Michael Cullen’s Next Stage

Much has been made of Michael Cullen’s return to the local theater scene since he opened his 330-seat Mercury Theater on the city’s north side. But Cullen’s first foray into the restaurant and bar business may prove to be his biggest hit yet. “I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant,” he says. He flirted with the idea back in the mid-80s when he bid on a space in Lincoln Park, but it’s taken nearly a decade for Cullen to finally realize his dream. In early February, he launched Cullen’s Bar & Grill, a low-key, 80-seat Irish-style pub at 3741 N. Southport, and it’s been filled with customers from the start. After only two months in operation, the pub is already one of the city’s top five dispensers of Guinness beer, according to Chicago Beverage Systems. “It’s a cool place in a part of the city where there are very few places that appeal to an adult saloon crowd,” says restaurateur Joe Carlucci, who showed his friend the ropes in a business where it’s notoriously difficult to succeed.

When Cullen and his former theater partners Sheila Henaghan and Howard Platt shut down their theatrical production company in 1992, Carlucci suggested Cullen take some time off from show business and come to work for him to learn the restaurant trade. Cullen says he was ready to take a break from producing theater anyway because it had become nearly impossible to turn a profit. Weekly rental fees for large, off-Loop theaters such as the Ivanhoe and Briar Street had zoomed from about $7,000 in 1989 to around $12,000 in 1992, making it difficult for commercial theater producers to make money on any show that wasn’t a hit. “We weren’t in the theater business to support landlords,” Cullen says, “and we all decided we had better things to do.”

While raising the capital to build his own theater, Cullen worked at Charlie’s Ale House and Vinny’s, two eateries owned by Carlucci, and he soon discovered that restaurants are a lot like theater. “You have to have a good product that will bring people into the place,” he says. In his free time Cullen traveled to pubs in England and Ireland to gather ideas for his own place. “I must have looked at 50 bars in Dublin and another 50 in London.” He also studied popular local saloons such as River Shannon, the Red Lion, Four Farthings, and P.J. Clarke’s. Then a friend told him about a property that he believed would be ideal for Cullen’s restaurant and theater. Cullen and Carlucci looked at the old Southport Department Store near the Music Box theater. They both liked it and made plans to acquire the building. Carlucci opted to open an Italian restaurant, Strega Nona, on his side of the property, while Cullen focused on the theater and his own restaurant and bar in the remaining space.

Once construction was under way, Cullen shifted his attention to food. He says he wanted a chef who could turn out fresh, high-quality dishes at reasonable prices. A year ago he ran into Alan Katz, an old friend who’d been the chef at Blue Mesa for eight years. Katz told Cullen he was thinking of making a change. “I had always worked in a place where the bar wasn’t the main focus, and it intrigued me to be able to do creative food in a bar environment,” Katz says. The pair came up with a menu that includes hearty, homey foods such as meat loaf, Irish stew, and chicken potpie, as well as more adventurous fare for a pub like artichoke dip, crab cakes, and unusual pasta dishes. Most of Cullen’s entrees are priced at around $10, and sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and desserts range from $3 to $7.

Meanwhile, this fall Cullen plans to return to active producing next door in his Mercury Theater. Carlucci’s hoping to get in on the act by introducing late-night jazz at Strega Nona for the after-theater crowd. “We have a captive audience here,” Carlucci says, “and we want to keep them in the neighborhood as long as possible.”

MCA’s Grand Entrance

The opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art won’t be quick or quiet if MCA officials have their way. Doors officially open on July 2, but the museum is spending more than a million dollars on two weeks’ worth of public and private events, which will begin on June 13 with a press preview and conclude with a brunch on June 30 for major art collectors, artists, and other VIPs. In between, the MCA has earmarked free days for special groups, such as taxi drivers and their families as well as museum members and donors. June 16 has been set aside for the construction workers who built the $42 million facility. A reception on June 25 will honor contributors to the $50 million capital campaign, and on June 28 anyone paying $500 or more can attend a benefit gala, with proceeds going to the museum’s education center. But perhaps the biggest inaugural event will be a free, 24-hour summer solstice celebration that begins at 7 PM on June 21. The museum will stay open all night and offer a wide range of events, including a poetry slam, performance art, music, a sunrise breakfast, and a skywriting demonstration by Gary Simmons. MCA assistant director Lisa Smith says, “We thought about all the people we wanted to reach who had contributed their time and money to the new building, and we also wanted to reach out to groups unfamiliar with the museum.”

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