Eater contributor David Hammond is a co-founder and lead moderator of LTHForum.com, has written the weekly Food Detective column and now for Splash! in the Chicago Sun-Times and he's the food columnist for the Wednesday Journal. His cable television series "You Really Should Eat This" focuses on must-try dishes in Oak Park, Illinois.
[Photo: The Signature Room]
Most American restaurants close within their first decade; The Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center is headed into its third decade (the anniversary is July 3). This success seems likely to be the result of wise decisions concerning both the menu and the business mission. Executive chef Rosalia Barron and CEO/co-owner Rick Roman spoke about the food and business of The Signature Room.
Rosalia Barron, Executive Chef: Food at The Signature Room:
There's a certain bias against restaurants that offer a "view"—and the view at The Signature Room is undeniably spectacular. The thinking is, if the view is that wonderful, the food is in a supporting role and doesn't have to be that great because people will still come away with a "wow experience." What do you say to that criticism?
They are right – that is my biggest challenge, but it is also my motivation to make a better dish. While many view-centric restaurants happily have food take a back seat to the view, we are adamant that guests know that the food always take center stage. It's a constant challenge, but we believe there's a reason The Signature Room has been around for 20 years—and that's because the view is second to the food. Since taking over as executive chef, I've worked very hard to create memorable dishes that complement the view of our stunning city.
Your menu contains a lot of recognizable standards, like twin lobster tails and rack of lamb. How do you make such classics interesting?
The Signature Room is known for its creative take on classic dishes. My approach is that of innovative simplicity. I use unique ingredients that result in a bold take on humble classics. I really focus on technique and cooking methods to balance flavors and bring out the best and most interesting flavors in classic American dishes.
Could you name your favorite dish or two on the menu, and what makes them special?
That is like asking which is your favorite child! My latest creation is always my favorite. Every dish on the menu is important to me because each ingredient has a reason and is important. I love to be creative and work with the freshest ingredients, so I'd have to say the monthly menu is most special to me. It gives me the chance to create new and innovative dishes each month based on seasonality.
Michelin recognition is sweet, and I'm sure you're shooting for a star or two or three next time around. What are you doing to achieve that?
The hallmark of the Michelin recognition is fine dining, the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year. Keeping that in mind, we are obsessed with quality and reliability, and we always strive to elevate our flavor profile and provide a well-rounded experience for each guest. The first step in doing so is using locally sourced produce and working with farmers to follow the produce and animal from start to finish. Our diverse clientele from every corner of the world expects a fine dining experience and we believe we offer the freshest seasonal dishes available.
Rick Roman, Co-owner/CEO: Business at The Signature Room:
The Signature Room has literally looked down upon the evolving Chicago dining scene for 20 years now. What changes have you seen and how have you changed?
Over the last 20 years, a lot has changed. The old saying, "The only thing constant is change" rings true for us, too! Not only has the Chicago skyline changed, so has the Chicago dining scene. 20 years ago, there were a few hot new chefs doing innovative food. We were out in front with them doing things like locally sourced products that were all natural, hormone free and organic when possible. Then it was new—now you almost expect that level of commitment from any fine dining establishment.
Over the past 20 years, what was the biggest business challenge you faced, and how did the organization overcome it?
9/11 was the biggest challenge. We got through it by prayer and pulling together as a family does in crisis—just as the city and our country did. It eventually came back to normal.
Making the move to healthier choices for our guests was a bit uncomfortable at first. People didn't necessarily embrace it. The healthier choices were our least popular items at first. Now, they're rapidly outpacing the "less healthy" options.
How would you describe the customer at The Signature Room?
They range from hip and savvy foodies to wide-eyed families with children—all out for an extraordinary dining experience from a great city.
Do you anticipate making any changes at The Signature Room in the next 20 years, or do you feel your customers expect a certain kind of unchanging experience?
Our customers are growing in the culinary knowledge and what they like and want. Thanks to the Food Network and presence of great innovative restaurants, our customers are savvy diners.
As we go forward, I think our guests will get even more knowledgeable. We will be challenged to keep up with what they want and expect from their dining experience at The Signature Room.
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