Howells & Hood goes upscale on a large scale

Restaurant, patio attempt to transform Mag Mile

For decades Chicago journalists' post-work watering hole of choice has been the Billy Goat Tavern, with its three beers on tap ($3.50 Schlitz and Billy Goat Dark and Lager) and $3.15 cheeseburgers just a dark stairway's descent from the Magnificent Mile's south end.

But as of last weekend, you could find 114 beers on tap (most in the $5-$14 range) and $13 aged-beef burgers, as well as Kona kampachi crudo ($17), inside the Tribune Tower. The new Howells & Hood is even named after John Howells and Raymond Hood, the architects who won the international contest to design the tower (completed in 1925). The restaurant's high-toned design, albeit blended with wide-screen TVs tuned to sports networks, carries over elements from the building's historic lobby, such as quotations etched into the same pale travertine tile, though the restaurant's are keyed more to the food and beverage world than the First Amendment. For example:

When I sell liquor it's called bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it's called hospitality. — Al Capone

I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day. — Frank Sinatra

Howells & Hood also will require a lot more people to pass through its doors than work at Tribune Co., which is the restaurant's landlord but not a partner. (A Tribune spokesman declined to disclose lease arrangements, which include an exclusive license for Howells & Hood to cater events in the tower's 25th-floor "Crown" room and wraparound balcony.)

The first thing that hits you about the restaurant is the size. The multiple hosts at the large greeting counter look ready to check you into a hotel. Step inside, and the dining rooms go on and on, occupying WGN Radio's former offices (the showcase studio remains at the building's southwest corner on Michigan Avenue, but everything else has been moved to the seventh floor) and extending all the way to the building's east end, with two bars sporting 120 beer taps each.

And then there's the patio, which runs alongside the restaurant's interior and includes a covered bar with yet another 120 beer taps (yes, that's a total of 360 beer lines), two long, communal "fire tables" (with flames zipping down the tables' centers), umbrellas, heat lamps and seating that can accommodate about 300 guests. Add that to the 400 or so seats inside, and you're talking about a honking big addition to the Magnificent Mile dining and drinking scene, covering 17,300 square feet inside and another 5,700 square feet outside (plus 3,100 square feet in the basement, where many of the kitchen storage and prep areas are located).

The patio is unique to North Michigan Avenue. The Park Grill at Millennium Park has a seating capacity of 250-300 in its separate patio area (in addition to the 250-325 in the main restaurant, including some more outdoor seats), but north of the Chicago River, the Magnificent Mile's outdoor options include the cluster of tables outside the Purple Pig (its entrance a hitch west of Michigan on Illinois Street) and the Cheesecake Factory's seating for about 100 on the John Hancock Center's lower level (with another 380 seats inside).

The city has few spacious al fresco dining areas that could pass for European plazas.

"Most of the patio space in Chicago is on the public way, so you're trying to squeeze onto the sidewalk with pedestrians walking by and so forth," said Chris Bisaillon, a partner in Bottleneck Management, which operates Howells & Hood and five other Chicago restaurant/bars, including South Branch, Sweetwater and the Old Town Pour House. "What's unusual about this is all the space that we're occupying on Pioneer Court is actually private property owned by the Tribune."

Bottleneck is a fan of patio dining, in part, Bisaillon said, because Chicagoans "really appreciate the ability to be outside when we do have beautiful weather," and in part because it makes economic sense for the company.

"Generally, landlords do not charge any rent on the patios, so if we have 300 seats out on Pioneer Court rent-free, it's like putting an entire restaurant outside with no associated overhead costs in terms of occupancy costs," Bisaillon said.

The patio, with those fire tables aglow at night, also should serve as a magnet to the restaurant's entrance east of Michigan Avenue. With all of those tables, all of that space and buildout costs that Bisaillon said exceeded $10 million (yes, $10 million), Howells & Hood will need all of the guests it can attract as it remains open from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday, with the patio closing at midnight, thus offering a new level of night life to staid Michigan Avenue.

Grand Lux Cafe, the Cheesecake Factory's more upscale cousin at Michigan and Ontario Street, can seat about 525 diners (if you include the banquet room), but once the weather allows outdoor seating (which Grand Lux lacks), Howells & Hood will have the most available seats on North Michigan Avenue. Yet its menu is not the sort of kitchen-sink spread of Grand Lux and Cheesecake Factory.

Executive chef Scott Walton, who oversaw the seasonal/local fare at nearby Markethouse, and corporate executive chef Paul Katz have crafted a disciplined menu featuring 10 Chef's Plates (appetizers/small plates running $12 to $22), eight soups/salads ($9 to $17), seven sandwiches ($12 to $18) and, for dinner only, 12 entrees ($16 to $28, aside from the $44 New York strip steak). Not a chicken wing or nacho is to be found.

"My theory on food is I'd rather be brilliant at 20 items than mediocre at 50," Walton said, contrasting what he'll be serving with the prevalent Michigan Avenue "mall cuisine."

Running such upscale fare on such a massive scale is new to Walton and most anyone else. "What no one's ever done in Chicago or anywhere I've ever been is try to balance a small farm-to-table kind of concept into something that could serve 2,000 people a day," Walton said.

He and Katz said they're still figuring out how to source all of their ingredients, which at least should become more plentiful as the weather warms up. At Markethouse, Walton said, "it was easy. I needed 20 or 30 pounds, not 400. I didn't need half your farm to get through the week."

Then there are the 114 beers, one of the largest on-tap selections you'll find anywhere. It's impressive, with Bisaillon characterizing 20 percent of the lineup as local. But what happens with the less popular beers? Doesn't beer go bad eventually?

"Once you tap a keg, the clock starts ticking," acknowledged Ken Henricks, Bottleneck's operations vice president. "I don't know that this concept could have been done 10 years ago when breweries were putting beer in cooperage of 15 gallons. Now, most of our suppliers in these smaller breweries have cooperage of about 5.2 gallons. You're talking really about a little over 600 ounces in a vessel, and you divide that by 14 or 16 depending on the glass size, you're only talking about 40 to 45 beers in those smaller barrels.

"The life span of beer can be anywhere between three to five weeks, even longer if it's a higher-alcohol-content beer. But the quality starts to become compromised after about three, four weeks once you tap that barrel. So when you look at it and say, 'OK, I've got 45 pints of beer that I need to sell in three, four weeks,' you're talking about two a day."

Even selling two beers per variety per day probably is contingent on the restaurant drumming up a high, sustainable volume of business. Howells & Hood needs to cover a sizable overhead that includes a staff of about 250, among them 85 in the mammoth kitchen (which often will have two full lines running simultaneously), about 65 servers, about 20 bartenders, a dozen hosts, 10 runners and more.

Bisaillon and Henricks said they couldn't pinpoint how many guests would be needed to keep Howells & Hood thriving, especially given that they're still trying to figure out product and labor costs. But Henricks said the formula will come down to what percentage those product/labor numbers represent of the restaurant's gross sales.

Bisaillon said the restaurant should be able to drum up enough business in a highly trafficked area where food options tend toward office building cafeterias and food courts, Corner Bakery, Popeye's and pricey hotel fare such as Michael Jordan's Steak House in the InterContinental — all while tourists are often averse to stray from Michigan Avenue.

"It's the entrance to the Mag Mile, so the amount of people has never been in question," Bisaillon said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of people that go by here every single year, and you could really stretch that into the millions."

Lucas Stoioff, partner in the DineAmic Group that recently opened the instantly bustling Siena Tavern in River North, noted that although Bottleneck has spent "big dollars" on Howells & Hood, it has positioned itself well.

"It's a big undertaking, but they've set themselves up to succeed in as many ways as possible," Stoioff said. "It's a mainstream, timeless concept. It's a quality buildout. They've got the room to do the dollars to get it back, and they've got the people in the area to fill the large space."

Asked a couple of days before opening whether they were nervous, Bisaillon said that after some large-scale test dinners, he felt good. "I don't think anybody in our entire organization has been more calm about an opening than this one," he said.

"I'm optimistically aware of the challenges that we potentially are going to face," Henricks said, "but I'm very confident in our team and our ability to recognize those challenges and certainly steer the ship in whatever direction we need to steer it in."

"I'll say it: I'm nervous," Walton admitted, drawing laughs from the others. "Nervously confident, though. It's just the sheer volume and size. But I think we've figured out a formula that we can do this and effectively do this."

Twitter @MarkCaro