It's been a bumpy ride for City Tavern. The Mainstay Hospitality classic town hall-themed restaurant has gone through a number of chefs and dealt with its share of turmoil since opening last June. Originally opening as a sister restaurant to Chicago Firehouse across the street, bringing chef Kendall Duque along, the food program quickly went astray. Mainstay proprietor Matthew O'Malley feels executive chef John Caputo righted the ship, now bringing in Robert Hoffman (Moto, Otom, BOKA) to run the kitchen. He officially took over on Valentine's Day.
But how did City Tavern get to this point? Months before the opening, at the conceptual inception, Duque was tabbed to run both restaurants. Hoffman says Duque was "possibly overwhelmed" by running both projects, as well as care for a newborn child. "Things (in the kitchen) that were seamless were no longer seamless," O'Malley says, and "things went sideways" in late September. Duque is now spending time with his family.
When Duque left, Mainstay moved quickly to fill the role, tabbing Jackie Shen (Chicago Cut, Friendship Chinese, Red Light) to take over the dining program. Shen didn't work out either, and was ousted within two months. Shen's interest in diverse Asian cuisines didn't line up with the "tavernesque-Americana" ideals of City Tavern, and "what we were looking for and what was produced didn't match up," according to O'Malley.
O'Malley says they reacted too quickly with Shen's hiring. "When something goes sideways, and is so new, you get nervous. If we took more time the situation might not have occurred."
John Caputo, who was working on another Mainstay project, stepped in to right the ship. He took two months to take a long look at City Tavern, try to right the ship, and bring on the right chef. They feel Hoffman is that chef. "The change from Kendall to Jackie was substantial, but John brought it back to this Americana timestamp to the early American tavern," O'Malley says. "With (chef Hoffman) we're trying to build on that foundation."
Hoffman is excited for the opportunity. Despite his fine-dining experience, he feels his style is approachable enough to fit the City Tavern ideal. "I look at it as starting over from day one, like we're starting a new restaurant," he says.