Steve Soble has a knack for transforming underappreciated real estate into restaurants. Not so long ago he saw the hidden beauty in a condemned North Avenue bathhouse. He purchased it, revamped it, and salvaged the spectacular space that became Shawn McClain's elegant restaurant Spring. More recently an asphalt-shingled structure at the northeast corner of Roscoe and Damen caught his eye. "I saw this wonderful building hiding under a burqa" is how he describes the site that once housed Red wine bar and the Italian restaurant Sipario. Now it's home to Soble's latest endeavor, the Riverview Tavern, which opened April 25.
Possibly Soble's gift for spotting potential was developed by Hans Morsbach, the proprietor of Hyde Park's Medici cafe. Soble was a 25-year-old marketing executive supervising the redesign of Aunt Jemima at Quaker Oats when he determined to strike out on his own. He figured Chicago could use a nongrungy pool hall--something like the bar on Cheers, which was popular at the time--and he'd found the perfect location at 2610 N. Halsted. He had the concept, the chutzpah, and some minimal experience as a waiter and a short-order cook; all he lacked was money. So he tracked down the property's owner, Morsbach, and proposed a partnership.
"He probably saw a little of himself in me," says Soble of his mentor, with whom he maintains close ties. Morsbach agreed to serve as both landlord and partner, allowing Soble to open the Corner Pocket in 1989 along with a third partner, Howard Natinsky. "That first six months was the hardest six months of my life," Soble says. "I didn't know what I was doing."
Needless to say, he figured it out. In 1991 he purchased the Southport Lanes in Lakeview, with its old-fashioned pin boys ("It was such a piece of Chicago history"). In 1995 he launched Lucky Strike at 2747 N. Lincoln with vintage lanes salvaged from Kansas City. That was followed in 1996 by the Hudson Club, with an interior designed by Jordan Mozer on an aviation theme. He became a partner in Lincoln Square's Daily Bar & Grill in order to remodel it in 2000, when he also purchased the old firehouse that became Evanston's Firehouse Grill. As for the defunct Trocadero, his wife Susan's favorite, located beneath the old Bigsby & Kruthers at 1750 N. Clark: "It's the most beautiful restaurant no one saw. Never take a basement location," he says.
Still grateful for Morsbach's helping hand, Soble offers partnership shares to long-term staff and gives line workers incentives in the form of bonuses, a practice largely unheard of in the restaurant business. "When I started my business I didn't want to be the man, the guy from whom people take. It's amazing how well people do when you give them opportunities." When he came across the shrouded structure at Roscoe and Damen, he offered its owners, David and Deborah Schenk, a chance to partner with him. They agreed. He extended a share in the new restaurant to his longtime director of operations, Greg Lamacki, and another to Riverview's general manager, Phil Carneol, who ten years ago abandoned medicine to take a job at Southport Lanes. Soble attributes his people skills to being a middle child. "I like to play the peacemaker, the harmonizer."
Taking as his theme the Riverview amusement park, the Roscoe Village institution where generations of Chicagoans cavorted from 1904 to 1967, Soble then set about reconfiguring the building. He commissioned sign maker Tony Janda to fabricate a vintage-looking exterior wood sign. He called upon muralist Stephanie Gabel, who covered the back wall of the dining room with a view of the park in the early 20th century. Woodworker Scott Patterson re-created a gracious turn-of-the-century Brunswick bar. Mixing original Riverview mementos (including Kewpie dolls and old photos) with copies of period artifacts in an environment where guests can play pool, air hockey, and darts, Soble has achieved an unembarrassed melding of old and new without schlocking the place up with too many doodads. "I like classic-looking things," he says. "I don't like clowns or fun-house mirrors."
The menu at Riverview Tavern offers classic pub fare, updated to accommodate popular tastes. Hummus, potato skins, hand-cut fries, and quesadillas are among the appetizers. Salads include Cobb, Santa Fe chicken salad, and Caesar. Burgers--beef, turkey, veggie--abound, plus there's a southern-style BBQ pork sandwich and even a grilled cheese. Stick-to-your-ribs entrees include steak and fries, home-style meat loaf, rigatoni with meatballs, fish-and-chips, and chicken potpie. Close to 30 bottled beers are offered, and almost a dozen on draft.
While not a preservationist, Soble chooses "to save anything worth saving." Here, he salvaged Sipario's wood-fired pizzas--along with its staff--for his Robey Pizza Company, a separate restaurant housed in the same structure. He also retained the pizza parlor's tin ceiling.
If a building's potential lies hidden--or if it's an architectural treasure standing in rags--count on Soble to find it and give it mainstream appeal. "I'm a contrarian," he says. "Taking a situation deemed impossible, then figuring out how to do it--that's what I love."
Riverview Tavern is at 1958 W. Roscoe, 773-248-9523.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.