Nicole Montgomery, restaurant designer


Nicole Montgomery - MARY MARKS
  • Mary Marks
  • Nicole Montgomery
First-person accounts from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford

"When the Limelight opened, I was in high school. Andy Warhol was going to be there. It coincided with a family trip to Chicago, and I remember lobbying my father: 'Please, can we just drive by it?' If you could work where Andy Warhol hung out, that was OK with me.

"I went to U. of I. for fine art, and I worked in the bar business to pay for art supplies. Straight out of college, my first job was bartending at the offtrack betting place at State and Lake, in the private room upstairs. Gene Siskel was my lunchtime regular. Then I went over to work at Hi-Tops in Wrigleyville, and they asked me to be the director of marketing and PR. I had just turned 21.

"I did a lot of artwork in bars. I did a huge mural at Cactus down at the Board of Trade—me and two assistants on scaffolds for weeks. You'd start working when the bar closed at four o'clock in the morning, and you'd knock off at ten when they were getting ready for lunch. That morphed into full-service design. Now I'm an interior designer who focuses on restaurants.

"I don't want to say anything bad about somebody who had to do a budget job, but when you're sitting at a table and see that they used plywood for the tabletop, it's so glaring. Restaurant designers know how to get a more expensive-looking project for the budget.

"The first nightclub I designed was Voyeur. We had a VIP room with joysticks that operated cameras out in the bar. There was one in the women's bathroom so the girls could scope out the guys at the bar and pick who they wanted to talk to. Then I did Mystique, which is now Entourage. I think we were the first to have a male bartender in the women's lounge. You could go in and touch up your makeup, and there was this male bartender serving shots of Godiva liqueur in chocolate cups.

"The industry is less high-concept now, more mom-and-pop. Mixology is a giant thing. They've got all these flavorings that come out of eyedroppers. You go to the place you think is the corner bar, and there's a mixologist.

"Restaurants are a hard business to sustain. If you can make it past two years, you're going to succeed. I keep the blueprints of the buildings I do because I might end up back there. I designed May Street Market, and six years later I'm [in the same space] doing Black Sheep."

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