Thirty years ago, few Chicagoans understood the concept of tapas, the small-plate Spanish concept that's now so familiar to city dwellers. When Lettuce Entertain You Enterprise's Gabino Sotelino in 1985 pitched the idea of a traditional Spanish restaurant to Rich Melman, part of the concept was initially lost in translation. Sotelino and LEYE are celebrating Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba's 30th birthday in January, and the chef is reminiscing.
"Maybe it was my English or maybe it was my presentation of the idea," Sotelino said. "At one point he thought I was asking to open a Spanish topless bar, and he told me I was completely crazy! I explained to him — no, don't worry it's not a topless bar! Don't worry, I will show you!"
Chef Sotelino, who worked as chef at The Pump Room and founded Mon Ami Gabi, grew up in northwestern Spain and wanted to bring some of those flavors back to Chicago. Thus Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba was born, the Lincoln Park restaurant at Halsted and Armitage that was among the first to popularize small plates in Chicago.
At first the public, like Melman, remained skeptical. So they kept larger entrees, like paella, on the menu to satiate doubters. Beyond explaining to Chicagoans how small plates work, Sotelino and his staff struggled with procuring ingredients, including pork products that couldn't be imported from Spain and have only become widely available in the U.S. over the last decade or so. Sotelino explained how he made chorizo and blood sausage in house, as cured meats like jamón Serrano and jamón Ibérico weren't available stateside. They found substitutes from producers in Virginia, Connecticut, New York and Florida. But, as Ba-Ba-Reeba's general manager, Mark Sotelino (the chef's son) recalled, family trips to Spain sometimes involved smuggling chorizos and hams back into the U.S. for personal and restaurant use. As a child, the younger Sotelino would always have the most room in his suitcase.
"One time a German shepherd at O'Hare sniffed it out of my bag and they made me give it up," the younger Sotelino said. "I think I was like 10...We've been smuggling ham in my family for a long time, no joke intended."
Gabino Sotelino was accustomed to trying new concepts in Chicago. Back in 1980, LEYE opened Un Grand Cafe, one of the first French bistros in the city. The successful launch led him to push for a tapas concept, something "near and dear to his heart," his son said. Spain's known for canned seafood and dishes like huevos a La Sevillana, which chef Sotelino described as similar to a Scotch egg. Those items, including blood sausage, octopus and tripe were rough sells for Chicagoans.
"I really wanted to give the people a chance to, at least, try it," chef Sotelino said. "That was my intention, to offer people something small and say 'try this.'"
And they kept busy, as at its peak Sotelino remembers two-hour lines. Part of it was the atmosphere. Back in the 1980s, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba's bright pastels made diners feel like they're living out an episode of 1980s TV show "Miami Vice." Sotelino said those colors reminded him of Spain, and that they just wanted to create fun vibe. He spent two years of research on the decor.
The concept doesn't always fly. LEYE reworked the Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba location in Las Vegas in 2010, as tourists off the The Strip didn't take to the small plates. Back in Chicago, executive chef Matt Holmes arrived three years ago as Ba-Ba-Reeba began modernizing itself. They've recently updated the decor, including a patio with a retractable roof. Small plates, whether it's tapas or izakaya, are now longer mysterious, and LEYE needed to keep up: "A lot of people say Cafe Ibérico is one of our main competitors—they're actually family friends of mine," Mark Sotelino said. "We've known them for years. It's a healthy competition."
Foodwise, Ba-Ba-Reeba also finds itself in transition, going away from bacon-wrapped dates turning to elevated dishes such as uni mousse with bay scallops. Holmes appreciates the opportunity: "It's one of the restaurants that's really kind of stood the test of time," Holmes said. "There's not all that many restaurant concepts that (get to) celebrate their 30th birthday."