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When it comes to restaurants, it’s hard to break out of the box and experiment with your brand. That’s why the opening of the new Wollensky’s Grill in Chicago caught our attention. It’s the first time we’ve seen a parallel concept come alongside a successful brand and really build on it.
Smith & Wollensky steakhouses are found across the country in major cities, including Chicago. They are known for their attention to detail, elegance, commitment to beef, and over the top level of service.
“People believe there are Smith & Wollensky’s all over,” says Michael Feighery, President & CEO for the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. “In fact, there are only ten. That’s how well we capture people’s imagination. That is the strength of the brand.” This is also one reason why Feighery and his team decided to expand their appeal with the new, more approachable concept of Wollensky’s Grill.
In Chicago, where the first Grill concept recently debuted, there was a deliberate decision to keep the two separate concepts in the same location. That meant a renovation for the Smith & Wollensky main dining restaurant upstairs and the new expanded space downstairs for the new Wollensky’s Grill, both overlooking the Chicago River.
The new space downstairs, is where the difference is really felt. Now the U-shaped bar commands the room, with a “surround view” of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the river walk just above the boats at Marina City. High tops and booths, hardwood floors, and low lighting all lend themselves to an ambiance of heady power with a side of “meet me at the bar.”
On opening night, Chicago’s media came out with high interest to check out the concept, proving that it’s time is now. The opening was designed to give people a walk through of the restaurant and a taste of the food—which includes a new lunch menu and lots of shareables for after-work relaxation. It’s a restaurant which should be easy to integrate into the Chicagoan’s life, not to mention business leaders and travelers—it’s just that approachable.
“We felt we needed a new concept,” says Feighery. “Smith & Wollensky is quite a commitment. Not everyone has the time or the finances. Now we have a distinct place that is smaller and more casual, combined with its own, more accessible menu.”
That menu includes smaller plates and prices, with most of the items completely shareable, including main courses. That means if you order the signature Smoked Rib Eye Steak at Wollensky’s Grill, it comes sliced for sharing. Feighery adds, “You still have the professional service, but they can spend a little more time with you—it’s more of a gastropub feel, with a bigger bar and time for engagement.”
Michelle Anderson is the General Manager of the new concept, bringing 20 years of Chicago food experience with her. “We’re very foodie-oriented,” she says with a smile. “We are using locally made spirits and featuring them in our craft cocktails. We remain beef-centric with items such as our house smoked Cup O’ Bacon appetizer. We believe in local and we want the local people to feel at home.” And, yes, it really is beef bacon.
Anderson is excited about the new lunch menu and believes it will introduce a whole new crowd to Wollensky’s Grill. “Our challenge is to get previous clientele to embrace this,” she says, “but we think they are ready to step outside the box and try something new, that is ensured by our quality and reputation. It’s classic steakhouse but with a bit of a twist.”
Her personal style may well be part of its success. She confesses, “I’m always in the dining room. I believe in helping the staff, touching the tables, even clearing tables when needed—whatever needs to be done. It’s like I’m having a party at my house every night, and I want to take care of everyone personally!”
That attention to detail works well with the food concepts developed by Corporate Chef Matthew King, who is also the company’s National Director of Culinary Development. He told us that he sat back and thought about “how to make our concept friendly and unique, while retaining our meat centric philosophy.”
That thinking evolved into menu items such as the Banh Mi sandwich, with smoked pork, chicken liver mousse, pickled cabbage and sriracha aoli. King says he took his inspiration from food trucks and gave it his own twist. He’s done the same with other items, such as the Braised Oxtail (which is paired with Seared Scallops), bringing to life an “underutilized meat that is really flavorful.”
There are other not-so-standard twists, like the Lobster Corn Dogs, Burrata Bar with choice of meat and veggies, and Asian Spring Rolls, all designed to melt in your mouth.
King says that his radar is always out for new ideas. “It’s always a combination of my own experiences, the reading I do, new food trends, and a lot of research,” says King. He adds that putting this menu together was fun for him. “It was something where you can say, ‘if this were your restaurant, with no expectations, what would you want to do?’ Then that’s what I did! It was a chance to create new expectations and break out of the mold.”
What started in Chicago may soon spread. “This concept has lots of legs,” says Feighery. “We have lots of landlord inquiries already.” That could even include standalone restaurants in new markets. Feighery told us, “After about six months of study we’ll see what works and compare our guest feedback. Then we can go back with our team and see about a freestanding concept.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago you can have the best of both worlds—the traditional Smith & Wollensky, or the unique and approachable Wollensky’s Grill. Where else but in a food city like Chicago can you find something with the elegance of fine dining and the relaxed atmosphere that will draw you back time and time again? Nothing in our experience demonstrates that experience quite like Wollensky’s Grill.