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On Ghosts, Punch, Kentucky Fried Lobster and Rock Stars in Thalia Hall's First Year

Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

Bruce Finkelman and Will Duncan
Bruce Finkelman and Will Duncan
Timothy Hiatt

The team behind Longman & Eagle, The Empty Bottle and the since-opened The Promontory took over a Bohemian nineteenth century Pilsen landmark with Thalia Hall, converting the space, originally modeled after the Prague Opera House, into a three-tiered homage to both original owner John Dusek and an integral period of Chicago history. Since opening a year ago as the ground-level restaurant Dusek's and the subterranean bar Punch House, and later unveiling the upstairs concert hall, Thalia Hall as a whole is now reborn as a community landmark as well as showcasing highly-respected food and drink programs to a blossoming neighborhood.

Owner Bruce Finkelman and beverage director/general manager Will Duncan chatted about keeping the history alive, what went into the conversion, the food and drink programs, and plans for the future.

What went into restoring the building, the atmosphere, everything about it?

Will Duncan: It didn't take much work to re-ignite the atmosphere. The building has ghosts and it has this amazing feeling that just grabs you right when you walk in the door, so that part was built in. There was definitely a lot of mechanical efforts and projects. One of which (that) was pretty fun to watch was when we had to bring in air-conditioning units the size of a car, by helicopter. The whole neighborhood was standing around watching, it was quite a sight.

Bruce Finkelman: A lot of that is very symbolic to the other things that happened with this project. There's a lot of history in these buildings from the 1890s and what we tried to do was let the history show in the restaurant and shine up the good parts and add some of the other things that we needed to do to bring some of the original feel of this place back.

When you say ghosts, do you mean that literally?

BF: When we came in here, there was a part of the floor that needed to be removed and we found a number of bones that resided in this one area. There's times when we'll walk up here when there's nobody here and things will clang, but from our feelings, they seem to happy ghosts.

Was it just you guys peeling back the floor and finding remains down there?

WD: When we first took over the property, there was a second floor above the original floor and there was this one spot in the middle of the theater and the construction workers called me in to describe that there was this one spot that just felt strange, older. "Tools will fall over when we're on the other side of the room or there's just this weird feeling right here." Then the next day, a whole day later, we ripped out that higher second floor and in that spot where they felt the strange feeling, that was where we found the pile of bones. I can't make that up. We think it was probably like a dog's little hiding hole. It was only a small handful, but it was scary.

How many customers take note of the history and how many just think of it as a cool restaurant or bar or concert hall?

BF: We tried really hard to put out the story behind (Thalia Hall) and the intricacies behind the different concepts and how they tie into the property and how they tie into the project and how they tie into Mr. John Dusek himself.

We have our weekly meetings during lunchtime. We never really thought about a lunch service, but now and again we'll sit there and watch people outside and they'll be reading the story of John Dusek or looking at the menu too and we're like, "you know what? We've got to open for lunch."

WD: That's one of the things we have to look forward to in the coming weeks and months is actually adding weekday lunch service.

Thalia Hall OYI 2

How much pressure did you feel to uphold the tradition and meaning of the building?

WD: We put pressure on ourselves because the property itself was so inspiring and it's how the project chose us. We stumbled upon the building and couldn't figure out anything else to do but bring it back to life. We got nothing but support and encouragement from the Landmark Commission, from our Alderman and local residents being excited to see such a beautiful building being restored for its original intent. We had nothing but support really.

What shape was it in when you took over?

WD: There was a restaurant (Ristorante Al Teatro) located where Dusek's is now, so we were lucky to inherit some restaurant infrastructure in terms of kitchen equipment and so forth. We did a pretty aggressive redecoration in that area and re-concepting obviously, but the theater space, which took almost a year to fully restore, had been essentially a place to store trash for the last 50 years.

What are you planning for the anniversary?

BF: We're going to turn it into a customer appreciation party for the whole building. We're doing a free show upstairs with No Age. We have an anniversary "ordinary" that (chef) Jared (Wentworth) is doing, which is a Kentucky fried lobster. We have a special guest DJ in the Punch House and our anniversary sparkling punch and we will be unveiling the Punch House Fondue Club.

WD: What better communal food item that's sort of era appropriate than fondue, which we're going to start serving in Punch House only on that one year anniversary on October 12. We're always looking for new and different ways to have fun.

How has business and customer reaction/feedback been compared to what you expected?

BF: I think it's been everything we could have dreamed of, if not more. To see not only to have a night when you have Ty Segall playing upstairs and there's a packed house of people dancing and watching this great band. Then you walk downstairs and you see people eating there before the show and then after the show is over, you have people drinking in Punch House and Ty Segall actually got up and did "Feeding Time" and we took a video of that, which we're going to release online. We feed our fishes on a nightly basis and we've had a lot of famous folks come on by to help us out.

Do you still feel that Pilsen is the next thing and that you fit right in there as a hub?

BF: Regardless of if Pilsen becomes the next thing or not, that wasn't why we chose this project. Projects have a way of choosing you. I don't think there was any one of us who could have turned down the opportunity of restoring this place. With that said, it's been very important to us that this place resides in the family but also resides in the community of Pilsen, and we respect that and run it as such.

Thalia Hall OYI 3

Have there been any changes, any tweaks at the restaurant?

BF: Jared's menu is so seasonal and it's been great to see the changes, and also since our concept and food is so tightly tied to beer, we're ever changing the different beer products that we're bringing in. Not only that, but the use of the ordinary and the historical relevance of the ordinary, and having that be something that changes on a weekly basis, really gives the kitchen an opportunity to spread their wings and try new stuff out while keeping very tight to the beer/food combination.

Coming from Bite Cafe and then Longman & Eagle, what did you learn from those and how did that help figure out the food aspect here?

BF: It's growing up. My palate and my likes and the things that I really appreciate have changed over the years. My idea behind all our places has really been that if you build something that you yourself would like, hopefully there's going to be some people out there that agree with you. To me, it's a really honest approach to putting a concept together. I've been blessed to be surrounded by some really, really talented people like this gentleman who is standing to my left, and to Jared and to my partner, Craig (Golden), to be able to put some of these together.

How has Punch House gone in the first year?

WD: Just seeing it happen at all has been pretty exciting and surprising. I can honestly say I don't know of another bar like it that has such a punch-focused menu and all these cocktails on tap, and just being able to figure out how to get it open every night and keep all of our product in stock has been a pretty exciting thing to witness, and seeing the crowd respond to it and to really take to the punch-drinking has been really cool.

We change up the punch menu with the seasons and are constantly pushing ourselves to create new punch recipes and discover additional old ones. On Monday nights we feature a $5 punch and that's a spot where we get to experiment with a lot of different new recipes and some of those items eventually get on the menu. It allows us also to do craft cocktail-quality products, but in large batches for quick service.

And John Dusek definitely drank punch. There's no doubt about it. Pretty much any esteemed gentleman of the late 1800s took in a little bit of a flowing bowl.

Would you say most people come there for any one of the restaurant, punch bar or concert venue more than the others?

BF: It's really hard for us to extricate which one people prefer over the others. It's a good community spot and that's what Thalia was supposed to be when John built it, a beacon to the community and I think that's what people use it for. It's your neighborhood bar when you need a neighborhood bar. It's a place that you can sit and talk and get something to eat when you want to get something to eat.

WD: Most of the folks who walk through end up visiting two or three of the entities because once you're in the building, it's just mesmerizing. It's so easy to drop downstairs for after dinner cocktails. If the show is not sold out and you hear a little music coming down the stairwell, why not step upstairs after some cocktails in Punch House? We tried to establish, not just the three separate concepts, but to allow them to be somewhat interdependent and really easy to flow between on any given night.

What else are you working on for the future at Thalia Hall?

WD: There's other corners of the building that we're continuing to explore and there just may be some new stuff coming in the upcoming months.


1227 W 18th Street, Chicago, IL