Big changes are afoot inside the Thompson Hotel, home of the upscale Italian seafood spot Nico Osteria, previously a jewel in One Off Hospitality Group’s restaurant portfolio. Chef Bill Montagne departed the Gold Coast restaurant on Saturday as he’s poised to open his own restaurant in California. It’s a move he said he shared internally six weeks ago. And in what appears to be a coincidence, last week One Off management (The Publican, Avec, Blackbird, Big Star) informed Nico Osteria staff that it would withdraw from the restaurant and hand over the management reigns to the hotel.
There’s no set date for the transition, which also affects hotel bar Salone Nico. It should happen by the end of the year, according to a news release sent over Wednesday morning. Nico Osteria opened in 2013 and the management agreement between One Off and Thompson wasn’t extended. The reason behind the move wasn’t shared but the decision was supposedly made months ago.
“We are confident that Nico Osteria and its existing staff will continue to provide the same level of excellence in cuisine and service,” the joint release representing One Off and Thompson’s parent Two Roads Hospitality read.
Nico Osteria is one of Chicago’s premier spots for seafood, despite being overlooked for a Michelin star. Montagne arrived at the restaurant in May 2017, following the footsteps of chef Erling Wu-Bower who earned three Beard nominations for Best Chef: Great Lakes while working at Nico Osteria. Wu-Bower left last year to open Pacific Standard Time in River North.
A Detroit native, Montagne co-owned Snaggletooth, a short-lived and highly acclaimed cured-seafood deli in Lakeview. He is mum on the details of his move but promised to share more soon. He spent 10 years in Chicago and now he’s excited to be close to the Pacific Ocean.
“If you think about it, if you had a son or a daughter who wanted to be a chef, and they wanted to cook seafood, would you tell them to cook in Chicago?” Montagne said.
Despite not having an ocean nearby, Montagne is proud of the food he and his staff cooked at Nico Osteria. He earned praise from the Tribune’s Phil Vettel in October 2017. Most of Nico’s staff is still at the restaurant and could continue to work there as the hotel takes over operations. Montagne wasn’t looking to leave and said his new business partners approached him. He added that he didn’t know if his decision to leave affected One Off and Thompson’s actions. One Off told him and other members of the staff on Thursday, September 20.
Montagne, who worked at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin in New York, is also excited to cook more than coastal Italian fare. He noted that he’s worked at a lot of restaurants with “Le” or “La” in its name: “I can cook French, too.”
He reflected on this career path from working at C Chicago, to opening a neighborhood restaurant with then-girlfriend Jennifer Kim. Kim’s gone on to open Passerotto in Andersonville.
“I’m very excited, to think about it — this was just a perfect situation that came along,” Montagne said. “Snaggletooth was an awesome project, but it really could never have been a forever project, but it was good for both me and Jennifer. And then Nico was the perfect stepping stone for me at the time.”