The co-founder of TAO, the glitzy over-the-top pan-Asian chain of restaurants and nightclubs, plans to open his Chicago location in September after 15 years of searching around town for a suitable venue. Rich Wolf and his partners opened the first TAO in 2000 in uptown New York and Wolf said they’ve always held high standards for their food. While celebrities and big spenders frequent the locations in New York, Las Vegas, and LA, Wolf believes their sushi and steaks are what keeps customers returning.
“We were food-centric from day one, again — it’s what we do,” Wolf said. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful a restaurant is, if the food is no good you’re never going to make it.”
The menu at the Chicago location will feature a few new dishes, but Wolf described its offerings as a mix of the best of what TAO serves across the country. Dishes like satay of Chilean sea bass, crispy rice tuna, and wagyu ribeye teppanyaki. It’ll also serve dim sum and sushi. Drinks will include sake flight pairings and specialty cocktails.
With room for many customers (the Chicago location at 632 N. Dearborn Street is 34,000 square feet), high alcohol to food sales ratios, and constantly crowded dining rooms, TAO restaurants are among the highest-grossing independent restaurants in the country, a fact the Tribune highlighted. Locally, Gibsons steakhouse on Rush Street is the perennial champion when it comes to the most sales. According to Restaurant Business Online, Gibsons Gold Coast brought in $24.7 million in 2016. Compare that to TAO Las Vegas, the No. 1 restaurant in the country, with $42.4 million. Wolf said 1,200 people could pass through on a normal Saturday night.
Wolf hopes to duplicate the successful formula in River North. Although musicians, actors, and athletes regularly make visits to Chicago, the Windy City’s celebrity pool isn’t as deep as LA or New York, but Wolf said music festivals and conventions will help bring in customers. The Yankees are supposedly big fans of the restaurant and Wolf expects the baseball team to be customers when they’re in town playing the White Sox or Cubs.
“We might have our fair share of celebrities, but our business model is not based on celebrities,” Wolf said.
So who dines and drinks at TAO? Wolf said there isn’t a specific customer profile. Youngsters may prefer to hang out all night at the nightclub portion, which the Chicago space devotes 7,000 square feet to. TAO also draws corporate customers, and the decor, including 16-foot tall Buddha statues, attracts hipsters. Wolf said the venue has even been popular for parents who dine while their newborns sleep through dinner. And when those children grow up, mommy and daddy may elect to throw a sweet sixteen party at the restaurant.
The Chicago location should look a lot like the Downtown New York restaurant. Wolf said it’s difficult to find a space that suits the restaurant. It needs to be windowless, with tall ceilings, without pillars, and large. The 126-year building that housed Castle and Excalibur nightclubs was also the original location for the Chicago Historical Society. It’s allegedly haunted. While Wolf enjoys touring historic buildings while scouting locations, he said TAO has never picked a haunted building for a restaurant. He said he hasn’t seen any ghosts.
Rockwell Group, a New York-based firm, designed the multi-level lounge, restaurant, and club. The firm also designed TAO’s downtown New York space, as well as Virgin Hotels Chicago and Robert De Niro’s Nobu. Expect a 10-foot Japanese bell, a giant disco ball, and 20-foot-wide murals.
Wolf’s leery about unfair labels. He wants the food to get as much attention as the nightlife aspect. He talks about sending his culinary staff to Asia to learn. He mentioned they hire Chinese cooks and Japanese sushi chefs.
Four Corners (Benchmark, Federales, WestEnd) is TAO’s local partner. That was big in finding a space. Four Corners’ Matt Menna is principal at Sterling Bay, one the most prominent developers in town.
Come back for more details as TAO creeps closer to opening in Chicago.