After a long shift at the Violet Hour, Peter Garfield and Terry Alexander — half of the One Off Hospitality team — would sometimes sit on the building’s roof with a beer and look out at Wicker Park. Across the street sat the neighborhood’s long-established Pontiac Cafe, a former gas station converted — around the late 1980s — into a bohemian, easygoing neighborhood hangout with a spacious outdoor patio on North Damen Avenue. Thanks to its sizable plot of private property, with unobstructed sunshine streaming down on customers dining al fresco, says Alexander, he and Garfield would gaze across thinking, “Wow, that Pontiac space is amazing.”
But after opening a series of Chicago hits—fine dining boîte Blackbird, upscale Mediterranean eatery Avec, cocktail bar the Violet Hour, and the Publican beer-and-pork hall — Garfield and Alexander, along with partners Donnie Madia and chef Paul Kahan, weren’t necessarily looking to launch another business. Plus, although Pontiac Cafe had always been appealing, the team never thought they’d have the opportunity to acquire the space.
But then, in 2008, through a friend, they heard that the property was up for grabs. And, convinced of its potential, they couldn’t turn it down.
“When we were first planning [Big Star], it was more going to be a bar with a little bit of food, it was never really thought of as this is going to be a taqueria,” explains Alexander. For what was fated to become the group’s first quick-serve restaurant — a tremendous departure from white-tablecloth, fine dining Blackbird — the team batted around ideas like serving old-school greasy burgers wrapped up in paper.
Collectively, they agreed that whatever the concept, they wanted a really simple food menu. And great music, the kind that played out through old speakers with paper cones “that have a certain kind of sound quality to them ... real-sounding music,” says Kahan. The team agreed upon country-alternative as a musical theme, and bourbon as a liquid muse. Tacos — conducive to eating in any environment — stuck, too. And of course, to accompany tacos, there had to be agave-based spirits.
Looking for continuity between whiskey, tequila, tacos, and country music, then-the Violet Hour beverage director Michael Rubel told the team about Bakersfield, California, a city about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. “There was this whole really cool music scene ... also a huge migrant worker culture that would come to harvest the fields ... there was this great opportunity where whiskey and tequila sort of smash into each other,” Kahan explains. And while Bakersfield served as the project’s connective tissue, the team also ventured to Los Angeles to explore the city’s taco truck culture, and trekked north to visit Santa Barbara’s famed La Super-Rica Taqueria: “I hope there’s a little bit of Super Rica in Big Star,” admits Kahan. And the architecture in Austin, Texas, with its open and airy feel, offered subtle influence for Big Star as well. Then, when scheming Big Star’s interior layout, the team — plus architect and interior designer Thomas Schlesser (also responsible for aesthetics at the Publican and the Violet Hour) — turned to “the greatest bar on Earth,” says Kahan, Wicker Park’s iconic Rainbo Club.
“It’s kind of the same layout as the Rainbo ... those booths on one wall, and the square bar in the middle-ish,” explains Kahan, although he notes that the Rainbo has a three-sided bar, while Big Star’s bar is four-sided.
And a centrally positioned bar that claims 75 percent of Big Star’s indoor dining room was vital for the drinking den the team hoped to build. They asked Rubel, who earned acclaim for helping to shape the Violet Hour — which some consider Chicago’s first sophisticated craft cocktail bar — to design Big Star’s opening cocktail menu: simple, affordable $7 libations like a mint julep and a bourbon-spiked black cherry fizz, in addition to a deep whiskey collection packed with rare expressions.
“When we opened the Violet Hour, we were able to purchase just about anything we wanted because there was no one out there doing cocktails, and no one was buying whiskey,” says Alexander, adding, “there was no demand for the antique collection.” And because the One Off team supported brands like Pappy Van Winkle early on, the coveted bourbon producer continues to support their restaurants today, offering One Off access to what have become some of the world’s most coveted spirits.
And it’s unlikely that drinkers will find a better Pappy deal in Chicago. Big Star charges $8 for 1 ounce of Pappy Van Winkle 10, and up to $40 for Pappy Van Winkle 23; bars around the world sometimes charge hundreds of dollars for a single pour of these bourbons. Big Star also opened with a $3 shot of the day and $3 beer of the day, and now, 10 years later, those two options are still on offer.
While the team initially planned to open a bar that also serves food, they quickly realized that they had a Mexican restaurant on their hands. Their tacos, especially, proved tremendously popular, and immediately after opening, says Kahan, “We knew we were going to need a bigger boat.”
Kahan admits that some of Big Star’s dishes changed within days. While the eatery debuted with spit-roasted al pastor tacos, right off the bat chef de cuisine Justin Large realized they couldn’t keep up with demand, and they had to amend the al pastor cooking method to char the pork on a grill.
On Big Star’s very first night of business, the team had hired one woman to press tortillas by hand. “For the first three, four, five years we would run out of tortillas,” says Kahan. Today, Big Star has around 12 tortilla-makers on staff.
Big Star proved an instant hit. It had great music (that also sounded great); a fun and buzzy atmosphere; and inexpensive, quality-driven drinks and food which could be assembled lickety-split. The concept was accessible, and offered something for nearly every customer: those looking for cheap drinks, those looking for rare spirits, those wanting dinner, or even those simply wanting to grab a snack and eat at home (thanks to a to-go window). And while Mexican restaurants were anything but new to Chicago, Big Star’s more contemporary, ambience-driven approach, plus general well-roundedness, affordability, and fast-casual model, served as inspiration to other operators around town. A year after Big Star’s debut, casual taqueria and bar Taco Joint hit Lincoln Park, followed by Antique Taco a year later in Wicker Park. Today, just about every Chicago neighborhood counts some form of modern taco concept, from Logan Square’s Mi Tocaya Antojeria to Pilsen’s 5 Rabanitos to El Santo in Albany Park. But 10 years ago, Big Star did it first.
The restaurant also succeeded in helping to bring many Chicago denizens to Wicker Park, then a gritty neighborhood — which had started to gentrify during the early ’90s — and helping it to turn. Walgreens moved in a few years after Big Star, claiming that iconic Noel State Bank building at North, Damen, and Milwaukee avenues, and today the area is rife with big brands like Nike and Toms.
Named after American rock band Big Star, over the last decade, Chicago’s most beloved honky-tonk-designed taqueria, whiskey, and tequila bar has seen few changes. Except now there’s a more robust mezcal collection. Mostly, though, over the years, the team has streamlined systems for more fluid operation (on a good Saturday, around 2,500 guests pass through) and quicker service, and to meet demand, last spring One Off opened a second Big Star in Wrigleyville. And despite volume, 10 years in, every Big Star tortilla is hand-pressed, which now amounts to almost 10,000 per day.
Big Star served as a catalyst for modern Mexican dining in Chicago and helped flip unrefined Wicker Park into the hip neighborhood it is today, all while serving $3 beers alongside Pappy Van Winkle. To celebrate Big Star’s 10th anniversary, Eater spoke with the One Off Hospitality founders, in addition to several of the restaurant’s alumni, and asked them to recollect the origins of one of the city’s most inspirational dining and drinking ventures.
Laurent Lebec, former juicer and barback at Big Star, current beverage director for both Big Star locations
On not serving eight vodkas: I started working at Big Star about a month after the official opening and I remember a distinct energy in the room, really unlike anything else. It felt very special. During those first few months, I remember how new it was to work with bourbons no one knew, to sell tacos in that street-style format, to not have eight vodkas ... we were trying to establish a different kind of experience.
On offering something for everyone: I don’t want to say, “Everyone loves tacos, whiskey, great tequila, and hoppy beers.” Maybe 10 years ago the combination of all those elements was less common, but now you can find some comparable places pretty much anywhere. What I do believe, however, is that distilled to its essence, Big Star can be something different for everyone. That has allowed us to stay relevant. The hospitality at Big Star, the genuine electricity of the space, the openness of the venue, the quality of what we offer in such volume, I feel and know that is truly special.
Marc Hellner, managing partner and operations director
On musical props: I have been the main music buyer for the tenure ... I also was a big proponent of being vinyl only, and playing whole records. Back at this time, this was pretty unheard of. People often asked if the record player was a prop, assuming there was a CD deck hiding somewhere. We spent the first three or four years playing mostly country-Western and honky-tonk records. In the years since then, the program has really matured and become its own thing.
Ben Fasman, former beverage director and manager at Big Star, head honcho at Off Color Brewing
On introducing quality-driven, un-fancy cocktails: The Violet Hour and Drawing Room were really the two main cocktail spots in the city at the time we opened. Those two bars were also kind of fancy, and the whole house-made-bitters-program-that-we-will-explain-to-you-while-wearing-arm-garters approach was kind of the thing at the time. We tried our best to put out huge amounts of really solid, three- to five-touch cocktails in a very low-key setting that had the same level of care that those fancy spots did. We didn’t invent that approach by any means, but I think Big Star’s success early on was a touchstone for the type of thinking.
On Big Star’s simplicity: Creating a place that is seemingly simple and straightforward, and has a curated approach, takes a lot of hard work. The concept has some pretty strict parameters in terms of spirits, food, music, and figuring out how to be creative within those parameters requires creativity.
Cary Taylor, former chef de cuisine at Big Star, director of restaurant services at Kansas City, Missouri’s Crossroads Retail Group
On opening the right place at the right time: I remember going to Big Star in their opening weeks after my shifts as executive chef at the Southern. I was floored at the taste of the fresh-pressed corn tortilla, the acidity of the guacamole, and the richness of the panza and al pastor tacos. It was the perfect restaurant at the right time in an incredible neighborhood.
On providing a breath of fresh air: I feel like Big Star was a catalyst of change for the whole neighborhood. Wicker Park/Bucktown was in a very transitional period at the time, and Big Star seemed like a breath of fresh air. It brought an authentic coolness that has persevered a decade. Big Star has been ripped off a thousand times from Chicago to across the country, but no one can capture what has been created there.
Justin Large, former chef de cuisine at Big Star, vice president of culinary operations at Left Coast Food + Juice
On keeping up: I think we were all surprised by the level of business when we first opened. We just got exponentially busier every month. We soon realized we needed to make changes, operationally, to keep up. Funny story: We thought we’d sell mostly booze with the occasional plate of tacos and guacamole. We planned on making guacamole to order. Chicago had different ideas — so we came up with ways to keep up with volume while keeping quality and execution really high. I think I rearranged the equipment in the kitchen six times in the first six months just trying to keep up. The best thing we were able to do was move our to-go window to the building to the north, build a custom prep kitchen, a walk-in that would fit all of our product, and create a park-like space for our guests to eat in.
On fighting and hamburgers: We didn’t have a lot of formalities when we first opened—so it was kind of the wild wild west. I once had a drunk guest walk into the kitchen and try to fight me because we didn’t serve hamburgers at the to-go window. My sous chef and I kindly escorted him out to the street.
Eden Laurin, former bartender at Big Star, current managing partner at the Violet Hour
On memorable services: There was an Easter that two regulars came in and secretly hid Easter eggs throughout the restaurant, with “green” treats in them. We don’t know how they did it without being seen, but guests found them for weeks after!
On what Big Star has taught Chicago: How to party. That cash only and $3 for a shot can still be profitable. That dining doesn’t have to be high-brow to be delicious and celebrated.
Ben Clarke, server since the beginning at Big Star, current server at Big Star Wrigleyville; band member of Quarter Mile Thunder, the first band to sign with Big Star’s namesake record label
On hiring good people: Throughout the whole history, there has been a strong attention to hiring kind, patient people who are good to each other. It’s really trendy right now to talk “team culture.” It’s all about building a great culture where it feels like a family and everybody has each other’s back. Big Star has always maintained that even though there is a lot of staff changeover.