There's no disputing that the Scofflaw Group is one of the most successful bar groups in Chicago. But it was a leap of faith when the group decided to open its first dedicated restaurant—the chef-driven seafood restaurant Sink|Swim—on the southwestern edge of Logan Square a year ago. The move came with its own set of challenges, from operations to price points to how far to push the level of creativity of the food, but they serendipitously landed Cleveland chef Matt Danko less than two months before opening to cement the concept.
One year after opening, and Sink|Swim continues to evolve on a strip of Armitage Avenue that continues to balloon with restaurants. Danko and Danny Shapiro, the group's beverage director and partner, told the story of how their restaurant came to be and talked about the challenges along the way and what's coming up next.
How did Matt get involved?
Matt Danko: I had already left my job (in Cleveland) and I just started to call people. I called Jason Vincent because we had known each other for some time, he's a Cleveland guy and he's also going to be our neighbor (with Giant), which is all very serendipitous. He called me the next morning and said "I just talked to somebody. I might have something for you." I (eventually) flew out (to Chicago) and hung out (with the Scofflaw guys) for three days and did a tasting and went back (to Cleveland) and talked to my fiancée and decided to move. I had about a week to decide and got here and we opened in 40-50 days or something like that.
Were you guys familiar with Matt and his food?
Danny Shapiro: We spoke for a while before we flew him out and because of how highly Jason Vincent spoke of Matt that helped us vet him. There was a very instant connection based on the direction Matt wanted to go and the direction we wanted to go. Matt's food was incredible, is incredible.
Did you have the concept already before Matt came aboard?
DS: Matt elevated and developed our concept. Very loosely, we wanted to do a seafood place in Logan Square and we were willing to let whomever we decided to be our chef decide a more specific direction. It's been Matt's identity. We never would have had a concept like this from the food side without Matt.
Is the food that you ended up doing here stuff you thought about for a while or just came up with on the fly?
MD: It was a little bit of both. You always have ideas lurking in the background but maybe the time isn't right and you keep notes and that was part of the things we came up with for certain dishes. And we had talked a lot about favorite seafood memories and that kind of fed the fuel as well. And you also reach into a repertoire that's comfortable because we didn't want to do an entirely brand new concept of fully undone items out of the gate.
Were you sitting on the space for a while? It opened fast.
DS: We were sitting on it for a while. We opened on March 31 and we took control of the space the previous fall. We were working on the space aesthetically but we didn't do anything with the two kitchens until Matt got onboard. There were decisions we had to make very fast — different battles with different factions between the five of us; good spirited, positive outcomes.
How did you get the space?
DS: We were sitting in Scofflaw, our partners and I, and through the mailbox slot a slip of paper came through. I walked over and turned it over and it was an offer to buy this business. We contacted him immediately and we were meeting with him at Subway (across the street) within the week and getting a deal done. It happened really fast but once we got Matt it brought everything to reality.
Scofflaw serves food but this is the group's first dedicated restaurant. How has that experience gone?
DS: We were really excited to have an elevated food program and to be a restaurant first, though admittedly we were all bar people so we leaned heavily on Matt and Mike Boschert, our director of operations, to be molding this into a functional and successful restaurant. It was kind of like learning to accept the things we weren't so familiar with and letting other people help us feel our way through those challenges.
MD: It's a meeting of the minds at the end of the day and the focus is finding out where the balance lies between the strength of the Scofflaw Group's cocktail programs and how we balance that with the food. The interplay between the two ends up being the challenge.
Why did you guys decide to open a restaurant?
DS: We have a lot of things that we talk about doing one day and (a) seafood (restaurant) was something that had interested us all. We saw the space and remembered that and it seemed like the right match.
Can people look forward to more restaurants from you guys?
DS: That's a good question. That really depends on Matt, now that he's a big part of our group, and the culinary talent we are able to amass and if we can pay people well and take care of people properly. It depends on them and where we're at.
A lot of seafood places have opened pretty recently in Chicago. Did you think about how to differentiate yourselves?
MD: I knew that the steakhouse-style seafood place has a place in Chicago, that there's a fair amount of sushi, and a lot restaurants focus on crudos and things of that nature, and the Italian approach is pretty sturdy as well. Thinking of all those things, we wanted to turn left and think about what we can do differently. The first initial idea was that we would focus on the ocean as a whole, not just fish in the middle of a plate. We thought of vegetarian ideas with seaweed and things like that. And that started the thought process on a lot of dishes and trying to appeal to a broader clientele — instead of just being a place for pescetarians or meat-eaters we wanted to cross a lot of lines. And we wanted to make sure we kept to the neighborhood a little bit and that helped guide the process too — at the end of the day Logan is becoming an interesting place for food and there are plenty of places to eat and greater Chicago knows that, but we still have to be part of the neighborhood and think about what that means and where we are and the people that live here.
The first initial idea was that we would make a restaurant that focused on the ocean as a whole, not just fish in the middle of a plate.
You kept the price point down compared to some other seafood restaurants. Did that have to do with the neighborhood?
MD: We don't want to blow it out — we're not in the West Loop. We don't say no to luxury items and expensive goods but we want to do it thoughtfully in a way that makes sense for our guests.
DS: That touches on our desire not to alienate people, especially in the neighborhood, which ties into our greater philosophy on hospitality first and to make people comfortable and cater to their needs which has influenced how the concept has evolved. I really admire Matt's ability to incorporate all facets of the sea into various courses. That's the biggest risk, I feel.
What's risky about that?
DS: I don't know how many adventurous food options there were this far west, especially on the southern end of Logan Square. Ground Zero is doing some good stuff and I have great respect for them, but as far as a seafood concept, slightly elevated, with a higher price point than Scofflaw, it brought some risks
As far as a seafood concept, slightly elevated, with a higher price point than Scofflaw, it brought some risks
MD: (Price point) was one of the initial things that got us. People were reviewing us and saying it was expensive to eat here and we were all scratching our heads. We worked hard to make it accessible, we thought, and in the initial phase it was thought of as expensive and we thought of how we could work with that and make sure that's not the feel that everyone gets when they come here. We want to make sure people can have a blow-out meal or eat something quickly and drink a beer and leave. That helped us ease into the ideas of those risks and be more accessible.
DS: What we were judged against, potentially unfairly, is Scofflaw and its $8 price point. When we opened Scofflaw everything was $8 or less — cocktails and food — and I think people were expecting this place to be as value-driven as Scofflaw which isn't possible with this kind of food.
This area and strip of Armitage has filled in a lot. Do you feel like you were at the beginning of something in the area by opening this level of restaurant a year ago?
DS: We like to think that we were, but it's hard to say how long that stuff had been in progress for. We have a lot of faith in the neighborhood and its been great to us since the beginning. We've been in business here since 2012 and we get excited when new stuff opens and we support it.
How did the opening go?
MD: The three days leading up to opening were pretty stressful — things never happen the way you think they're going to happen. There was a pile of sawdust where the last few tables are in the back of the room; two or three hours before we opened we were rolling heavy equipment in and out of here trying to tie it all up. But I felt when doors opened we were in a pretty good spot.
DS: It was a million times smoother than when Scofflaw opened. There were a lot of weird delays with décor pieces; a lot of last minute trips to art galleries. And we've never dealt with POS systems — (at Scofflaw and Slippery Slope) everything is rudimentary and hand written.
Did you have to make any changes with the food or the menu?
MD: Yeah, because you build an image in your head of what things will be like. You think you'll be able to do all these elaborate touches and you're like shit, that's not going to work when you're feeding 180 people. And one of the things we realized a few weeks in is that we could probably reach a little further with execution and technique. We came out of the gate comfortable, even though we thought the food was smart and challenging, but we didn't pull out all the stops (right away).
Was there any learning curve for you coming to Chicago?
MD: It was all very exciting to me. I wasn't really nervous coming to Chicago, but the first thing that happened that made me nervous was when (I realized) that we could be Michelin-rated. But I wasn't worried — I think we had a strong concept and were coming in ready but it hit when you start thinking about the Michelin Guide, the Jean Banchet Awards, there's just more accolades and more moving parts when you come to a new city that has a larger culinary reputation that you have to try to fit your way into and there's plenty of measures to stack yourself up to.
After one year in, are you happy with the business and reception?
DS: We're really excited about what's coming. Our brunches are really starting to pick up, (we're) starting Saturday brunch (this weekend) as a result, the Surf|Turf dinners that Matt put together have been great and we get to work with cool chefs around the city one Sunday night a month, and we've done a little cocktail event programming every month.
MD: It's been really exciting to see how we fit in the neighborhood and watching the block develop. Because we're so hospitality-driven we've rode a little bit of a roller coaster food-wise and I think it's stabilizing in a place where we're really happy with everything and that's comforting to know we have more of a formula for what we want to do.
DS: And I want to give a special shout-out to my partners who make everything possible: Andy Gould, Mandy Tandy and Kris Nagy. They've been amazing and we've been fortunate to work together.
Sink|Swim is celebrating its first anniversary on Sunday, April 3 with $1 oysters, $6 rosé and $6 sparkling cocktails all day. For dinner, Matt Danko is bringing back a few of his favorite dishes from the Surf|Turf series by guest chefs Mindy Segal, Jason Vincent, Rob Levitt and Jonathan Zaragoza.