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Guildhall
Guildhall [Official Photo]

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Ex-Publican Chef Transforms North Shore Stalwart With Ghost Kitchens

Guildhall in Glencoe shows how one suburban restaurant is trying to survive the pandemic

Upscale restaurant Guildhall, which opened in Glencoe a little more than seven years ago, has undergone some changes during the pandemic. They’ve launched a series of new concepts as a ghost kitchen — a takeout-only restaurant with online-only ordering — under the supervision of a new executive chef, a veteran of one of the city’s most successful restaurant groups.

Like most restaurants, Guildhall has experienced a rollercoaster since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Justin Large coming on board as executive chef has allowed the team to focus and quickly pivot as Gov. J.B. Pritzker initiates, removes, and then reinstates dining restrictions.

For the past 10 months, Large has guided Guildhall, a New American restaurant in the North Shore. Large spent 15 years with One Off building his culinary chops at various restaurants, including Blackbird, Avec, and Publican, ultimately serving as culinary director before leaving in 2015 to move to Michigan. He returned to Chicago in 2018 to work with the fast-casual, healthy-leaning Left Coast Food & Juice (a chain that featured recipes from One Off co-founder Paul Kahan).

Another One Off connection — former Publican chef Brian Huston — pushed Large to join Guildhall and investor Jeff Shapack, the namesake behind real estate development company Shapack Partners. Shapack is a Guildhall partner.

At the time, Shapack and Guildhall creators Jennifer and Alec Litowitz, (founder of Magnetar Capital), looked to start a restaurant group and expand their offerings in the North Shore, starting with a high-quality sushi concept. Large and the owners had started developing the sushi spot while brainstorming others. Then the pandemic hit.

“Ultimately, we wanted to grow this into a restaurant group in the North Shore in the style of Boka [Restaurant Group], Hogsalt, and One Off,” Large says. “We were going to do highly curated individualized concepts. It’s a waiting game now.”

Introducing high-quality sushi

The first venture was to be Tori Dasu, but with the pandemic, it didn’t make sense to open a new standalone restaurant. Instead, they created this pop-up sushi concept available for takeout orders, fitting it under Guildhall’s umbrella and making it available via Tock. To accommodate for that, Large removed the bar sinks and rails, since the large Guildhall bar wasn’t being used for service, and installed prep tables, new sinks, and refrigeration for the sushi concept.

Tori Dasu, which offers a curated selection of appetizers like miso soup, gyoza, and zuke salmon sashimi; nigiri, sashimi, and various rolls; and sake, was a quick hit with locals. It allowed Guildhall to diversify its offerings and accommodate more diners looking for variety. Large also reworked the Guildhall menu, which shifted during lockdown to more simple family-friendly dishes, to feature items like char-grilled beef tenderloin; confit duck leg; Faroe Island salmon; fish and chips; and now Neapolitan-style pizza, a passion of Large’s. They continue to also offer frozen treats from Pretty Cool Ice Cream owner Dana Salls Cree. She’s yet another One Off connection as the former pastry chef at Publican and Blackbird.

“With COVID, we’ve had to think outside the box and create excitement around the restaurant,” Large says. “People come for the food, the room, and the experience. Take 75 percent of that away and you’re left with our food in takeout boxes. That wasn’t the experience we are known for.”

Greenhouses and burgers for winter warmth

Now with winter looming, the Guildhall team hopes to capitalize on outdoor dining. They researched various structures to allow for a longer outdoor dining season, but what they found didn’t suit their needs. So instead, they’re having 12 polycarbonate greenhouses custom built that will span the sidewalk and extend into the parking lot to create a Christkindlmarket-like vibe, Large says. Jennifer Litowtiz adds they’ll string up LED lighting and have proper ventilation and heating, which was approved by the local fire marshal. Each greenhouse will seat up to six comfortably and will be 8-feet-tall, allowing for better air flow. They’re working on this project with neighboring Hometown Coffee & Juice owners Lou and Julie Rubin to create a little outdoor dining village.

“The intent is to provide people the opportunity to dine on site and be adventurous,” Litowitz says. “People are game for that.”

The hope is for the greenhouses, which aim to open in the next few weeks, to provide diners with a fun, heated outdoor dining experience well into winter. That will only allow for a more robust business as Large will soon introduce a third ghost kitchen option to the 4,500-square-foot Glencoe space with a new burger concept, with a working name of BurgerGuild.

“We’ll turn out tasty, gritty fast food-esque burgers, fries, onion rings, and shakes,” Large says. “Think In-N-Out meets Small Cheval.”

BurgerGuild’s menu will comprise 4-ounce patties of pasture-raised Angus beef; Amish ABF ground turkey; and Impossible Burgers to cover a variety of dietary needs. Those will get prepared either “classic” (char-grilled single or double patty served with ketchup, garlic mayo, lettuce, tomato, onion, and choice of cheese on a toasted sesame seed bun); “royale” (char-grilled single or double patty served with housemade pickles and secret sauce, shredded iceberg lettuce, and Merkts cheddar on a toasted sesame seed bun); or a weekly rotating special highlighting riffs on some of Large’s favorite burgers around the country. He plans to use Homer’s Ice Cream for the shakes and have a small beer list featuring local brewers like Cruz Blanca and Revolution Brewing.

While a pizza concept isn’t likely to get added anytime soon, mostly due to space, if the pandemic keeps restaurants on hold for the longer term, Large can’t rule it out.

“Depending how the pandemic plays out in the next year will certainly drive business decisions,” Large says. “Thankfully I’ve had a lot of experience in fast casual and have vocalized that may be the future for us.”

Sounds like the future is now.

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