Matt Eisler has created some of Chicago’s most popular bars and restaurants, including Empire Liquors, Nightwood, Angels & Kings, Bar DeVille, Bangers & Lace and The Anthem. His latest venture, set to open in May 2012, is Trenchermen, a Wicker Park showcase for chefs Mike and Patrick Sheerin (the former was named a Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star) and trendy designer Kevin Heisner. We asked him about that highly anticipated opening and how he looks at concept development.
RH: Walk us through the evolution of Trenchermen.
Eisler: The project came about because of a space that I’ve been absolutely in love with for years. It was built in the early 1900s as a Turkish bathhouse. It’s got authentic white glazed brick, similar to subway tile, and a beautiful terra cotta exterior. When it was a bathhouse, it was known as a meeting house for all walks of life. It was a notorious place for politicians to meet with organized crime members; they’d sit in the sauna because no one could be wearing a wire, and they’d cut deals. The space was the inspiration.
The space for Trenchermen was almost 6,000 square feet, so we knew a space that size would lend itself more to a restaurant concept, even though there is a pretty prominent beverage program. The first thing we did was to find a chef, or chefs. And if the concept was going to rely so much on the chef, we were looking for chef/partners. We were introduced to two brothers, the Sheerins, who are extremely accomplished on their own. After one night of conversation we narrowed it down to these earthy, passionate guys who were looking to do a project together as co-chefs, and they seemed to be a good fit for the space.
Kevin (Heisner, my partner) and I had a few pieces in place and a few goals for what it would be, and that was completely in line with what they wanted to do. It became a little more chef-driven and ambitious when they came on board. Mike and Pat had already dubbed the project Trencherme n—a working name without a space for a year. The easiest way to describe it is a blue collar approach to molecular gastronomy. We also describe it as a boozy restaurant.
Trenchermen has 150 seats, including 40 bar stools. There are two main rooms and a dramatic island bar room. We feel that dining at the counter-height bar will be the quintessential Trenchermen experience. A trenchermen is defined as a hearty eater, one who tends to eat and drink to excess.
The menu will be approachable, a casual take on fine dining. A lot of restaurants are described that way, but I think most of them stress fine dining with regards to service but with food that is typically more rustic in nature. Although we are trying to provide this boisterous, convivial atmosphere, the food will be prepared with precision, so both the food and service will reflect fine dining.
RH: How do you choose sites for your restaurants and bars?
Eisler: I’m very emotional with regards to site planning. I have never analyzed demographics to support a decision to select a location. If it’s not a location that I’m familiar with, I try to spend some time there and actually get a feel for the location. Corners and visibility, access to transportation—these are all pretty obvious factors. I definitely work from my gut more than a lot of people.
RH: What inspires you, and what’s the process from idea to reality?
Eisler: I work closely with my partner, Kevin Heisner, a design-build person. We recently formed Heisler Hospitality. We often get mistaken for brothers, and our last names are so similar, so we each conceded one letter. Our approach is largely dictated by the space and by the location. It’s a very organic approach. I think there are typically a handful of concepts that at any one given time are on the table or are appealing or exciting, but they have to work with the space. Once we have a loose idea of the space and concept, we will spend a lot of time sitting in the raw space. I don’t think I would ever approach a project and expect to plug in a cookie cutter design. I think most of the charm and what makes a space special are the character and preexisting elements.
RH: You are known for creating places that reflect the neighborhood. How do you design them to accomplish that?
Eisler: I think conceptually they should be places where people can go frequently, a couple of times a week. They should feel welcome to walk in by themselves or alone. There should be some sense of community inside. I think the size and scale of a neighborhood place can’t be too intimidating. Those are the kinds of places people will stop in at off hours. I also think they’re all exceptional values. Nightwood, for example, is a farm to table restaurant. The menu is handwritten each day and everything we can get locally we do. It’s really difficult to provide that type of food at what people would consider cheap prices, but we struggle to provide an exceptional value for what you are getting.
RH: It looks like you have taken on partners at your concepts. How do you structure each new venture?
Eisler: Our chef partners are absolutely full-on equity partners. The deals are structured differently. Having different partners for different projects allows us the flexibility to offer equity to partners of varying skill sets to really get as much value out of each person involved. Mike and Pat Sheerin are going to be the driving force behind Trenchermen; their skills would be wasted at Bar Deville, a small neighborhood cocktail lounge, or Bangers and Lace, where we pride ourselves on our beer program.
RH: Your early focus was on bars and lounges, and now you seem to be moving toward food-focused concepts. Have your interests evolved?
Eisler: It definitely reflects my own personal sensibilities. It would be a great challenge for me to approach a project that I wasn’t attached to emotionally and passionately. I am 36, so for me going out doesn’t mean drinks and a deejay or a nightclub. Right now for me a night out with friends would be a nice leisurely dinner, some wine or sometimes just a drink when I can actually enjoy the company I’m with and have music at a level where we can actually communicate. These are what I enjoy and the type of concepts I’ve been introducing. Appreciation for food is something I’ve grown into and continue to grow into. For me it’s not only a job, it’s also a hobby and passion. I have a lot to learn and I enjoy the process. I think it’s the greatest thing about what I do—I love it and want to spend my time doing it, whether it’s a weekday or weekend night, whether I’m with my business partners or friends.
RH: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Eisler: For me it’s always been exciting to do a deal and conceptualize a place. It really gives me a high. I would do it constantly, but I’ve come to learn that it’s a lot like getting a bunny for Easter—you have to understand that it’s an animal and something that you have to respect and nurture for its lifetime. As fun as it may be to design a place and open and introduce it, you’ve also got to operate it efficiently and maintain it.
RH: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Eisler: At this point I’ve done a lot of these one-off places. I think in the next segment of my life I would like to be a little more proactive and show a little more discipline. I think I will work toward building a brand versus a singular place. That will be a challenge for me given the way I have approached projects to this point, but I would like to try.