Prior to the pandemic, listening bars — lounges-like restaurants with state-of-the-art sound systems creating lively spaces that attracted music lovers — were an emerging trend after originating from Japan. These bars didn’t target top 40 lovers, but instead were built for audiophiles who prefer vinyl, the ones who wax poetic about the sterility in digital sound files. Beyond music lovers, the venues’ appeal eventually spread and they began popping up in New York and LA.
DMK Restaurants sought to bring a listening room to Chicago and secured a downtown space inside the historic Railway Exchange Building, which was built in 1904 and designed by fabled urban planner Daniel Burnham. In late-June, DMK unveiled the first phase of a multi-pronged project. The Exchange’s Listening Room is a 50-seat restaurant with food from Brian Huston, a chef who earned a James Beard Foundation Award nomination in 2015 for his work at the since-shuttered Boltwood in suburban Evanston. Huston joined DMK to create dishes for a variety of its menus. At the Exchange, he’s joined by former Publican Quality Bread baker Matt Pontarelli who worked under Greg Wade. Wade — after years of nominations — finally won the Beard Award for Outstanding Baker in 2019.
The Listening Room’s menu is New American with fresh breads, salads, and bowls. Heartier fare includes mac and cheese made with cheddar and raceltte, steamed walleye, and a 10-ounce filet mignon. Chocolate caramel tart and strawberry rhubarb cornmeal crisp are featured desserts.
Management is billing the Listening Room as a venue for customers who prefer to eat at a bar instead of a restaurant, and they’ve tailored the interiors with nightclub elements. This type of environment would be challenging to pull off during the height of the pandemic, which is another reason DMK delayed the opening, originally planned for spring 2020.
The atmosphere will only be as good as the music. DMK says they’ll post playlists on social media with artists including Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, and Miles Davis. Those playlists haven’t been published just quite yet, but it adds an interactive element.
As previously stated, this is the first phase of the project. There’s also the Atrium, an 8,000-square-foot lobby space underneath a restored skylight. A 50-seat bar, called Theo’s, should also open later this year along with a 20-seat private event space. Stay tuned for more coverage when opening information is released.
The Listening Room at the Exchange, 224 S. Michigan Avenue, open 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday; reservations via OpenTable.