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1. EXCUSE YOURSELF FROM THE TABLE
The smart restaurateur knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Two relics of the early Lettuce heyday, Lawrence of Oregano and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, are remembered by a scant few. Decent business could not overcome a fire and a lost parking lot. The outlook was brighter when Melman opened Eccentric on West Erie in 1989. Partnering with Oprah Winfrey, Melman had every reason to expect a hit. In retrospect, he can see why the place did only so-so business. “We were trying to do too much,” Melman admits. “Steaks, fish, American, French, Southern. It wasn’t working.”
A man with a more consuming ego would have slogged on, waited to catch a break, balked at losing the Big O. “I loved Oprah; she was a great partner,” Melman says. “But I knew I’d made mistakes with the restaurant. I messed up.”
Though under no obligation to do so, he gave all his investors their money back. Folding Eccentric turned out to be a smart move. In its place he launched Wildfire, a nostalgic upscale chophouse that has spread like . . . wildfire. There are five around Chicago, one in Atlanta, one in Minneapolis, and an eighth opens this month in McLean, Virginia, a D.C. suburb.
When Melman pulls up stakes, he often hangs on to the real estate, because location rules at Lettuce. Once he tired of his elegant Italian eatery Avanzare, at St. Clair and Huron, he installed Tru with the haute-renowned team of Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto; when Papagus, the bright, busy Greek restaurant at State and Ontario, ceased to captivate Melman, he replaced it with Osteria Via Stato, a homey Italian dining room. “Papagus was never a loser,” says Melman, “but it was never a big winner, either. It was a single, not a home run, and we don’t stay with singles too often.”
Osteria itself is about to cede turf to a designated hitter. Seems 20 people a night would stop by the restaurant bar and ask, “Say, where can I get a good pizza around here?”
“We finally woke up,” says Melman.
The Osteria bar was gutted and was scheduled to open in November as Pizzeria Via Stato, serving crisp, thin-crust pizza loaded with fresh ingredients. Melman had no intention of offering wood-burning oven pizzas, he says with a rare trace of scorn. He did, after all, pioneer the wood-burning oven in Chicago at Lawrence of Oregano—and he doesn’t like to repeat himself.
Photography: Courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises