5:38 PM EDT, July 26, 2012
Into a live music scene already stuffed with clubs, City Winery promises something different: Music and food in a wine-country atmosphere.
But will it be enough to draw traffic from already well-trafficked clubs and restaurants within miles, if not a block or two, of the new West Loop venue scheduled to open in mid-August?
“We’re high-end culinary meets cultural establishment,” says Michael Dorf, who is bringing his City Winery concept to restaurant row on Randolph Street from New York City, where it has thrived since 2008. The venue is scheduled to open Aug. 15 at 1200 W. Randolph St., with a five-night residency by comedian Lewis Black. Dave Alvin, Jesse Harris, Sam Moore and Lindsey Buckingham soon follow, in a schedule heavily weighted toward veteran artists and bands that encompass rock, folk, soul, jazz and world music, with a smattering of comedy. Later in the year, Rosanne Cash, Kurt Elling, Shemekia Copeland, Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples will headline.
“For the Boz Scaggs-es of the world,” Dorf says, “we’ve created the perfect milieu for them.”
Dorf and a group of investors have poured $9 million into the project, inserting a 300-capacity cabaret-seating concert hall inside a 28,000-square-foot winery and restaurant, plus a 5,000 square-foot courtyard. The emphasis is on the wine (450 varieties) and food as much or more as on the music and entertainment.
Not that the bookings are an afterthought. The chief talent buyer is Colleen Miller, who booked shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music for 17 years. Dorf ran the Knitting Factory, one of New York’s most respected music venues, for nearly two decades before opening City Winery there. Between Miller and Dorf’s extensive contacts in the business, they’ve filled most of the dates through New Year’s Eve, when Los Lobos headlines. Tickets are pricey; a prime seat for Black is $80 and Moore will set you back $85. But advance sales have been clipping along at a pace of more than 1,000 tickets per week, Dorf says.
“We have expensive tickets,” Dorf acknowledges, but adds that patrons who join the venue’s VinoFile club get service-fee and valet-parking discounts. What customers get in a return is “a more mature, elegant way to come to a show.” The venue is aimed at couples who don’t want to stand through a performance, want a dinner-and-a-show evening without driving all over town, and want to be home at a reasonable hour to pay the babysitter.
Talent buyers at clubs around the city have taken notice.
“There will be some overlap between our schedules (for a few months),” says Bau Graves, executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music. He notes that before she left, Miller had booked most of Old Town’s schedule this year, and she will book many acts at City Winery that she helped nurture at Old Town. A few weeks ago, Graves hired Troy Hansbrough, 40, a talent scout at Rounder Records, to replace Miller.
“We’re aiming to explicitly distinguish between Old Town and all the other food-and-drink-based venues in town,” Graves says. “We’re not a place built around food and alcohol, but primarily around the musical experience. We’re aiming to more consciously develop programs that tie in what’s going on with the artists we book and educational opportunities, to provide a more immersive experience than a straight concert venue.”
Jake Samuels, who books Space in Evanston, says City Winery “is definitely going to make for some serious competition.”
“The majority of acts that we book are also considering Old Town, Schubas, Lincoln Hall, FitzGerald’s (in Berwyn), from time to time Park West, and now City Winery. My hope is that we can develop distinct markets within Chicagoland, where bands play more than one night in a different club in a different part of the city.”
Space and City Winery are already sharing one act, bluegrass musician Abigail Washburn, who plays City Winery on Oct. 18 and Space on Oct. 19.
“There are enough people in Chicago that if it’s done in a smart way and there is communication between clubs and agents,” Samuels says, “it could be healthy for all of us.”
Dorf mentions the possibility of collaborative efforts with the Old Town School of Folk Music, though so far nothing has been firmed up. Several City Winery bookings, he says, are artists such as Joan Osborne who are being flown in for residencies, which means they could possibly come through town six months later and play a different venue. “We have one or two things a week that are an added cultural piece – we’re not just taking away from other clubs,” he insists.
He faces a stiff challenge on two fronts: musical and culinary. Besides established music venues such as Old Town and Space, his food-and-beverage competition includes some of the hottest restaurants in the city only a few hundred feet away on Randolph Street, including Girl and the Goat, Blackbird and Nellcote.
Dorf’s counter: City Winery isn’t just about music or food or even its vaunted wine selection. It’s about the combination of all these elements.
“How do you classify Ravinia?” he asks. “They present high-end entertainment. But your memory of the night is not only the show, but the wine and the food you had with it. The whole package is very important. We want to create an experience for an audience that is aging but not dying – patrons who want to drink wine out of a glass, not a cup; people who want to sit and not stand while they’re watching a show. You’re in wine country, not the Cubby Bear.”
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