It was 10 years ago that Darren McGraw first had the idea for Ampersand Wine Bar. A Chicago native, pastry chef by trade with extensive experience in San Francisco, and member of the National Guard, McGraw finally decided to bring the project to life after returning to Chicago and working at Charlie Trotter's. After hiring a chef with similarly exemplary experience — Tim Havidic, an Homaro Cantu protege — the wine bar and restaurant was finally unveiled in July 2015 in a stretch of Chicago that largely didn't have a concept like it.
A year later, McGraw couldn't be happier with his decisions. He chatted about what he went through to open, how the first year has been, and plans for expansion.
You've been working on this project for so long. Does it feel like the first year has flown by?
It has, in a lot of ways it's like a blink of the eye, and then in some ways it feels like a long slog. Partly because of the time it took to open and all of the operational aspects of opening and owning my own restaurant. I say that as a good thing, the slow part has been to savor and see some great growth in the team and the restaurant, and seeing repeat customers is really rewarding.
Were you really working on it for a decade?
Well, the concept was in my mind for a while. Having been cooking for a long time and mostly on the pastry side of the house, I think there's a natural inclination to want to open a bakery or some kind of pastry shop. I kind of knew that in working in a few bake shops and hotels, the amount of investment and return on investment is just a lot more iffy, and I wanted something more shelf stable like wine, spirits, and cocktails, so I wanted that to be the foundation. And I wanted to come back to Chicago, that's my roots and where I'm from. I came back for my girlfriend and to start a family, and simultaneously start another family — meaning my restaurant — so I kind of had two kids at once and now I have two families that I'm juggling.
How did you know it was the right time to go out on your own and why did you pick a wine bar?
I think that the idea really hit me like, "oh I could do this if I apply myself." This was nine or 10 years ago. I started seeking out some advice and knowledge from colleagues that have gone on to do well in restaurant groups and opening restaurants as well as started reading books on marketing and some of the other operational aspects of running a business versus just running a restaurant business. I'm investing in myself, and through that my family and my future. How I thought about the design of a place was really an extension of my home and that's something I've always loved. That was sort of part of the idea and I saw that as more of a dinner spot where it was (also) somewhat of a lounge.
I guess the wine bar aspect of it kind of came about by looking at what's already out there. Here in Chicago and in other cities there's an abundance of local breweries that really focus on craft microbreweries and beer-focused and beer-centric cuisine and little restaurants. It's only recently shifted into cocktails, and I felt that having a wine bar was a natural next step for entrepreneurs. Everything is sort of cyclical and I felt that it is going to come back into fashion or in vogue a little bit, so I wanted to capture that.
"Everything is sort of cyclical and I felt that it is going to come back into fashion or in vogue a little bit."
There definitely used to be more wine bars in Chicago and that concept died down a little. Do you feel like you may be on the forefront of more wine bars popping up in Chicago?
I do. I think that there has been, traditionally, a model of wine bars or just having a glass of wine at restaurants where it's maybe more upscale and a higher price point, and what I wanted to do was make it as affordable or almost as affordable as a great beer that's locally brewed, so that it's far more approachable and not the perception of being snooty, and of the right price point for the neighborhood so that it would be very community focused. I think the older concept of wine bars has traditionally been a charcuterie plate and little bites and I think a lot of times, at least in my experience, it has often not been executed well and the service aspect has not been good. That's what I want to focus on -— great service, very friendly and approachable, refined cuisine but in a dress-down style.
Has tweaking and contemporizing the wine bar concept worked out for you?
I think that's a great way to say it. Being a little more modern and having great food is critical. There's so much knowledge and exposure to different cuisines and great food all over, but especially, this is a great food town. For the most part, people just don't put up with it if you have mediocre food. I think that's really why I hired a great chef and wanted to do the food that I love to eat and cook.
Was Ampersand delayed because you were called into duty for the National Guard?
No, it was mostly delayed because of the city, honestly. I have a yearly annual (National Guard) training, and that happens almost always in June, so it was supposed to open by June, but I felt like I couldn't get it open in May and then go away for 2-3 weeks and then come back. We were open about two-and-a-half weeks later, and that again had more to do with the city, and permits, and last-minute inspections and that entire headache.
You had plenty of experience in high-end restaurants and you brought in a chef who came in under Homaru Cantu. With your experience at Charlie Trotter's as well, what did that type of experience do for the restaurant?
I think it does nothing but enhance everything. It helps me because I ultimately rely on Tim every single day to be the standard bearer and have that food knowledge in his mind. It's been a real blessing and Omar was a great colleague and friend when I worked with him at Trotter's, and all of us that worked with him miss him dearly. I blasted out "hey I'm doing this — I'm looking for a chef." He was one of a handful that responded. Chefs are few and far between. I talked to Tim a number of times, the place wasn't quite ready to open, this was maybe September of 2014. Then he decided to take another job, then six months later I said I was ready and he said "good, I'm ready to get out of here."
A few more restaurants and bars popped up near you around the time that you opened, but it's not traditionally an area known for adventurous concepts. Did you think about that when you took the space and how have people in the area taken to the concept?
Good question. I thought about it a lot and my thought process was really that I'm looking in this neighborhood because it's sandwiched between two very well established neighborhoods: Lincoln Square and Andersonville. I could go to either of those and spend a lot more money for rent, however I felt that starting a new business and doing this type of food and concept, that I could strike out a little bit on my own in between. I feel it's sort of a good, nestled area, and it's an area that's really moving towards being up and coming. We're doing something different enough and slightly more refined that I felt that people would make the trip, and I feel like they have. I think it's a really good thing that we ended up being the anchor of the neighborhood, because we are seen as that. The two chambers (of commerce) call me sometimes to help promote; they kind of see me as that anchor.
"I think it's a really good thing that we ended up being the anchor of the neighborhood, because we are seen as that."
You've gotten a lot of destination customers coming from different parts of the city?
In the beginning especially, yes. I lovingly call a lot of those people tourists, whether they actually are tourists or just touring from another neighborhood, like, "we came all the way from Lincoln Park." People are very neighborhood-centric in this city, so getting them out of their routine or out of their neighborhood does become a little bit of a destination. I'd say on the weekends, people are more from other neighborhoods and from the suburbs, northern suburbs especially. During the week it's a lot more local-focused.
I would imagine that for the neighborhood, people could think, "we love these types of restaurants but we had to travel all over the city to go to them and now we're so glad this type of place in the neighborhood," or people could go the other way and say "we're used to neighborhood bars and small restaurants where we can just get a burger." Do you feel like it has gone one of those ways?
It's a small neighborhood. I feel like it's more about helping create this little Damen corridor to be somewhat of a destination, and a rising tide lifts all boats. I feel like when there are a few more places to go, it only helps me.
Have you had to tweak or change the food, drinks, service or space?
Nothing along those lines — I think we change our menu often enough to where that's just sort of a natural cycle of things as far as change. The one thing we have changed is our hours, kind of recognizing in the summer it's slower because of all of the neighborhood fests. We were six days a week and now are five. We'll go back to six once school is in swing.
What are you looking forward to in year two and beyond?
I'm working on the next project — it's not set in stone, but I'd love to kind of really get that in stone. So maybe in the beginning of year three I'll open something. I‘d love to stay on brand, I think it's a very good brand that identifies the food and the service and the experience very well. I'm looking at other neighborhoods, something that would recreate that Ampersand Wine Bar vibe and feel, so I'm excited about flexing our muscles a bit.
I have a meeting right now with a potential investor on Division (Street in Wicker Park). He stopped by a few weeks ago, and talked about maybe looking into doing something, so I'm meeting him to talk about what his ideas are.
Is there anything else you would like the readers or anyone to know about your first year at Ampersand?
Well, one thing that's not as out there as much is our wine dinners. We do that quarterly. That's a way to really have a different experience at a wine bar, it's a little more along the lines of a three-hour dinner, three to five courses, and bring in a wine grower/maker to talk about their wine and how it compares with food. It's a little more of a style of a refined or white tablecloth or high-end cuisine that Tim and I are used to doing and that's a nice way to show that off as well.