Michael Muser is really excited about a 150-pound table that will greet customers next week when Ever opens in Fulton Market. Earlier in the week, artisans spent hours painting and sanding the table to match the hallways made of a Venetian hybrid plaster in the new restaurant, where chef Curtis Duffy is determined to win a three-star rating from Michelin inspectors. Duffy and Muser are old friends who’ve worked with each other for years. They most recently teamed up at Grace, the three-Michelin-starred in West Loop that came crashing down at the end of 2017.
Duffy isn’t shy about saying how he’s using his emotions from his tumultuous exit at Grace to fuel expectations: “If I’m less ambitious, then the other guy wins,” he says, referring to Grace’s owner Michael Olszewski without saying his name. Duffy pledges that Ever will be better than Grace ever was — he and Muser reason that they’re now in full control of the restaurant, unhindered by anyone.
Muser previously described Ever’s design as futuristic, the type of restaurant at home on Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise starship. Ever sits inside a newly built office building in Fulton Market, where the same designers have more creative freedom. Architects Micah Stanley and Christopher Lawton were free to go wild inside the 6,000-square-foot space.
Grace was Duffy and Muser’s first restaurant. For Stanley and Lawton, the restaurant also represented their first big project. They impressed Muser because they worked for the firm behind L20, the now-shuttered Lincoln Park restaurant from chef Laurent Gras and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. For Muser, L20 was the prettiest restaurant in the world.
Muser says he didn’t want to go through finding a comfort level with someone new. Lawton says it’s important that he and his partner understand Duffy and Muser’s ambitions.
“The thing to know, when you do a restaurant like this, the kind of clockwork with everything — it’s so critical,” Lawton says. “...You work really hard to not have it seen — the six people kind of coming out in a choreographed dance and then disappearing without a door swinging shut, without really anybody noticing them till they’re there. That’s the tricky part.”
But even the pandemic has added a layer of complication. Back to that table near the door. That’s where customers will find masks and hand sanitizer to create a safer environment: “That’s where all the drama goes,” says Muser.
On the way to the dining room, diners will approach a unique light-filled room with the only window visible to the public. They can see a 6 1⁄2-foot tall fake Aspen tree through the glass. The tree isn’t what catches the eye. The ceiling features 70 chains dangling with dehydrated fruits and other aromatic items hanging from small metal clamps. Right now, the items — herbs, flowers, dehydrated mango slices imbued with Aleppo — are supposed to give diners a preview of the ingredients Duffy will use in his lavish tasting menu.
That wasn’t the room’s original purpose. In a pre-pandemic world, Duffy and Muser hoped to let diners grab whatever they wanted from the clamps and eat them as amuse bouches. This is all done in the Willy Wonka tradition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Muser might as well don a purple hat for a Gene Wilder impersonation and hum a few bars of Pure Imagination.
“And then the maître d’ says ‘are you ready to walk into the dining room?’ Hopefully they’re in this space thinking this place is already fucking bananas — let’s go,” Muser says.
Duffy is hopeful they can resurrect the original idea — perhaps allow customers to pluck cotton candy — when health experts declare it safer. There’s also 15 little perches carved into the wall for glasses filled with elixirs and other items. For Duffy, the space is about feeling young. He tells a story about walking around a park in Evanston with his daughter when she plucked a dandelion from a ground and asked him to use the stem as a straw: “Children have that sense of no filter,” Duffy says.
As diners walk through the curvy and canyon-like hallway — subtly lit by LEDs bordering the pathway — the ambient noise mysteriously vanishes. Muser points up to the 12-foot ceiling, toward the tiles. He likens it to slipping on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Last year, Fooditor broke down the miracles of Turf Design, a firm that makes fancy noise-dampening ceiling systems. Muser talks like it’s an informercial for Bose, lauding the acoustical technology.
There are 14 tables inside, plus a private dining room. This is the restaurant’s normal layout, the only adjustment for COVID-19 is fewer people seated per table. The PDR has a curved door the slides gracefully along tracts. There’s also a side dining room with a sliding screen for private events. It features a private exit that takes diners into the hall where they’ll find three bathrooms with distinct designs. One features rock from a mountain. Muser says crews used dynamite to break off the pieces. Another is more sleek and modern, it reminds Muser of Tron. The third is a hybrid of both, it feels more like a rest room at a four-star hotel.
Muser and Duffy say Ever is the natural evolution from Grace, but they don’t want diners to be reminded too much of their former restaurant. While Grace had pricey leather chairs from Holland, Ever’s are from Germany. The durable black tables are smudge resistant and were selected because they accentuate the shiny white plates servers bring to guests, Muser says. The plates are presented as pieces of art with museum quality lighting.
Diners can see through the windowed kitchen, but only when Duffy permits. Muser says his chef doesn’t like it when customers can see them cleaning up. There are opaque stripes along the glass that surrounds a kitchen. When Duffy wants privacy, they’ll slide a gridded screen over the glass.
Ever also has a rooftop garden. If the city were to shut down indoor dining, Muser says they’d consider rooftop dining. But he feels his new restaurant is well prepared for the pandemic. While still one of Chicago’s most expensive restaurants ($285 per person), Ever is not the priciest. Alinea’s rooftop pop-up, which tops out at $315 per person, takes the crown. Ever officially opens on Tuesday. It’s one of Chicago’s most anticipated openings of 2020. Come back for additional coverage next week.
Ever, 1340 W. Fulton Street, opening Tuesday.