Some might have called owner Quay Tao crazy when he announced plans to open a boutique steakhouse, complete with crystal chandeliers and guided mirrors, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Portage Park. How would he sell $42 dry-aged ribeye in a neighborhood not known for its dining scene? Thanks to his 20 years of restaurant experience along with the efforts of executive chef Joey Beato, Community Tavern reached its one-year mark with more meat on the horizon.
The duo looks back on the past year, which not only included the opening of the neighborhood's first steakhouse, but the closing of the groups other property, The Portage, to make room for a more casual taco concept called Cochinita Taco Company, opening in March. The team is also taking over the space next door to Community Tavern with a yet-to-be-determined project.
When you opened Community Tavern a year ago, what was your plan for the restaurant?
Tao: We had some big hopes and big dreams when we were opening here. I think we were taking kind of a big risk in the sense of opening a boutique steakhouse on the northwest side—in an area that wasn't exactly a hub of dining yet. And so we certainly had some big hopes to make a splash in this area, and really bring something new and elevate the dining scene in the far northwest.
Beato: It didn't initially start off as that. Right off the bat, I remember Quay coming to me, when I was at The Portage, and saying it was going to be more laid-back. But then he started designing the dining room, and it ended up looking like this.
Tao: People are sometimes confused by the name Community Tavern. The initial thought was really a casual, fun hangout for the area. Still with great food, but as Joey was saying, I designed the place and as it evolved and came together, it got nicer and nicer. At one point, I'm like, "Let's make the food match the ambiance."
What were the challenges of opening in a neighborhood that is not known for its dining scene?
"We still occasionally get people who walk in here and walk straight back out."
Tao: I think the biggest challenge is changing people's perception of the neighborhood—what dining can be where we're at. From the ambiance to the price point to the level of service to the food, I think that has been the biggest challenge but also a great opportunity to present something that's new and fresh for the neighborhood. Really push the envelope for the neighborhood. Portage Park is not quite there yet, as far as the dining scene, if you compare it to some of the other areas. That's probably been the biggest challenge—getting the public to understand where we're at as far as that level of dining. We still occasionally get people who walk in here and walk straight back out. Being in Portage Park has a big factor why people don't expect a place like this. There's been so many times when we get what I think is a compliment. People come in and they have a great time and say, "This is actually really good " or "We just don't expect a place like this in Portage Park."
How do you balance your desires as chefs and owners with the needs of the neighborhood?
Tao: That's a constant battle that we fight. We have a certain level and standards that we like to be at, from the ambiance to the food, but we do recognize that the neighborhood for the most part is still up-and-coming. There's still a very blue-collar, grass-roots kind of feel to it. So, I reminded chef at the time that we do have to keep our menu approachable. Not compromise what we do, but still have quite a few items that people recognize. We just do it really well. I think that's really the staple of our menu, whether it be the food or beverage. I also think that's the challenge—how do we make those two meet and have this happy medium with what we really want to do but still be in tune with what the neighborhood wants?
Beato: Going back to The Portage, for me that was easier to please the neighborhood. First off, that dining room is just so much more like, "Come on in, this is your house." It's comfy. That menu could change all the time. It's also very intimate here and we still have an insane amount of regulars, but it's about making them feel comfortable and also getting other people to come in, too. It's just constantly doing what the guest wants and we'll do anything. It's a struggle, but it's worth it to get better every day, and I think the customers are getting better as well.
How does the neighborhood dictate what you are able to put on the menu?
"The essence of everything I do comes back to places I want to dine at. I had this idea of doing a boutique steakhouse probably five or six years ago. The concern was, is the north side ready for something like this?"
Beato: We have our ribeye that we dry age in house. I had that same ribeye that was on-the-bone and not as much meat for $68 downtown and ours is $42. Our concept of being a boutique steakhouse is what it is, and now our menu is pretty great and I'm happy with it. It's a matter of balance, when it comes to having these items on the menus. We went though a lot of changes on the menu in terms of price of items and the cost to us. Aside from that, we're able to do really cool stuff now—all of our steaks are very different, except for the ribeye, and it's fun.
Tao: I think the process, like how we mentioned earlier, kind of evolved. The essence of everything I do comes back to places I want to dine at. I had this idea of doing a boutique steakhouse probably five or six years ago. The concern was, is the north side ready for something like this? Something elegant with a downtown feel to it. So I thought at the time it was not, but backtrack a little bit. When this design took a life of its own, we thought maybe let's just do it and see if the neighborhood is ready. You go with the cliché of, "If you build it they will come." I think we've been very happy with the response. But we have to keep our price very moderate, very value conscious. There are certain items that if we were downtown, they would be 20, 30, or 50 percent more. That's an area that I feel like we've really had to comprise and work had to make that work. On the flip side of that, we have a lot of people who order that ribeye.
How has the concept and menu evolved over the past year?
Beato: Food wise, right off the bat, it was really standard and just keeping it to what we wanted to do as a steakhouse. You have your crab legs, shrimp cocktail and all of your staple steaks. I just didn't know what to expect. As we kept moving forward with who we are as a restaurant and looking to what the guest needs, it all went from there. It's honestly one year, and now, I think we're happiest where we're at right now.
Tao: Sometimes it takes a year. I think we're finally hitting our groove. We started out gangbusters, because timing wise, we were fortunate enough to be named one of the best new restaurants a month into it. It felt like we never had that chance to catch our breath, sit back and evaluate. In the last three or four months, we've had that chance as the initial craziness died down. We've had that chance to take a step back and reflect and think, "Ok, what do we do well and what can we do better?" I think we are hitting our stride right now.
Much of your menu is made in house, of you think the neighborhood appreciates these more gourmet touches?
"There's the pride you get in finishing a piece of charcuterie or dry-aged piece of meat. I'll work 80 or 90 hours a week if that's what I have to do to make sure that stuff is being made properly.
Beato: In this neighborhood, you can easily cut corners, but that's not a thing for us. So, what it takes is a lot of work from me, my chef de cuisine, and sous chef. When you've got that passion and drive to do stuff right, you've got to do it. It all goes to productionâsourcing whole animals, which we try to do a lot, coming straight from the Chad at Perkins Custom Cuts. Eighty-five percent of our pork and beef comes from him. Doing that, with the amount of money we save, is great. And then, there's the pride you get in finishing a piece of charcuterie or dry-aged piece of meat. I'll work 80 or 90 hours a week if that's what I have to do to make sure that stuff is being made properly. Now, it's gotten to a point where literally everything is made in-house except for our dark rye bread. It's so cool to say that, because it's not common.
Tao: I think one of the things that people don't fully appreciate, because we're off the beaten path, is the team that we have here. Our goal is, we don't want to be known as a Portage Park restaurant—this great restaurant that's just good because it's in Portage Park—we want to be known as a great restaurant throughout the city and nationally, at one point. The team together is an amazing team that, unless you're in the food world or you are a savvy dinner, you don't fully appreciate at a medium-sized restaurant with a phenomenal executive chef, award-winning pastry chef, our own wine director and beverage director. The amount of talent we have, I'm so thrilled about. I think that the people who come in definitely recognize that, but I think the public might not fully appreciate that. If you take this and put it in the West Loop or River North, we would be just as good, if not better, because of the talent we've assembled.
So, why open this restaurant in Portage Park?
Tao: Because I live three blocks away. After being downtown for so many years, it was really nice to have a little room to breathe. With the opening of The Portage six years ago, it's so nice to be five minutes away from work. Joey lives upstairs, so he's thirty seconds from work. A lot of our staff is fairly local. Other than proximity, I feel like this area is really ripe for that next boom. I think you just known in your DNA when you're in this business, no matter if you're back-of-house or front-of-house, you know the type of place you want to be in. I think everyone's who here appreciate that smallness and that culture of this very quirky, independent restaurant. You have that freedom, that ability to create. You're not bound by corporate things or ten partners and six owners. Here, you can put an imprint on the place. I think that's what a lot of people appreciate.
Community Tavern was the first of several steakhouses to open in 2015. What do you think of the trend and how do you differentiate your restaurant?
"The notion of a steakhouse being stuffy and intimidating still lingers a little bit. So, when they walk in here, we completely diffuse that immediately just by what we are—super friendly and approachable—from the person at the door to the server, bartender and chef.
Tao: We love to take credit for the trend. We can say that we started it all. But no, it's kind of funny how many places have opened since we opened. I think, like most things, its very cyclical. I feel like there's this new wave of steakhouses that are younger, hipper, not-your-dad's steakhouse. I feel like were a part of that. I think we're maybe on the forefront of that a little bit. I don't feel that there is any animosity towards the trend. It's great to be a part of the trend and fun to be part of this revival. It goes back to something I enjoy doing—going out and having a nice piece of steak.
Beato: On the kitchen side of it, first off, keep doing what were doing. Highlighting our charcuterie program. Matt's been working really hard on it and it keeps getting better. It's some of the best in the city. We just revamped our menu, but more so the steak section, with weird cuts that people don't usually get. I'm not going to try and do anything differently, because people keep opening steakhouses. I'm just going to keep doing what we do and do it right.
Tao: Obviously, geographically we stand out, there's nothing in the northwest side as far as boutique steakhouse. Then, naturally, we stand out because we're not a downtown steakhouse. And you hear that a lot—that we could be downtown but it's so cool that we're in this little neighborhood. Another area that we stand out is our attention to service and comfort. The notion of a steakhouse being stuffy and intimidating still lingers a little bit. So, when they walk in here, we completely diffuse that immediately just by what we are—super friendly and approachable—from the person at the door to the server, bartender and chef. I think that's one thing that we really try to do to stand out and not have that downtown, stereotypical snootiness. This general feeling of comfort and friendliness makes people feel OK to come in and be at a really nice place, but feel like, "If I don't pronounce this wine right, I'm not going to be scolded." I think that's neat that we make people feel really comfortable.