“You really want to breathe plaster dust all over again?” Claudia Gassel, co-owner of Storefront Company, recalls asking her partner, Steve Harris. The Wicker Park restaurant had only opened in March, and now Harris was proposing ripping out a wall during the week they were closed after New Year’s. But the idea made sense: one of the restaurant’s most popular features was the four-seat chef’s counter, which looked straight into the kitchen. And so they spent the closed week tearing out the existing back bar, creating more than a dozen ringside seats which would look straight onto the cooks at work, and joining restaurants such as Next and Grace as one of the places where you get the most direct and dramatic view of what’s happening in the kitchen.
For chef Bryan Moscatello and his crew, it was exciting to break out of the kitchen’s box, if some staffers were a bit nervous about being in public. “The kitchen is always in the dimmest, furthest away space in the building,” Moscatello says. “And it gets to you after a while, working under only fluorescent light in a closed room, only seeing whoever comes through the doors to take something away. Now we’re part of the life of the restaurant, we see the customers, we hear the music they’re listening to.” Pointing to space that he’s gained with the removal of the wall that used to belong to the bar, he notes, “I used to bring in 200-pound animals to cut up here and this was all the room I had. It’s just a lot easier to work now.” He also gained the bar’s former windowed refrigerators, which now display the restaurant’s cheese program and other housemade goodies. The bar staff wasn’t entirely happy to give up the space, but their space up front has been better organized, and they can now mix and serve cocktails in front of customers with less walking back and forth.
With the new space, the entire bar is now being offered a reasonably-priced five-course kitchen counter tasting menu with pairings, which changes daily. How do customers like it? “It’s great for single diners, because now they have something to look at and interact with, but we also get couples who sit here to watch the show,” Moscatello says. “People really seem to like it and come back for it.”