THE CALIFORNIA CLIPPER BARTENDER: This place first opened about 15 years before the Great Influenza breakout in 1918 and then it was shut down. It was most likely a speakeasy for about 10 years and then reopened as The California Clipper in 1937. There have been four owners of the bar since then.
BRENDAN SODIKOFF: So I was thinking, does it ever get crazy in here where you need that back room and everything?
THE CALIFORNIA CLIPPER BARTENDER: Fridays and Saturdays for sure. This past Thursday we had our first big local music show and we had some spillover into the back room too.
BRENDAN: We gotta talk about it but I wanted to do a movie theater in the back room with sweet leather chairs. They actually have these beautiful high-def screens now that you can get on a small scale so we would [get those and] put a massive sound system back there. It would be like a miniature IMAX with drinks. It would be amazing. We’d play old stuff, cult classics and that kind of thing.
THE CALIFORNIA CLIPPER BARTENDER: We refer to that room as the Tiki Room. There are posters from the original clipper airliners from the Pan Am advertising days. That’s where the bar gets its name from, the first intercontinental airline. There were numerous airlines that flew you from San Francisco to Hawaii or New York to Paris and they all had individual names and the one from California to the Philippines was called the California Clipper.
How did you find this place?
The previous owner was a gentleman named Gino [Battaglia], he has a lot of properties around town. We are involved in some of his other properties and as part of a transaction we took this. [Turns to bartender] Did you know we took the garage space too?
THE CALIFORNIA CLIPPER BARTENDER: Yeah, he told us that.
BRENDAN: We just opened a barbecue restaurant [Green Street Smoked Meats] so we’re going to do a Mexican barbecue spot in that garage space. It will be like the barbecue we are doing [at Green Street Smoked Meats] but with a stack of tortillas and sides, super ultra-casual and fun. I wanted to bring more activity to the neighborhood [of Humboldt Park]. It’s crazy what’s going on over here, there are so many more people moving in compared to a couple of years ago.
What changes can The California Clipper regulars prepare to see for when you take over?
We might change out the [shower] curtains [they use as doors] in the ladies’ restroom. It’s super classy right now.
Is a Miller High Life always your drink of choice?
No, not really. It depends what we’re doing.
You don’t do much press. Is that on purpose?
I typically don’t do any but I kind of waiver sometimes. I generally try to stay out of… things like this. [Laughs] I try to be really careful with it, I don’t know why. The closer you get to fame or acknowledgement in the press, it’s not good. That’s personally how I feel about it. I’ve seen it ruin a lot of people’s lives. I’m not a famous person but it definitely starts to change your decisions. If I make a mistake now it’s much more public. We did this whole take on a deli, [Dillman’s], but it was sort of fancier a little bit. People f-ckin’ freaked out about it, they couldn’t handle a nice chair and a sandwich … The press and critics gave rave reviews across the board but guest-wise it didn’t click. Reviews don’t even matter, what matters is if people are having a good time and hanging out, doing their thing and wanting to be there. But that wasn’t the case despite rave reviews.
We read that you wished you would have explained more about the concept of Dillman’s, that it wasn’t going to be your typical Jewish deli. Do you still feel that would have helped?
I said that but then I realized it just didn’t matter. If it works then people are pleasantly surprised and they get it and if it doesn’t work then it wasn’t meant to be so Dillman’s just wasn’t meant to be. That’s the reason why I was running late [to this interview]. It’s being remodeled into an absolutely beautiful Italian restaurant.
After working with famed chefs such as Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse to restauranteur Richard Melman, what can you say is something no one told you and you had to learn on your own?
Getting comfortable with failure. Everyone tries to avoid that, they don’t talk about it. Maybe some people hinted at it but in general you don’t see a lot of the things people do wrong, especially at a senior level. [This business] is just like anything. If you want to get better at sports, you practice. But most people when they practice at something they don’t already have a lot of money involved. Not everything you do works. That’s it. And I think in my case it was getting used to my failures being public, that was the most uncomfortable. Whether it’s a bad drink, someone who had a bad experience, a bad review or a personal attack no one ever talks about that.
When someone does have a bad experience how often do people tell you to your face?
You never hear it directly from anyone. That’s probably the thing I get the least of. Guests in general are pretty passive. They don’t like to tell you they had a bad time but they like to write a really negative Yelp review. Even with food reviewers and critics, they don’t [tell you to your face]. It’s really strange actually. I get most feedback about what is working and what isn’t from the team that’s working there.
Are you able to sleep at night with so much going on?
Half the night, yeah. I sleep twice. I take a nap for a few hours in the afternoon and then I sleep like for four or five hours at night. So I get eight to 10 hours of sleep but it’s split up. It’s really weird.
When is the last time you stood back and were able to take it all in?
Today, oddly. It was not a random moment but it was today when we were redoing Dillman’s. The name of the restaurant now is Cocello. It’s going to have this beautiful garden for coffee in the morning and be very traditional. Finally the space is coming together and every once in a while I just have these moments where I realize how thankful I am that I have this and that I’m surrounded by people who are inspiring. We have these wonderful debates about what and how things should be, everyone is very passionate so it’s just fun.
What do you remember most about the days of opening your first Chicago restaurant, Gilt Bar?
Being super tired. That was a very hard time. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is. I mean, from the outside you sort of see it but we built Gilt Bar from nothing. Literally nothing. We assembled Gilt Bar from a junk yard. No joke, we went to junk yards to find things. It was unbelievable. We built the tables ourselves. We’d find broken sh-t equipment and strip it all down, fix it, then put it all back together and use it. The one thing we did have though was tons of talent. We had the ability to convince [the team] they weren’t just stepping into a dream, they were making it. My background was very food-focused so I knew what was possible but it was really this core group of individuals who built and founded this company that went from zero to now a lot [of restaurants]. It’s crazy, I look around and I don’t even know how we did it.
Can you share what you consider to be the best and worst days of your career?
I could look back but I believe they are both in my future. And I do think about it. There is going to be a crazy amount of loss, I don’t know what it is yet, and there are going to be amazing successes. So really I just try to think about today and make the best of it.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yeah, usually every Monday! [Laughs] No, I guess not. For me it’s not an option anymore. What would I do? I employ hundreds of people. It’s just a different world. If I have a bad day, it’s a bad day.
Do you still live in River North?
I do. I live next to Gilt Bar. I actually found the space for Gilt Bar because I lived by there. My house looks like it should be for a monk or something because I have nothing in there. I have exactly what I want but zero excess.
At this very moment, what would we find in your fridge?
I usually have champagne but I drank it all so right now I only have fruit and water. That’s it.
Who inspired you to follow your dreams? Is there anyone in your family you took after?
I think I have a family of creatives. My family is very generous. They care about people and they want to see other people succeed at everything but I don’t walk around feeling like I have this giant light on me. That’s not how we built the company [Hogsalt]. Our organization isn’t founded upon that. My role is just as significant as a dozen other people in the organization. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow our organization would go on and still do great things which I think is very wonderful … I used to have mentors and look up to them and gather information and now it’s more about the group that I surround myself with. We all draw from one another and ultimately the best idea wins, which I love. It doesn’t have to be mine. I put out the most ideas but I also have the most rejected ideas of anybody else.
When have you proceeded with a concept despite objections?
When I told everyone I was going to do The [California] Clipper everyone looked at me like, “What the f-ck is wrong with you?” I said, “It will be fun. We’ll put this theater in because it used to be a theater and it’s going to be amazing.” Sometimes everyone disagrees with me and I do it anyway. I have that luxury.
Are you in a relationship? We couldn’t find anything online.
[Laughs] I try to keep everything personal about me out of the world out there.
Is Chicago it for you? Would you ever move to another city?
There is a lot of stuff I want to do. I love Chicago but I love a lot of places. I loved when we were doing the stuff in London, that was a lot of fun. I think it’s easier to do a place in London than it is to do a place in the suburbs. You go to the airport, direct flight, you fall asleep, you wake up, you’re in London and you go to work. It’s easy.
Most memorable guest in one of your restaurants?
I don’t get starstruck. We have had lots of famous people, some I feel are nice people and some are total d-cks. It doesn’t do much for me. I like anybody who is into what we are trying to do. There is not one particular person it’s just people who really love what’s going on. That energy exchange is very gratifying … We actually have a policy where we treat everyone the same and some people throw total tantrums. At Au Cheval there is no jumping lines. If I go there I wait, everybody waits. So if somebody comes in and says, “Do you know who I am?” It’s like, “Yeah, great, you’re number 25 in line.” We ended up becoming a comfortable organization for celebrity figures because they are treated just like normal people. No one is all googly-eyed and wanting to bother them so in that way it’s really good but on the other side it really frustrates them because they are used to getting whatever they want all of the time.
Last concert you went to?
I’ve only been to two concerts in my life. I went to an Ozzy Osbourne concert when I was 12 and then last year my parents were in town and they wanted to go to The Rolling Stones so I got the best tickets you could get and I took them. It was fun but I got bored halfway through.
What project were you most nervous about before it opened?
Definitely Gilt Bar. Actually, all of them. I don’t feel like every one is going to fail but I am always thinking about why it’s not going to work. I don’t always know if it’s going to work or not. We aren’t always doing the same thing each time. I would know how people would respond if we were doing another Bavette’s. I would kind of expect a similar response but we aren’t doing that. I mean, there is some carry over in the food and styles in some of our places but typically it’s different every time.
The dim lighting in a couple of your restaurants is perfect for a date.
I think social intimacy is really important. I always like the dreams, the magic. It’s not to have people sit in the dark but I want to create these little worlds for people even though there are a couple other hundred people in the same room. So that’s a personal thing that I like. I like more intimate spaces.
Last song you downloaded?
It’s actually funny, we have a music curator so everything he downloads is connected to everything I have. So I haven’t downloaded anything in ages! We have tens of thousands of hours of music that he’s always sifting through so I always like seeing what he’s downloading. But it’s all different styles. It could be classic jazz for one of the steak houses or loud madness for Green Street [Smoked Meats] or old school hip-hop for Au Cheval.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
Probably just my parents. Everything that I’ve done they’ve supported. They were believers. I don’t know in what [they were believing]. I mean looking back I think they were kind of crazy.
Where do they live?
They live in Seattle. They make it here a couple times a year.
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