Ryan See and Dan Warren brim with confidence watching workers inside the gutted former Perennial Virant overlooking Lincoln Park at the Hotel Lincoln. The pair are working with Boka Restaurant Group on a replacement restaurant in the space where chef Paul Virant and his team cooked until December. The Kennison should open in June at the corner of Lincoln, Wells, and Clark.
They’ve hired young first-time chef Bill Walker, who previously worked at Green Zebra, the West Town vegetarian fine dining restaurant. So it’s not surprising Walker’s planning a vegetable section on the Kennison’s modern American menu. One of the biggest complaints Walker heard from Perennial staff is that confused passers-by would come in and take a look at the menu and then walk out. There was a notion that some of the ingredients featured on the old restaurant’s menu were too intimidating, he says. That’s why approachability is important.
“We are putting items on the menu that are more familiar to the common man and then of course we’ll put our unique, fantastic spin on it,” Warren says.
Like Virant before him, Walker wants to develop relationships with Green City farmer’s market vendors, the ones coming out on Wednesdays and Saturdays across the street in Lincoln Park during the summer. Sample dishes include tuna tartare (yellowfin tuna, avocado mousse, jalapeno) and a scallop crudo served a shell (cara cara orange, Fresno chile, soy reduction). Walker also plans a pastrami-spiced and -smoked carrot with a caraway-beet emulsion, house-made sauerkraut, and a caraway-bread puree. They’ll serve the obligatory burger as well.
“This is a Boka restaurant, in partnership with the 90/94 Restaurant Group,” See says. “If anybody thinks for a second that the level of quality is going to wane because we’re getting away from the [standards] fine dining sets for their food... [that] is not close to the description that we feel like we’re going to get [from critics].”
Design firm BlocHaus has already made changes inside the space. The revolving door has been moved closer to the Clark Street side. That way when guests enter, the host stand will be in direct eyesight. In the old space, guests would have to turn and look for the host, creating kind of a bottleneck. Apparently, that was a design flaw at Perennial that bothered Boka’s Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz for years.
They’ve also added booths along the windows and widened the aisles. That makes the space more family-friendly and easier to navigate strollers. There will be a kids’ menu. The space won’t revert to the days when it was a Bar Louie, as it will only have one 55-inch flatscreen at the bar. Restaurant owners used to say they needed a TV “just in case the Cubs win the World Series.” That line has lost some of its punch given last season’s championship.
The bar’s been extended to make room for a raw bar. See says they’ll have “raw-tenders” to serve seafood to guests. To drink, they plan eight local beers on tap and 70 wines — half in bottles and half by the glass. Expect seven to 10 cocktails, and See also wants a nice Scotch list. The changes to the bar aren’t meant to create nightlife, as that’s the purpose of the hotel’s rooftop bar, the J. Parker. But for patrons standing in line to get to the roof on summer days, See and Warren see the Kennison as a comfy waiting spot.
“You can be sitting at the bar in jeans and a T-shirt coming in after a walk in a park and be sitting next to someone in a three-piece suit,” Warren says. “Neither one will feel out of place.”
Working with the best
See has known Boehm for decades, but he swears that rapport isn’t how he landed the chance to work on the Kennison. Since the fall, they’ve also taken over operations at Elaine’s Coffee Call, the hotel’s ground-floor cafe, and the J. Parker. They’ve even moved weekday breakfast upstairs under the bar’s retractable roof. That’s a practice that should remain even after the Kennison opens. Weekend brunch will return to the ground-floor dining room after the restaurant opens.
There’s renewed buzz for the Hotel Lincoln, and See and Warren, who formed 90/94 Restaurant Group and may eventually tackle more projects, are excited to attract new clientele to the restaurant space. They have the added benefit from working with Boka’s resources, and that’s one reason why the pair is confident that the Kennison will succeed. “Working with that caliber of people is beyond exciting,” See says.