Boystown Eats Brazil

Fads come and go. For a while foam parties were all the rage at the Vortex nightclub on Halsted. But now the parties are over, and Vortex owners Tony Marchese and Jeff Tessler have decided to team up with Steve Abrams to transform a part of their nightclub into an upscale Brazilian restaurant called Rhumba.

A microbiologist turned restaurateur, Abrams worked for the ubiquitous Lettuce Entertain You chain for seven years before deciding to go on his own. A freelance photographer on the side, Abrams met the Vortex owners while shooting a photo for a party invitation. Marchese and Tessler also own and operate Manhole, another gay nightclub on Halsted. Though their two clubs have proved to be lucrative, the pair wanted to test their skills in the far more risky restaurant business.

Scheduled to open in late October, Rhumba will be billed as an “authentic” Brazilian restaurant, according to Abrams. It will take a full half of the 10,000-square-foot building Vortex occupies at 3641 N. Halsted. The restaurant plans to serve food until around 10 or 11 each evening, at which time it will become part of the nightclub again. Rhumba will have its own entrance on Halsted Street, and Vortex customers will enter the club at the back of the building. By the time Rhumba debuts, Marchese says, the six-year-old Vortex will also have a new look and probably a new name.

Rhumba is not the first restaurant to open in a nightclub. Excalibur, the giant River North spot, has tried unsuccessfully to introduce fine dining on a couple of occasions. More recently Vinyl, a funky joint from the owners of Ka-Boom! and Oo-la-la!, has had mixed success combining the two pursuits. And a more low-key example is Green Dolphin Street, which includes a fine-dining establishment adjacent to a jazz club.

Abrams, Marchese, and Tessler know that the food will be their key to success. “We are adamant about that,” says Abrams. “We expect our early customers will be serious restaurant people.” Whether or not the Brazilian theme wins the day remains to be seen. Veteran chef Dennis Terczak, owner of Sole Mio and himself a former Lettuce Entertain You employee, says Chicago diners are a tough crowd to win over when it comes to unfamiliar food. “It’s not easy putting something no one has ever heard of on a plate and trying to sell it,” says Terczak.

But Abrams believes Brazilian cooking can take off in Chicago. He got hooked during a four-month visit to Brazil, and then on a trip to New York last spring he and chef Jamie Leeds sampled the Brazilian cuisine there. “It’s a very hot property at the moment in New York,” he says. Leeds most recently was the chef at Riodizio, a Brazilian restaurant in New York City. She and Rhumba executive chef Scott Helm (formerly sous chef at Zinfandel) have come up with a menu that includes a number of exotic Brazilian touches. The menu’s heart, says Abrams, will be the Rodizio grills, a collection of skewered meats, shellfish, and vegetables brought to the table along with rice, beans, plantains, and steamed greens. Other items include a pressed roast pork sandwich, ginger-marinated skirt steak, an appetizer of marinated salmon, lime, avocado, and caper toast, and desserts such as caramelized banana bread pudding and the “Carmen Miranda,” a hat-shaped cookie topped with fresh fruits and sorbet. “The menu has a very Brazilian feeling, but we have played with the dishes a bit to try and make them more accessible,” explains Abrams.

David Sanderson and Katherin Ingrassia from the design firm of Mark Knauer Inc. are creating the decor for the restaurant, which will seat approximately 100 customers. The color scheme won’t feature the exotic hues typical of many Latin establish-ments, however.

The designers hope to give the place a unique character by juxtaposing diverse construction materials such as marble and concrete. Rhumba will have an open kitchen, and bar customers will be able to watch Brazilian videos on monitors hung from the ceiling. The owners expect to offer live entertainment and special events several nights a week, but don’t expect another foam party in the near future.

Barbara’s Books

After more than two decades in Lakeview, Barbara’s Bookstore will soon abandon the neighborhood. Sources familiar with recent developments say Barbara’s must vacate its location at 3130 N. Broadway by October 31. Jesse Martinez, manager of the Midtown True Value at 3411 N. Broadway, says the hardware store has signed a lease to take over the Barbara’s space effective November 1. But because the Midtown lease on its current location runs out at the end of September, Martinez says his store will shut down at the end of this month and reopen in the new space as soon as possible.

Earlier this summer, Barbara’s owner Don Barliant insisted he was in no rush to leave Lakeview, though it was clear every effort was being made to either sell the property or find a new tenant for the space. While it will mean less competition for the remaining bookstores in the area, even competitors see Barbara’s closing as a loss. “It’s too bad for the neighborhood,” says Amy Sample, manager of the Borders Books & Music on Clark and Broadway. Yet with three superstores and numerous used outlets in Lakeview, the competition has been fierce. “Business hasn’t been as good as we expected,” admits Sample. That may explain why Crown Books recently reduced its across-the-board hardcover discount to 15 percent from 20 percent. Borders and Barnes & Noble both offer 10 percent discounts on hardcovers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Armando Villa.