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The kids today don’t understand how big a deal the Pump Room once was. Imagine if every celebrity at any moment was dining at the same restaurant in Chicago: Brad and Angelina over here, Jay-Z and Beyoncé over there. Lady Gaga flirting with Prince William in the lounge. And throngs of lucky looky-loos jockeying for position, day and night.
In recent years, more than one restaurateur has blown the dust off the magical Gold Coast space in hopes of recapturing its glamorous vibe. All have failed. Such an atmosphere is no longer possible, because no single establishment can enjoy that kind of monopoly now, but also because most stars, unless they’re named Kardashian, do not hide in plain sight anymore. So Ian Schrager, a celebrated New York hotelier, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a culinary god, went in another direction. Schrager reimagined the Ambassador East as a chic modern hotel called Public Chicago, and Vongerichten recast his popular New York spot ABC Kitchen for local palates. Then they banked on the famous name. “Chicagoans are more nostalgic for the Pump Room than for any restaurant in Chicago,” says Vongerichten. “This is like a new picture of an old friend.”
The new picture is striking: a cream-toned space dominated by more than 100 hanging celestial orbs, bleached-oak tables, and swanky leather chairs. Servers, clad in black with Chuck Taylor sneaks, are of the skinny, tattooed ilk. The effect is dramatic but not showy—and the food shoots for the same target. It hits more often than it misses. Vongerichten and Bradford Phillips (formerly of LM Le Restaurant) loaded the menu with accessible fare, such as carpaccio pizza and organic fried chicken, and Pump Room classics, like a lightly breaded Wienerschnitzel with a lovely tomato salad. (Who dares to do Wienerschnitzel?)
Potential throwaways shine, as in the parmigiano-topped tagliatelle with Brussels sprouts on pistachio pesto. And the menu boasts one of the best appetizers of 2011, a crisp, warm Italian bread layered with chicken liver and fried sage: so rich that butter oozes into your gums.
Not everything works. The salt-and-pepper shrimp doesn’t have much of either, and the menu’s overreliance on chili peppers smacks of overcompensation. (Vongerichten: “The last bite has to be as exciting as the first.”) But a juicy salmon, after roasting slowly in a custom-made convection oven, gets shot full of steam and sided with wonderful potato purée and black bean vinaigrette. And desserts may be the Pump Room’s calling card. Kady Yon (lured from the Boka Restaurant Group) gives us what we want: homemade cookies, deconstructed candy bars, and irresistible treats like an airy crème fraîche cheesecake with rose meringue.
Of course, the Pump Room is still a scene. I spotted Mayor Emanuel one night, shaking everyone’s hand but mine. But it’s not about star wattage so much as providing a Gold Coast hangout for Chicago’s anonymous rich. “We had 120 for lunch today,” Vongerichten said shortly after the grand opening in October. “Maybe 110 of them were women from the neighborhood.” Some of the clientele in the dining room and arched lounge (see “A Night Out: Pump Room’s Bar”) seem oblivious to the space’s history; others are thrilled to find their former haunt vital again. You might catch older customers perusing the photos of yesterday’s stars in the entranceway for memories. To the rest, they’re just wallpaper.
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