John, Karl, and Graeme Fehr, the trio of brothers behind Chicago’s romantic Parisian cocktail spot Victor Bar, have spent much of the last seven years focused on drinks, carving out a niche among the city’s taverns. But the siblings, who also own a second bar Love Street near DePaul, have also contemplated the exciting possibilities of opening a restaurant.
Those aspirations manifested with the opening of Bistro Monadnock, a French bistro at 325 S. Federal Street inside the 130-year-old Monadnock Building, a Chicago landmark. The long-awaited replacement for Cavanaugh’s — an Irish pub that closed in 2017 after nearly 30 years — the bistro embodies a middle ground between a bar and fine dining.
“A bistro is a casual spot where you can come as you are and you don’t have to worry about any kind of rules,” John Fehr says. “It’s meant to be quick with a strong cocktail, beer, and wine program, but the food is very technique-driven.”
Classical French cooking techniques are familiar territory for executive chef Johnny Besch, formerly of BLVD steakhouse in West Loop. A Chicago native, Besch has previously cooked under French culinary giant Alain Ducasse and James Beard Award-winners Phillipe Boulot and Laurent Gras. That experience is apparent in Bistro Monadnock’s selection of hors d’oeuvres such as steak tartare and oysters Rockafeller infused with absinthe.
In addition to fresh oysters and seafood towers, there’s also charcuterie made on-site and sliced paper-thin on a century-old machine that Besch inherited from his great-grandfather, a butcher who owned a shop in the 1920s on the South Side. The Fehrs sent it to Italy for restoration and proudly display the refurbished slicer beside the bistro’s open kitchen.
The soup, salad, and sandwiches are dominated by classics, from an already sought-after French onion soup to frisee aux lardons to buttery Croque Madame. There are a few surprises, like a banh mi club (shokupan, ‘nduja, pickled vegetables) and Le Rachel, a Reuben riff with pastrami and caraway rye. Larger plates include a bouillabaisse with lobster head broth (a recipe Besch learned from Ducasse), steak frites, Parisian gnocchi, and Cornish hen.
Rather than bucking the Monadnock Building’s distinctive aesthetic, the brothers say they’ve attuned their bistro’s layout and design to blend into the historic skyscraper, which was designed in part by famed architectural firm Burnham & Root. Workers gutted the remains of Cavanaugh’s to create a 120-seat space that’s split between bar and dining rooms. Its decor exudes an unfussy French style with dark wood furnishings, deep booths, and brass fixtures. It also features an open kitchen, visible from most spots in the dining room. “We want the chefs to be part of the party,” Karl Fehr says. “It’s in line with a bistro atmosphere, everyone can get to know the chefs and watch how the food is made.”
The Monadnock Building is sentimental to the Fehrs. The brothers are also former lawyers who operated a boutique law firm out of the building for six years, and see the bistro as a long-awaited return to what they regard as a “perfect building.”
Take a tour through Bistro Monadnock in the photographs below.
Bistro Monadnock, 325 S. Federal Street, Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday.