Longtime River North restaurateur Glenn Keefer, who ran the prominent Keefer’s and Keefer’s Kaffe, is getting back into the local restaurant scene after a five-year hiatus from the culinary world. Keefer, who closed his namesake restaurant after 13 years in 2014, is partnering with Ryan O’Donnell of Ballyhoo Hospitality (Old Pueblo Cantina, Gemini, Coda di Volpe, Walton Street) on Sophia, a suburban steakhouse in Wilmette. Named for the first daughter of the Ouilmette family who settled the area, the restaurant is slated to debut this spring with dishes ranging from Delmonico ribeyes to cheeseburgers and chicken pot pie.
“After selling steaks for almost 40 years, it’s kind of second nature to me,” Keefer said in an interview. “I pushed back a little at first — we don’t want to be a typical creamed spinach and shrimp cocktail kind of place.”
The pair promise a selection of familiar cuts including petite filets, hangers, and New York strips, all cooked in a special 1,800-degree infra-red steakhouse broiler and finished with compound butter. Though steaks are the centerpiece of the menu, seafood options will also be available (including a shrimp cocktail, supplemented with other chilled raw items), as well as a cheeseburger and several sandwiches. The kitchen will also offer rotating daily specials aimed to keep diners coming back — Dover sole on Fridays, for example, and fried chicken on Sundays.
Beverage menus are still in development, but O’Donnell noted the prominence of light beer in the area and said he will offer Coors on draft. He’d also like to integrate some local and craft options into the mix and is considering possibilities from Sketchbook, Three Floyds, and Revolution. The cocktail list, also still under review, will feature classic drinks with modern touches such as a black Manhattan made with rye, Averna, and chocolate chili bitters. “It’ll be a cohesive set that speaks to history and geography of Chicago and Wilmette,” he said.
The 5,200-square-foot restaurant includes several discrete spaces, including an a la carte dining room that seats about 140 and a flexible event space for 50 that staff can transform into two separate rooms. It also houses a 22-seat black granite bar offset against roomy tan leather booths and natural wood floors. Chicago firm Michael Del Piero Good Design created the space. When the weather allows, Sophia will open its 24-seat sidewalk cafe, and staff can open the front facade — 10-foot tri-fold doors — blurring the line between the interior and exterior spaces.
Keefer is thrilled to be back in the local restaurant scene, especially after a few years of working as a commercial insurance producer. “I have been out of the restaurant business for five years and I gotta tell you, I miss the feeling where everybody sits around as guests,” he said. “To have another chance to get back in touch with the public, talk to people, have fun — I really missed it.”
His relationship with O’Donnnell dates back to the latter’s youth. Keefer met O’Donnell’s father Bill while working at Gold Coast restaurant the Palm in the early 1980s. 20 years later, the younger O’Donnell worked at Keefer’s in River North, where he met his wife and Ballyhoo Hospitality co-owner Anna. Keefer and O’Donnell developed a mentor-mentee relationship that remained strong over time.
“Keefer’s meant a lot to us and this business means a lot to us — we’ve come full circle,” O’Donnell said. “We couldn’t think of a better place to do it than the North Shore where we all have family and friends and where our roots are.”
Keefer gained local notoriety for opposing legislation to help facilitate food trucks in a 2012 Crain’s op-ed, arguing that “unscrupulous truck operators” infringe on the business of non-mobile restaurants. He said he was not prepared to comment on a new mayoral plan to double parking time for food trucks in Chicago.
Chicago first reported this story.
Sophia, 1146 Wilmette Avenue in Wilmette, Scheduled to open spring 2020.
Correction: January 15, 2020, 10:50 a.m. This article was changed to show that Michael Del Piero Good Design performed interior design duties, and that Keefer worked as an commercial insurance producer, not in commercial real estate.