Chef and restaurateur Matthias Merges’ (A10, Old Irving Brewing, Billy Sunday) long-teased arrival to the West Loop involves a twist, as Merges is collaborating with buddy and celebrity chef Graham Elliot. Merges’ crew at Folkart Restaurant Management has been busy for the last three months gutting the former Graham Elliot Bistro space at 841 W. Randolph St. They aim to open the replacement, Gideon Sweet, in mid-October.
Gideon Sweet is named after a breed of heirloom apple, and Merges wants the restaurant to mix a fun, child-like curiosity with the neighborhood’s urban feel. He’s excited about competing for sophisticated customers along Randolph Restaurant Row, one of the hottest-dining areas in the country, and his focus is on fun.
West Loop diners want to bounce between different restaurants in a single given night, Merges said — to grab a beer at Publican followed by a bite of pig’s face at Girl & the Goat. Gideon Sweet will blend into that philosophy. Customers could grab items like a pastry filled with salmon mousse (it’s inspired by Japanese griddle cakes) and sip on a balanced cocktail served on the space’s remodeled back patio.
“People these days are more savvy about food, they’re more savvy about cocktail-ing,” Merges said. “They’re looking for more unique experiences.”
Chef Michael Shrader has left Old Irving Brewing to run Gideon Sweet’s kitchen. For those who like Billy Sunday’s well-researched cocktails, they’ll get to choose a drink from a new menu curated by Folkart beverage director Alex Bachman. Unique food and drink are what Merges has in mind. He also has supreme confidence about teaming up with Elliot: “Randolph really hasn’t seen anything like this, at least to this point.”
Merges isn’t afraid to explore other cultures with his food, and Gideon Sweet’s menu will continue to display that curiosity. He described a “hand-crafted” Thai curry that will use fresh ingredients and different proteins. The back bar will be stocked will be stocked with vintage spirits, and serve vintage cocktails. Merges enjoys researching food history and bringing back forgotten items for a new generation.
Elliot, whose profile has grown nationally as a former judge on Fox TV’s Masterchef, has kept busy curating food at Lollapalooza, traveling and exploring other endeavors. But despite the teases, he hasn’t operated a Chicago restaurant in a year, despite rumblings about opening a restaurant in Macau. Folkart’s team didn’t make Elliot immediately available for an interview.
Merges and Elliot worked together at Charlie Trotter’s, the shuttered pioneering fine-dining temple in Lincoln Park. They’ve known each other for about 20 years — both also threw pop-up restaurants this season at Wrigley Field. Together, they’re transforming Elliot’s space that debuted on Randolph in 2012. Fc Studio, one of Merges’ favorites, is designing the restaurant. They worked on Billy Sunday, Yusho, and A10.
In April 2016, Elliot brought in DMK Restaurant Group into the space to relaunch the restaurant with new menu items. That iteration closed in August 2016 after lasting four months, leaving an opportunity for Merges to work with his old friend. Merges said Elliot will help develop the menu and has a stake in the restaurant. Meanwhile, Elliot ambiguously mentioned the restaurant Tuesday morning on Twitter.
Exciting news today regarding the restaurant space on Randolph ~ stay tuned— GRAHAM ELLIOT (@grahamelliot) September 5, 2017
It’s not just a new beginning for Elliot, but it also represents the continuation of a new direction for Merges, who opened a bar outside of Wrigley Field, Lucky Dorr, this summer. Merges said current economic conditions make it a “very interesting time for Chicago restaurants.” Sustaining a neighborhood restaurant is increasingly difficult, and that forces restaurateurs to pursue areas like the West Loop that are already destinations. Not everyone has the capital to play. Merges — who earlier this year closed his trio of Yusho restaurants in Logan Square, Hyde Park, and Las Vegas — knows about the tough decision process.
“Do we keep two places open that only make pennies?” he said. “Or do we take our talents to somewhere else and get into a situation where we can make dollars?”
Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more information about the West Loop’s next huge project.