Growing up as one of the sons of Richard Melman, Founder of Lettuce Entertain You, did you feel pressure to follow in your father’s footsteps?
I don’t think there was ever a pressure to go into restaurants. As long as I can remember my parents always said, “Find what you’re passionate about and do what you love.” I think there was definitely an influence because all I ever did was work in restaurants, so I was naturally leaning towards it.
If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what do you think you would be doing?
I had thought about doing stand-up comedy. I remember seeing Johnny Carson when I was about six years old. I had the flu and my dad let me stay up. I was watching TV and I saw “The Tonight Show” and it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. So I think if this didn’t work out I would have pursued that in some way. But for me there are similarities. A comedian plays with people, there is an audience and you get to try to make them laugh. At best working in a restaurant is a way to play with people and get them to hopefully have fun.
You and your brother R.J. Melman partnered to create Hub 51, Paris Club and most recently RPM Italian. What is it like working so close with your family?
The nice thing is that you trust them with everything you have. The downside is there is no down time. It worked out well that R.J. is my brother, my best friend and my partner, but the order changes on a day-to-day basis. When we clash I think that is where the best decisions come from. R.J. and I are probably different on the surface, but our core beliefs are the same. I’m probably more of a neat freak and R.J. probably tends to be a little bit… less neat. I’ll put it nicely. We’re trying to get to the same place and when we are moving in the same direction the petty differences don’t matter so much.
What do you think is the best indicator of a really good restaurant?
I think it’s how you feel when you are there and how you feel when you leave. We always start with food. We think food keeps people coming back time in and time out, but we try to create a whole experience so that people enjoy being there as well. I’m the type that I go out for what I crave. If I’m craving pizza I know where I’m gonna go.
Where do you go?
Probably Pizzeria Via Stato on State and Ontario. I could eat pizza just about any time. The thin crust pizza hits the spot.
Do you have a go-to date spot?
It was Pizzeria Via Stato. Now I can’t use it anymore! I can’t give away all of my secrets. It depends on what I’m in the mood for. I love hanging out at the oyster bar at Shaw’s Crab House, I love the fish tacos at GT Fish & Oyster. It’s really whatever I’m hungry for and whatever my date is hungry for. I don’t really have fancy, extravagant taste. I would rather do something kinda low key. Maybe I’ll cook, maybe we’ll just see a movie.
As a Chicago bachelor, do you have any relationship advice for those that are single in the city?
I think the people that I would date would probably be mad if I’m giving out relationship advice.
Do you have a stylist for wardrobe help?
I’m very particular about what I wear. I probably wear the same thing over and over again. I wore a similar jacket and a dark tie yesterday and the day before. But yeah, I picked this all out myself so if you don’t like it I’m sorry.
Do you have a favorite dish out of all of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurants?
My mom will always say she doesn’t have a favorite dish of all the restaurants but she’ll have a favorite dish at every restaurant. There is a sandwich at RJ Grunts, which is where my parents actually met so it has special value in my heart, that is called the Mr. Chicken.
Besides RPM Italian, what else can we look forward to?
We’re opening a country bar. It’s going to be right down here [by Hub 51]. It’s gonna be awesome. We just announced it last week. My brother and I — R.J. probably more than me — hang out with some of the athletes and they were all listening to country music and they kind of turned us onto it.
What is a standard day like for you?
The thing that I love most about my job is that it’s not the same everyday. We kind of meet all day and then at night we go around and talk to tables and hang out in the club. Today we had design meetings, we had reviews, we were sitting in manager meetings, we had a cocktail tasting. I just tasted like 12 cocktails. I’m gonna be drunk after this! My favorite part of my day is kind of just standing back and being alone and watching a good party happen. I don’t think we ever want to be the richest people or have the most stuff, we just want to throw a good party. When I can stand in the club and know when people are having a great time, that’s exciting for me.
Where can we find you on a night off?
You won’t find me. I do [have nights off] but you’re not going find me because I’ll probably just stay at my house. We usually take Sundays off. I’ve timed it perfectly. If the Bears play at noon I’ll wake up at 11:58 and I’ll watch the first half and fall asleep for the third quarter and then wake up — I don’t know how — for the fourth quarter. Then I’ll make myself a bowl of cereal and just hang out.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
I would love to get Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David at a table together and just watch them interact. From a comedic standpoint I’m gonna go with that.
Photography by Neal Agustin
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