French Twist

Three years ago a small restaurant with a distinctive, stark white interior materialized on a quiet block of Randolph just west of the Loop, and before long word began to spread that a major player had emerged on the city’s constantly evolving restaurant scene. Launched by Donnie Madia and executive chef Paul Kahan, Blackbird continues to draw heavy crowds, nearly a third of them tourists, and its success has sparked a wave of new restaurants in the once sleepy neighborhood, including Grace and the much-hyped Nine. Now Madia and his management have unveiled their newest project, tentatively named Le Camion (“the truck”), at 954 W. Fulton in the heart of the market district. Currently home to Dino’s Morgan Restaurant, a long-standing haven for district workers, the 2,500-square-foot space will open around 5 PM and emphasize late-night dining, with a menu of French peasant food.

Architect Damian Repucci, who recently worked on Blackbird’s second-floor banquet room, will design the new 75-seat space. “This will be his first big restaurant project,” says Madia. Like Blackbird it will feature a banquette along one wall, and a bar will be located on the opposite wall. But Madia wants the new place to feel more homey than Blackbird, with “warmer lights and a softer palette of colors.” Koren Grieveson, sous chef at Blackbird and a protege of Suzy Crofton, will head the kitchen, which will have a wood-burning oven, and Madia expects the menu to feature cassoulet, pot au feu, a variety of terrines, and the quintessential Gallic dish, steak frites.

Madia also wants music to play a key role in the restaurant: a DJ will spin tunes from 10 PM until the restaurant closes at 2. “I want the music to create a certain energy level that will make people want to hang out,” he says. In 1993, Madia successfully introduced a live DJ one night a week at Oo-La-La, his small Lakeview restaurant that has since closed. “I’ve been wanting to do more with the concept ever since.”

CSO’s Risky Business

Last week the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released ticket and revenue figures for fiscal year 2000, which ended June 30, but the numbers don’t really indicate whether the decline in ticket sales that followed the 1998 opening of Symphony Center has been stemmed, much less reversed. An aggressive marketing campaign devised by C. Jane Quinn, vice president for marketing and communications, brought a 2.3 percent increase in ticket sales for the CSO’s classical concerts (from 257,336 to 263,376), but the decline in subscriptions recorded in fiscal 1999 persisted last year, with a drop of 1.4 percent. Revenue from ticket sales was $20.6 million, an increase of nearly 5 percent, though much of that came from a 3.5 percent average increase in ticket prices (the increase was greatest for choice locations such as the lower balcony, where the top ticket for some weekend performances jumped 5.4 percent). Sales trends over the past five years aren’t encouraging: in fiscal 1996, Symphony Center sold 434,000 tickets to 249 performances (including school concerts and “CSO presents”), whereas last year it sold 397,489 tickets to 276 performances. Addressing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association last week, CSO president Henry Fogel struck a relatively ominous note, saying that the orchestra “stands at a crossroads” and will have to take risks in the future rather than “coast forward.”

“Ticket sales are not where they were, but these are still numbers that most orchestras in this country would kill for,” says Tom Hallett, vice president for finance and administration. Hallett concedes that more concertgoers are opting for single-ticket purchases instead of subscriptions, which makes it more difficult to determine total ticket sales or revenue until the end of the season (and also increases the pressure on the orchestra to deliver a crowd-pleasing schedule). But that will be someone else’s problem in 2001: next month Hallett will leave the CSO to assume the newly reinstated post of vice president of finance at the Art Institute, where he worked for 11 years before joining the orchestra in 1990.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

After more than five years, local theater producer Tony Tomaska may finally open the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, his theater complex near the southwest corner of Chicago and Halsted. Tomaska says the facility is set to open this month with Ron Hawking’s Sinatra homage His Way: A Tribute to the Man and His Music, which enjoyed a long run at the Mercury; eventually, he says, it will house two theaters, two cabaret spaces, a restaurant, and a conference and training center. The producer wouldn’t give a firm opening date for His Way because the space hasn’t yet been cleared by city building inspectors. When pressed, Tomaska conceded the show might be delayed a month or more if inspectors find problems when they go through the building again this week.

Best known as the producer of Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, Tomaska first announced the CCPA in June 1995, in partnership with his brother Joseph and theater veteran Joyce Sloane. Since then numerous scheduled opening dates have come and gone, and while Tomaska is reluctant to discuss the long delay, he does cite funding problems and the proposed facility’s growth from 10,000 to 80,000 square feet. He says he’ll have no trouble booking four rooms in the rather remote location; he chose to open the larger, 390-seat thrust-stage theater with an open-ended engagement of Hawking’s show because he wanted to “do something musical.” Tomaska might rent one of the 200-seat cabaret spaces to a local theater company for one or more seasons, and he says he’s spent the last five years forging relationships with producers in New York and London, though he hasn’t confirmed any more upcoming engagements.

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