At first, Kara Callero, Frank Callero, and Steven Zaleski didn’t even want their first restaurant to be luxurious. But when the three first-time restaurateurs saw the long-vacant former Chromium nightclub space in Fulton Market in 2015 — a space that designer Karen Herold of Studio K Creative says at that time was “half decayed” and in “rough, rough shape” — they changed course, because they believed it was a perfect fit for a luxurious restaurant.
“We were immediately kind of wowed by the grandiose nature of the space,” Callero says. “There’s not much like it in Chicago, and with that, we kind of decided to pivot because we felt the space itself being so grand was deserving of a very grand and luxe concept.”
And now, around three years later, BLVD is Chicago’s 2017 poster child for what some believe is one of the top trends in American restaurant design — midcentury luxury and glamour. The self-described “vintage Hollywood glam” restaurant is Chicago’s 2017 Eater Award winner for Design of the Year.
“That feeling [that BLVD has] is that you’re there and it’s very special that you’re there,” Herold says. “That is what I really like, and [what] I feel is a big trend going on in restaurant design — where people are open [to] and willing to pay for luxury again.”
BLVD didn’t re-start this trend in Chicago restaurant design — many credit Maple & Ash with that — but it may have cemented it. After many years when most restaurants didn’t want to be branded as special-occasion spots, a time when fast-casual, affordability, “hipster” sensibilities, reclaimed wood, and exposed brick dominated restaurant design and price point, BLVD embraces the idea of a special night out during a time when, many believe, diners are willing to pay for luxe experiences again.
Even though glamour was not originally ownership’s plan for its first restaurant, BLVD’s design and ambience weren’t about being on-trend, either. The lack of luxurious restaurants in the surrounding Fulton Market and West Loop neighborhoods — areas with a stunningly fast influx of corporate money and hospitality projects in recent years that brought many more patrons willing to pay top dollar for a night out — combined with BLVD’s bilevel building with abnormally high ceilings, a gap in the second floor, a mezzanine, and lack of windows, pointed ownership toward its well-publicized “vintage Hollywood glam” inspiration.
BLVD’s owners, who named themselves Sancerre Hospitality, then researched 1950s-era establishments on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, notably the Hollywood Regency. Their main takeaways were to incorporate Art Deco influences, curves, clean lines, gold and metallic colors, large plush velvet booths, mood lighting, and intimate areas within its grandiose space. Even the women’s bathroom — which Herold describes as “like a real boudoir” that includes a large ottoman and multiple separate makeup tables — adds to the overall theme of a special night out.
To bridge the floors and incorporate what they believed to be the ultimate Hollywood-esque architectural aspect that would become BLVD’s focal point, Sancerre and the design team cut out more of the second floor and designed and implemented a “grand staircase” meant to mimic a ribbon — a process that took more than a year and hundreds of renderings by itself. “I’m [also] a fashion designer, so I see the style in those [1950s] movies,” Herold says. “You have to have that staircase, where someone in this ballgown slowly treads up the stairs while everyone is watching.”
BLVD’s design and atmosphere are noteworthy for several reasons. To begin with, the restaurant is sceney, evoking glamour and luxury without sacrificing sophistication and class. Similarly, it manages to take direct inspiration from a specific place and time — infusing it with contemporary influences — without becoming a caricature. Toeing these lines was by design, and distinguishes it from many of its competitors, which wasn’t easy for the team to accomplish.
Walking that tightrope is “about staying very true to what you want to do and not fall into the tricks that people use to evoke luxury,” Herold explains. Those tricks have to do with adornments and using too many traditional design elements, she says. “You need to kind of pick and choose what those special showpieces are,” Callero says, “not throw glitter on everything else.” And she adds that BLVD is “very much inspired by [the 1950s Hollywood] era and those places, but we never wanted to replicate them.”
Even before it opened, would-be diners were inordinately attracted to BLVD’s design and aesthetic. Eater Chicago’s story with photos of its under-construction space garnered nearly 16,000 views via Facebook alone — before construction was even complete — and the story with photos of the finished space drew almost 28,000 eyeballs just on Facebook. Not much was known about its food and beverage programs at that time, and its opening chef was cut after less than a week, so did BLVD initially cement itself as a hot spot mostly because of its design?
“When people see pictures or walk in and have no idea what [BLVD] is, I think they are immediately kind of drawn to the design and the concept and the feel,” Callero says. “So I think design, to us, was just as important as the food and the service elements, and something we focused on just as much.”
With the success of luxuriously designed Chicago restaurants Maple & Ash, then BLVD, and now the Boka Restaurant Group’s recently-opened Bellemore — in addition to others around the country in the same category — it’s fair to wonder if luxury will become an even larger trend in Chicago restaurant design and whether many more will jump on the bandwagon.
Even if they do, chances are slim that three little-known first-time restaurateurs — who weren’t even planning a luxurious restaurant in the first place — will open them.