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The news ripped through Chicago's food scene like a schmaltz-greased bullet. After just a couple of weeks of operation, Brendan Sodikoff's Dillman's Deli, the most ambitious attempt at a new deli in Chicago in living memory, was ditching the deli side. Sodikoff, who had instantly convinced late-night hipsters that a dark place with a French name was a diner, had met his match by toying with the expectations of deli customers, whom he reported as being genuinely angry that Dillman's wasn't what they expected. The assumption was that Dillman's, which already looked way more like Gilt Bar or Bavette's than any deli Chicagoans had ever seen, was on its way to an emergency reconcepting as Au Cheval Deux.
Except that most of that wasn't really true. Yes, Sodikoff was having the word "deli" scraped off the glass, and he now refers to the place as "a deli-inspired American brasserie," the kind of combination that would sound wishy-washy coming from most restaurateurs but is par for the course for Sodikoff, who remixes dining genres the way Quentin Tarantino mashes up spaghetti westerns and kung fu movies. But when I spoke with him by e-mail, what became clear is—the marketing is changing. "Deli" is off the name. But the restaurant is still what Brendan Sodikoff wants you to eat from now on, and to judge by his record, you probably will.
Michael Gebert: So what happened? People came to what they thought would be a deli, and they rebelled?
Brendan Sodikoff: The short version is we're not doing a deli case and premade goods to carry out, and initial guests were beyond confused. Many traveled in from the suburbs and were seriously angry we'd use the term [deli] without these things.
It was really tough disappointing so many people who expected the traditional deli case. So I'm referring to Dillman's as a "Deli Inspired American Brasserie" to avoid this confusion. Basically RL meets Manny's.
The major change was removing "delicatessen" from the storefront. The menu remains true to the vision. We have made the normal opening tweaks to item descriptions, menu layout, headers etc., and I've added one more entree to the dinner menu and two vegetarian options, from [what was on] the opening menu.
So did these people try to eat and were they mollified, or did they storm out because they couldn't walk out with a bunch of packages?
The majority of the upset guests didn't eat, because they were looking for very specific case items for carry-out or delivery. A few insisted on ordering off-menu items—build their own sandwich or salad—which we can't accommodate.
I was a little surprised by pictures of the decor, not that I expected it to look like Manny's, but it really looks like Bavette's, say.
I understand the surprise. The room is divided into two parts: old style coffee house/cocktail bar and American brasserie/delicatessen in the main dining room. The coffee bar is pretty luxurious and is primarily for laptopping/meetings and coffee during the day, and general cocktailing and socializing at night.
Besides the large chandelier and reading lamps the dining room is fairly traditional. I think the luxury of the bar and coffee area is most surprising to those seeking that traditional deli. Especially since it's the first thing you see.
Our regulars and local patrons melt right into the space and love it. But those seeking a meat and prepared food case are understandably surprised and disappointed, which I feel bad about and which pushed me to change the public descriptors of the space.
I know in Los Angeles, this kind of more upscale deli exists. Did you check out any delis that are trying to compete in the same price/luxury range, and if you did, what did you get from them?
Yes—I feel deli style and classic American cooking is very respectable and I love it. What a comfortable space is today has changed drastically from when the traditional deli was popular. For this style of cooking to endure, I feel it needs to be presented in a way so younger diners gravitate to it. Having some lighter options, strong classic cocktails, a serious wine list and a seductive room help younger diners connect and enjoy the restaurant. Deli and coffee by day—steaks and cocktails by night.
It's interesting that people pretty much took to Au Cheval instantly, for all the ways it's a diner that's not like any diner people had seen before, but they reacted so strongly to this being a deli that's not like other delis.
It's been about the same [in traffic]. Dillman's is just bigger. Over the last 10 services we've served more guests than Au Cheval did in the first month, and more guests equals more opinions in a shorter period. Guests traveling 45 minutes or more to come to check out the new "traditional deli" were expecting a specific experience they really enjoy, and that just isn't us. Dillman's is a place for a morning coffee, soup and stacked pastrami at lunch or a steak diane and light salad at midnight with a stiff Old Fashioned or a nice bottle of red.
So I've learned that we can't call Dillman’s a traditional deli, but I do think it's a restaurant I would really enjoy eating and socializing in a few times a week which is very much in the spirit of and influenced by its history.Dillman's, 354 W. Hubbard, 312-988-0078