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The Spirit of Keefer’s Rises on the North Shore

The owner of the defunct steakhouse is teaming up with Ryan O’Donnell for a new concept in Wilmette.

Photo: Courtesy of Sophia

A legendary Chicago restaurateur is making a comeback — but not in the city. Glenn Keefer’s name is known to diners throughout the metro area, thanks to his 13-year tenure at his namesake steakhouse (which was replaced by a much less distinctive seafood joint). Five years after that closure, Keefer is back in the steakhouse game with the forthcoming Sophia (1146 Wilmette Ave., Wilmette).

After his restaurant closed, Keefer spent a few years in the restaurant insurance business. When Ryan O’Donnell — of Ballyhoo Hospitality, the restaurant group behind spots like Coda di Volpe and Gemini — looked to team up, they decided that what they really wanted to do was open a new steakhouse on the North Shore.

Why open a steakhouse, traditionally a spot for downtown power dining, in Wilmette? They saw a gap in the market. Without naming names, O’Donnell and Keefer weren’t too impressed by the steak options on the North Shore, which prioritized huge portions and high prices over a thoughtful approach to meat.

“What Glenn and I want to provide is a modern take on what people are looking for. We want to be more responsible with our portions and the beef we serve,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell describes Sophia’s dishes as the “anti-steakhouse” takes on classics. Don’t expect towering slices of cake or 100-ounce, $200 steaks; do expect interesting, flavorful butcher cuts at reasonable prices. That ethos will extend to the seafood menu, with Keefer sourcing seasonal fish like hake, wild salmon, and halibut from trusted fishermen.

“I don’t think we’re going to want to have a $180 piece of wagyu coming off our menu — that doesn’t say ‘neighborhood steakhouse,’ ” O’Donnell says.

Formerly a commercial fisherman, Keefer is obsessive about quality. While running Keefer’s, he claims he waited at the back door for every delivery “with a purchase order, a scale, and a keen eye.”

“I was famous for holding drivers for two hours going through every loin and cut of steak,” he says. “They hated me, but you know what happened? They started getting it right, because they didn’t want their drivers to stay with me for two hours.”

“Glenn has the old school way of greeting you at the door, walking you to the table, giving you a handshake, remembering people’s names,” O’Donnell adds. “He’s the ultimate floor guy who can make people feel like it’s their home.”

Sophia is scheduled to open in the spring, and the owners are confident that they’ll have a hit on their hands.

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