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Smith & Wollensky: A more upbeat downstairs

Smith & Wollensky lower level gets a lift.

Concept: Wollensky’s Grill
Location: Chicago
Footprint: 3,000 square feet
Number of seats: 125, including bar
Key features: High-top tables encourage mingling; sliding walls create private party rooms; horseshoe-shape bar promotes conversation; large screen TVs broadcast sports

Among full-service chains, steak houses led in sales growth—up 6.2 percent in 2013 compared to 2.4 percent for all full-service restaurants, according to Chicago research firm Technomic. Smith & Wollensky's Chicago location was getting a good piece of that action from business diners and guests celebrating special occasions, but “we wanted to increase frequency of visits and create more opportunities for people to dine with us,” says Michael Feighery, CEO and president of the nine-unit Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. His vision was to carve out a more approachable, accessible concept within the same space; a place where customers could drop in on impulse without committing to a pricey steak dinner. Attracting a younger crowd also was part of the plan, says Feighery.

The result is Wollensky’s Grill, a relaxed gastropub-style spot occupying what was formerly Smith & Wollensky’s lower-level, formal-dining and private rooms. In transforming the space, “our biggest challenge was that we didn’t want guests to feel like they were walking into a basement,” says Feighery. So the first order of business was to expose an extra foot at the tops of the covered windows and open up the view to the Chicago River. “Whether you’re standing at a high-top or sitting at the bar, it feels like you’re outside,” he says.

To encourage interaction among guests and convey a more casual vibe, the architect took down the wall between two existing bars, forming one large horseshoe-shape bar. Interaction also drives the menu at Wollensky’s Grill, with dishes designed for sharing and sampling, says Feighery. Steaks are expected, but here they’re served sliced on a shareable plate.

Executive Chef Matt King also has developed new signatures that fit the gastropub theme. Starters are listed on the menu as “Sociables” and include a crispy house-smoked Cup O’Bacon, blistered shishito peppers, duck-and-chicken-liver mousse and lobster corn dogs. The upstairs and downstairs concepts share a kitchen; a cold smoker was the only piece of equipment added for the new Grill menu. At the bar, guests can order from a new cocktail list, featuring over 30 handcrafted and retro drinks.

To appeal to that more impulsive customer, Wollensky’s Grill stays open until 1:00 a.m. weekdays and 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights. “Patrons can have the Smith & Wollensky experience at a much lower cost—average check is $60, compared to $90 upstairs,” says Feighery. The late closing time has boosted traffic since the November opening and is building profits, he adds. Feighery says he plans to incorporate a Wollensky’s Grill into other locations (though nothing is in the works yet) and perhaps roll out freestanding concepts in the future. 

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