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Boka Group’s Bellemore Moves in a More Casual Direction

The palatial West Loop restaurant hopes to net happy hour crowds with a more approachable menu.

Duck with duck fat fries, plus garlic aioli and citrus vinegar for dipping  
Photo: Courtesy of Bellemore

At first, Kevin Boehm, the co-owner of Boka Group, describes the changes to Bellemore as “Bellemore 2.0.” About halfway through our chat, he revises that and says it’s “more like Bellemore 1.25.”

Whatever the number, the restaurant has undergone some serious revisions, but the spirit of the original is still mostly intact.

Bellemore happened almost by accident. When Boka chef Lee Wolen introduced Boehm to chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, the much-lauded chef at Bohemian House, Boehm agreed to let Papadopoulos do a tasting. However, he’s adamant that he didn’t plan to do anything about it.

“The exact words were: We’ll meet with him, but we’re not opening a restaurant,” Boehm remembers.

But after staying up all night preparing in his mother’s kitchen, Papadopoulos wowed them so much that they couldn’t just stay still.

When Bellemore opened in 2017, it won awards, made it onto every best-of list (including ours) and was generally regarded as a huge success. The combination of Boka glamour — with a striking dining room designed by Studio K — and Papadopoulos’s refined menu seemed absolutely perfect. I loved it, and during every weekend visit, the place was packed.

Unfortunately, things weren’t going quite so well every day of the week. “On Saturday nights, we were doing 220 covers,” Papadopoulos says. “But on Monday and Tuesday, we were maybe doing 50.” Or, as Boehm puts it: “We were missing the mark by about 3 inches – not by 10 feet.” In other words, they’d created a destination restaurant but hadn’t gotten the everyday diners who lived nearby.

That led to Bellemore 1.25/2.0, which now labels itself as an “American brasserie.” Gone is the calligraphy-laden website, the Instagram-famous (and insanely pricy) oyster pie, and the traditional three-course tasting menu. The dining room has been slightly redesigned, there’s more bar seating, and everything is just a little bit brighter.

“It’s a new branding for a lot of the same creative cooking,” Papadopoulos says. “We took the jackets off, rolled the sleeves a little bit, and turned up the music.”

What does this mean in practice? Lower-priced starters, more pasta, and a selection of sandwiches (including what Papadopoulos claims is one of the best burgers in town). Some favorites, including umami-heavy venison tartare and fluffy Hawaiian rolls, are still on the menu, and the spirit of the food is similar, though a lot of the refinement comes more from the kitchen than from the dining room.

To be completely realistic, this is probably the best move for the restaurant. It has a huge dining room and needs to attract an after-work crowd that isn’t looking to drop $150 a person on a Tuesday night. The market segment that Bellemore 1.0 occupied — a high-end occasion restaurant that isn’t a steakhouse or a 10-course tasting menu — seems to be diminishing in popularity.

That said, I’ll miss the muted calm of that gorgeous room and the measured pace of the traditional series of plates that, to me, symbolized Bellemore. Luckily, fans like me won’t have to totally re-adjust: The signature taxidermy is still there, and if you really want the oyster pie, you can still have it.

“Just send me an email with about three days’ notice,” Papadopoulos laughs.

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