Five years ago this past Monday, The Bristol opened on the north end of Bucktown with a little-known chef under a cloud of a bottomed-out economy. Five years later, after shifting from casual to more refined, the accolades and new projects keep coming for the team. Owners John Ross, Philip Walters, and chef Chris Pandel talked about the humble beginnings, the changes over the last five years, and what's next.
What was it like in the beginning? If I were to walk into the space what would I see then compared to what I would see now?
Philip: This is our first, thusly our baby and it's a showpiece. The scale of the restaurant has grown from 50 seats to 130 by using the second floor. We gutted the kitchen a few years ago, put in all new everything.
Restaurants especially in the beginning get started off well, or you find the ones that look tired in the earlier parts of their evolution and start to get picked out of the group. One big thing that we believe in is to constantly adjust and tweak, not changing the core, but adapting to what we see.
Chris: We had communal tables to start. That was a big deal. We talked to our guests and what they really wanted was an individual dining experience. When you go out to dinner and you're forced to sit next to somebody you don't know, it puts you in an awkward position almost immediately whether you're a social person or not.
We started out really casual, it was a very simple bar-focused menu. Good burger. Great chicken. Good French fries, what have you. Some of it stayed. Some of it's gone.
How has the neighborhood changed and helped you?
Chris: It is a bit of a destination for some people because there's really nothing directly north of us. We were lucky enough to get interviews off the bat, we got some national press, which helped us scurry along, as far as a young restaurant is concerned.
Philip: We feel like we have some restaurant peer respect. We're blessed because Paul Kahan lives down the street, (Rick) Bayless lives down the street, Grant (Achatz) lives right there and they all show their faces.
Why have you stayed busy? Why have you stayed relevant?
Philip: Had we not adapted in year two, I don't think we'd be where we are now. You couldn't come here with your grandparents, a business dinner, with a date because it was (too loud). We put in all new cork paneling for soundproofing.
John: From the very beginning, our clientele for the most part was a younger, hipster clientele. But the people in the industry would start telling their regulars where they would go and they started sending people here. So then it became the evolving clientele.
Philip: We were really focusing on trying to do something fairly elevated, but then all of these indicators came to fruition that we should probably open something more humble. It was really undersell, underperform, and we didn't try to be so foolish as to say "all things for all people."
How has the menu changed?
Chris: We ran really hard and fast for about three years of just challenging the menu, from the roast chicken to utilizing whole animals and butchering in-house, really being a cook's restaurant. There was no right or wrong to anything—just a balance of what's good.
John: I'll never forget the one time the guy came in with the 100-pound octopus on his hand, and he's like, "Chef, can you do anything with this?" And Chris is like, "Yea, I can use that." Throws it in a big bowl?
Philip: It gets back to things like just listening to our guest. Because at the end of the day, one of the reasons dishes stay on is from email, direct commentary, OpenTable scores, we actively look at and pursue. When patterns emerge, we react to it. And as those things then start to super impose on our own internal audits of our menu mix, then we start to see our menu start to organically change in a direction that is really interesting. You stay ahead of the curve that way.
Chris: It's funny because in the beginning when we served the chicken, the foot was still on the end. It got to the point that that was the safe dish, so the foot had to go.
How have you implemented your cooking style here?
Chris: For me, if you're going to cook something, try to impart as much flavor without manipulating it. So going into this, you know how to butcher, you know how to cook, it's time to hone in on what's the most we can do with proper seasoning and layering flavors to get to the point where a radish is delicious by itself all day long.
John: We have our hospitality company, which has not been announced, but it is Phil, myself, Chris and David (Johnston). And then we obviously have our relationship with Boka, we are doing what we like to call a meat-centric restaurant in the West Loop with them. There's going to be classics but it's also about what we do and it's about pushing forward. It's not about being the steakhouse of five months ago, five years ago.
Philip: There will be little bridges throughout the menu that you will recognize but it's a restaurant with meat. We believe in a diversified portfolio.
John: Maybe we're not the best in any category, but as a collective whole, we're more Union Square Café as opposed to Jean-Georges.
Philip: So far, knock on wood, the progression of the group is still a little act of will. Because this one could've flopped in our face.
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