On Friday night, the team behind the Ramova Theater will celebrate the venue’s reopening, reveling in 95 years of history and a reopening that involves the city, a trio of celebrities, and 49 local investors. There’s also a local chef who grew up in Bridgeport in charge with a notepad brimming with ideas.
“If you had told me, a year or two before Duck Inn, that I would open up a restaurant on the street I grew up on, I’d have told you you were insane, that will never happen,” says Kevin Hickey.
The Ramova on Friday will hold a symbolic sign-lighting ceremony. Hickey, who is also celebrating Wednesday’s news that the Duck Inn had earned a James Beard nod for outstanding restaurant, is the chef behind the venue’s restaurant component, the Ramova Grill. It’s his second restaurant in the neighborhood. The Ramova is part music venue, restaurant, community gathering place, and brewery. New York’s Other Half Brewing has taken residence, but due to delays with licensing, they haven’t brewed on-site. The limited supply of beer that’s been sold has been shipped over from other breweries. The venue officially opened on New Year’s Eve.
“For us to be community- and artist-owned is rudimentary,” says Nevius, rattling names of nearby supporters, like Zhou B Arts Center and Let’s Boogie Records and Tapes. He’s also been in contact with the Dinos family, the owners of the original Ramova Grill: “They’re very excited, they’re very happy to see the Ramova Grill coming back.”
The restaurant closed in 2012 at 3520 S. Halsted Street. Hickey is flooded with memories of a vibrant commercial corridor. He says his family’s history in the area extends to five, maybe six, generations. The Hickey family story is a familiar one, and one of the reasons Tyler and Emily Nevius worked so hard to restore the Ramova. They found a trio of celebrity investors who also helped, Quincy Jones, Chance The Rapper, and Jennifer Hudson. Tyler Nevius says they’ve all been helpful. Hudson, for example, helped make sure the artist’s green room was laid out properly. He adds that he considers other local businesses as partners. Its proximity to Sox Park will make baseball season exciting. Nevius is stoked to see fans of Other Half — which has breweries in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C.— wear their visitor jerseys and pack the place.
Hickey sees the project with the potential of revitalizing the area much like Thalia Hall did for 18th Street in Pilsen when it reopened in 2013 with eventually Michelin-starred Dusek’s as its flagship restaurant. Nevius agrees with the sentiment but says Bridgeport has a different rhythm.
“16” On Center is so impressive,” Tyler Nevius says of Thalia Hall. “But we really have to earn our spot at the table now.”
The restaurant Hickey with an outlet to try ideas like Pork Chop Suey. Read that literally — it features a bed of noodles and vegetables beneath a grilled char siu-style pork chop. Hickey says he’s been dining at Chinatown restaurants to ensure he gets his dish right.
Pork Chop Suey is a Tuesday special at the Ramova Grill. The standard menu features chili, a Ramova staple. Hickey takes a few liberties here, noting that “no one has tasted that chili in 12 years,” which is when the original restaurant closed: “I don’t remember what it was like,” Hickey says.
The chili was a celebrated item at the old Ramova, and Hickey created a bit of a tall tale when he cooked it for the festival circuit, involving his dad in the telling, calling it “Jack’s Stolen Chili.” Ramova’s chili is a little thinner than Midwesterners are used to, which lends it well when mixing in mac and cheese or a dollop of sour cream. The chili is also ideal for dunking, for friends or with the duck-infused corn dogs. Another departure is the vegan version which uses portobello mushroom stock.
Another highlight is a dish few have ever seen. Back before on-demand streaming, DVDs, and VHS tapes, hotels used a service, called Spectra Vision, which played movies on a loop as in-room entertainment. One of the films featured when Hickey watched incessantly on family trips was The Jerk, a comedy starring Steve Martin. The film features a scene where Martin is eating something called “pizza in a cup.” Hickey says he’s been obsessed with creating his version and was inspired several years ago when Moody Tongue Brewing chef Jared Wentworth made the dish at a food festival in Lincoln Park.
Ramova’s pizza in a cup is a communal snack, a fried flatbread surrounds a cup filled with melted cheese, sausage, giardiniera, and other pizza toppings — it’s like a fondue, Hickey says. Break off a piece of the crispy ring and dip it into the cup.
There have been some bumps. Social media revolted after the Ramova charged $16 per beer on opening weekend. Tyler Nevius apologized, saying it was a problem with signage, a perfect storm of missteps. He feels bad for Other Half and takes accountability for the overcharge: “I don’t think we understood how hard it was going to be,” Nevius says.
But once they secure their beer-making license and have the right signage up, Tyler Nevius says visitors will start seeing the Ramova’s true potential. Take a look around the space in the photos.
Ramova Grill, 3520 S. Halsted Street