FlatTop Grill Opens at the Sullivan Center
The re-inventing of Chicago’s venerated Sullivan Center takes another major step forward today (Monday, September 21, 2009) with the opening of FlatTop Grill.
Many people will remember the Sullivan Center (33 South State Street) by its previous name — the Carson Pirie Scott flagship store. When Carson’s pulled out of the Loop it was the latest in a series of devastating retail moves that continue to slowly turn Chicago into a generic Anytown, U.S.A.
But more importantly, it left Mayor Daley’s favorite retail drag with a gaping cavity across the street from one of Hizzonor’s recent successes, and down the street from another project that faces an uncertain future. Early notions of filling the huge space with a supermarket or other large-scale retail replacement for the department store failed. Now, behind the scaffolding and plywood, the Sullivan Center is slowly being re-born one storefront at a time.
But the action isn’t on State Street. It’s around back on a newly reborn section of Wabash Avenue. A recent streetscape upgrade has done wonders for Jeweler’s Row and businesses are responding.
The latest opening is the aforementioned FlatTop Grill. It’s moved into the Sullivan Center’s storefront at 30 South Wabash. Last week, the eatery’s public relations company invited me in for a preview meal and to take some photographs. I’m still wedded to my J-school ethics, so I declined the meal; but I’m always up to a sneak peek of anything new, so camera in tow I popped by on a glorious autumn afternoon.
Although many of the storefronts on this block are celebrated for the intricacy of their cast iron decorations, FlatTop landed in one of the more plain bays, with sadly boring brown rectangles beneath a tangle of fire escapes. Perhaps it’s Prairie School elegant; but I never really understood or appreciated the Prairie School aesthetics the way so many others do.
Inside, the 4,000 square-foot restaurant is a riot of red paint and chrome accents. It has the feel of a darkened space, but everything is quite clearly visible. Maybe it’s the same red light trick that astronomers play on their pupils in order read their charts in the dark. Though the impression is of darkness, it is very clean, inviting, and modern.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, FlatTop is a D.I.Y. stir-fry joint. Think of it as the stir-fry bar at Big Bowl, but large enough to take up an entire restaurant. You pick your meats, your sauces (who knew there were 20 sauces in the world?), and vegetables — then bring them to the grill where they’re prepared for you and delivered to your table. I recommend forgoing the table entirely, and cozying up to the row of stools that run alongside the prep area so you get lunch and a show.
The space is divided into three areas:
- A welcome center which contains the maître d’s station and a small but efficient bar where you can have a drink while waiting for your friends.
- The main room where two parallel self-serve bars funnel you toward the cooking area.
- And a back dining room, which is considerably more intimate, welcoming, and tranquil than the cacophony out front.
If you’re with someone you want to actually talk with, I recommend asking for seats in back. When I was there, the place was packed with a practice lunch and I could tell that the din of people and preparation was making it hard for some diners to hear their companions.
This is FlatTop’s 14th location in Chicagoland and beyond, and the first that I know of that was built in a historic property. In fact, the press release for the opening proudly touts the Sullivan Center location as a selling point. Yet, inside I saw no evidence that any effort was made to preserve this architectural legacy. The ceilings have some services exposed, but the entire area is painted black so if there are any architectural details up there to witness, you’ll need a flashlight to see them. The space is certainly slightly unusually shaped, but that can happen with any restaurant in a competitive market and isn’t specific to this location.
Still, Flat Out Crazy’s C.E.O Frederic Mayerson said, “Being in the newly renovated Sullivan Center ramps up the energy and excitement that already surrounds a FlatTop restaurant. Guests in the Loop will discover it’s a fun and friendly restaurant to hang out with friends over breakfast, lunch or dinner.” That’s all well and nice, but exactly how does being in the Sullivan Center “ramp up the energy?” FlatTop spent two years prepping this location, so I asked its PR company to elaborate on why all signs of this location’s history appear to have been obliterated. When I get an answer, I’ll post a follow-up report.
If you live or work in the Loop and are looking for a good, quick, different lunch, then FlatTop Grill seems like a great option. I’m not a restaurant critic, so I’m unqualified to comment on the quality of the food (another part of the reason I refused the meal mentioned above). But everything looked fresh and smelled delicious. The space is like Ikea meets Kate Spade meets Big Bowl — but in a good way. Service seemed prompt, but of course at a lunch where all of the managers are watching, of course it is.
Still, I think FlatTop Grill will be great addition to the neighborhood, and I plan to stop by for lunch in the next few weeks. I recommend everyone else do the same to welcome this business to the neighborhood, and support more businesses in the Loop.
- Open for dinner starting September 21st.
- Open for lunch and dinner September 22nd.
- Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner September 23rd and onward.
- 8:00am-9:00pm Sunday through Thursday
- 8:00am-10:00pm Friday, Saturday