It’s always an occasion when a restaurant makes it to a big anniversary. The failure rate in the industry is high and tastes change quickly; when you combine that with rising rents and labor costs, it sometimes feels like a miracle that any restaurant stays open longer than nine months.
That’s one reason, among many, that the 10th anniversary of Longman & Eagle is genuine cause for celebration.
Longman & Eagle was an odd duck when it first opened. It wasn’t quite a gastropub, since it was too much like a bar; it wasn’t quite a bar, since its food would soon win it a Michelin star; it wasn’t a fancy restaurant, since it was intentionally too loud for comfort. So, what was it?
“We created a place we wanted to hang out,” co-owner Robert McAdams says. “We tried to build something with our friends in mind — a place we could sit and drink whiskey with our pals.”
Then, to the surprise of its founders, Longman blew up.
“We expected to be sitting at the bar drinking, and there was no longer a stool at the bar for us!” McAdams says. “We were not ready for the busyness. We all ended up doing dishes.”
The four founders (McAdams, Cody Hudson, Pete Toalson, and Bruce Finkelman) came from the bar and music business; none had extensive food experience. But that also became their greatest asset.
“The greatest thing about it was that we weren’t restaurant folks,” Finkelman says. “We had fresh eyes on it. We weren’t thinking like restauranteurs.”
While their inexperience contributed to Longman’s originality, it also led to some minor problems — like running so low on capital the founders had to use their personal bottles of whiskey to stock the bar at opening.
“Those first three years of Longman could have really benefitted from us knowing numbers. None of us knew exactly what was going on,” McAdams laughs.
All agree that one key to Longman’s early success was chef Jared Wentworth, now at Moody Tongue. Wentworth wasn’t even the opening chef; the original choice backed out at the last minute. But as soon as Wentworth did his tryout tasting, the founders were hooked. That tasting had a lot to do with the restaurant’s eventual identity, since none of them had a particular opening concept for the menu. Wentworth’s brand of rustic, locally sourced bar cuisine ended up having a huge influence on the next few years of Chicago restaurants, who wanted to replicate Longman’s success.
And what was the secret to that success? One might ask more broadly about the key to the founders’ success, as both Land & Sea Dept. and 16” on Center, the restaurant groups owned by Longman’s founders, have never closed a restaurant. They all think that the reason Longman worked was that they started with a vibe, not a concept or a menu.
“We focused first on the experience, then designed around that. And we’ve never changed that process,” Toalson says.
To celebrate its anniversary, Longman is serving a special menu through February 1 that features favorite dishes and cocktails from previous menus. On February 3 from 5 to 8 p.m., there’s a big public party with complimentary food and drink to thank the neighborhood for its support over the years. Expect a few more special things in the coming months.