One of Chicago’s most successful restaurant groups, Boka, plans on opening three restaurants in Lakeview inside the 118-year-old former bowling alley space that belonged to Southport Lanes before it closed last year in Lakeview.
Boka should debut all three over the summer, but the company is only ready to reveal details about one of its entries. GG’s Chicken Shop, a fast-casual pop-up that debuted during the pandemic as a ghost kitchen operating out of the Boka’s Michelin-starred namesake in Lincoln Park, will serve fried chicken sandwiches, salads, and more. Executive Chef Lee Wolen is a kind of a chicken whisperer known for his roast chicken at Boka. He’ll serve a version of the item at GG’s along with a full slate of sides. Wolen says he imagines adding a rotisserie and cooking veggies like cauliflower on the spit.
“We really want to be family forward where you can get a fried chicken sandwich for the kids, and a rotisserie chicken with four sides,” Wolen says of GG’s, which paused ghost kitchen operations about a month ago with Boka increasing focus on indoor dining.
Crews will install a pickup window and build out a dining room with seating for 24 to 28 indoors and there will be a patio. While the space is going through extensive renovations, Boka is targeting a summer opening at 3325 N. Southport Avenue. Expect news about the two other restaurants after New Year’s Day. The historic building sports a Schlitz Brewing Company sign outside as evidence from its prior life as a tied house for the beer maker.
The family-friendly approach is something that 4 Star Restaurant Group (Tuco & Blondie, Crosby’s Kitchen) has found great success for years along Southport (4 Star is known for feeding children for free). Boka’s Rob Katz is aware of the neighborhood, which teems with strollers and young families. Katz used to live near the Southport Corridor and admires the area’s character. He and fellow Boka co-founder Kevin Boehm knew the bowling alley’s owners and saw an opportunity for the company that’s carved out a niche in the West Loop with restaurants including Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, and its most recent opening, Alla Vita.
In 2019 at the Lyric Opera Chicago, Boka won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, a prestigious national honor. Though the company runs Swift & Sons Tavern & Oyster Bar in Wrigleyville (both Katz and Boehm are big Chicago Cubs fans), opening another restaurant away from downtown seems to be a departure for Boka. They’ve been working with the Hoxton Hotel chain on opening restaurants in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. This came after partnering with Hoxton with Peruvian rooftop restaurant Cabra, Mediterranean restaurant Cira, and basement bar Lazy Bird at the hotel’s Fulton Market property. Boka also recently opened a second location of Girl & the Goat in LA with celebrity chef Stephanie Izard.
Katz says the Southport project doesn’t represent a change in the company’s direction as they’re still pursuing bigger opportunities. But ensuring the century-old Southport Lanes space stays under local control was big. Nationally-known companies, including Amazon and Jeni’s Ice Creams, have made Southport their homes in recent years. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled about Boka’s involvement for months. In October, news broke about the lease.
“On a personal level, the area holds a very special place in my heart,” he says. “We built our first house in the neighborhood and raised our kids there. I spent 20 years in that neighborhood.”
Katz is quick to stress that the Southport project is not a food hall and all three restaurants will have distinct storefronts. And speaking of food halls, Katz and Wolen say Southport was never intended to be the first standalone location of GG’s. Before the pandemic struck, Boka had plans to open a GG’s in March 2020 inside “a major food hall.” COVID-19 wiped those plans out. Katz reflects on the hospitality’s industry’s struggles with face masks, social distancing, indoor dining bans and labor concerns. But he’s optimistic about the future.
“Things are roaring back for us, not only for us but our industry — and our city,” Katz says. “It seems like Chicago has really embraced the hospitality community.”
And though the creaky space needs some work, Katz is adamant about one thing.
“That Schilitz sign isn’t going anywhere,” he says. “We love it.”
GG’s Chicken Shop and Boka Restaurant Group’s two unnamed Southport Corridor projects, 3325 N. Southport Avenue, planned for a summer opening.