Celebrity restaurants

Wolfgang

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 13, 2004

Oprah Winfrey couldn’t do it. Michael Jordan had to change his game plan. And even Wolfgang Puck hightailed it back to Los Angeles after his restaurant failed in Chicago.

Could it be that the Second City actually is more persnickety about celebrity-owned eateries than its East and West Coast counterparts?

Quite possibly, when it comes to restaurants owned by celebrities — whether they’re athletes or superstar chefs. According to Sales & Marketing Management’s 2003 Buying Power Report, Chicagoans are among the country’s highest spenders when it comes to eating out. We spent $12.4 billion dining out last year compared to New York’s $13.2 billion and Los Angeles’ $12.8 billion.

But while Puck’s Spago thrives in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, his River North eatery quietly closed its doors after seven years. Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a superstar chef in New York thanks to Jo Jo, Jean-Georges and Vong. But after opening Vong to much fanfare in 1999 at the corner of State and Hubbard, the high concept fine dining establishment transformed itself two years later into the more affordable Vong’s Thai Kitchen.

“Chicagoans historically have a bit of healthy skepticism for out-of-town celebrities swaggering here like they’re going to impress us,” says Alice Van Housen, an editor at Zagats. “Everyone loves Oprah and Michael Jordan, but they’re not chefs. They weren’t at their restaurants enough to warrant people going to their establishments in the hopes of seeing them there. If Spago hadn’t been so overpriced and had gotten the atmosphere right, people would probably still be going there regardless of whether Wolfgang Puck was there or not. But outside of trying it once or twice, it wasn’t the type of place Chicagoans wanted to return to on a regular basis.”

Even with her gazillion fans, not even Winfrey was able to make a success of The Eccentric. After opening in 1989 on Erie, it closed six years later. As Van Housen notes, “Funky art and Oprah’s mashed potatoes do not a restaurant make.”

Which makes us wonder — if Oprah Winfrey can’t make a restaurant a success in Chicago, who can?

“It’s a very simple formula of good, hearty food, great service and that unobtainable great location,” says Randee Becker, president of the brokerage company Restaurants!. “Chicagoans don’t want to blow big bucks unless it’s for a special occasion. And if it’s a special occasion, they can go to Charlie Trotters or Tru.”

Tru’s Pastry Chef Gale Gand, who along with Executive Chef Rick Tramonto was part of the opening team at The Eccentric, remembers customers specifically coming to the restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse of Winfrey.

“When you’ve got another job like Oprah, it’s hard to be in your restaurant,” Gand says. “For Rick and me, the time we spend away from Tru is minimal. We’re chefs. We’re always here. I remember when Spago opened in Chicago, we all were a little concerned about whether [Puck] would be here enough to make it a success. Chicagoans are used to having one on one contact with their ‘celebrities.’ ”

Adds Alain Gayot of the restaurant site gayot.com, “It boils down to a people thing. Spago does very well in Beverly Hills where you are bound to see Wolfgang with high frequency. In Chicago, you have your own stars.”

True. Chicagoans who want a good meal and a dose of celebrity action can dine at Charlie Trotter’s gourmet restaurant or Tru and exchange pleasantries with the celebrity chefs. And Rick Bayless fans who’ve seen the genial chef’s shows on TV might have the opportunity to chat with him at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

But what’s the likelihood you’ll run into Michael Jordan at one of his eateries?

No one would argue that Jordan is one of basketball’s greatest players ever. But he has had mixed success with his restaurants here. Michael Jordan’s Restaurant on La Salle ended up leaving a bad taste in its namesake’s mouth. His high-end one sixtyblue in the city’s Market District opened its doors in 1998 and was going to be turned into Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse (which is enjoying much success in New York). However, now Jordan and his partners have decided to continue scouting for a higher-profile location for the steakhouse and one sixtyblue will continue as is.

“I’ve seen a lot of restaurants flipping and when that happens, it to me signifies the beginning of the end,” Gand says. “It’s one of the things you do to see if you can survive and keep this thing going.”

That said, we’re not likely to see a moratorium on celebrity-owned restaurants here or nationwide. Having a celebrity tied to a restaurant deal can’t hurt — especially in the beginning stages when you’re trying to get financing. Since opening in 1987, Harry Caray’s Restaurant has done so well it spawned a suburban eatery of the same name in Rosemont. The popularity of the restaurant transcended its beloved namesake, who died in 1998.

“Having a celebrity tied to a restaurant is a good way to differentiate yourself from competition,” says Ron Paul, president of the food and restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc. “In general, it’s one of the winning formulas in the industry. Lots of sports figures get into them. And for the financial backers, it can be a good investment because [the celebrity] is a brand name people will recognize.”

In the end, a good restaurant will survive.

“There are a few really good restaurants in Chicago that have managed to transcend the arc that a lot of restaurants go through where they start off really hot and then die off,” says Zagats’ Van Housen. “Blackbird has outlived that. So have Vivo and mk. These were the hottest places to go to when they opened but had the substance to stay on beyond the trendy element. They all still have legitimate ongoing business.”

And, come to think of it, not one of these chefs or owners is even remotely as famous as Winfrey, Jordan or Puck.

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