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I was just writing about how few major closings our a-go-go restaurant scene has had in the last few years. And now comes a biggie: Tavernita, the River North hot spot with a Latin-Spanish tapas feel from the fast-growing (until now) Mercadito Hospitality group, abruptly shut down Thursday over nonpayment of a $75,000 tax bill and the concomitant loss of its liquor license.
The news came just a day or two after they opened their lunchtime "street food" spot Mercadito Counter, and it's not clear how this affects the various other projects they've announced, including a cocktail joint with New York-based mixologists the Tippling Bros., set for a former Leona's space in River North. Restaurant groups often have different deals behind different projects, so financially Tavernita's collapse may not directly affect the other restaurants in the group—but it's certainly an embarrassing blow to their ambitions to be a major player on the Chicago nightlife scene. Tavernita was their most ambitious opening to date—their first collaboration with a noted Chicago chef—but the ways in which it fell short suggest why Mercadito hasn't found success here like other high-profile restaurant groups.
Mercadito started in New York with a Mexican-fusion spot of that name, but owners Alfredo and Patricio Sandoval soon relocated and focused their efforts here in Chicago. Mercadito Chicago itself was successful, though its fusion food seemed almost blasphemous just a few blocks from Rick Bayless's seminars in serious Mexican cuisine—the kind of place where they know how to make good carnitas for tacos, but can't help finishing them with something culturally jarring (and way too sweet) like an Asian peanut slaw. As with the Chinese food at P.F. Chang's, there's about a cup too much of sugar in everything; salsa shouldn't taste like it could go on pancakes. Eating there, I couldn't help but wonder what the Mexican ladies making the tacos thought about what was being done to their native food.
Tavernita, which opened in January 2012, was going to be a step up culinarily, catching hot chef Ryan Poli as he left Perennial and giving him a chance to open the Spanish place he had been dreaming of. And the smaller part of it—the tapas bar Barcito in one corner—was quite good, fulfilling the promise (if you could squeeze in there for food) of simple Spanish flavors. But the culinary aspect of the bigger, glitzier part, Tavernita, was lost in the cacophony of the River North scene-iness, and the tap system for barrel-aged cocktails from the Tippling Bros. made a powerful argument that such a system is about serving assembly-line drinks fast, not about any sort of mixology finesse.
Poli was also reportedly in charge of Little Market Brasserie in the Talbott Hotel in the Gold Coast, but if it initially sounded as if it might be his Little Goat Diner, a playful take on classic American food with loads of chefly personality, the result—despite a handsome room—was stillborn, as boring as any hotel's casual restaurant dishing up breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not long after, Poli left, denying any serious break with the Sandovals but clearly driven personally to do more in food than serving up bacon and eggs in the morning and feeding horny drunks at night. While Tavernita was winding down, he was off on a personal journey of doing things like staging at Noma in Copenhagen.
To their credit, recent moves suggested that the Sandovals understood how they'd blown their chance at culinary seriousness with Poli. If Billy Dec could go from ¡Ay Chiwowa! (which makes Mercadito look like The Collected Works of Diana Kennedy) to a successful collaboration with chef Kevin Hickey at Bottlefork, it's certainly within the realm of possibility for them too. They brought in Guillermo Tellez, a long-ago Charlie Trotter alum, who turned the Little Market Brasserie space into Mercadito Fish, which has been well received so far. So, whatever the financial issues, they should not be written off.
But as a player on the Chicago scene, so far their big splashes have included a lot of belly flops. I reached out to Poli for comment, and the way he answered says more than a little about the mismatch of corporation and artist that was Tavernita: "I am on a totally different mindset since I left. Not really looking to the past anymore, and Tavernita seems so different from the person/cook I have become since then."