Name what you want to your list of upcoming restaurant openings, but one of the ones that has us most excited is The Return of John Manion. That isn’t the name of the restaurant, which is the sexy, slightly cheeky La Sirena Clandestina, but it’s the plotline of the story, in which the onetime star chef of Mas, a great neighborhood spot of the early 2000s with innovative Latin cuisine, returns with a place of his own after a few years at, as Manion puts it, "fixer-uppers," Goose Island Clybourn and Branch 27. Manion’s path to La Sirena, which focuses on the South American food he experienced during part of his childhood spent in Brazil and started as a one-shot pop-up, was even more full of twists and turns than it sounds. But along the way he picked up bartender/beverage chief Justin Anderson from The Bedford, and so far it’s all come together so smoothly and logically that as Manion says, it’s enough to make you believe in things happening for a reason. When he opens in the old Dino’s/Dodo space opposite The Aviary and near Next, Moto and iNG, he hopes La Sirena will bring some fun and funk and informality to what he says is "a very serious block, foodwise." We met up with both Manion and Anderson at J.P. Graziano’s for lunch and let them tell us the whole story of how La Sirena Clandestina came to be— which kept coming back to those first, serendipitous pop-up dinners. La Sirena hopes to open in the first week or so of September.
Tell us how a pop-up dinner called La Sirena Clandestina turned into a full-time restaurant.
MANION: I’d been looking to do a place for a long time, really since the end of Mas. I’ve had a business in mind for a long time, a more upscale concept. I went down the road with a space in West Town, for about eight months. And at the very last minute, the sellers decided to go in a different direction, and I lost it. It was the only iron in the fire. I know better than that, but it was the only deal I had going at the time.
So I already had a partner, I’d already assembled a team. Justin was a big part of what I wanted to do, and it fell through. The next day, I’m thinking, I gotta do something, I need to cook food. So I’d known Kim [Dalton] at Dodo for a long time. And she had just done a series of pop-up dinners. So I approached her with a very different business model than she was used to, which was, I bring my insurance, I bring my people, it costs you nothing, I pay for the space, you make money, I make money— completely self-contained.
Justin did the drinks, a good friend of mine, Frank Orrall, did the music, friends worked the tables, I cooked pretty much all the food myself, only promoted it on social media— and sold out two nights in forty minutes. Which was… encouraging.
The restaurant I’d been working on was something different. I thought for this, I’m going to cook weird Brazilian food, market-based, and without really thinking about it, there wasn’t a meat course. Didn’t really think it through, but it was hot out— it just felt right. I did empanadas, which I called "Shit I Found at the Market," went to the Green City Market and found beautiful stuff— I did a ceviche, made a moqueca, which is a Brazilian seafood stew kind of a thingamajig, Plantains Foster for dessert— very easy food for one guy to do. All we did for that room was Christmas lights and a shit-ton of candles, our friend Frank was playing bossa nova records.
And by the end of the second night he’d abandoned the decks and was playing his guitar, one of the bartenders Justin had brought in was a singer and she was singing with him, and I looked across the room and I thought, fuck, man, this is what I want to do. I don’t need to do some big important restaurant kind of thing. I want to do a little joint where I serve this kind of market-driven, Latin focused food. But it’s not an ethnic restaurant— I don’t need to stand a plantain chip up on every dish to be valid, you know?
When I was in Argentina, there was this little neighborhood bar that I went to— there’s only so long that you can sit in cafes and look at beautiful women, and that’s a long time, but it’s not a month. So I used to go to this place, Cafe Dada, where the owners became really good friends of mine, so I’d just go work in the kitchen. I sort of looked out during the dinner and I thought, man, we kind of got there. It felt like somewhere else. It didn’t feel like Chicago. It was like, we changed that room for a minute. It felt like you were in a different time in a different place.
So what is the food going to be?
MANION: It’s really been distilled to Latin Local. I grew up in Brazil, I spent some time in Argentina. Those are the two cultures I know. So it’s not going to be Nuevo Latino or fusion food, it’s the flavors I grew up with. And local because— I’ve been cooking here for 17 years. I’ve been cooking here longer than most, and I’m influenced by the city and its seasons.
The image people have of Argentina is meat, and that’s pretty much true. You eat a lot of meat. Where Brazil— it’s kind of like the U.S. but in reverse. There’s a north and a south, and the north is a slave culture, very much kind of simple soul food shaped by the slave experience.
I don’t have a menu for you yet, but it’s divided into a few different parts— street food, house food, and then sort of sides. I kind of look at it like— when you’re in most places, in my experience traveling around most of these countries, the best food you have is either street food, or food you have in somebody’s home. That’s the real experience. I know street food is the new whatever, I don’t want to play that up too much as a thing, but that’s probably going to make up most of the late night menu.
And the reason I brought Justin along was— we’re still building, I haven’t cooked most of these dishes. But he’s been working extremely diligently, taking his staff to Wirtz [Beverages’ Alchemy Room]. I’ve tasted his stuff and I think we’re going to kill it. And I’m not talking mixology here— we’re talking just a solid bar program with a lot of flavors that go really well with the food.
ANDERSON: We’re not trying to do pairings. To say, this cocktail goes really well with this dish. Because it doesn’t.
MANION: Wine goes with food. When I was at Goose Island, I did a lot of dinners where they’d be like, what does this beer go with? I dunno, sausage? Pork? But that’s how I grew up. Wine goes with food. Most cocktails are meant to stand alone. A lot of beers, now, too, those big hoppy IPAs— they’re meant to stand alone. One of the things that drew me to Justin is that I think he’s got kind of a chef’s palate. The balance is always there.
ANDERSON: You know, for it to be fun for the customers, it’s supposed to be fun for the bartender too. And when you look at how technical things have gotten, sometimes it’s not as fun and pleasant for the bartender or the people sitting at the bar.
MANION: It got real fucking serious.
ANDERSON: And you kind of notice that with bartenders themselves. When they go out, they kind of want to get away from the seriousness and drinking all the drinks that they painstakingly make all week and take forever. Most bartenders order a beer and a shot and they’re happy with that and they make it really easy.
I know that cocktails, the whole mixology thing is kind of overdone. It’s kind of alarming to me, even as someone who does this for a living, how much press the cocktail side gets. I guess it’s kind of inevitable with all the fresh ingredients and freshly pressed juices that you’re going to get, I hate this term, people talking about bar chefs. Dude, you’re a bartender. Whatever makes you feel better about having a degree and not having a job at it.
And I get all that, I try to keep it as real as possible. The menu is our homage to keeping it real. And so, there will be Latin classic cocktails up top— our version of a mojito, of a caipirinha, of a Pisco sour.
MANION: I will say this— Justin makes a damn fine margarita. And all the bartenders will be able to make a damn fine margarita, but it will not be on the menu. There’s no margarita and no tacos, because that’s not what we’re doing.
ANDERSON:But you talk about how serious the cocktail scene has gotten, on those two nights when we did the pop-up, it was kind of cool just seeing how nuch fun everyone was having, and there wasn’t any of that pressure and attitude. People were showing up, and after the second dinner was over, people just wanted to hang out—
MANION: Nobody wanted to leave.
ANDERSON: Some people were mingling and some were sitting in their little groups, and there were bartenders singing and people had musical instruments and it was like something out of like, The Beverly Hillbillies, where somebody just grabs a washboard and starts whistling, and somebody grabs a banjo. And people were truly loving it.
It’s been very serendipitous. It’s all just come together in a good way.
MANION: Yeah, you know all the bullshit of, like, you make your own luck and things happen for a reason? This experience has been like, you make your own luck and things happen for a reason. Who knew?
And there’s another aspect to this, to what we’re doing. I don’t want to say small, I want to say intimate space. But I’m a big fan of, like, Algren and Studs Terkel and Chicago history. And even though we’re doing this sort of Latin Local thing, I think there’s a lot of ghosts in this neighborhood. We have to keep in mind that we are in Dino’s old space, it’s still a thriving market, and there’s a part of it that— there’s a lot of people working here at night who don’t have a lot of places to go.
So after 10, after dinner service, we’re going to keep the kitchen open till one. And for the guy who’s making ten bucks an hour on the line, I’d be a fool if I didn’t have a Schlitz and a shot for cheap. I’m not trying to be some hipster bar. I want to keep the price points down. I want there to be some proletarian edge to it. That’s what the neighborhood still is, and I hope it always keeps some of that.