One year ago this month, the vaunted One Off Hospitality Group lifted the lid on their eighth restaurant. Dove's Luncheonette, a "Mex-Tex" ode to bygone diners from Wicker Park's quirky past in a space that fell into their lap due to language in their Big Star lease, had a much different opening than their other massive successes: The group had to conceptualize it and turn around the space much quicker, and its casual diner theme presented a whole new set of challenges. But one year in, the results are the same as the others—glowing reviews, awards, and constant business.
Partners Terry Alexander, who is often seen bussing tables and filling water glasses, Peter Garfield, and chef Dennis Bernard reflected on how the restaurant came about, the opening, and how the group relentlessly creates smash hits.
How long in the works was this one been before you opened?
Terry Alexander: Usually we work on an idea for a long, long time. This one came about quicker because we were (working on) the commissary (expansion of Big Star next door) and the landlord said (the Dove's) space was open. In our lease we had the first right of refusal on that space. She made us decide pretty quickly whether we wanted to take it or not because there was a lot of interest. That's how we put the idea together, kind of on the fly.
Did you have the concept at all beforehand?
TA: The original name was The Palomino. We wanted it to be related to Big Star, but yet have its own idea. The Flying Burrito Brothers play a big part in Big Star musical history and (they) used to play at a club called The Palomino out in California. It's a real famous old bar, but that was taken by some Italian restaurant chain in California, so we had to come up with another name.
You guys have been in the neighborhood for a long time and there's a lot of talk about the missing soul of Wicker Park. What do you feel this has added to the neighborhood?
Dennis Bernard: As far as food-wise, a place to have breakfast and hang out. At any time of the day they can have whatever they want, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Have a cup of coffee, read the paper, check their phone, relax.
TA: I think it's a really great place for single diners on the way to the El or just stopping in. I think everybody feels really at home in that space; really warm, inviting.
How fast did it come together from the landlord offering you the space until the opening?
TA: I think it was about nine months from when we got the space until we were open.
DB: We didn't expect it to be as fast as it was. We kind of rushed. We took a trip down to Texas and Mexico and drove around the border, which we don't really advise, but we found some inspiration.
Were you trying to fit a casual concept into the One Off portfolio? Something for everybody?
TA: No. Never are we sitting around the corporate office going, "okay, what should be do next?" The location spoke to us, that's what pushed us towards the idea, being across the street from the El (on) such a busy, busy street we really felt that type of restaurant worked well there.
Did you consider staying open later or 24 hours to be more like a traditional diner?
DB: No, I don't think 24 hours would work. It's hard enough to be open from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 or 11:00 (p.m.) straight through with staffing and everything like that. I don't think you get any good business late night after 2:00, or 3:00, or 4:00 (a.m.), especially in that neighborhood. It would probably be very dangerous.
How did you try to make dishes that are usually very heavy into being lighter and fresher, such as those chile rellenos that are like tempura? Was that difficult?
DB: No. A lot of it is tweaking, tasting stuff with Paul and other people, and just trying to get some feedback from the guests, and just feeling what the room needs. Some people say it's heavy, so we try to put some vegetables in and kind of light it up a little bit. It was quite a few months of just trying different things and seeing what worked and trying to avoid that heavy diner feel. (The chile rellenos) is tempura batter because doing a traditional chile rellenos would just be a tremendous nightmare to do that to order.
People are so interested in everything you guys do. How difficult is it to keep expectations down and to keep what you're doing under wraps?
Peter Garfield: Personally, if we're going to open a restaurant, I'm going to look at it as one restaurant, one entity, and that's it and concentrate on it. Of course we all read everything because we're in the industry, but I don't let other things necessarily influence us one way or the other.
Do you feel any pressure because of your reputation and success?
DB: No, I don't think so. One Off is One Off because we do projects that are very different.
TA: Of course, everybody feels pressure for a restaurant, a bar, a shoe store; it doesn't matter. I don't think we try to live up to anything, we just try to do the best job possible.
One thing I will say (is that) we are really fortunate when we do open a restaurant (because) we have so many incredibly talented people (within the company who) come over and help us. In fact, when Dennis was in the kitchen we probably had two or three other chef de cuisines (from other One Off restaurants) in there helping him. It's really not just one location on an island, it's all of our other locations really bonding together and helping out to get a new location off to a strong start. I think that really helps us.
How was opening day?
DB: Terrible. I tried to make the food a little bit more intense on pickups and then realized it was not going to happen that way. I had to tweak it to make things quicker to have just one or two little tweaks and then out the window. It was definitely a learning experience to (find out) what that space needs, as far as what you want to do with the food, and then what will work for it to taste good all the way through.
You're still doing sophisticated food, but it's at the quick pace that people expect in a diner.
DB: It has to be. It's a small place so you've got to turn seats. You have to turn your mind to that mindset of what the lunch in a diner thing is. Definitely morning's faster paced, (but) dinner's a little slower so you can do dinner specials and things like that, so it kind of gives you that freedom to do stuff where there's more technique involved. Breakfast has got to be 1, 2, 3, out.
Was there anything you had to learn service-wise to do this kind of diner-y restaurant?
TA: No. Front of the house, it's always exactly the same whether you're at Blackbird or you're at Big Star or you're at Publican.
PG: The idea of service is the same: We want to give the same hospitality to everybody no matter what restaurant you're in. Obviously, you sit in Blackbird and you sit in Big Star (and) it's obviously drastically different, but I think the customer care side of it is the exact same.
What did you have to change after you opened?
TA: One thing was the hours of operation. We were open at 7:00 (a.m.), we switched it to 9:00.
DB: We also were going to try to do a little grab-and-go concept too. The space was not allowing us to do that, so we had to put that off to the side. Then we tried to do different menus throughout the day, that became too difficult, so now we try to streamline everything. Specials change by (meals), but everything else has been all-day.
TA: A big part was how it felt when you walked in there because we wanted a comfortable, casual diner that looked like we had opened the doors and wiped the dust off and was there for the last 40 years, and that's kind of what if feels like.
How do you not go too far with a concept so it still feels soulful and authentic and not a parody or trying to be trendy?
TA: Our designer has a lot to do with that. He knows what lines to cross and what not to do to make it look a little too trendy.
PG: And also both Terry and I have been in the neighborhood for a long time and we've seen everything that's happened over the years. I used to spend lots of time in Leos Lunchroom and we just wanted to get back to that feeling of the neighborhood. It's a lot different than it was 20 years ago.
Have you guys had to explain the concept and style of food, the "Mex-Tex diner," to people at all?
DB: No, I think people can wrap their minds around that, I think it's pretty self-explanatory. I don't think we're stuck in that right now. First you want to start with those parameters and then build out.
Congratulations on the awards from my company (Eater) and Bon Appetit. The one you opened before Dove's (Nico Osteria) is a much more upscale hotel restaurant that often is the type of place that gets more critical acclaim. Do you have different expectations of critical success for different places?
TA: I don't think so. We all take pride in the end result and I don't think we go in with expectations. Yes, we go in with a business model and what kind of numbers we're going to hopefully do. I think we all are proud of the ultimate result of each space and that's what really drives us more than anything.
What's next for Dove's?
DB: I'm looking forward to seeing how the winter's going to be. When we first opened we didn't have the Blue Line available for the first two months (due to CTA construction). Business should pick up there, we tend to be a bad weather joint where if it's crummy out, people want to come inside.
TA: Also, I think once you get one year behind you things start to settle down, people really get in their grooves, and I think that's when a restaurant really starts to thrive. We also added a small wine list. We're trying to pick up the bar concept a little bit for dinner, we're trying to push a little more business after 5 (p.m.).
Is this a time when the company might slow down with openings or are you guys going to keep going full speed ahead?
DB: Foot on the gas.
TA: Young guy's foot on the gas.