95th’s Future Is Up in the Air

Representatives from Philadelphia-based ARA Services Inc., owner and operator of the 95th, the landmark restaurant atop the Hancock Center, since it opened 22 years ago, will sit down next month to discuss the restaurant’s future with the building’s newly appointed management company, U.S. Equities Realty Inc. “We aren’t going to enter into a new lease agreement that doesn’t make sense for us,” says the 95th’s general manager, Rick Roman, “but right now we are taking it day by day.” Restaurant manager Terry Sheridan says business at the 180-seat restaurant, where the average dinner tab per person is around $52 without tip, has been off about 4 percent in recent months.

The 95th is currently operating under a one-year extension of a lease that expired last May. Restaurant management says it is still much too early to write the restaurant’s obit, but sources familiar with the situation hold out little hope that the 95th will be around when the extension runs out next spring. Katherine Scott, U.S. Equities senior vice president in charge of the Hancock, also says it is too early to predict what will happen, but she clearly hints that change is the order of the day throughout the distinctive skyscraper. She says, “We are going to be taking a new and energetic approach to managing this property.” According to one source, only about half of the building’s commercial space is leased.

Though the 95th has endured for more than two decades, it has had to grapple throughout its history with the tricky issue of whether it is a restaurant for local trade or merely a high-priced tourist destination. Roman maintains that about 60 percent of the restaurant’s customer base is local diners who come primarily for special occasions. “All our holiday promotions are geared to local customers,” says Roman, as is the Sunday brunch offered since 1984.

But wine consultant Mary Ross, who was the restaurant’s cellar master for ten years, believes the 95th suffers from what she terms “the Statue of Liberty syndrome.” “This restaurant is a symbol of Chicago,” she explains, “but when I ask people the last time they have been to the restaurant, many of them can’t even remember.” In 1989 she formed her own wine consulting business and maintained a contract with the restaurant until earlier this year.

At the 95th Ross helped build up a wine cellar that Sheridan claims is one of the best in the country. Still, she is critical of ARA’s efforts to market the restaurant. “The owners never have seemed able to make the restaurant a living, breathing part of Chicago,” she says, “and they could have done more to give such a dynamic room a personality.” Ross attempted to set up a program with the School of the Art Institute to design a new 95th private wine label every year, but management did not buy into the idea.

The restaurant also has ridden a culinary roller coaster since opening; at the moment it is focusing on seasonal American cooking. The 95th is not listed among Chicago magazine’s current crop of recommended restaurants, says Roman, because of a recent chef change. But the restaurant does get a “very good to excellent” rating in the Zagat Chicago restaurant survey, along with the editors’ notation that “many surveyors seem to forget the interesting seasonal American food has ‘improved greatly’ in recent years.”

Steppenwolf Steps In to Produce Jacob Zulu on Broadway

Hell-bent on taking Tug Yourgrau’s The Song of Jacob Zulu to New York, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company has succeeded in putting together a $1.4 million production deal that will ensure the play’s opening on April 7 at the 1,079-seat Plymouth Theatre. The show’s fate was left up in the air as recently as a couple of weeks ago after the New York-based Shubert Organization gave up on a plan to be lead producer of a Broadway production. Under terms of the new arrangement, Steppenwolf itself will serve as the show’s principal New York producer, but it won’t invest any of its own money.

Albert Poland, general manager for the Broadway production, said Steppenwolf has raised $1.1 million of the needed $1.4 million, and Steppenwolf producing director Stephen Eich indicated he has commitments for the rest. The Shuberts have anted up $500,000, along with New York-based producers Dasha Epstein and the Jujamcyn Organization, and at least four Chicagoans are investing in the project to the tune of $250,000 total. Immediate past Steppenwolf board resident Bruce Sagan is believed to be one local backer, but Sagan would not comment.

No decision has been made as yet on ticket prices for the production, but Poland says the top ticket could hit $50, as it did for the Broadway incarnation of Steppenwolf’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath won a Tony Award for best production in 1990 but wound up losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in its aborted run. Eich believes Jacob Zulu stands a much better chance of succeeding because of the involvement of the popular South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Jacob Zulu could earn back its investment in 15 weeks if it plays to 75 percent of capacity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.