When Tavern on Rush opened in 1998, Marty Gutilla and Phil Stefani sought to revitalize Rush and Division nightlife. The area around Mariano Park had yet to earn its infamous nickname, and Gutilla and Stefani envisioned opening a bar and restaurant for people watching, one where celebrities would feel comfortable.
After 24 years, Tavern’s run will end on New Year’s Eve. Stefani says the building’s landlords want to remodel the space and operate the restaurant themselves.
“People have so many memories of that place,” Stefani says. “Before there was a West Loop and Fulton Market and so forth, there was the corner of Rush and Bellevue.”
Stefani, a venerable Chicago restaurateur behind recent venues like Bar Cargo and Stefani Prime, wishes his landlord luck in replicating the welcoming environment that his staff has created.
“People are going to try,” Stefani says. “Will they succeed is another thing.”
“What it’s all about is staff,” he adds. “The building is brick and mortar, and brick and mortar can always be replaced.”
Stefani says he’s known about Tavern’s closing for months. It’s particularly disappointing as he says 2021 was the restaurant’s best year ever, surviving the height of the pandemic when restaurants had to open and close their dining rooms on the whim of COVID spikes: “It’s incredible what restaurants did to survive,” he says.
Stefani says those challenges “have nothing to do with” the decision to close — this was purely the landlord’s choice in not extending the lease. The pandemic hit two years after co-founder Gutilla passed away in 2018.
Hundreds of fans — including many members of Chicago’s TV news media — mourned the closing on Thursday afternoon after management’s announcement. Ron Burgundy and his ilk aside, Tavern remains popular, drawing celebrities from Mark Cuban to Jon Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi visited a few weeks ago, Stefani says, and they sipped wine together. Tavern created a synergy with neighboring restaurants like Gibsons Steakhouse and Dublin’s — and eventually newer arrivals like Maple & Ash and Nico Osteria — transforming the neighborhood.
Stefani credits his staff — he has about 75 who work at the restaurant — for ensuring that celebrities would return. Having a strong team is something Stefani feels extends to his other venues, including past hits like Lino’s on Ontario, Tuscany, and the original Stefani’s on Fullerton in Lincoln Park. He recalls meeting a young basketball player named Michael Jordan shortly after the Chicago Bulls drafted the 21 year old in 1984. Jordan would visit Lino’s, and followed the Stefani name to Tavern where he smoked his victory cigars during the Bulls ‘90s dynasty. In part thanks to Stefani’s son, Anthony, who worked for the team, the Chicago Blackhawks brought the Stanley Cup to the restaurant in 2010. If Tavern were to reopen in a new location, Stefani predicts regulars and his celebrity clientele would follow, just like MJ.
But Stefani says hospitality life, where he’s spent 42 years, is about more than the rich and famous. He compares Chicago diners to New York in saying upscale restaurants aren’t reserved for just those who reside in higher tax brackets.
“People from all walks of life walk into your restaurant compared to some other cities where someone wouldn’t feel as comfortable,” Stefani says. “In our case, we’re a Midwest town with Midwest values, so we’re blessed; anybody who comes in, who pays the check, they can obviously dine with us. And that’s it.”
This is Stefani’s second restaurant closure of the summer. MAD Social, run by daughter Gina Stefani, closed last month in West Loop. Though the group has opened restaurants in the suburbs in recent years, the elder Stefani says they haven’t given up on Chicago. They have “several things on the board.”
“Stay tuned, as they say,” he says.
Meanwhile, Stefani says after he leaves for Italy, where he’s spending September, he’ll return to Chicago where he’ll celebrate Tavern’s last three months with some special programming. Tavern on Rush’s last call is on December 31.