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How Chicago Athletic Association Turned Its 123-Year History Into A 2015 Groundbreaker

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

Andrew Algren, Paul McGee, Peter Coenen, Peter Toalson, and Elana Green
Andrew Algren, Paul McGee, Peter Coenen, Peter Toalson, and Elana Green
Nick Fochtman

It was one of Chicago's most historic and exclusive mens-only private clubs for more than a century. It became one of the most ambitious—and influential—hospitality projects downtown Chicago has seen in years.

On perhaps Chicago's highest-trafficked locale—on Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park and the tourist destination The Bean—the slumbering giant Chicago Athletic Association Hotel (opened in 1893 and closed in 2005) awoke one year ago with multiple public spaces: a reimagined restaurant built on original menus from the 1890s (Cherry Circle Room), a raucous bar room with a bocce court and other gaming tables (Game Room), a serene cafe and lobby (Drawing Room), an exclusive ticketed 8-seat rare spirits-driven cocktail bar (Milk Room), a ground-floor Shake Shack, perhaps Chicago's most popular rooftop lounge (Cindy's), all in a gorgeously restored 19th Century time capsule that netted a James Beard Award in 2016.

The majority of the concepts are on the second floor and run by stalwart group Land & Sea Dept., and partner Peter Toalson, executive director Elana Green, chef Peter Coenen, beverage director Paul McGee, and wine director Andrew Algren sat down to reveal the inside story behind it all.

From the beginning, how did this all come about for you guys?

Peter Toalson: Land and Sea was approached in spring of 2013, with the prospect of looking at the project. It was a crazy time for us because we had just opened Parson's (Chicken & Fish) in the height of our first summer. But once we came down and looked at the space, as daunting as the project was, we felt pretty good about it. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work in a space that's unparalleled, so we had to go for it.

Daunting how?

PT: The historical significance of the building is of course remarkable and intimidating. The space itself is very large. The level of square footage that we operate, implementing four concepts across the space, all the elements are daunting and intimidating at first, but I feel as though after a year we've all got pretty good at handling it.

From the beginning, you knew you were going to do four things in here?

PT: We had the second floor, and the second floor had a lot of landmark restrictions and requirements but we just kind of knew we had the entirety of the space. Given that, we tried to respect the historical use of each space, and develop concepts around them. So we obviously knew that the Drawing Room was to act out also as the lobby, so we knew we wanted to put together some programming for that which complemented the lobby but then also helped us transition into the rest of the space. Milk Room, historically, has had a number of different uses, but the most appealing one to us was during prohibition. The Game Room, again historically was used as game rooms, poolrooms, so we developed concepts around that. The Cherry Circle Room was always men's club for dinner.

Elana, you were involved from the beginning. How did you go about filling roles for a project of this scope?

Elana Green: It was really exciting. We had Paul McGee already, which was wonderful, and then for this part we sought out chef Pete and Andrew to help us develop those menus. I think it's a mutual appreciation. We develop the concepts for the space and then we also like to let people do what they're best at.

Chef, when you came aboard, how did you start putting together the food in all these spaces?

"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work in a space that's unparalleled, so we had to go for it."

Peter Coenen: I was the first one on, aside from Paul. Alana had the ideas for each room, and the direction, ambiance, décor, but still very rough. I think most importantly we had the menus from the 1890s/1900s.

Where did you find those?

PT: The New York Public Library, of all places.

PC: So that was really where it started. All of these menus, obviously we're not going to use those exact menus, but we're going to see how can we, especially Cherry Circle Room, bring some references from those historical menus to new light. Things like, there's 10 different consommes on the menu, five different ways of cooking a piece of fish (broiled, sautéed, baked, or fried). Taking a foie paté, how can we do that in our way of doing things now with our spin on it? That was the jumping off point for Cherry Circle Room, also taking the vibe of being a speakeasy, the bones of a steakhouse, and being accessible to all people when before it was very exclusive.

Andrew, when did you come along and what did you think of the project?

AA: I was the last person to come on board. I wanted to hit a landmark high note from my last job at Alinea. It was a really cool, kind of rapid-fire come on board. I wanted to try and dig around to see what would have been available in the United States wine-wise, what would have been on wine menus in the 1890s/opening of the 20th century. It was a fairly limited scope so that's kind of where we jumped off with. It still kind of carries through, so primarily a French and American list, but ideas of the methodologies behind the grapes that were used and the techniques are still pulling through as well.

Paul, you were already on board with the company when this came about. Do you remember what you thought of the project and how you went about doing beverages from the beginning?

PM: I think when Pete, Robert, Cody and I heard specifically about this project, we thought it was pretty cool because, here's this big massive historical building in a kind of stuffy place, or was in the past. I thought that was really cool to see somebody trusting somebody else other than a corporate group to come in and run the floor. It spoke to me about the sensibility of the ownership of the hotel, and the management of the hotel and what they want to see in here, which was something a little different than what you would typically see in a hotel.

It appealed to me also having a chance to do so many different things under the same roof. We have a very casual game room, a frozen drink machine, all these other fun cocktails that are designed to be kind of in your hand quickly, because it's a big room with pool tables, foosball, bocce, and that's when we went with the pitchers of beer too. But also having this grand lobby and the Cherry Circle Room. It looks different now, but it was pretty cool to see that and how that was going to change and be really restored. It gave me a chance to do some fun stuff in the Game Room and some more serious stuff, classic cocktails, something I really haven't done in a long time in the Cherry Circle Room, along with some brunch cocktails that I thought were really fun and good. And then of course, a little bit later was when we developed the Milk Room. That's always a treat to be able to make cocktails with these expensive, rare spirits and stuff.

How did the history play into your cocktail menus?

PM: One of the things I wanted to do was, again, having the food have a little historical element to it, so when we designed the cocktail list, we would have our house cocktails on one side and a rotating selection of historic cocktails from the early 1900s or so and the first one we did was from a bartender who wrote the book in 1914, and he worked at the Blackstone Hotel. It was kind of like a bartender's manual at the Blackstone. That was fun to have something historic that you're able to nod to Chicago's drinking history.

Chicago Athletic Association One Year In

What was the most challenging part of putting together all these facets?

"(Milk Room) was a place where, during prohibition, the members would go in there and get their booze mixed with milk, so that it looked like milk but it had some alcohol in there too."

PM: The challenging thing about it was definitely finding out the history of the building, and what Milk Room was all about before we even thought about doing the cocktails. It was a place where, during prohibition, the members would go in there and get their booze mixed with milk, so that it looked like milk but it had some alcohol in there too. In the Game Room, that was a little bit more challenging because it's the biggest room with the smallest bar — it's ironic that the largest bar in the space is in the smallest room, the Cherry Circle Room. You have like 28 seats at the bar in the Cherry Circle Room, and then you get to the Game Room and it's like you can get 200-250 people into there, easily, and there's only room for three bartenders. So we had to really design the drink menu that would enable the bartenders to make their drinks quickly and without sacrificing the quality because it is high volume.

PC: Game Room — the volume, style of food, and all of the games are all about movement, and not so much a sit-down place. So that became how we developed the food there -€— we're not sacrificing quality for any of that sort of stuff, but (cooking) quick-fire food. Nobody wants to play a game of pool and wait for food that takes 30 minutes to cook. How can we create that/utilize the kitchen space to pump out 300 covers on a busy night?

What was the most challenging part of the wine program?

AA: The challenges I faced with opening are now kind of inverse. When we first started figuring out what we wanted to do with the wine program for Cherry Circle Room, we wanted to do kind of a very precise, restrained approachable wine program. But we're also on Michigan Avenue — I've worked down here before and a lot of people don't want you to necessarily tell them what their opinions about wine should be, or that you don't have X, Y or Z from Argentina or you don't have Italian Pinot Grigio or whatever it might be. So now we're in the complete opposite problem, it's just trying to find space for what was initially a 80-100 bottle program that's now a 700-800 bottle program and strangely enough still growing.

What does it mean for the company to have this project on Michigan Avenue, and what are the challenges in that?

PT: I think for Land and Sea, that was the biggest unknown. We've never worked in the Loop, I think we all had preconceptions about the Loop, and thought that nothing stays open past 8, dead on weekends, and things of that sort, and that's been kind of the biggest surprise, how much support and volume we've gotten from the second we open until the second we close.

Has the clientele surprised you?

PC: I think from working downtown (at The Gage), I had a good idea of what to expect as far as clientele, and business. I think this hotel and second floor is something that the Loop and Chicago has never had before. I think that's a lot of people will use this as the stepping stone on what else is built in the future. I think this is groundbreaking for the future as far as the business, this place couldn't be in a better location. We're next to pretty much everything —€” tourists as well as parks, museums, all the businesses, hospitals, the local condominiums, so for this area, I don't think a landmark like this could be in better use.

"I think this hotel and second floor is something that the Loop and Chicago has never had before."

There are other new places that have opened in this area that aren't taking chances with their concepts as much as they could. Do you feel like that is playing into your success here?

PM: I think it's really awesome to have this support not only from what we do, but from the hotel's side of things. We've never been asked to compromise what we do, and so I think that people kind of see that. They kind of feel the authenticity.

PT: From the start, our partners have been supportive, they have been specific that they wanted Land and Sea to express our vision for the space and we never had to compromise. We've put forward some pretty aggressive design ideas, what I think for the area are some pretty aggressive menus, lower price points, and across the board we've been supported, and I think we're seeing the results of that. As far as authenticity what we're doing, everybody can see that it's unique, we're in a very unique space, and so from the start we were always tasked with embracing the uniqueness of the space and just trying to take it and contemporize it, make it great, make it cool.

Do you think more places downtown are going to take more chances and be a little more creative?

PM: I think so. People are definitely taking notice of this — even the people that travel quite a bit and come into this place, and there are not too many places like this, not only in Chicago, but even in the U.S. anymore that's in this good of shape and looks this great. And then you go into the Game Room and it's very inclusive and everything, you walk around the corner and there's Cherry Circle Room, the doors are closed, you open it up at night and it's really impressive. I definitely think a lot of people are taking notice of that for sure.

PC: I think they have to be (more creative in the future). I think that's where our industry continues to progress and grow. Who else when this place opened had a 13-story rooftop that overlooks probably the best view in the city? Who has a game room with billiards and shuffleboard and a full bocce court that's all free that you can come here at 12/1 in the morning to play and have fun? So I think that makes us very unique and from working down here there's definitely a late night crowd, but it's all the same across the board. I think there are some great restaurants up and down North and South Michigan (Avenue), but I think this place really showcases that the business is here and the late night crowd as well needed to be brought to life, and I think that's what the hotel and Land and Sea did.

Chicago Athletic Association One Year In

Let's talk more about the design and restoration of the space.

I think this place really showcases that the business is here (in the Loop) and the late night crowd as well needed to be brought to life.

PT: On the second floor we worked with Roman & Williams out of New York, they had designed the Drawing Room space and the Game Room space, and then we designed the Cherry Circle Room and Milk Room. And so, through that process we collaborated with them on the Drawing Room space and the Game Room space so that we could work through some questions of logistics and operations and things like that. When we got access to the space I think we were in here 10 days before opening and most of us were staying (at the hotel). Even at that point we were opening weird cabinets and finding things that hadn't even been seen yet and that was two years-plus into the renovation.

Can you pinpoint one thing in here that was the most unique or challenging or interesting or hard that you found or unearthed and had to do in this space?

EG: There was a brass plaque on the bar for a really long time that said "Pete's Bar" and every time we went by it we were like "It's Pete's!"

PT: And then it disappeared.

PM: I think the coolest thing about the bar in Cherry Circle Room is that you can still see the cigarette stains on the bar but you can also see the cigarette stains that are closest to the bartender so you can see where the bartender was actually putting their cigarette down and that burn in the bar top as well. There are reminders every day of that different style of bartending.

So what was getting this open like?

PT: We got Cherry Circle Room seven days before we opened it and then had to build it. So, we were building on one side and doing staff meetings and training on the other. So just by that we knew we were a little short on training or a little short on just living in the space, unpacking things, placing things, everything was a scramble. But again it's what we knew and when the green light hit we just came down and we all just worked as hard and fast as we could. Many of us stayed here, I think I was here for two weeks before I went back home. We all just took some rooms and worked around the clock, bought clothes down the street.

PC: We had to unpack the kitchen, they installed everything but it was in shambles for the most part, we had to break open thousands and thousands of boxes of pots and pans, set the kitchen up, make sure everything was working properly, so that took pretty much three full days, and all we did was set stuff up, make sure it worked. Then we had two days of maybe cooking, and then we opened.

After you opened, what did you have to change or deal with?

PC: I think we figured out a lot of what we can and can't do. We knew it wasn't perfect, but we knew what we could do and we just needed the time to do it. I think throughout a month, to two months to six months to a year now, I think we're pretty much hitting all across the board from the house, service, cocktails to wine. I went in for the first time the other day, into Cherry Circle Room to eat for the first time as a guest walking in — my mind was blown.

Let's talk a little bit about Milk Room. How has that been?

PM: I think it's cool because it kind of took on a life of its own. I got everything I could get my hands on, and being able to find more of these older spirits and taste them side by side with the current production was night and day and I said "oh my god. We've got to tweak all these recipes I thought I had for these drinks." It's not the same product anymore, it's changed in the bottle over the last 50 or 60 years. I think that (Milk Room) is obviously really unique, and I'm starting to even see a trend.

Did you expect the success or to start a trend?

PM: I didn't, (but) obviously Milk Room is not the first eight-seater. The Office was doing this before, but the difference was that we have this amazing spirits collection (and The Office) is not accessible. I had no idea it was going to take off like this, when the first day we put the tickets on Tock, I was like "oh my god, we're starting to sell out every weekend!" I had no idea. I really didn't. Then I was like, "oh that means these people are actually going to buy these things," so I'm calling my sources and saying "I need 12 more bottles of these 1950s Campari."

How much did the rooftop (Cindy's) play into the success you've all had here?

EG: I think running the second floor kind of played into our favor because the people that have come inside here are the people seeking us out, and they're seeking the specifically curated experience that we brought to Michigan Avenue.

PM: I think they do a great job. And it's completely different. That's what makes it so great. This one property has so much to offer — if you want this incredible view, and this style of food and this style of drink, you got it, and they execute it very, very well.

Did you have a chance to run the rooftop too?

PT: No, I think when we first came on it was uncertain who was going to operate it. But from my point of view, we didn't even put our hat in the ring. We were overwhelmed by the prospect of this floor. I think when we first came on, I'm not sure if the operator was decided upon, but we knew what we could handle.

Has there been a lot of synergy with Cindy's?

AA: Yeah. Early when the evening is getting going, until the dining room starts bustling, people come down from Cindy's saying "where do we go? I want to get something to eat." That's your dream world is having a guest who's going to come in, sit down (in the Drawing Room), do some work, get out of work on a Friday at 3:00 instead of 5:00, get their last emails written off, have a glass of sparkling wine, go to the Game Room, shoot a round of pool, have a pitcher of beer, then you grab a quick snack and onto Cherry Circle Room where you're going to have a Manhattan, sit down, eat some lamb or a nice kind of steak, then go upstairs and have one last little sip at Cindy's, or get a reservation at Milk Room, where they're going to have some really amazing spirits to kind of settle things.

How does it look for year two and beyond?

PM: It doesn't look like the slow down is happening.

AA: It's still escalating. We're still growing, the number of guests that are coming in over the course of a weekend, or a whole week, whatever, is still growing at a noticeable rate.

Milk Room

12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603 (844) 312-2221 Visit Website

Chicago Athletic Association

12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL (312) 940-3552 Visit Website

Game Room Chicago

12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603 Visit Website

Cindy's

12 South Michigan Avenue, , IL 60603 (312) 792-3502 Visit Website

Cherry Circle Room

12 South Michigan Avenue, , IL 60603 (312) 792-3515 Visit Website

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