Birth of a Restaurant
By French Maclean –
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” — Humphrey Bogart, playing Rick Blaine, proprietor of upscale Rick’s Café Americain, in Casablanca.
Restaurants are born all the time, and those themed from the era of the 1920s and ’30s have dotted many a landscape through the years. However, the birth of a restaurant that ultimately becomes, and remains, a smashing success is quite rare: Three in five new restaurants close or change ownership within their first three years of business.
Enhancing the odds of making it in the restaurant business begins with a vision: What dining experience do you want your patrons to have? Which menu items support that experience? Consider the ambiance — décor, atmosphere, appearance, enthusiasm level —required to turn that vision into reality. Finally, what are you offering potential patrons that your competitors are not?
Longtime Decatur chef Josh Irby, whose track record includes Robbie’s Grille and South Side Country Club, believes he has such a vision for his newest restaurant, The Gin Mill, scheduled to open by early November. The process started at 124 E. Prairie in mid-August, when nail-guns, hammers, electricians’ tape, and empty pizza boxes were scattered throughout. Work progressed late into the night, but with each passing day, Irby’s vision assumed a specific form and function.
Irby envisioned a Prohibition-era style décor — drawing on European restaurants of that time — fused with a Chicago look. Picture a 23-foot long, antique wooden bar built in 1880; 18-foot ceilings; interior brick walls; elk antler chandeliers; and adequate table space, including about six U-shaped, antique red-tufted leather booths. A mezzanine with six tables, which looks down on the main dining floor, allows patrons to spot late-arriving dinner partners. Irby, who had the antique bar trucked in from Pennsylvania, left no stone unturned when it came to the type of look he wanted.
His vision for The Gin Mill’s menu is equally creative and ambitious. Knowing that too many choices result in nothing being truly special, Irby plans to offer five or six permanent lunch and dinner entrées, with an additional five or six that change frequently. With a careful eye on cost, his menu includes steaks, seafood, lamb, and even a smoked duck bacon pizza.
In addition to owning The Gin Mill, Irby will serve as its head chef. And while décor may be pre-World War II, the kitchen will feature modern appliances capable for adding that special touch to a meal. For example, Ruth’s Chris Steak House is reputed for, “USDA Prime served sizzling on a plate – every bite is as delicious as the first.” Knowing he could match the steak icon in quality beef, Irby purchased the same iron-grated grill in order to cook his steaks at the identical high heat as Ruth’s.
The Gin Mill’s bar will feature beer, wine, mixed drinks, and straight shots, as well as non-alcohol beverages. Beers and wines will be paired with menu items, and an experienced bartender will prepare patrons’ favorites to perfection.
Irby realizes that once patrons open the door to The Gin Mill — which will be marked by a neon sign — he has about ten seconds to make them feel as if they’ve been transported to a restaurant straight from the ’30s. But with big beautiful chandeliers, dim lights, cozy booths and tables, a casual ambiance, attentive staff, and excellent food, time travel will be a natural journey.
Looks like an impressive birth certificate to me.
While he may or may not be a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart, Contributor French MacLean nevertheless plans to do his share of “clubbing” at The Gin Mill. . .
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Decatur Magazine. It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher’s consent.
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