Less than five months ago, there were no Chinese restaurants in one of America's hottest dining districts. In around two months there will be two. Austin Baker, one of Chicago's burgeoning restaurateurs who also owns Bar Marta in Humboldt Park, is planning to open a bi-level Szechuan-focused Chinese restaurant on Randolph Row in October. Baker and his team have been quietly constructing the yet-to-be-named project next to J.P. Graziano at 905 W. Randolph St. since April, which is around three blocks away from Stephanie Izard's new constantly-jammed Duck Duck Goat.
"We're really excited to be in the West Loop community," Baker says. "And I'm excited to do my best to open an authentic Chinese concept and have some fun."
Baker's fun will mostly revolve around versions of Szechuan food and drink on two floors. The ground floor holds around 70 seats that are mostly of the booth and bar variety — with the exception of two 10-12-seat tables he'll use for ticketed family-style dinners that he describes as an "incredible experience for a long, delicious meal." Also expect an open kitchen here, where customers will be able to observe cooks over hot woks and hand-pulling Chinese noodles.
The 180-seat second floor will hold a central square 30-seat cocktail bar, a Chinese buffet, and food that will "take some liberties" with the Szechuan concept. "We will also have a well-rounded menu," Baker says of the restaurant, although he can't reveal specific dishes yet because menus are still in development. He has been planning the concept for years, first dreaming about it while living in Bhutan, a small country that borders Tibet and is about 1000 miles away from China.
Since opening Bar Marta in November 2015, Baker, the former culinary director of Brendan Sodikoff's Hogsalt group, has also been attached to the recently-opened Whiskey Thief in Evanston and the bi-level restaurant under construction in the former Chromium space on Lake Street. So does he have designs on his own restaurant group too?
"I'm not (opening these restaurants) to have a big group and make a lot of money," Baker says. "I'm doing this for the experiences." You should be able to experience his Chinese restaurant in around two months.