On June 26 Phil Marienthal, owner of Blue Mesa at 1729 N. Halsted, posted signs in the windows thanking his customers for 17 years of business, left a gracious outgoing message on the restaurant’s answering machine, and officially closed his doors. Surviving close to two decades of industry and neighborhood changes is almost unheard of in the business. According to the Illinois Restaurant Association, almost 70 percent of new ventures don’t make it to their first anniversary. Given those odds, Blue Mesa could be considered one of Chicago’s most successful restaurants. Only a handful of Lincoln Park places have outlived it including King Crab (19 years), Cafe Bernard (29 years), and R. J. Grunts (29 years), all of which have sibling establishments to help carry them. “Part of my challenge was only having the one place for all these years,” says Marienthal. “As the neighborhood changed and new restaurants popped up in developing neighborhoods, I found our clientele shifted significantly while the competition increased.”
Marienthal grew up in the industry. His father, George, owned three Chicago nightclubs: Mr. Kelly London House, and Happy Medium. After graduating from high school in 1976, he launched his own restaurant career–first in Florida, where he cooked at and managed several eateries, and then back in Chicago at Chicago Claim Company and Don Roth’s Blackhawk. But, he says, “Like most restaurant managers, I wanted to open my own place.” After several visits to Santa Fe, where his brother David, a builder and designer, lived, Marienthal fell in love with the cuisine and the ambience of the southwest. He decided to try his hand at his own upscale southwestern restaurant because “there was nothing like it in Chicago at the time.”
In 1983, Marienthal teamed up with David, and friend Charles Learner, an experienced restaurateur, came on board as an investor. They found an 80-year-old building on the comer of Halsted and Willow where two other restaurants were located, both of which closed later that same year. David handled the build out and design, which replicated a New Mexican adobe with arched doorways, a kiva fireplace, and colorful Santa Fe textiles and artifacts covering the walls. Phil took on the day-to-day operations.
At that time the south edge of Lincoln Park was an unlikely place for a fashionable restaurant. Cabrini-Green lay a few blocks to the south and there was little in the way of residential or commercial development to the west. But Marienthal trusted his intuition–he believed the neighborhood was changing and that his proximity to the Gold Coast and Old Town would work in his favor. He was right. The restaurant opened in October 1983 to instant crowds and waits of up to two hours. The next several years were a restaurateur’s dream, with steady business, neighborhood regulars, and a booming bar scene. “We weren’t particularly trying to be trendy but southwestern cooking was just getting national attention at the time,” he says. “We became a trendy hot spot by doing exactly what we wanted to do.”
Things were going so well that in November of 1987, the brothers decided to expand, opening the Canoe Club, a North Woods-style supper club, at 2843 N. Halsted. Marienthal divided his time between the two but by the end of the 80s Blue Mesa’s business began to change. The renters in the area began buying and renovating property into massive single-family homes, sending many renters to more affordable areas like Bucktown and Wicker Park, As the neighborhood gentrified, competition mounted, with a slew of new restaurants opening both nearby and in those more affordable neighborhoods to the west. The Canoe Club had a fairly steady neighborhood following, but they shut it down in 1991.
That same year, as luck would have it, Steppenwolf Theatre Company opened their new facility just down the street. “That gave us a critical boost. All of the sudden we were a pretheater destination,” says Marienthal. “But it was also a challenge–our regulars who we relied on became turned off by the crowds and waits, but business continued to be steady.”
By 1993, a decade after opening, the business had made it through a rough patch and was running smooth again. “I think the key was my loyal front and back of the house staff. I had servers on staff for six to seven years at a crack and a core kitchen staff, busboys, and managers that stayed for ten years, some fifteen. One guy was with me from opening day until closing day. We were a well-oiled machine–incredibly efficient and able to roll with the changes. I continued to work it hard,” Marienthal says, but the restaurant landscape continued to evolve. By the mid-90s, he again entertained the idea of expanding, this time by duplicating the Blue Mesa concept in the suburbs. He looked at spaces from Woodfield Mall to Northbrook to Naperville, and finally abandoned the notion. “I was such a hands-on owner and manager. I always wanted to keep my hand in the pie and between that, partnership, and money reasons, I didn’t do it.”
Instead, he poured more energy into Blue Mesa, updating the menu and riding the wave of theater business. The next few years presented fresh challenges–North Avenue boomed with new stores and restaurants and parking became virtually impossible. To keep up with the accelerated pace he gave the restaurant a face-lift, renovating the facade, remodeling the bar, and enclosing the patio with a retractable awning. He hired a succession of name chefs–a move he’d avoided in the past relying instead on his kitchen team and occasional stints by consulting chefs. “I thought if I gave it a boost we could stay open for a while,” he says now.
Instead, in early 1999, he started to think about selling. Within months, the Concannon family–owners of Don Juan in Edison Park–made an offer and by June 2000 the deal was closed. They plan to open a Chicago outpost of Don Juan, a contemporary Mexican restaurant, on November 1.
As for Marienthal, he’s sentimental but comfortable with his decision. “I’ve gotten so many kind messages from customers thanking me for all the great years,” he says. “I even had one from Indiana call and thank me for the message, because they were about to drive into town for a special dinner at Blue Mesa.” At the same time, he has his evenings and weekends free something his wife, Farrel Wilson, and their five-year-old son, Ben, appreciate. He plans to take a breather from the responsibility of owning and operating a restaurant and will join Lettuce Entertain You’s management team later this fall. “They share the same entrepreneurial approach I do, so I think it’s a good match.” –LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.