The Pricey Is Right

Since it opened R.J. Grunts in June 1971, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has specialized in theatrical, high-concept restaurants. But even The Fantasticks had to close eventually, and in the last few months Lettuce has shut down three wilting restaurants near the Loop to indulge another gimmick–fine dining. In December the decade-old Hat Dance on Huron at Orleans will become Nacional 27, serving dishes from a variety of Latin countries. In February, the site at Hubbard and State that once housed Tucci Milan will become Vong, a French-Thai restaurant. And Avanzare has shut its doors after more than 16 years; in February its much-coveted site on Huron just off Michigan Avenue will become a new, as-yet-unnamed continental restaurant. Steve Ottmann, chief operating officer of LEYE, insists that the flurry of closings is only a coincidence: “We just happened to have three things we wanted to do that matched up with these particular locations.”

The three things? Make money, make money, and make money–none of the three restaurants was performing as well as the company wanted, and business at Hat Dance had dropped off significantly. According to Ottmann, location was a major problem: all three restaurants had been open for more than ten years, and as River North and North Michigan Avenue grew more popular, the cost of doing business soared. “Rental costs can be one of the biggest factors in determining whether a restaurant survives or not,” explains Ottmann. But each restaurant had its own problems, whether competition or changing tastes. Interest in Mexican cuisine has cooled considerably since Hat Dance opened, and Ottmann thinks Avanzare and Tucci Milan might have suffered from a glut of Italian restaurants, many of them owned by Lettuce. Avanzare tried a number of tactics to attract new customers, including different menu items, but nothing seemed to work.

The posh Avanzare was a turning point; since it opened more than 16 years ago Lettuce has abandoned such hammy operations as Lawrence of Oregano and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, and all three of the coming restaurants are considerably more refined than their predecessors. The sleek Nacional 27, with booths surrounding a dance floor, will feature cuisine by Randy Zweibin, who honed his Latin culinary skills in the Miami area. Ottmann says Vong, a restaurant first opened in New York by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, will be much more expensive than the modest Thai restaurants familiar to Chicagoans. The continental restaurant to replace Avanzare will be created by Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, the husband-wife team who opened the highly touted Trio in Evanston and the more casual Brasserie T in Northfield. Tramonto and Gand had previously used Lettuce as a consultant, and they were scouting locations for a new restaurant near North Michigan Avenue when Lettuce CEO and founder Rich Melman proposed a joint venture. Tramonto says their restaurant will be at least as pricey as the city’s best, including Everest, Charlie Trotter’s, and Ambria.

But the Lettuce legacy won’t be erased entirely: Tramonto believes the new restaurant will be just as good as anything the city has to offer, but he wants to introduce some fun into the mix: “Fine dining and fun shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.” Ottmann is quick to stress the other side of the coin, arguing that the menu always takes precedence over the gimmickry: “What really gets us going when we start to redo a restaurant is the food tastings that we conduct.”

We Oughta Be in Pictures

Entertainment mogul Chris Blackwell has chosen Chicago as the distribution center for his new feature film company, Palm Pictures. After selling Island Pictures to British Polygram, Blackwell created Palm Pictures as a division of his international lifestyle-entertainment company Islandlife (which also includes hotels, record companies, and music-related merchandise licensing).

To distribute Palm’s releases Blackwell acquired Manga Entertainment, a local operation that’s handled mostly Japanese animation. Chicagoan Marvin Gleicher started Manga in 1994 after working as a photographer for Epic Records, starting his own ad agency, and doing record marketing and promotions for Mercury, Elektra, Polygram, and Geffen. Gleicher is enthusiastic about his new assignment as head of distribution for Palm: “I’ve always felt there was a tremendous entertainment community in Chicago.” The company’s first release is Six-String Samurai, a postapocalyptic satire about a guitar hero who battles a heavy metal singer to become the king of rock ‘n’ roll. The film opened last week, on three screens locally and only 22 more around the country. Explains Gleicher, “We wanted to establish the film in key markets first.”

Palm plans to release some of its films on DVD format, and it will make good use of Blackwell’s empire: the Samurai sound track, featuring Russian rockers the Red Elvises, is being released on the Islandlife label Rykodisc. Next Palm will release Razor Blade Smile, a British vampire film that debuted at the Chicago Underground Film Festival; Gleicher says he expects most of Palm’s releases to come from young directors and producers trying to break into the business.

Mordine Ends Her Run

The struggle for Columbia College’s dance center is over: Shirley Mordine, longtime chair of the dance department, has notified Columbia president John Duff that she intends to step down. Mordine will be on paid sabbatical for the rest of the school year, and a source says faculty member Richard Woodbury is expected to serve as acting chair while Columbia conducts a national search for someone to direct the dance center and chair the dance department.

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