Tuning Les Violins: Rittenberg Pitches a Little Lower

Jimmy Rittenberg, the nightlife impresario who’s made Ditka’s one of Chicago’s highest-grossing restaurants, may now be facing his greatest challenge yet: bringing romance back to the city’s dining scene. In August Rittenberg unveiled Les Violins, a public restaurant and adjacent private nightclub at 59 W. Grand, in the shell of the short lived Chevy’s restaurant. He hired Franz Benteler’s strings to serenade diners and nightclub patrons, and brought in chef Michel Maloiseau from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’s Carlton Club to create a menu. The result is a throwback to an era of romantic evenings on the town: the sound of lush strings swirls the dining room, whetting patrons’ appetites for a selection of elegant and pricey and somewhat old-fashioned dishes such as steak Diane and Dover sole.

When asked what Les Violins is all about, Rittenberg refers back to the Consort Room, a chichi supper club atop the Michigan Avenue Westin Hotel that closed six years ago. Rittenberg believes he can resurrect the Consort Room’s special-occasion aura and make it popular once more. But at a time when diners (even those over 35 years old) seem to be demanding more of everything for less money, Rittenberg is working the very high end of the price scale. Les Violins entrees start at $14.50 for a plate of pasta and rise to $29 for the Dover sole in a champagne sauce; appetizers are in the $8-to-$12 range and desserts hover around $5. The private nightclub requires a $500 membership fee up front ($200 for charter members). About 650 people have signed up thus far; Rittenberg says he still is getting the word out. For now, Les Violins restaurant patrons are being invited into the adjacent club after dinner to have a drink and look around at the smoked glass and dark gray walls. Around 10 PM on a recent Saturday the club was almost empty, and a staffer said the room was awaiting permanent banquettes to accommodate guests who do show up.

A month and a half into Les Violins, Rittenberg can see some of the obstacles he faces. An early review from Sun-Times critic Don Rose, who admitted he doesn’t like violins with his fancy food, slammed some of the cuisine. In a city that parties primarily on the weekends, weekday restaurant business has been slow, Rittenberg concedes. Some customers are objecting to a $4 per person restaurant surcharge for Benteler’s melodious strings, which may soon disappear (it already has for club members) according to a Les Violins spokeswoman. In an apparent move to generate restaurant traffic and lure some of the cost-conscious, Rittenberg this week introduced a $19.95 four-course prix fixe early-bird dinner, and nightclub members will get an introductory 20 percent discount on all food. Rittenberg says he intends to step up marketing and advertising efforts to generate business, and word of mouth could help as well, but it looks to be an uphill battle. Complicating matters is Rittenberg’s uncertain future at Ditka’s. His management contract there expires in December, and Rittenberg says he is at odds with the owners of the property over terms of a new contract. Another source says flatly that Rittenberg won’t be there after the end of the year.

Corporate Shelter

A hit with the underground, Shelter now wants some respect–and money–from above-ground corporate types and party planners. The club, which opened last March at 564 W. Fulton, continues to draw crowds of the fashionable people, and now it is trying to attract revenue-maximizing private parties as well. Club management has spent about 22,000 of its hard-earned bucks putting together a thick promotional kit to drum up more corporate and special-event business. The kit includes an expensive four-color foldout brochure that glossily shows off the various ambiences contained within the 100-year-old warehouse turned nightclub. Manager Michael Blatter doesn’t want to confuse anyone with the new promotional thrust. “Though we still are an underground kind of club,” he explains, “we also are very professional. We thought the new promotional kit was a way to make a major statement to that effect.”

Fishing for Night Crawlers

Speaking of maximizing revenue, the Chicago Dining Authority hopes to do just that with the creation of the Pompano Club on the first floor of its massive three-story Burhop’s restaurant at 500 N. LaSalle. (The group also owns Prairie and Red Kerr’s.) According to CDA president Ted Mouzakeotis, diners already had been convening in the room, a raw bar and cocktail lounge, for after-dinner drinks, so the conversion into a destination nightclub–with live entertainment Tuesday through Saturday and a separate LaSalle Street entrance–seemed a logical next step. The club formally opens this weekend with pop-rock singer Gary Filip and his band.

Flour Power

Here’s a performance you can sink your teeth into: Actor Tom Hodges, who returned to Chicago recently after a stint in Los Angeles doing film and television work, is appearing in the Lookingglass Theatre Company production of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which just opened at Chicago Filmmakers. Between rehearsals he’s been toiling in the small kitchen of his rented apartment, testing recipes for white-chocolate macadamia-nut cookies, lemon poppy-seed muffins, and other baked goods to be offered at the theater’s concession stand. Hodges bakes mostly for the love of it, but that doesn’t mean he’s careless about costing out his products. The price of each ingredient in the various items is marked on his recipe cards. “You have to know how much these things cost to make,” he explains, “to know how much to charge for them.”

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