Last year, the building that housed Emmit’s Irish Pub was sold at the intersection of Milwaukee, Grand, and Halsted. The bar closed in June after ownership unsuccessfully attempted to sell the business. That left many to question what would replace the drinking hole that stood for 26 years in River West.
The speculation ends now: Rob Katz is collaborating on a new cocktail lounge, a project independent from his day job as co-founder of Chicago hospitality giant Boka Restaurant Group. Katz and business partner Matt Ruder plan to open the Pearl Club either the last week of March or the first week of April at the six-corner intersection at 495 N. Milwauke Avenue. They’ve been busy hiring while they wait for furniture to arrive.
Katz envisions a cocktail bar that mirrors lounges in London and New York, one with a sleek interior, fancy drinks, and bites: “Matt and I like to look at it through a Chicago lens,” Katz says. “It’s not Emmit’s Pub, this is an entirely new venture.”
The space was a bar even before Emmitt’s, and while the Emmit’s drew plenty of sunlight from large windows off Milwaukee Avenue, the team has already put up gray curtains to keep the space dark and moody: “It just had this great backdrop of a really killer cocktail lounge,” Katz adds.
The project started as solely a real estate deal with Ruder, Katz says. He sees potential in the neighborhood, an area that already contains Tony Priolo’s Piccolo Sogno, Billy Lawson’s Dawson, and legendary Italian restaurant La Scarola. While those restaurants anchor the area, (along with troubled — yet popular — late-night dive Richard’s Bar) Katz and his team believe they’re bringing something unique. Katz compares the atmosphere to when he began purchasing real estate in 2009 in Fulton Market: “I feel really confident with this neighborhood,” Katz says. “There’s just some incredible development that’s going to happen here in the near future.”
Shapack Partners is already working on its own development at Hubbard and Des Plaines. The project, replacing a former Salvation Army building will include four towers (the tallest at 625 feet) with apartments and a hotel. It’s called NOMA (which stands for “North of Market”) and gained city council approval in October.
When they purchased the building, Katz and Ruder — the latter being a new entrant to the food and bar world — weren’t necessarily interested in opening their own bar. Emmit’s ownership made it clear they weren’t interested in continuing (a combination of health concerns and a desire to leave the hospitality industry contributed). Katz’s experience as co-founder of a James Beard Award-winning restaurant company made it hard to trust another entity in running a bar with Katz merely as a landlord.
“Boka remains my main focus, as it is for Kevin [Boehm],” Katz says. “This is like a 1,800-square-foot space; it’s really small for me, but this is really a fun project to be working on. I’m super excited about it.”
It’s a contrast from the family-friendly Boka project that just debuted in Lakeview. The Pearl Club is decidedly “more grown up.”
Katz and Ruder inherited a small “shoebox”-sized kitchen. They’ve recruited chef Isaac Blinn, who’s worked at Boka’s Cira in Fulton Market and Michelin-starred Porto in West Loop. Cira is located in the Hoxton Hotel with a basement bar operated by Boka. Lazy Bird’s Paolo Acuña is developing the drink list for Pearl Club. Former Porto head bartender Manny Calderon is the general manager.
The main and back bars remain as anchors and have been restored. Katz says they’ve changed the layout of the space. While the concept is miles from a neighborhood pub, crews didn’t knock down any walls. Ownership went local in bringing in Kehoe Designs, the firm that worked on Boka’s West Loop Italian American restaurant, Alla Vita. A news release trumpets “rich wood tones, floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes, brass, and leather” as core materials used to decorate. There’s also a new facade wrapping around the entrance.
Katz is banking on River West’s growth, and while he wasn’t a regular at Emmit’s he hopes his team can build some that will endure.
“We can only be as lucky as if we are around half as long as Emmit’s,” Katz says. “They were there for a very, very long time.”
The Pearl Club, 495 N. Milwaukee Avenue, planned for a late March or early April opening.