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The Grub Game

Life After Melman

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Welcome to Heaven," says the young man at the front desk. It's Friday night, and Heaven on Seven on Clark is pleasantly full. But just pleasantly full: people waiting for tables aren't spilling out the door. It isn't attracting the kind of business its owners are accustomed to.

"We've been spoiled," says George Bannos, the older of the two brothers whose 20-year-old Loop restaurant nearly always has people lined up by the dozens at lunch, and whose Rush Street branch brings in the North Michigan Avenue crowd. With his brother Jimmy, the chef of the outfit, he opened the newest Heaven on Seven last April in the shadow of Wrigley Field. "This one, we're cocky enough we think we're gonna go," says George. "And in the summertime, with Cubs games, everything was great. Now, with winter, everybody's in hibernation."

Set back off a busy stretch of Clark at Cornelia, the restaurant is easy to miss, and cabbies and customers sometimes do. (To attract business the brothers recently added delivery service.) But the area had a particular draw. "We really thought this was an up-and-coming food neighborhood," explains Jimmy. He and his brother observed "the metamorphosis, the change of Wrigleyville, where instead of bar and frozen precooked fried food all the time, people are caring what they put in their mouth. It's a whole new little restaurant scene."

At the same time, says George, "This is a true, true neighborhood joint, and that's the way I wanted it, and that's the way it was built. This is the kind of place you could go to, kick your shoes off, and have a nice time without paying the cost of an airline ticket."

The Bannos brothers opened the Wabash diner, on the seventh floor of the Garland Building, with their parents in 1980. George and their mother ran the front, while Jimmy and their dad ran the galley-sized kitchen. It was a Jewish deli until Jimmy's 1984 Mardi Gras menu started customers demanding regular Cajun fare. "We made matzo balls the size of baseballs," recalls Jimmy. "I made the best kreplachs in the world." They still keep deli menus tucked in wire holders on the U-shaped counters for customers who want tamer fare.

In June 1997 the brothers teamed up with Rich Melman, the wunderkind of the Lettuce Entertain You chain and the father of concept dining, to open Heaven on Seven on Rush. The new joint attempted to marry the Bannos cooking and blunt charm with the Melman magic, and its location in the 600 N. Michigan building proved popular with shoppers, tourists, and moviegoers who rode the double escalators past the eatery. It also drew die-hard fans from the Wabash diner, which is closed on weekends and only occasionally serves dinner.

The food on Rush Street lived up to Heaven on Seven's reputation, but the place never had that down-home Bannos sensibility. Instead of lifer waitresses who called everyone "hon" and a staff of family members who treated customers like kind aunts or irritating in-laws, the Rush Street restaurant had the faux cheerfulness and manufactured atmosphere that is the Melman stamp. After two and a half years the Bannoses finally split with Melman, buying out his share of the partnership.

The brothers are uncharacteristically mum on the subject of their former partner. "It was like a bad marriage," says Jimmy with a laugh. "That's all I can say." But he acknowledges the "available money" to branch out was attractive. And George admits it was because of Melman that they thought they could make a second restaurant work: "He probably kicked us in the ass to do it." Jimmy counters, "We would have done it." George quickly adds, "We would have, but who knows?"

When it came time to design another restaurant, the Bannoses did it on their own. Stuccoed in cool blue green tones on the outside, the Clark Street restaurant's interior is warm and welcoming, with ocher walls, simple wooden tables, a bar decorated with a purple, green, and yellow harlequin pattern, and the trademark Bannos "Wall of Fire," displaying thousands of bottles from the brothers' collection of hot sauces.

George proudly shows off the new digs, noting that he didn't hire an architect. "Hell no. I didn't use a designer either. I like to do this," he says. He explains that he copied the "true New Orleans colors" of the Wabash diner and also incorporated some design aspects from the Rush Street restaurant. The idea was "to make everybody feel good" by making the place seem familiar.

Like everyone who goes through a breakup, George and Jimmy learned a few lessons. They've discovered that there is life without Melman; business at their two downtown restaurants is as brisk as ever, and the whole Bannos operation now employs more than 100 people. The Clark location has 80 seats, Rush Street 160, and Wabash 102. The original location remains open six days a week for breakfast and lunch and serves dinner the first and third Fridays of every month. The two newer locations are open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, as well as for brunch on Saturday and Sunday. And The Heaven on Seven Cookbook was just published by Ten Speed Press.

The brothers also learned that in times of trouble you can always count on family. Relatives once again run and largely staff the Bannos joints, though they've made one exception, perhaps in deference to these days of blended families: "We adopted Bob Vick, who's now our partner," Jimmy says. "He's our third brother." Vick is a refugee from the Melman empire; he was a Lettuce vice president for 15 years. Now members of his family, too, work at the Heaven establishments.

The only missing players are Jimmy and George's parents, both of whom have passed on. George says he misses working with them. He invokes the spirit of his father in addressing the challenges of the Clark Street restaurant. "We're the kind of people, it's like a quest," he says. "My father never taught us the words 'I can't.' I'll never forget that as long as I live."

Heaven on Seven on Clark is at 3478 N. Clark, 773-477-7818.

--Mara Tapp

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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