Dateline: Chicago, Time Out Chicago
In the mornings, grahamwich will sell only coffee and pastries. The coffee is French press from SmartCup (Elliot says grahamwich is the only place in the city that uses take-out French press cups, which replicate the French press process in disposable plastic); the pastries come from Fritz.
Yesterday afternoon, Graham Elliot invited a few chefs to 615 N State St, the site of his about-to-open sandwich shop, grahamwich. The chefs—Grant Achatz, Ryan Poli, Giuseppe Tentori—arrived and instinctively stashed their bags and coats on the seats of the communal table in the back of the restaurant. Elliot saw this and experienced some minor panic: He realized, suddenly, that there was no place in the restaurant for people to hang their coats.
So after the chefs ate (Poli’s girlfriend, the entertainment reporter Kelli Zinc, tweeted a picture of her tofu veggie wrap, calling it “amazing,” which set off a little back and forth between Elliot and food writer/blogger Mike Gebert), Elliot ran to the store. He picked up some coat hooks and some toy blocks. At 10pm last night he started drilling the hooks into the wall. The blocks he used to make signs to mark the trash cans as “trash” or “recycling.”
Elliot left the restaurant at about midnight—”We got to take the paper [off the windows] as a team,” he says, joyfully—and at 6am this morning he was back. At 7am, 21 months after he first announced the project, grahamwich finally opened its doors.
An hour into the opening, Elliot was sitting in the back of the restaurant, at that communal table, his iPhone and iPad in front of him. “This is my office now,” he said. “I feel amazing.”
graham elliot, Elliot’s flagship restaurant on Huron Street, has progressively become more and more of a fine dining restaurant since it opened in 2008. “The check average has doubled since we opened,” Elliot says. “It’s going down a more serious road.” grahamwich is meant to capture the other side of Elliot’s personality. “Everybody speaks [sandwiches]. Everybody understands.” (Of course, it helps that everybody can pretty much afford a sandwich, even those at grahamwich, which all cost $10.)
As for why the project took so long to get off the ground, Elliot points to several factors. For one thing, the buildout was a more delicate process since the restaurant is in a landmark building (Tree Studios). And then there are Elliot’s side projects—Lollapalooza, MasterChef—that distracted the chef. Did he put off opening grahamwich until MasterChef had aired so that he could capture the reality television-watching audience’s business?
“Not at all,” he says. “Who wants to open in December? It sucks.”
Perhaps the real reason why the project took so long is because Elliot was a little premature when he told TOC about the project in March 2009. “I always get ahead of myself,” he says. (Merlin Verrier, the chef who oversees both grahamwich and graham elliot, says that Elliot first started talking about grahamwich about six months after graham elliot opened. The fact that it’s finally open, he says, is “surreal.”)
In the mornings, grahamwich will sell only coffee and pastries. The coffee is French press (Elliot says grahamwich is the only place in the city that uses take-out French press cups, which replicate the French press process in disposable plastic); the pastries come from Fritz. At 11am, the restaurant starts serving its entire menu: Sandwiches (turkey confit with sage mayo; smoked whitefish with raisin chutney), “snacks” (popcorn, chips, pickles), housemade sodas (lemon-lime, orange-ginger) and soft serve (Greek yogurt with glazed chestnuts; cinnamon stick with roasted apple). For now the restaurant is cash only, a restriction Elliot hopes he can maintain. “We want to discourage people from coming in and putting a stick in the wheel by ordering 30 sandwiches,” he says. “So we’re doing the Hot Doug’s thing.”
“I don’t think any corporate place could open a place like this,” he continues. Yet grahamwich may one day grow to compete with the likes of Potbelly. Elliot already has plans to open two more grahamwiches in 2011 (one in Wicker Park, one in the Loop). After that, he wants to open grahamburger. And then he wants to expand to L.A. with a restaurant that is something like what graham elliot started as—sit-down, but a la carte.
This morning, though, he was—for the moment, at least—focused on grahamwich. He greeted customers, many of whom seemed to be fans, as they walked to the back of the restaurant to shake his hand. “Welcome to the neighborhood, chef,” one customer said. “I’ll see you again today at lunch.”
I asked Elliot: Are you ready for the crowds?
“Yeah,” he said. “We’re having the ropes put up in an hour or two.”