Phil Stefani closed a chapter of Chicago nightlife on Wednesday night when Tavern on Rush served its final martini. The Gold Coast steakhouse, an icon since 1998 near Rush and Division streets, was a victim of the broken relationship between Stefani and the building’s landlords.
Instead of throwing a New Year’s Eve farewell, Stefani claims his longtime landlords reneged on a verbal agreement to remain open through the end of the year. There are already plans to remodel the space for a replacement restaurant and bar. Tavern’s 24-year-run (not 25, as widely reported and featured on the restaurant’s banners) came to an abrupt end on Wednesday, October 27.
Stefani, a lauded Chicago restaurateur with past hits including Stefani’s, 437 Rush, and Riva, teased the crowd on Wednesday, telling them to “stay tuned” for news of upcoming projects. The speech was part of a closing ceremony of sorts.
Replicating Tavern’s formula won’t be about just finding the right space. Business was supposedly booming on the corner of Rush and Bellevue, even after new construction reshaped the feel of the area surrounding the infamous Viagra Triangle. What was once a destination for a post-frat crowd has mellowed after bars like Hunt Club and Melvin B’s shut down across Mariano Park. Tavern, Gibsons, and Carmine’s were anchors. Carmine’s will soon close before crews raze the building. A new location should open in 2024, according to Crain’s.
Maple & Ash, which opened in 2015 inside a building erected after crews demolished Hunt Club, put a different spin on the classic Chicago steakhouse and appealed to younger diners and the celebrities that appealed to them. Hauling in cred from actors, athletes, and musicians (as well as making nice with local TV and radio personalities eager for a free meal who would continue the cycle by mentioning the restaurant on broadcasts) is a large part of the Chicago steakhouse formula. It’s unclear if Millenials and Gen Z care about Bon Jovi, George Clooney, Mark Cuban, and the celebs who helped make Tavern on Rush popular. In some ways, the restaurant, like the Chicago Bulls organization, was still riding high on the championship memories former Tavern regular Michael Jordan provided in the ‘90s.
That’s one of the reasons Stefani, 72, has ceded more responsibility to his children, Gina and Anthony. Bar Cargo in River North may have opened with a Roman pizza chef approved by father, but the crowd skews younger than Tavern’s with louder and more modern music and a different vibe.
Still, no matter how helpful a celebrity endorsement is, hospitality is what created regular customers for Tavern. Workers developed relationships with loyal customers (many of them were in tears on Wednesday). The workers who thought they would be serving customers at Tavern through the remainder of the year have the option of being transferred to other Stefani restaurants.
Landlords Fred Barbara and James Banks haven’t said anything publicly about what’s replacing Tavern. While Stefani told the crowded restaurant on Wednesday to get ready for new project announcements, the crowd will likely want to know what the future holds for the corner of Rush and Bellevue.
Stay tuned, indeed.