Rich Little Poor Boys

Four and a half years ago, longtime theater producer Michael Cullen opened Cullen’s Bar & Grill at 3741 N. Southport, just south of his new theater, the Mercury. Anchored by the Music Box, the stretch of Southport between Addison and Irving Park continues to be one of the city’s liveliest dining districts, and with the Mercury drawing a healthy crowd of theatergoers, the adjacent restaurant has thrived. “We’re doing over $1.5 million annually there,” says Cullen. Now he and his old coproducer Sheila Henaghan have gone into business with real estate investor Bill Platt (not to be confused with Howard Platt, their old producing partner) to open a Cajun restaurant called Blue Bayou on a 3,000-square-foot property across the street at 3734 N. Southport.

“Blue Bayou will be a casual tablecloth restaurant,” says John Wray, who’s designing the new space. In addition to a 20-foot cocktail bar, the restaurant will feature a horseshoe-shaped, marble-topped oyster bar. Chef Alan Katz, an alumnus of Carlucci and Blue Mesa, is planning a menu of entrees ranging from $9 to $17 that includes poor boys, jambalaya, seafood chowder, and soft-shell crab. Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt expect the buildout of the space to cost about $750,000, and they plan to open the doors in early summer 2001.

Hot Tips?

At the high end of the restaurant business, waiters make good money: their hourly rate is often just a few dollars, but tips can push their annual earnings as high as $70,000. With more than 17 years of experience, Dominique Elmelliti was one of the fortunate few, waiting tables at Les Nomades in Streeterville, where headwaiters can gross as much as $50,000 a year in tips, according to service manager Nick Butera. Waiters at Les Nomades pool their tip money every night, and the percentage apportioned for headwaiters is divided among them every week or two. But last July, when Elmelliti happened to compare his check with that of another headwaiter at the restaurant, he discovered that he’d received $5,000 less in accrued tips for the year. “I was devastated, and I felt totally humiliated,” says Elmelliti, who subsequently quit his job.

Two weeks ago Elmelliti filed a handwritten complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against Les Nomades and one of its owners, Mary Beth Liccioni, arguing that he deserved $10,000 in damages and back tips. The suit alleges that Elmelliti’s tips “were lowered for nearly eight months and they did so without letting me know. Since the owner did not tell me, I was not given the choice of accepting or refusing. Therefore I believe the owner stole money from me, and they can never win the argument since I was not told.” Butera, who decides the waiters’ percentages of pooled tips, says Elmelliti was penalized for not adding up his customers’ checks himself. Elmelliti admits that he usually asked the cashier to add up his checks after he made two separate errors a year ago that cost the restaurant $89 and $145, but he says he didn’t realize that doing so would reduce his share of the tips. Butera says he assumed Elmelliti understood what was happening but never told him directly. “I was under the impression Dominique had been told,” says Liccioni, who nevertheless says her former employee is upset about a very small portion of a considerable sum of tip money. The restaurant’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss; a court appearance is scheduled for November 6.

The Next Century

Despite the financial troubles of movie-theater chains like Carmike Cinemas and Silver Cinemas, west-coast exhibitors continue to target the Chicago market. On November 17, Century Theatres, a chain based in San Rafael, California, will open an 18-screen multiplex in the new Church Street Plaza retail development west of downtown Evanston. Twelve screens will feature first-run films, and a separate six-screen facility, CineArts 6, will show art films. Adjoining that will be a 70-seat bar and bistro serving coffee, cocktails, appetizers, sandwiches, and light entrees.

This is Century’s first foray into the restaurant business, but marketing director Nancy Klasky says the decision was based on considerable research of the Evanston area. The 60-year-old Century chain has doubled its number of screens nationwide in the past five years, to 700, and another 250 are slated to open in the next 18 months. But Klasky says the company has mostly avoided the financial setbacks affecting other exhibitors by concentrating on underserviced markets, including northern California, Anchorage, Sioux Falls, and Odessa, Texas. Evanston is the farthest east the chain has moved to date, though its 16-screen multiplex near Navy Pier is scheduled to open in fall 2001.

Return of the Vagina

The Vagina Monologues, which has broken the Apollo Theater’s box-office record, ends its five-week run this Sunday, but Apollo operator Rob Kolson is producing another eight-week engagement to begin November 29. While the current production stars playwright Eve Ensler, the return engagement, like the long-running New York production, will feature a rotating cast of local actresses and “nationally recognized performers,” according to a spokesperson for the production. Kolson says the run might be extended if the show’s popularity continues. The top ticket price will leap from $45 to $55, but the increase will go to the V-Day Fund, a group working to end violence against women.

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