It's Friday at 4:30 p.m. on an unseasonably cold late-fall day, even for Chicago. Frontera Grill isn't open for dinner yet, but a line already stretches from the host stand all the way back to the end of the bar, where 50 people have been waiting for an hour just for the possibility of a table.
But in the restaurant next door, beyond the soundproofed door, Rick Bayless and his staff, many of whom are Bayless lifers that have been with the prolific and interesting chef for more than a decade, stand around white tablecloth-clad tables and raise champagne flutes for a toast. Bayless then gives a speech before a knife plunges into a cake that reads "Happy 25th Anniversary Topolobampo."
25 years ago this month, three years after Bayless opened the landmark Mexican restaurant Frontera Grill, he opened the restaurant he dreamed of all along. The concept turned most Americans' notions of Mexican cuisine on its ear—many considered the theme, which Bayless describes as "wanting to be on a par with really great contemporary American food in the way that it was presented, but have depth of flavor in that traditional Mexican way," to be an oxymoron.
A quarter-century later and the restaurant continues to evolve. Early this year, Bayless and chef de cuisine Andres Padilla rolled out perhaps the most complex series of menus witnessed in a Mexican restaurant north of the border: seven courses that cover snapshots of Mexican history.
"When I met Rick and his wife, Deanne, I was immediately impressed with them. I thought their dedication, their commitment, and his studious nature of the whole subject was unique," Bayless' landlord Albert Friedman, who is in many ways responsible for the River North hospitality boom, says. "(Three years later) they came to me and said they wanted to expand and go a little higher from Frontera to Topolobampo and this concept of white tablecloth dining. I wound up going and buying the building next door."
"The typical lifespan of a restaurant is seven years," Friedman continues. "When you get beyond that, you become an institution. He's three times-plus. He's more than an institution, he's an icon."
On the eve of the anniversary, Bayless chatted with Eater about the last 25 years of Topolobampo.
On fleshing out the concept:
"From the very beginning, I wanted to open Topolo. I knew that I didn't have the background to be able to do that—I had never worked in fine dining before. But I had worked a lot in upscale casual. When you say "fine dining Mexican," even to this day, I would say 90 percent of the people in the United States would laugh. I knew I had a lot of education to do and I thought when we opened Frontera, that was actually a step up for a lot of people. I knew that I couldn't take it all the way to fine dining (right away) but I could take it another step up and see if our guests would go on that journey with us. They did."
On the timing:
"My wife and I finally got to the place where we had gotten a lot of our opening loans paid off and we had developed some staff that was really beginning to understand what we were doing. Our landlord said that the space next to us was going to come open. It was probably a year before I really wanted to do it, but I thought 'what happens if somebody goes in there and signs a 10-year lease and I'm going to be stuck with just this one place?' We decided to just go for it."
On its decor:
"My idea was to do something like the elegance of San Angel Inn (in Mexico City). We didn't have enough money to do that but we did go down to Mexico. They have a little shop that has home furnishings that's right adjacent to the restaurant. It had these beautiful hand-hammered copper chargers. Then we went to the company in Mexico City that made all their dishware and we got them to make special dishware just for us and hand-blown blue glasses.
I wanted there to be really, really high-quality Mexican art on the walls, not to go for such a plush atmosphere but have the art be the plushness. We invested in art and have continued to do that."
On the food:
"I was really struggling with it because nobody had ever done anything like that before. When we opened Topolo and for the next three years I worked a position on the line. The hardest thing was just trying to reimagine Mexican food in terms of contemporary American food, in terms of presentation and what people would expect.
The biggest lesson that I learned came about three months in. I made sure that the menus in Frontera and Topolo were really different so that no one would ever say, 'oh you just pay more for it but it's basically the same food.'
One night I had a mishap with the sauce. I just grabbed a sauce from Frontera and I put it on this dish in Topolo, a different dish, but I just used the exact same sauce. Some regular customers were in Topolo that night and they had eaten a lot in Frontera. They came back to the line at the end of the meal and they go, 'we just had the most amazing meal. The sauces taste so much more subtle and complex in this room than the ones that you make for Frontera.'
It hit my like a ton of bricks. They have slowed down and the atmosphere in the room is much calmer. They pay more attention to the food; it's not the food, it's their perception of the food that had changed so much."
On staying true to the cuisine:
"We probably spend more time in our kitchen talking about the way that you create traditional flavors and then how far you can take them in a contemporary setting then we talk about anything else. Because it's art, not science. It's very easy to kind of think, 'oh, I'm going to deconstruct this dish and that will be a contemporary approach to it.' But the truth of the matter is you're going to lose all of the depth of flavor and tradition, almost always when you do that."
"I'm more proud than ever of our dining room staff. I describe our service style just like I describe our food: I want it to be very precise and I want it to be knowledgeable. But at the same time I want it to be completely infused with that generosity of spirit that you find everywhere in Mexico. I want people to feel generous, that we are generous with them in terms of our hospitality, but at the same time I want that incredible precision that you get in a really top-level fine dining restaurant."
On whether he was worried that the concept wouldn't work:
"You know, I was so in love with what I was doing it never occurred to me to ask that question. I have a total artist temperament, and I have a wife that has her feet firmly planted on the ground. That's the reason we've been successful."
The early feedback from customers:
"The first table at Frontera sat down, looked at the menu, got up, and said, 'we have no idea what this food is. You're going to be closed in 3 weeks.' When we opened Topolo, we were expecting to have the push back from Frontera guests that would say, 'why would I ever come over here? It's just the same food but being more expensive.'
I said, 'even if they do think it's the same food for more money, at least we're giving them an opportunity to get a reservation, to be treated in a different way, to have a quieter atmosphere. We can sell it on the atmosphere alone.' Some of the beginning times we were selling it on the basis of the atmosphere, but then we started to get reviewed and the reviewers said 'wow, it's a different experience.'"
How the food and menu evolved over the 25 years:
"It was a menu that was very much set up in a traditional style for many years, in four basic categories. We started having these brainstorming sessions where we talked about what would we like to see the menu evolve into for the next 10 years. What we came up with was a way of looking at Mexican food the way that we talk about it in the kitchen.
When we put a menu together, we are actually doing it by pulling dishes that fit into flavor categories as a flow through. We came up with eight categories and decided that we were going to make all of the dishes the same size and you could order three, five or seven of them to make your own kind of tasting menu. Then we'd have our themed menu that's seven courses."
"You know, I wish I was smarter. I guess that's the only thing that I regret. Sometimes it takes me a long time to figure things out."
On Topolobampo being one of only three Michelin-starred Mexican restaurants:
"We were the first, because Michelin doesn't go to Mexico City, and we were super honored to do that. It's kind of funny because we're not content with one, we want two. What could we do? Because we revamped our menu this year we were hoping that maybe somehow the Michelin gods would smile on us. We're like Cub fans, maybe next year."
On the future of Topolobampo:
"I think next year we're going to tackle something really big. We're going to do some regional menus, it's going to involve a lot more of our traveling to places and bringing things back and weaving them in.
We probably were pretty amateurish at some of the things we had done (in the beginning). 25 years into it (and) there are some nights that feel almost like opening night because I'm still learning so much stuff. There's so much still to explore, so much to learn that I could go at it for another 25 years."