Blackbird broke the mold for Chicago restaurants when it debuted in November 1997. Everyone thought Donnie Madia had lost his mind for daring to open a restaurant on this derelict stretch of Randolph Street between Union Station and the Kennedy Expressway, at the time a no-go zone. The city’s hottest restaurant row sat just a few blocks away, but all that gentrification was safely on the other side of the freeway bridge. This stretch of Randolph was dead and dangerous. It was ugly. Most buildings on either side of Blackbird were decayed, boarded up and covered in graffiti, as was this restaurant’s storefront before acclaimed designer/architect Thomas Schlesser brought it back to life in stunning style.
Chicago’s dining scene was already sizzling, driven as much by world-class interior design as by culinary talent. Still, the city had never seen anything like Blackbird. Schlesser, who previously built some of the city’s most fashionable nightclubs, stripped the abandoned building to its core and just barely penciled in a new aesthetic that reminded me of the Jetsons. Minimalist in the extreme, the 65 seat restaurant felt thrillingly futuristic — a bare rectangular box that looked like an oversized shipping container. Powerful energy radiated from the front window, which was completely exposed from ground to ceiling and stripped naked of curtains even in the dead of winter. Who would do that in Chicago? Who would do that in this neighborhood? It was a fishbowl of urban vitality. It was impossible to cruise along Randolph en route to somewhere else and not notice Blackbird. Not only notice, but to stop frozen in your tracks. It didn’t belong here. And yet it fit.
I’d known Donnie Madia from previous restaurants and bars (none remotely this ambitious) such as Ooh, La La and Vinyl. He was the consummate host, always the best-dressed person in the room. I never saw him without a smile. He possessed the most important little black book in Chicago. He knew everyone, and everyone wanted to know him. He pulled together an extraordinary team — Schlesser the only one with any fame at that point — that included a young, untested chef named Paul Kahan. He tapped one of the city’s savviest, sexiest waiters, Eduard Seitan, to help run the dining room.
I’d been following Kahan’s cooking at Topolobampo and Erwin, both notable restaurants but places where he wasn’t the one who got credit for the food. At Blackbird, he introduced a modern riff on Midwestern cooking that surpassed anything else in the city. It was intensely elegant yet casual and fun. It was expensive but the opposite of stuffy. Weekends were immediately booked six weeks in advance, and they hadn’t even secured their liquor license yet when they opened (that wouldn’t come until more than a month later, at which point reservations became exponentially harder to come by). It took me five months to score the necessary three anonymous visits for a review. I wish I still had a copy of that story. I remember giving the restaurant a less than perfect score but being in love with it nonetheless. I looked forward to returning again and again.
I moved from Chicago to San Francisco a few months after that, and I didn’t get back again until 2018. By then an institution, it was still as beautiful and mesmerizing as I remembered, the staff as magnanimous and professional as ever. Strangely, this time around the entire neighborhood had come of age and was vibrant and full of life.
Blackbird, I miss you already.