand and Dearborn, a space that has already seen two high-profile imports (L.A.’s Spago and New York City’s Blue Water Grill) pack up and go home.
“We are about the dining experience, not just the food and service,” said Debbie Bohnett, the Senior Vice President of Mastro’s. “We have live entertainment seven nights a week; we are upscale but fun. Because Chicagoans really appreciate fine restaurants, we think there’s room for us.”
The Chicago location will be number nine for the group when it opens in June (all eight are in Nevada, California and Arizona). Bohnett says the company has been looking for spaces around the country the past year, and felt that the corner of Dearborn and Grand was a “spectacular location” for entertainment dining. With a check average of about $110, this will be one of the more interesting imports to watch.The interior at the former VTK
Another recent casualty in River North was VTK, short for Vong’s Thai Kitchen. When it opened in the Spring of 1999, Jean Georges Vongerichten actually came to Chicago and christened his popular Vong - a hybrid of Southeast Asian spices and ingredients with‚ French‚ technique. The high prices didn’t help, and a few years later, it morphed into VTK, a more casual atmosphere with a more approachable menu. But on New Year’s Eve, the restaurant served its last meal. I walked by the space on Friday, and couldn’t believe my eyes: its been completely gutted, with any evidence of the tall palms and rich, deep-colored wooden booths all but erased from memory. Going into its place? Can you take a guess? Well, let’s just say it has something to do with Orson Welles and a sled.6 W. Hubbard - soon to be another Rosebud?
I called Rosebud’s corporate office for comment, but as they’ve done to me twice in the last two weeks, they wouldn’t return my calls. The first time around, I was asking about the rumor that former TV GM Joe Ahern had come aboard to work for the company, and we all know how that one turned out. So this time around, since I’m getting stonewalled on the Rosebud rumor at 6 W. Hubbard, let’s just say if you’re one of those people who gets excited by pasta with vodka sauce and other Italian-American favorites as big as your head (“gee, leftovers and doggie bags!”) then you’re in for a treat. Do we really need another Rosebud downtown? ‚ Including the location in Little Italy and their Carmine’s Clamhouse in the Viagra Triangle - with all due respect to Grant Goodeve and Dick Van Patten and the rest of the Bradford clan - Eight is Enough.
Like the Bradfords, isn’t 8 Rosebuds enough?