The Future of Food?

“It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy,” insists restaurateur Terry Alexander, who, since starting the wildly popular Mia Francesca in 1991, has been a bit of a maverick on the city’s restaurant scene. His latest venture, Restaurant Okno, promises to be his biggest and costliest challenge yet.

“This is a great restaurant town,” says Alexander, “but I don’t see a lot of innovative ideas coming out of Chicago the way you do in New York.” Dismayed by the complacency among local restaurateurs and intent on trying something different, Alexander and four partners opened Okno last month at 1332 N. Milwaukee, several long blocks south of the booming restaurant corridor where Milwaukee intersects North and Damen. On one corner you’ll find Soul Kitchen, another of Alexander’s big success stories. Soul Kitchen pulls in large crowds every night, as do restaurants like Confusion and Cafe Absinthe.

But Okno sits on a stretch of Milwaukee seldom visited by the restaurant crowd. Highly futuristic in design and global in its culinary reach, Okno is nothing like Alexander’s other ventures. “We wanted to create a new definition of dining out,” he says. The restaurant’s name is Russian for “window”; it was chosen from the glossary of “Nadsat” slang in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Decorated in bright shades of yellow, red, blue, and lime green, the two-floor dining room is fronted by soaring floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Milwaukee Avenue. The Okno waiters and waitresses wear uniforms that make them look as if they just walked out of The Jetsons or Lost in Space. Tables are covered by the same lacquer coating used on automobiles, and the liquor listings are tucked into plastic compact disc cases. On the restaurant’s upper floor a DJ spins music.

Alexander interviewed no fewer than 15 candidates before finally hiring Bruce Kalman to be Okno’s executive chef a mere three months before the restaurant’s opening. Kalman had recently arrived in Chicago from Santa Fe, where he worked at La Casa Sena and Il Piatto. Alexander asked Kalman for a menu that would complement Okno’s unusual ambience. For starters, Kalman designed his menu from a series of “firsts” and “nexts,” followed by “sweets.” First dishes range from calamari salad with roasted peppers and fennel to goat cheese souffle with Bloody Mary sauce; the nexts include coriander-crusted tuna with tatsoi greens and grilled salmon fillet with celery-root hash browns and smoked apple chutney.

Exposing Chicagoans to a different kind of restaurant experience wasn’t what Alexander had in mind when he arrived from Nebraska in 1986; he came to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at Medill, hoping to go into advertising as a copywriter. But his timing was off: the advertising business was in a slump. He responded to scores of want ads but got nowhere; finally he took a job as a waiter in a Mexican restaurant attached to a now-defunct nightclub called Thunderbird at the corner of Racine and Clybourn. Alexander moved on to the Italian eatery Scoozi and started making good money. At one point he was holding down as many as four jobs, tending bar in such nightclubs as the Elbo Room and Berlin.

Alexander says he never considered making the bar and restaurant business a career; he only wanted to save enough to help his brother open a coffee bar back in their hometown of Omaha. “That would have been a first for Omaha,” he says. But the coffee bar never materialized. Instead Alexander and a friend bought the Bucktown bar Danny’s in late 1989. The business flourished, and within a couple of years the former advertising wannabe had enough cash to start a restaurant of his own. He hooked up with Carol Watson, a college friend who had also migrated to Chicago from Nebraska to work in the restaurant business, and their first venture, Mia Francesca, was an immediate hit.

Alexander maintains that Mia Francesca succeeded because he, Watson, and executive chef Scott Harris were able to offer great service and good food at attractive prices. With Okno he hopes to learn whether a visually stimulating environment will affect a restaurant’s success. Ever the pirate, Alexander insists that he and his partners won’t be disappointed if Okno fails to catch on: “At least we will have tried something different.”

Candlelight Snuffed Out

The abrupt closing of the 38-year-old Candlelight Dinner Playhouse complex in southwest suburban Summit last week should be a wake-up call to the Chicago theater industry. A number of boosters continue to maintain that this is a great town for theater. But the failure of the for-profit Candlelight and its adjacent Forum Theatre points out that locally produced commercial theater is an endangered species; funding and attendance are drying up for all but a handful of high-profile productions. More troublesome is the lack of high-quality new plays and creative excitement that once emboldened critics from all over the world to call Chicago a theater center. League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marj Halperin remained stoic about the demise of the local institution; she predicted no “domino effect” as a result of Candlelight’s closing. But important dominoes were falling long before Candlelight bit the dust, and more are likely to follow. Already gone are Remains Theatre, Wisdom Bridge, and the Body Politic. Now that Candlelight has joined them, the industry should take a hard look at the theater crisis in Chicago and make some bold moves to reignite the public’s faith and interest. The move by a group of local theaters to honor Candlelight’s tickets and subscriptions is well meaning, but it won’t solve the problem.

Whiskey a Go Go

Say good-bye to the country-and-western nightclub Whiskey River. On June 20 owners Dora and Garry Kron and Brad Altman are renaming it Liquid. According to Altman, Liquid will be less of a high-concept club than Whiskey River, with DJs playing a wide range of music from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Notes Dora Kron: “The lighting won’t be real techno or modern, and this won’t be the kind of place that aims to be intimidating.” Every Thursday night Liquid will spotlight swing music. “We want to capitalize on the big dance floor,” says Altman.

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