Ryan Pfeiffer rolls his eyes and raises his hands to use air quotes when describing his “return to the culinary world” while talking about his new gig as culinary director at 16” on Center, the company that owns Dusek’s, Longman & Eagle, Revival Food Hall, and the Empty Bottle.
Since 2020, Pfeiffer has cracked social media jokes and poured his personality into Big Kids, the Logan Square sandwich shop that walks the line between ‘90s nostalgia and stoner jokes. Though the atmosphere is far from stuffy, Pfeiffer and his team have put considerable thought and technique into creating items like crunchwraps and sandwiches packed with unique ingredients. A bite into a sandwich shows evidence of a chef who worked at a fine dining restaurant but wasn’t necessarily trying to prove anything to the customer. Pfeiffer did work at Michelin-starred Blackbird, which closed soon after the pandemic began in West Loop.
Pfeiffer’s new position isn’t a closely guarded secret. For the past month, the chef’s been using his Instagram account to show off new dishes. Pfeiffer jokes saying he’s default speed is “30 MPH” in showing an enthusiasm that’s endeared him to his teammates. Pfeiffer’s first mission, as 16” on Center’s co-founder Bruce Finkelman calls it, is to revamp Dusek’s, the anchor restaurant inside Thalia Hall in Pilsen.
At Dusek’s, Pfeiffer will make good use of a woodfire oven and next week they’ll introduce a four-course prix fixe menu. Items include ahi tuna carpaccio, beef tartare and endive salad; and a second course of caramelized mussels, albondigas, and fregola sarda. The third could be lake trout, wood-roasted chicken, or a strip loin with crispy potato and umami cream, or a pan-fried celeriac schnitzel. Dusek’s held a Michelin star rating until 2020, a rare West Side restaurant with such an honor.
“It’s less about us, but about the diner creating their own experience,” Pfeiffer says.
For folks who don’t have time for a four-course meal, Pfeiffer is also launching a new bar menu that will also be served in the basement bar, Punch Room (as well as the side piano bar Tack Room). Look for mussels, sticky wings, and a smoked trout Caesar. There’s also a classic smash burger with a “completely secret” sauce. Butcher Daniel Davis is also prepping housemade charcuterie.
As Chicago’s in the middle of Lent, Pfeiffer is calling attention to the Punch House Filet O Fish. Another idea Pfeiffer is playing around with is a “taverns around the world” special featuring global encased meats.
“I consider myself a dreamer,” Pfeiffer says. “We want to do a Sunday supper club, we want to bring people in and do different events — even a Medeival-style tavern menu.”
Finkelman sought a fresh perspective like Pfeiffer’s when searching for a culinary director. He talks about running Longman & Eagle and Empty Bottle, saying that the reason they’ve endured is by changing with the times. During the pandemic, 16” on Center converted Bite Cafe, the casual hang next to the Bottle, to Pizza Friendly Pizza as Finkelman brought in Noah Sandoval of Michelin-starred Oriole to pump some excitement into the project.
“To be able to have someone like Ryan come in and put some his flair into Dusek’s is an exciting opportunity,” says Finkelman.
Both see untapped potential in the concert venue with two bars and Dusek’s. Finkelman notes that late at night, Dusek’s will have no shortage of hungry customers as concerts end. They want to capitalize on that crowd. When customers buy their show tickets, Finkelman says there will be options to add special dinner packages. He’s doing the same for Salt Shed, 16” on Center’s concert venue near Goose Island.
At Blackbird, Pfeiffer impressed many including top chef Paul Kahan. When Finkelman began investigating Pfeiffer to work at this company, Finkelman says Kahan didn’t hold back his praise. For his part, Pfeiffer says he wasn’t looking for a return to a normal restaurant. He was content at Big Kids sharing his brand of humor with a staff he calls family.
He’s still involved with Big Kids and checks in on his new family. But with his own infant, Pfeiffer needed to make some choices and is no longer a managing partner at the sandwich shop which has also opened a second location inside Time Out Chicago food hall. He’s confident in his ability to inspire collaboration, shying away from calling himself 16” on Center’s new culinary overlord. That would be too serious. Pfeiffer is even bringing family into the project by using his Aunt Judy’s spinach dip, served with Parker House rolls baked on premises. But that’s not all.
“Ryan’s deep into fondue R&D right now,” Finkelman says.
Dusek’s, inside Thalia Hall, 1227 W. 18th Street, tavern menu debuts Friday, March 3, prix fixe menu debuts Friday, March 10, reservations via OpenTable.