2018, sadly, has been marked by news of many restaurant closings, including some iconic Chicago destinations. So it’s uplifting and reassuring to hear that at least one popular dining spot is celebrating a big milestone — and, well, remaining open. That would be the Bristol (2152 N. Damen Ave., Bucktown), which turns 10 this month.
Today, B. Hospitality Co. is a vibrant and growing enterprise, with Formento’s, Swift & Sons, Cold Storage, Nonna’s Pizza & Sandwiches, and Balena (when it reopens at a date TBD) in its portfolio. But back in 2008, founders John Ross and Phillip Walters were just beginning their business, and they had just one idea for a new restaurant: The Bristol.
Ross was working at OneSixtyBlu, and Walters was with a restaurateur on the North Shore. Their pockets weren’t particularly deep, but they devoted themselves to realizing their vision. “We put every penny we had into the place,” Ross says. “We emptied out the couches, and did as much of the work ourselves as we could.”
Back in 2008, the term “farm-to-table” wasn’t yet the marketing buzzword it is today, and the Bristol was doing it right. The team created relationships with farmers, giving them shoutouts on its menus and sourcing the best ingredients it could. “We felt fervently about sourcing,” says Ross. “These days, it’s more inferred, and it’s less necessary to educate diners. It’s gotten to the point where most restaurants, if they have any belief in their own product, should be buying that way.”
The Bristol opened on September 23, 2008, with a line around the block. It’s still packed most nights. “We always wanted to undersell and overperform,” says Ross. At a time when fine dining was on the rise in Chicago, Ross and Walters made a decision to go in a different direction. “It’s become our mantra to be the chefs’ off-duty place,” says Walters. “It’s the chefs’ place to hang out, to get elevated cuisine without spending a fortune." In the Bristol’s early days, check averages were less than $30; even today, the restaurant is still reasonably priced.
“It was a selfish concept; we wanted to serve what we liked," says Ross. "We really like sardines, we like anchovies, we like sweet breads and bone marrow." And the pair, it turns out, was ahead of a trend, as those ingredients that might have been challenging in 2008 are now staples on new menus around town.
Currently, the kitchen at the Bristol is helmed by chef Todd Stein, who maintains the culinary legacy of the restaurant's first chef, Chris Pandel, while adding his own twists and flavors. Some iconic Bristol dishes — duck fat fries, monkey bread, and the always incredible roast chicken with mustard spaetzle (which Ross claims to eat at least twice a week) — have stayed on the menu to this day. Stein loved eating at the restaurant before he started working there. “It was a place I wanted to go because the food was really good, and you were well taken care of,” he says. “And there was great wine. The environment itself was so comfortable, you just want to be there. I hope I’m continuing to contribute.”
This month, the Bristol is reaching back to its roots for a small anniversary celebration. For $39, diners can enjoy a four-course meal representing the restaurant’s “greatest hits”: dishes that have proven popular over the years but aren’t on the regular menu. Among these are a porchetta with a late summer panzanella and Nutter Butters with chocolate crema. The special menu is available Sundays through Thursdays until September 27.
“We opened up the restaurant in the teeth of the recession; we scraped our way through it,” says Walters. “There’s an indelible quality about the Bristol — this Midwest sensibility. We are feeling very good about the next 10 years.”