A Feast for the Eyes

For the last few years the trend in restaurant decor has been cool, calculated minimalism, an approach that’s worked beautifully in places like Blackbird in the Randolph market district or the newer Watusi in Bucktown. But Tizi Melloul, a new Moroccan restaurant at 531 N. Wells, has a more theatrical feel, with plush leather furniture, lanterns of intricate stained glass, and sleek brushed-copper dining tables. “We didn’t just want to imitate a Moroccan restaurant that looked like old-world Morocco,” explains Terry Alexander, owner of such trendsetting eateries as Okno, Soul Kitchen, and Mia Francesca. To mastermind Tizi Melloul’s extravagant decor, Alexander hired Suhail, a young British-born architect and designer who’d done some metalwork for Okno. It was Suhail’s first assignment designing an entire restaurant, but Alexander says he and his partners, Steven Ford and Quay Tao (from the management team at Le Colonial), were sufficiently impressed by the Brit’s portfolio to take a chance on him.

Suhail’s big break comes after nearly a decade struggling to establish himself in Chicago. He earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Birmingham School of Architecture in England. On a lark he came to Chicago in 1990 with a group of students; when the group visited the offices of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, executives there saw some of Suhail’s sketches and hired him. But six months later the building recession of the early 90s hit and Suhail was let go. Unwilling to return to England, he tried to develop his own business. Money was so scarce that while constructing a model he would buy a tool, use it, return it for a refund, and then buy the next tool he needed. Finally he got a job designing Trio, a hair salon on Walton. “We all brainstormed,” remembers owner Alex Ioannou, “and then Suhail came up with this raw, unfinished furniture that had an industrial feel.” That gig led to a job designing eight facilities for Heidi’s Salons, a Michigan-based chain, and then to Phoebe45, a Bucktown store that sells cutting-edge fashions.

Alexander and his partners handed Suhail a budget of close to $1 million, and the designer arranged to spend several weeks in Morocco, where he lived with the family of one of the restaurant’s chefs. Bombarded with unfamiliar images and sensations, he began to visualize the new restaurant as soon as he landed: “Just watching a Moroccan sunset helped me decide some of the color schemes I wanted to use.” Living with a local family also helped him cut some deals with vendors for furnishings like lanterns, carved mirrors, and large throw pillows. “Things that might have cost us $20 apiece if we had just come into town and bought them on our own, we could get for about $2 because we had the local contacts.”

Now Suhail hopes Tizi Melloul will burnish his reputation in Chicago’s highly competitive architectural design market. The restaurant’s lounge and bar are primarily white, with bulbous, off-white ceiling lamps that suggest gourds or the robes of dervishes. The main dining room is decorated in bright red and ringed with elaborate tapestries bearing the Moroccan crown. The circular second dining room is smaller, bathed in dark blue tones, with round leather pillows and low-lying tables where patrons can feast in authentic Moroccan fashion, using their fingers if they wish. Suhail describes the decor as a mix of contemporary, Eastern exotica, and the sleek metalwork that’s become his trademark. “Minimalism has been done,” he says. “I want people to have a real emotional reaction when they visit this restaurant.”

Star Light, Star Bright

Famous faces from Hollywood and Broadway are showing up more often on the Victory Gardens main stage. Last season Chicagoans Gary Cole (Office Space, A Simple Plan) and Bill Petersen (HBO’s The Rat Pack) returned to town for Jeffrey Sweet’s Flyovers, and multiple-Tony Award winner Julie Harris is currently starring with Mike Nussbaum in Claudia Allen’s Winter. Next season Sweet’s Bluff will feature Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink) and Sarah Trigger (the CBS series Turks) in roles that Sweet created specifically for them; he says the two were flattered when he approached them to appear in the premiere production. Cahoots, an Allen play scheduled for next season, will star Sharon Gless from the 80s cop show Cagney & Lacey. Sandy Shinner, associate artistic director for Victory Gardens, says Gless expressed interest in Allen’s work after performing in one of her plays for the WFMT series Chicago Theatres on the Air.

Local actors who resist the bright lights of Hollywood to do stage work in Chicago must feel discouraged to see film actors landing plum roles here, and Shinner, who will direct both Bluff and Cahoots, claims that Victory Gardens is still committed to casting local actors in most of its parts. “We’re a Chicago theater company,” says Shinner, “and that’s what we should do.” But she also said that Dennis Zacek, artistic director for Victory Gardens, told the theater’s board of directors that casting a high-visibility actor can “help the future life of the play.” It doesn’t hurt ticket sales either: according to Shinner, Harris has been playing to SRO houses at almost every performance.

Royal George Rocks

When New York producer Alan Schuster bought the Royal George Theatre Center a year ago, he said he would keep the main stage lit as much as possible. Now Schuster has announced his first production at the theater: Love, Janis, a musical about Janis Joplin, will open July 29. Schuster says the play broke box-office records last year at the Cleveland Playhouse, but he’ll have a tough time opening it in the middle of the quiet summer season. If it bombs Schuster may replace it with Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway play about a doctor facing ovarian cancer. Schuster has the rights to stage the show here, but he isn’t likely to get Kathleen Chalfant, who earned raves in New York for her performance in the lead role; she leaves the show in early August to rest up before reprising the role in Los Angeles and London.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.