It would not be a stretch to call Paul Kahan the crowned prince of Chicago’s restaurant scene. Under the umbrella of his restaurant group, One Off Hospitality, he has a taco joint (Big Star), a James Beard Award-winning cocktail bar (The Violet Hour), a fine-dining institution (Blackbird), and everything in between.
Two weeks ago, he defied his own rule to do make every concept “one off” and opened a second version of his hit European-inspired beer hall, The Publican (the new one is called Publican Anker), this time with a slightly more vegetables-and-small-plates slant. Fresh off of the new opening, we sat down with Kahan to chat about his growing roster of projects, Chicago’s place in the restaurant world, and how his places are keeping up with the ever-changing dining scene.
Why did you first decide to open Blackbird? What the vision for that restaurant?
The restaurant was really born out of me not wanting to work for anybody anymore. I was working for Rick Bayless — I was the sous chef/chef de cuisine at Topolobampo, and I had the opportunity to collaborate with him on a project — but instead I left and went traveling, just trying to figure out what my next thing would be.
Then I met my business partners, and I had a friend who was willing to do James Beard Award-winning design for nothing. I cooked for all of them, they got excited, and we started to collectively build a vision. We wanted to do super seasonal, very delicious food, and that’s what I hope we’re still doing today. At the time, everyone was saying the words, “seasonal” and “local,” but few people — with exceptions like Rick Bayless — were actually going to farmers’ markets. Chez Panisse was a big guiding force and always has been in my culinary career. I wanted to try to emulate that. Nineteen years later, and we’re still going strong!
You opened that spot in 1997. What was the dining scene like then?
It was a time when Charlie Trotter was at the top of his game, and when people were selling giant trophy wines. Neither of the two economic crashes that have happened since then had come to pass. We wanted to do high-end food in a much more energetic and casual environment — that really did not exist. We were the first to do relaxed fine dining in the city.
I am so excited about your newest restaurant, Publican Anker, in Wicker Park. Why open another Publican in Chicago?
One of my business partners saw an opportunity on the corner of N. Milwaukee and Damen Ave., which is located right up the street from three of our other spots — Dove’s Luncheonette, Big Star, and The Violet Hour — and he told me, “We should just do another Publican. I think it would crush it.”
At first I thought, our company is called One Off Hospitality, and I don’t just want to knock off another one of our restaurants and do the same food. The media will crush us. And then I thought about how much the original Publican had evolved over time. When it opened, we saw it as this modern American beer hall serving oysters, pork, and beer. But now we have a vegetable section that will often take up the majority of the menu. We have lots of interesting seafood options — like Dungeness crab and oily fish like mackerel. With Publican Anker, I thought, this is our chance to have another shot at The Publican. It’s a great way to pick up from where the original has evolved.
What specifically makes Publican Anker different from the original?
The menu is very vegetable-focused, and it’s also very snack-heavy. We also have this incredible sommelier who has turned our places into major wine destinations — he cherry picks old, eclectic, and interesting stuff that’s also affordable and works really well with the food. We’re really trying to buck the trend of just oysters, pork, and beer.
You have so many different kinds of restaurants — what’s the common thread across all of them?
We pay a lot of attention to detail, but more importantly, I think we have a really great sense of hospitality. It’s the most important part of what we do — we talk about it at every single one of our meetings. I also think we season aggressively; we like big, bold flavors. I love those new places in Chicago like Elske, where the flavors are restrained and understated. We are more Barbarian, and we don’t take food so seriously. We want to have fun, and for the food to speak to that. We aren’t doing everything with tweezers.
What are the biggest changes you have seen to the Chicago dining scene in the last 10 years? What excites you about it now?
It is so expensive to build a restaurant in Chicago right now. When we built Blackbird, it cost us $400,000. In this day and age, it would be a three or four million dollar project. Chicago right now feels like early East Village in New York, where you have to hold everything together with chewing gum and duct tape and make it work.
It’s a wide open market — there are places like Giant that are small and independent and just rolling up their sleeves and cooking great food, and there are also more Michelin-starred places than there ever have been before. There are just more and more people constantly coming out of the woodwork, and so much always going on.
Do you feel like your restaurants have had to constantly have to involve to fit those changes?
We see a need to keep up with how the city has changed, and our plan is to empower the young people we work with and give them more autonomy to do projects that are near and dear to their heart. I won’t say anything else, but there are definitely a few big announcements in the future with regards to that.
What is your favorite restaurant in Chicago (other than your own spots)?
I love Lula Café. I have less patience for flash and concept these days, and Lula Café is just the perfect neighborhood place. A couple years ago my wife and I sat outside and literally had the best meal I had had in Chicago the whole year. The place is super product-centric — they use a lot of the same farmers we use — and it’s just so unpretentious.
If you could open any restaurant concept you wanted, irrespective of financial/cultural constraints, what would it be?
I would open my version of Swan Oyster Depot, the historic oyster bar in San Francisco. It would be small, have 12 seats, and I would be there all the time. I was there a little while ago, and the guy waiting on us kept saying, “You could work here.” It was the weirdest thing — like a sign.
Any other upcoming projects you are excited about?
Yes! In early 2018, we are going to open a Big Star [Kahan’s taco-centric concept] in Wrigley Field. I am a huge Cubs fan and I have been since I can remember. This year I went to Game 7 of the World Series, when the Cubs were playing against Cleveland, with my friends [and fellow chefs] Michael Symon and Mario Batali. It was amazing. We have such a great team at Big Star, and I am excited to find opportunities for those key people to grow.