The Dawson, the grandiose restaurant and bar on the corner of Grand, Halsted, and Milwaukee, began with a friendship between two immigrants and as a vessel for beverage director Clint Rogers before becoming something much more. Suburban restaurateur and Serbian immigrant Branko Palikuca was a customer at Irish immigrant Billy Lawless' The Gage, and eventually they forged a partnership on a small project with Lawless' beverage guru Rogers. That project grew and grew, both in size and cost, encompassing roughly a half-block at completion.
Despite a standout beverage program and design, what followed that completion was an opening that everyone involved admits was rough, especially in the kitchen, as opening chef Rene DeLeon unceremoniously departed less than a month in. Now one year in, buoyed by a busy summer on the massive patio and the straightened-out food service, Lawless and Palikuca say that everything at The Dawson is "wonderful." They chat about the opening, the first year, and what's to come below.
What was the original idea?
Billy Lawless: Initially, with Clint Rogers, we wanted to open a small cocktail lounge. When we found Orange, we just liked the neighborhood. The same owner owned the lot next door and we wanted some outdoor space. The project evolved and we ended up buying the whole corner and doing what we did. In hindsight I think it was the right move.
Branko Palikuca: I give (Billy) credit for the size of the space; I saw what he did with The Gage and I never had a doubt in my mind.
How did the food and drink concept come to what it eventually became?
BL: In fairness to Clint, he said "Billy, I've always wanted to do a cocktail lounge" and I wanted to do it as well. In terms of licensing, it wasn't a tavern license that we were taking over, so we had to do food. And the area was right for another restaurant.
How did the first year go compared to what you expected?
BL: The first year has been great. It wasn't the smoothest of openings, but nevertheless we got opened and now things are going wonderful. We both learned a lot and got a lot of the stability that we needed. Financially we are doing very well this summer.
What wasn't smooth about the opening?
BL: Just in general. We put an awful lot of resources into the opening and things weren't smooth. But we totally turned that around and things are going great.
What did you learn?
BL: Many things like clarity of management. I think initially even though myself and Branko have different styles, I think using our collective skills having one person implement that is a better way than Branko and I trying to implement it independently.
BP: We also had to learn the neighborhood. Grand and Halsted is definitely different than Michigan Avenue or the suburbs where we pretty much only do one seating. I was pleasantly surprised with how the neighborhood responded to us.
And as Billy said, we had to work on the food. We had a chef that we hired from Alinea and Next and for some reason that didn't work out but I think everything else worked out. We didn't need to spend this much money to make it popular but when you go in the summer and you see the doors wide open, it's beautiful. We came down to make a statement and show people that we're going to be there for the long run.
Beside the personnel, what have you had to change with the food and why?
BL: First of all getting around the kitchen. Opening a restaurant, the chef needs to know where things go. I think from a training standpoint, we've changed a lot since we opened are executing really well now. We can handle some serious high volume now. It's a work in progress.
Are you saying in the beginning there was a problem with handling the volume of the space from the kitchen?
BL: I think, yeah. How do we phrase it so we don't come across as an asshole? We had to deal with a lot of things. We've got a great team in the kitchen now that's doing a wonderful job.
What are you most proud of in the first year?
BL: We've garnered a lot of incredible goodwill with the neighbors and our regular clientele, they're the bread and butter of our business and the backbone of how we survive.
BP: I'm definitely proud of the friendship with me and Billy and the partnership now. We are proud that people are treated well. It doesn't matter if you have the best chef in the world, they have to treat everybody well. I'm proud of the environment, the food now and the service. As Billy said, we didn't open well but we bounced back tremendously. Now when I walk in the restaurant I get nothing but great comments on the food and everything else. The drinks have carried us since day one.
When you build something, and both of us are immigrants, that's what I'm proud of. I always remind Billy, "how many immigrants came here and have a place on Michigan Avenue and now on Grand?" The rich, beautiful story of what we achieved in this country and what this country allows us to do.
A lot of restaurants might not have been able to weather what you guys did in the beginning. Do you feel like The Dawson is only on the upswing now?
BL: Hopefully, Daniel. As an operator you've got to continue to be teachable. You are only as good as your last service, so we keep training. We keep growing the culture within the restaurant. As Branko said, all success is based on the success of the people who work there. You can't get complacent.
What specific goals do you have for what you want The Dawson to be in year two and beyond?
BP: In my history, and with Billy's history, you need 2-3 years for a restaurant to mature. It's an investment. You have to assess the debt you're in, slowly start making some money and think about the next project. Our main talk is to make The Dawson even better and next summer is when we're really going to make it spectacular, and you guys will see it.
Do you have any specific plans for what's next?
BP: Billy is the concept guy.
BL: I'm looking at some other things right now.
The Gage is known as one of the best-run restaurants in Chicago. What was it like to go from that to what you had to deal with early on at The Dawson?
BL: It's always challenging to bring your culture somewhere. As good as your culture is, you have to build it at a new location. I can't just clone The Gage to make another restaurant as well as The Gage. You've got to build it from the ground up.