Ocean Prime, the steakhouse chain with 15 locations across 12 states, plans to opens its first Chicago restaurant on April 3 inside the same building that houses the LondonHouse hotel, just south of the Chicago River near Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue. Owned by Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, a Columbus, Ohio-based company with close to 60 restaurants across the U.S., Ocean Prime’s challenge is to differentiate itself from other steakhouses in Chicago, including nearby rivals like Smith & Wollensky, Prime & Provisions, and Morton’s The Steakhouse.
Ocean Prime has already opened in Boston, New York, and Beverly Hills. Founder Cameron Mitchell told Eater Chicago that he doesn’t bill his chain as a pure steakhouse (they also serve sushi and other seafood). He’s looked at properties in Chicago for years and regretted passing up chances in some prime spaces. He mentioned the Chicago Cut Steakhouse property along the river and the Mastro’s site in River North. But there’s a silver lining as Mitchell feels the upscale brand has used the time to better compete in Chicago.
“To be honest with you, Chicago’s a little scary to me, you know?” Mitchell said. “There was no rush to get into Chicago, it’s a tough restaurant town. But I feel we’re prepared now.”
Workers still have much to inside the space which will eventually have room for 350 customers. Big windows capture plenty of sun off Wacker, just across from the Trump Tower. Wine is stored within a wall enclosed in glass that separates the different dining rooms. There’s four private rooms with names (Wrigley, Tribune) that pay homage to the nearby former home of the Chicago Tribune. A fireplace breaks up the space. The restaurant stands on the building’s second floor with an entrance leading upstairs from the ground floor.
Ocean Prime has a longstanding relationship with another Columbus company, Michael’s Finer Meats & Seafoods for prime meats that are broiled inside a 1,200-degree oven. Michael’s parent company, Connecticut-based Chefs’ Warehouse, also owns South Side steak staple Allen Brothers. Mitchell’s favorite cut its the New York strip and he pairs that with jalapeño au gratin. The Chicago menu will mimic other location. There’s a large raw bar section, as well as Chilean sea bass, lobster tails, and other seafood items that customers have seen at steakhouses. There’s also a gluten-free menu.
Off the bat, Mitchell praised Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Rich Melman, and his approach to hospitality mirrors LEYE’s. Mitchell wrote a book Yes Is The Answer. What Is The Question? and it’s filled with customer service lessons. He feels restaurants should make every attempt to fulfill diner requests. That includes serving them items that are off the menu if the kitchen already has the ingredients readily available.
Mitchell knows corporate customers need a place for power lunches are important to his restaurant. But he knows the industry has changed, and he needs to appeal to younger customers. Though he isn’t the most dedicated social media user, he knows about how Instagram influences business. And that’s affected Ocean Prime. That nice light from those big windows should be useful to customers taking photos on their phones.
Locally, some Chicagoans complain about steakhouse fatigue. There are other cries that the city’s restaurant groups have too much influence over real estate and investors. Mitchell responded saying Ocean Prime started as an independent and despite sitting in a pricey piece of Chicago real estate, he feels the restaurant retains an independent spirit. He also feels his brand resonates with younger customers. His son, a student at Fordham University in New York, bring his friends to Ocean Prime, and they enjoy it. Of course, they have the benefit of a house account.
Chicago represents the last truly major market for U.S. expansion for Mitchell. He’s got a luxe space to introduce his company to the city, and is ready for the challenge.
“I don’t want to appear arrogant or cocky like we’re kicking in the door,” he said. “We’re coming to Chicago with hat in hand here hoping to be accepted.”