In 2003, the owners of Blackbird took over the West Loop space next door to the casual fine dining pioneer to create Avec. Inspired by a trip that executive chef and partner Paul Kahan had just taken to Spain, they imagined it as a space where diners waiting for one of the tables in Blackbird’s tight dining room could bide their time with wine and light bites.
That same year, hospitality veterans Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, introduced by mutual friends, met for coffee at Old Town diner Nookies. What was meant to be a 30-minute conversation lasted hours, and by the end of it they had decided to open a restaurant. They recruited chef Giuseppe Scurato and opened Boka in Lincoln Park.
Twenty years later, both spots are among the most beloved restaurants in the city and have formed the backbone of two highly successful restaurant operators: Boka Restaurant Group and One Off Hospitality. As two of Chicago’s most influential restaurant groups, they became friendly rivals, and amid the ups and downs of the industry, are now celebrating two decades in the city.
“Kevin and I were both wildly competitive and ambitious, so as soon as we started to hit our stride and found our alchemy of what was really working, not only together but as a restaurant, we started to say, ‘Let’s look at what our future is going to be,’” Katz says of Boka. “‘We can replicate this so long as we do it in a smart way.’”
Boka ran its race parallel with One Off. One Off’s co-founder, Donnie Madia, a bartender whose first restaurant job was at Mr. Beef, was even celebrated for his influence with a role on FX’s The Bear.
“Anthony Bourdain ate [at Avec] when he was filming No Reservations,” Madia says. “He was sitting by the wood-burning hearth and he stood up and held up his glass of wine and said, ‘This is the future of dining.’ That was beautiful. It’s a very nice compliment coming from a giant in our industry.”
Avec helped popularize the concept of communal dining in Chicago and became a hub for visiting musicians such as Yoko Ono, who shared focaccia with a regular, and Dua Lipa, who told her 85.7 million Instagram followers that Avec was her new favorite restaurant. Boka helped expand on the celebrity chef-driven restaurant model established in 1987 by Charlie Trotter, starting by recruiting his longtime chef de cuisine Giuseppe Tentori to take over as Boka’s executive chef in 2007.
Tentori was named best new chef by Food & Wine in 2008, but despite the huge win, the restaurant’s group’s future became uncertain when a recession hit just a few months later.
“We said we’re either gonna be wiped off the face of the culinary earth here, or we have an opportunity, and we better really get our mind straight and think about what we are going to do,” Katz says.
Not only did Boka weather the economic downturn, but the crashing real estate market gave its team the opportunity to expand into the West Loop. Similarly, Madia says the communal dining at Avec was a boon for One Off during the financial crisis.
“People in difficult times want shared experiences and they want to be intimate with others,” he says. “We kept going. We never changed our focus on the wine, the food, and the staff that has been there for many, many years.”
Blackbird didn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but One Off used the communal tables at Avec as a staging area to package food from the group’s other restaurants, including the Publican and Big Star. Boka Restaurant Group had empty restaurants with rents of more than $1 million a year and borrowed as much money as it could to make payroll and pay health insurance. Lee Wolen, who took over Boka as executive chef and partner in 2014, had already been planning on opening GG’s Chicken Shop and Rotisserie at Revival Food Hall before the pandemic began, but the casual concept grew into a virtual restaurant run from Boka’s kitchen when indoor dining was shut down. Boehm says the pivot helped save the restaurant.
“It was so inspirational just watching Lee and his team go in there every single day and figure out how to do something casual like chicken sandwiches in the same artisanal way, with the same elbow grease, and the same passion that they did Boka on a daily basis,” Boehm says.
Avec has also seen recent changes. Most notably, One Off opened a second location in River North with a rooftop bar, rebranding its former Pacific Standard Time restaurant in early 2021. Its owners have dealt with personal tragedies: A firefighter died battling a grease fire at the restaurant in 2010. Eight years later, partner Rick Diarmit died. Madia still remembers Diarmit standing like a sentinel by the kitchen on Fridays and Saturdays, watching the dining room to make sure that everyone was having a good time.
“That restaurant is a special place and the staff and us have united many times over the years to get through tough times,” Kahan adds.
Boka Restaurant Group and One Off came together ahead of this year’s James Beard Awards in June to celebrate their shared milestone, an event that grew out of Boehm and Madia’s work together on the Welcome Conference hospitality forum. But this collaboration comes after an earlier history of competition between the groups as they fought for customers and accolades.
“A few years ago, we all got together and just kind of said, ‘Let’s be friends,” Boehm says. “It’s just been nice. We have mad respect for them. We always have. I definitely think we’ve pushed each other as companies.”
Avec will be celebrating with a party on Tuesday, September 19, where chef Dylan Patel will be cooking alongside other top Chicago chefs, including Virtue’s Erick Williams and Vie’s and Gaijin’s Paul Virant. Boka partnered with Virant on Perennial Virant, the shuttered restaurant located around the corner from that Old Town diner where Katz and Boehm met. Boka is hosting an invite-only celebration for regulars and industry friends in October, and Boehm and Katz dream of lasting another 20 years and earning a place among Chicago institutions like Gibsons and Frontera Grill.
“We’ll never stop trying to evolve,” Katz says. “However long Boka is here, Lee is going to continue to push the envelope. He will never be satisfied and he’s with the right partners because neither will we. We always want to continue to blaze a trail instead of following a trend, and I think Boka has kind of done that in its own humble way. We stayed true to who we wanted to be.”