The Bristol’s John Ross Discusses Balena and Working with Boka

John Ross (Top) drinks with Kevin Boehm, and chef Chris Pandel.
John Ross (Top) drinks with Kevin Boehm, and chef Chris Pandel. Photo: courtesy of YouTube

Over the weekend, Kevin Boehm, the co-owner of the Boka Restaurant Group, announced the immediate closure of Landmark in Lincoln Park. Before anyone had the chance to reminisce about the place, he released a flashy YouTube video about a brand new restaurant called Balena. Not that it’s especially crazy news for Boka to announce new projects — there have been four in the past year — it’s just that this one will also be partnership with The Bristol. The Bucktown restaurant has been very successful in its own right, and we wondered why its owners, John Ross and Phillip Walters, felt the need to team up. We decided to catch up with Ross to see how Balena came about.

How did this partnership start?
Phillip and I have been friends with Kevin and Rob [Katz] for years, and they have been kidding us for a while about a second place. We had one in mind, but we were looking for the right space. When we told them about the concept, they said, “We love the idea, and we want to be a part of it.” That’s how we ended up in the Landmark space. If there was anyone to partner with, it’s them.

Did the concept change at all once you teamed up?
No, the concept stayed the same. We were able to continue to go on with the vision from the very beginning. That was very important to us. We never would have worked with someone if we didn’t trust them.

What will the restaurant be like?
It’s going to be a polished casual restaurant, but we still want a boisterous place. It’ll be a place where you’ll want to be whether you are having a three course dinner, a glass of wine, or a pizza.

Okay, describe this pizza situation to us.
We have a tentative menu, which is Italian-inspired. Basically, it will have starters like handmade pasta and pizzas. We do have a new wood-burning oven, which also functions as a rotisserie. Ironically, the pizzas will not be wood-burning oven pizzas; instead, they will be cooked on a deck oven. Chef Chris [Pandel] has been working hard on the pizza dough, and we feel like they work better with the deck ovens. Also, they maintain their quality much better when traveling.

Will you be redesigning the space?
It will be a completely different. Honestly, it is a beautiful space at its bones. It had been covered up over time, but we are going to strip it down. It’s going back to its bones.

How will it change?
It’s going to be very bright. We’re bringing in bigger windows, and the entrance will be brought up right to the sidewalk. The ceiling has this beautiful A-frame, which is covered right now. 555 Design is handling the inside. The bar and parts of the kitchen will be moved around. In the end, it will be a bright, warm, and comfortable space.

Balena, 1633 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

The Bristol’s John Ross Discusses Balena and Working with Boka