An inside look at a restaurant opening

Some new restaurants prefer to stay under the radar on opening day, building momentum as they hit their stride. Others open with a bang. The latter was the case when Chicago’s long-anticipated River Roast held its opening party with high-profile Chef Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame at the helm.

River Roast took over the space formerly occupied by Fulton’s on the River, a huge multi-level space typically filled with out-of-towners who cared more about the view than the food. With Mantuano running the kitchen along with Executive Chef John Hogan, a 20-year veteran of Chicago fine dining (most recently at Keefer’s), parent Levy Restaurants seems to be placing a higher priority on the culinary side.

The crowd

Full disclosure: I was invited as press to cover the opening, along with a handful of writers from other publications and media outlets. We don’t promise coverage, but we do attend openings to scope out trends, meet the operators and take stock of the design, menu, etc. On this night, the bulk of the guests (and there were several hundred) were “friends and family,” meaning regulars culled from Spiaggia’s lists, well-heeled potential customers and influential Chicagoans. They gathered to sip cocktails and wine, pile plates with food and mingle to the music. Extending this kind of largess is a proven way to create buzz among “extended family and friends” and fill seats in a new place.

The space

The prime location must have been a selling point for Mantuano to partner in River Roast, his first non-Italian restaurant. The soaring, two-story building sits on the Chicago River smack in the center of The Loop surrounded by the city’s skyscrapers. The first floor or river level seats 253 diners at communal and smaller tables, offers up two bars and opens up to an outdoor patio with seating for 80 additional guests. Upstairs are the private dining rooms and event spaces, where hundreds more can be accommodated.

But the exhibition kitchen lining the back wall was the focal point. It reinforces the “roast” in the restaurant’s name. Whole chickens were spinning on a built-in brick oven/rotisserie, with other meats lined up to take their turn. Mantuano himself was back there expediting.

The food

Usually, it’s a challenge to get much food at restaurant openings, but those chickens came off the spit like clockwork, onto big buffet tables that were set up on both levels. The spread reflected the menu’s description of “contemporary American tavern fare.” Along with the roast chickens, there were platters of Hogan’s Peas—tiny sweet peas with shards of lettuce that were way tastier than they sound—crispy potatoes that are baked then fried, hand-carved beef and classic chopped salad. Lemon trifle was passed around for dessert. Is upgraded British food the next “global” trend?

Dos and don’ts at an opening

Granted, this was one of the more lavish debuts, but there are lessons that can be applied to the launch of any new restaurant.

  • Hand out a floor plan. At River Roast, each guest was given a printed map to help navigate the multi-level space and outdoor area. Even if your restaurant is a dining room with 50 seats, a rough map or sketch can help people find the bar, rest rooms, kitchen, etc.
  • Be seen. Mantuano was very visible throughout the night, making sure things were running smoothly in the kitchen and meeting and greeting regulars. The chef should be the key player at an opening.
  • Have plenty of food. A buffet is a good idea, but River Roast ran out of one of its signatures pretty quickly—the roast beef—and it wasn’t replenished for quite some time. Servers should be passing trays of finger food too, so there’s not a backlog at the buffet. And make sure some of the menu’s signatures are available for sampling.
  • Provide high-top tables and extra seating. There’s nothing worse than trying to balance a plate in one hand and a glass of wine or cocktail in the other without a place to set them down. It’s also tough to stand for two hours straight, but I’ve never been to an opening that had enough seats.
  • Display printed take-aways. We had to hunt down press kits, finally spotting one of the managers carrying a bunch of folders. Even non-media guests appreciate a printed menu, postcard or other information to reference in the future. Put out something on a table near the entrance/exit.
  • Make the swag count. I’ve gotten all types of goody bags at openings, most of which were too heavy to carry or full of logoed merchandise I wouldn’t use. A much better idea is a card or certificate offering a free glass of wine or half-price entrée at the next visit. It almost guarantees a repeat customer.

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