Christian Ragano is happy. Unnaturally happy for a chef, a breed who normally manage to be a bit beat down with work even in the excitement of opening their dream place. But Ragano, former chef de cuisine of NoMI and then chef at the Grand Hyatt, is like a man throwing a party every night at Glencoe’s Guildhall, open now for about a month. He loves that he has skylights, actual natural light, in his kitchen ("I don’t have to take an elevator seven stories to see sunlight"). He’s excited by his 6000-pound woodburning oven, which is not for pizza, as he’ll explain. He’s happy about his staff, some of whom came from NoMI (via other jobs in the meantime), and about his partners, who clearly spent freely and smartly to produce the elegantly industrial interior (designed by 555). And he likes his customers, admitting that the menu is tailored to an older suburban crowd, but happy that they surprise him sometimes in what they’ll order. Like Found in Evanston, Guildhall set out to bring better, more contemporary food to a north shore suburb, comfort food crafted with the finesse of a highly trained chef— and like Found, it was instantly rewarded with packed houses every night. Our interview with Ragano, and our slideshow of the food and decor at Guildhall, 649 Vernon Ave. in Glencoe, are below.
So how did Guildhall come about?
I moved back from New York in, I think, late July. And the week that I moved back I got a phone call from a guy who used to be one of my sous chefs, who was working as a private chef for one of the investors. It went pretty quickly from there, interview, tastings, and I was on board.
Was the concept nailed down at that point?
It was pretty nailed down— they just wanted a restaurant in Glencoe, they both live up here, they’re pretty much into the community, and there’s really no full-service restaurants in Glencoe. They said they’re tired of going down into the city, we want to bring the city up here. They wanted simple, pretty approachable food, that people could eat two or three times a week. So that’s what we did.
Obviously, you do your research, you go out and eat at what you consider your competition, which would be things like Prairie Grass [in Northbrook], Abigail’s in Highland Park, Benjamin’s in Highland Park, and from there you sit and think about a menu. There were certain things the investors definitely wanted— they said you have to have a fantastic burger, there’s gotta be a half roasted chicken on the menu, an incredible, simple half-roasted chicken. There’s got to be a Caesar salad on the menu. But you can put your own twist on it.
We played with some raw fish preparations, with some oysters. They were very much into doing pizza, and I said, I don’t really want to do pizza, or become known for being a pizza place. So we came up with the idea of doing Alsatian tarte flambé.
We’re only using good purveyors. When I gave them my first list of purveyors they were shocked that I had 42 names on there. They said, we figured it’d be about ten. I said, this is what it looks like when you’re not getting everything off the Sysco truck! Like for fish, I’ve got Carl Galvan at Supreme Lobster, and Fortune, they’re providing us with our fish. But then we’ve also got five or six out of the city like Browne Trading for special things. We’re still working on farmers, getting them to come up here. There are a few farmer’s markets, so we’re working on making those contacts.
How did you adjust your cooking style for the location?
Obviously you’re tailoring the menu for a suburban audience. At first I was talking about foie gras on the opening menu, and they said, nobody will order it. But last weekend I did chicken liver on the weekend menu for the first time, and we sold like 60 orders of it. So your customers surprise you.
Or the charcuterie. We’re working on making our own charcuterie but right now we’re buying from Publican Quality Meats. They make so many things, and at first I was saying, don’t give me anything too weird. But I brought in mortadella— blood sausage— it flew out of the kitchen. So now, I just take whatever PQM has extra of. We buy so much from them they’ll actually deliver it. Just give me whatever you’ve got too much of, people will eat it.
So how’s the public reaction been overall?
Insane. We are about 25% busier than we expected it to be by this point. It is insane. We’ve been open a little over four weeks and we’ve had guests returning 12, 13 times. It’s crazy that we can walk down the street and people thank us for opening.
Brunch— eventually, but we’re so busy seven nights a week. I can’t use all my p.m. guys, work them till 2 in the morning and then say okay, see you again at 7 to get set up for brunch— oh, and we’re all working doubles because we’re going right into dinner service after that. We’ll have to have more people to do that.
It can be hard to find people with experience up here, there aren’t a lot of restaurants for them to have gotten training in. One of my best guys— he’s the brother of one of my other pantry cooks. He’d never worked in a restaurant, he was working in a factory. But I said to his brother, bring him in, is he a good kid? We needed bodies in the door. Last night was his first night as the solo pantry cook and he rocked it.
But it’s not like a hotel kitchen. There’s a very defined hierarchy in a place like that and it’s a little more casual here. I do have one guy who does have that experience, he worked for French chefs up here and you can see the other guys making a little fun of him. They call him "Yes chef," because that’s what he says to whatever you say to him. "Yes chef yes chef…"
What’s the hot item on the menu right now?
It’s insane how well balanced it is, actually. But we sell about 40 or 50 half chickens a night— that’s the only thing I’m not happy about the kitchen is that the walk-in is too small. It’s got a hundred chickens in there every time I go in it.
On the weekends, burgers go real fast. Steak frites are probably the biggest seller, that or the chicken. It’s simple, it’s an eight-ounce flatiron with a pile of really good fries and an arugula salad, anchovy butter— just done well. We also have a 28-day dry-aged ribeye, we sell a lot more of those on the weekend. We said we have to have two steaks on the menu, one you could have twice a week, and one that’s more upscale for a special occasion.
The design of the place is incredible. The deal is, both of the investor’s wives are into design. So they had a lot to do with how it looked, and then the guys played with the fun stuff. The stereo system is great, you can do it all off your iPhone and it’s all zoned so you can have different music in every room. The POS [point of sale] system is brand new, it’s called Breadcrumb, it was just released in October. It’s started by Groupon, it’s all off of iPads, it’s amazing. It’s all real-time reports, I can track everything that’s going on in the front of the house. We’re all gadget nerds, this is like, cool!