Until 2020, Dusek’s was the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Pilsen, a rare starred spot south of Roosevelt Road. Located on the ground floor of music venue Thalia Hall, the restaurant encompasses a unique neighborhood history dating back to the 1890s. During the pandemic, ownership elected to keep the restaurant closed without starting a takeout operation.
Finally, last week — on Friday, May 14 — the restaurant reopened with a new chef and a remodeled space. Concerts are also back at Thalia Hall.
“The shutdown has been so devastating,” says Bruce Finkelman of 16” on Center, which owns the entertainment complex and spots like Empty Bottle and Revival Food Hall. “But it gave us an opportunity to so some of the stuff we really wanted to do but didn’t have the financial wherewithal.”
While the Michelin-starred attention was welcome, Finkelman believes the space has earned a reputation as a haven for a shot and a beer, where locals can grab a “flavorful and honest” meal and be out in a flash. The design tweaks aren’t drastic but they help create a bit more synergy between the various spaces within the building. Thalia Hall consists of Dusek’s, basement bar Punch Room, and Tack Room, a cocktail bar behind Dusek’s.
Finkelman says they did some working to the seating with the banquettes. They added window seats and made the wood-fire oven the star of the kitchen.
“I don’t know know if they’re big or small,” Finkelman says. “They seem really nice to us.”
Veteran Chicago chef Ben Truesdell (Pacific Standard Time) was on the opening team at Dusek’s eight years ago. He returns as the restaurant’s top chef and Finkelman raves about his commitment to sustainability. The chef says he’s excited to be back in the kitchen and to be surrounded by quality ingredients. During the pandemic, restaurants made budget cuts and pivoted to carryout. Slashing expenses also meant reducing spending on pricier menu items. The result is Truesdell and other kitchen workers rarely had the chance to cook with premium items like fresh fish sourced sustainably.
But those dark days seem done. Some notable new dishes at Dusek’s include a pork schnitzel sandwich, lamb neck pappardelle, and baked squid. There’s also a roasted chicken served on a warm escarole Caesar’s salad. The greens pick up the smoke from the oven which creates a more complex flavor, Truesdell says. He rounds out the menu with Buffalo chicken wings and a griddled cheeseburger. A weekend brunch launches this weekend.
“We wanted to be more approachable from every aspect,” Finkelman says.
That point is important due to the area as creating a restaurant that’s welcoming to locals is important in Pilsen where gentrification has long been a hot topic. Finkelman believes he’s established trust with the neighborhood and is ecstatic in welcoming customers back into the space.
But there will be a bit of an adjustment for customers and staff after being cooped up at home during the majority of the pandemic. It will take time for customers to revel like before times: “I do think there’s going to be a psychological barrier and people are going to need to get used to socializing again,” Finkelman says.
There’s also concerns about safety, including wearing masks during indoor concerts. Dusek’s has remained closed to the general public since March 2020. The kitchen did cook meals for the less fortunate, and more recently the space did small private buyouts for
“We’ve been really kind of waiting to do anything until the government or the CDC or the medical leaders tell us it’s safe to do so,” Finkelman adds.