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Chicago’s First Japanese-Style Listening Bar to Open on Michigan Avenue

DMK Restaurants’s the Exchange will have a Beard-nominated chef

Chicago Cityscapes And City Views
The Railway Exchange building will house a ground-floor restaurant.
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Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicago’s first listening bar — a Japanese trend that’s made its way to LA and New York — is headed to Michigan Avenue as part of an ambitious project from DMK Restaurants. The Exchange should open this spring inside the former home of the Chicago Architecture Foundation at 224 S. Michigan Avenue. It will house a few components including an all-day restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner with food from 2015 James Beard Foundation award nominee Brian Huston.

Huston earned recognition for his work at Boltwood, the suburban Evanston restaurant that closed last year. DMK’s David Morton lives in Evanston and said he and his wife Jodi “frequented Boltwood more than any other restaurant they frequented.”

“It’s been a dream to work with him,” Morton said of Huston.

Japanese listening rooms, also known as jazz cafes or hi-fi bars, feature stellar sound systems powered by vinyl records that satiate the most snobby audiophile, and the Exchange will also house a state-of-the-art system. The spaces are designed with comfortable seating beckoning customers to stay a while. That’s why the Exchange will offer coffee by the mug or pot, in case guests want to linger and drink more than a cup. The music is an antidote to folks frustrated by going out and seeing other customers locked into their smartphones. It’s supposed to curb info overload.

Morton said they’re partnering with a well-known company — a “thought leader” — to ensure that everything sounds right. That company (not individual) would also help curate the playlists at what DMK calls the Listening Room at the Exchange. Morton said they’ll reveal the company’s identity at a later date; he only described the mystery entity as New York based.

Experiences at listening rooms vary across the country. Some patrons may try a coursed-out meal while listening to several records in an intimate setting. Often, customers consume their meals and music in silence. Imagine a trip to the legendary Green Mill in Uptown where bouncers shush guests while musicians perform.

Railway Exchange and Gas Buildings., Chicago, Illinois, USA, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910
A photo of the Railway Exchange building from 1910.
Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
A historic photo of the Railway Exchange Building.
DMK Restaurants [Official Photo]

The Exchange will be different. Morton said the music will be curated with themed days and nights. Music is also a big component at other DMK establishments. Ada Street, one of the company’s restaurants near the Elston Industrial Corridor, has long blended music and dining with meals centering around albums or artists.

While DMK offers a light breakfast at Marshall’s Landing inside Merchandise Mart, the Exchange will serve full morning meals, and that’s breaking new ground for the company. The restaurant will make use of Huston’s baking skills and offer bagels and cured fish, sourdough pancakes, and more. Morton said it’ll offer several dishes with vegetables as the main focus. Also look for pastas, porchetta sandwiches topped with broccoli rabe and aged provolone, plus meatier dishes such as whole-roasted halibut with tomato and honey.

The restored Railway Exchange Building.
DMK Restaurants [Official Photo]

The restaurant occupies the Railway Exchange Building, a building that opened in the early 1900s and designed by renowned urban planner Daniel Burnham’s firm. Morton said DMK is taking great care to modernize the space without disrespecting the building’s past. The space’s atrium is its nerve center, where Morton envisions customers coming in for breakfast and sipping coffee. Listening Room patrons will enter via Michigan Avenue. Staff will spin music and he hopes to host a regular lineup of podcasts. The bar overlooking the atrium will be called Theo’s and he hopes to lure the after-work crowd with happy hour specials.

Morton called the project a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” A private event space with a capacity of 300 seated and 500 standing is also part of the plans. Morton wants it to be one of the city’s premier private event spaces.

DMK has had its share of high-profile projects. Morton and partner Michael Kornick are also planning Hayden Hall, a South Loop food hall scheduled for a January opening. At one point, DMK planned to scale its DMK Burger Bar restaurants. They’ve since shuffled partners, Morton said, adding that the driver for these projects is often real estates opportunities. He’s approaching the Exchange as a restaurant serving a high-end hotel. It’s important that it “adds value” to the neighborhood, other building tenants, and downtown workers and residents, he said.

The Exchange and its various components have a chance to bring something innovative to Chicago, blending old school architecture with a new school business. Vinyl sales are even on pace to outsell CDs this year, and that’s something Morton and company have taken into account.

Stay tuned for more news on one of Chicago’s more compelling restaurant openings of 2020.