Less than a year ago we were chronicling the opening of John des Rosiers’ Moderno at 1850 2nd St. in Highland Park, under chef Phil Rubino. Many wondered if conservative Highland Park diners would respond to an Italian restaurant which compared to city spots like Balena and Nellcôte in terms of a modern take on Italian food. And to some extent they were right— Moderno drew an audience, but not enough of one for its space, especially during the week. So as of today the Moderno space is reborn as Royce, an art deco-themed comfort food restaurant devoted to classics like burgers and chopped salad. But if des Rosiers is following his audience’s tastes, he’s not compromising on the things that matter to him most, like making dishes in a painstakingly old-fashioned manner, or buying from local farmers for better meats, vegetables and cheeses. We visited Royce yesterday as the finishing touches were put on the space, to see how he’d changed the look, to try the new menu— and to talk to John about what you do when your concept doesn’t make it in reality. Check out our slideshow and interview below; we’ve got the menus to download as well.
So what happened with Moderno?
We set out to make a certain kind of Italian restaurant, and a lot of people responded to it and if it had been a smaller restaurant, a 60-seat restaurant, we would have been full every night. But this is a much bigger space, it’s over 200 seats. And we just didn’t draw that size of a crowd on weeknights. I think people perceived us as a weekend, Friday night scene kind of place, not somewhere to go during the week.
And the audience here in Highland Park, we weren’t what they were necessarily expecting. There was a little bit of an expectation, from the space being a Rosebud before, that you would get huge portions, have something to take home. And you know, when you’re using boxed pastas, you can do that. You can open another box of Barilla and just make more and it costs you nothing. But we had two ladies who were making all this really high quality handmade pasta. So there was no way to scale that up except by hiring more people and doubling our costs.
Basically people have certain expectations for Italian food and they want what they want. I had an older couple come in and they ordered the linguini, which at that time came with sheep’s milk and blueberries and pancetta. And they got it and they were like, where’s the clams? They didn’t read it— they saw linguini and they assumed there would be clams.
So the message is, we listened to the community. We could have gone along pouring more money into it, but instead we made the choice to act now and change it to something we thought the community would respond to better.
How did you change the atmosphere?
We wanted to make it feel more casual, like a place you could come to every night. So we went to this reclaimed wood place in the city and pretty much bought them out. It’s all kinds of textured wood— that gray wall behind the bar, that’s a deck, an old patio. There’s old growth cedar from old houses, all kinds of things. And we’ve textured the floor and stained it gray, to look like old oak, too.
The one thing we couldn’t change was the lights. My mom and dad strung all the lights, they wouldn’t let me touch them. But they fit perfectly well into the new look.
Where did the idea for Royce come from?
This is a concept we’ve been thinking about for a while. Phil and I both love Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto in New York, which is in an old Rolls Royce dealership. And we’d been thinking about a place with great hamburgers and that kind of simple, classical food and a sort of art deco, vintage feel. So Royce has been in our heads for a while, and we decided to turn this space into it.
You might see the things that are on our menu in other places, but they’re not done very well in other places, in my opinion. Things like cooking whole shrimp for the shrimp cocktail in a court bouillon, and then letting them steep inside the liquid and letting them cool down and peeling them afterwards. It’s a technique that takes a lot of time and nobody really does it any more, but it’s how it’s supposed to be done.
Everything on the menu is going to have the same approach, making it from scratch, by hand. We’re still using the same local farms as Moderno and Inovasi, that’s never going to change. It’s all about taking the time to do things the right way and showing people how good simple food can be. We think people will be surprised how good these things can be when they’re made with care and love and attention to detail.
The burgers are going to be great. We have two really hot grills— I like seared burgers, but I don’t like them when they’re well done all the way through. So we’ll be able to get that sear but still be medium rare in the middle. That’s a nice combination that I don’t think you see very often.
We’re starting the concept here, but we’re planning to bring it into the city, a couple of them in the downtown area, as well, once we’ve tested and refined it here.
So is there any pasta on the menu?
There’s linguini and clams.
We still have the two grandmothers, they’re doing our prep now but they make one pasta. Phil said, people want linguini and clams, let’s make linguini and clams. The grandmothers were making the linguini yesterday— it was kind of sad for us all (laughs ruefully).
Rebuilding a place in two weeks— that’s pretty ambitious. What all went into that?
Well, we spent about three weeks designing it and refining it. We did something that I think is pretty cool. We kept about 75% of the staff that we had before, and we’re paying them all the time that we’re closed. And because we wanted to keep people who were familiar with the restaurant, our story, our philosophy, stuff like that, and we’re paying them so we asked them to pitch in. And they were all excited about it and they helped with the demo, painting the walls, Phil and Shawn, the chef and sous chef, built all the walls in the bar area. Everyone pitched in and we rebuilt the restaurant.
Every one of our restaurants, they all have this sort of familial feel, and our staff spends time together outside the restaurant— we help each other move, we watch each other’s pets when we go on vacation, stuff like that. We like being with each other— we don’t have a restaurant full of clashing personalities. And we spent the last three weeks together, rebuilding the restaurant together. We’ve all been through the same thing together, from the opening of Moderno before, to the closing of it and now the opening of Royce. It’s like any family, you go through some ups and downs, and you come out of it better.
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