Pump Room is primed & ready

Iconic spot reopens with contemporary look and organic focus

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Pump Room (Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune)

The Pump Room is back, baby. The ghosts of former habitues Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and untold others can revel in a revamped dining room that's as relevant for today's restaurant patron as the original Pump Room was for the celebrities of yesteryear.

True, the space doesn't look like the Pump Room or feel like the Pump Room, and the menu isn't at all like that of the Pump Room. But those aren't necessarily bad things, considering the Pump Room's ignominious closing in January.

Under Ian Schrager, who has an impressive track record of turning real estate relics into successful boutique hotels, the Ambassador East has been reborn as Public Chicago, the first of what Schrager hopes will be a series of urban-contemporary hotels. The Pump Room, which opened in "preview" mode Monday (the grand opening is a month away), has been converted to a natural wood, seasonal and sustainable dining room modeled on Jean-Georges Vongerichten's acclaimed ABC Kitchen in New York City (winner of the James Beard Foundation's 2011 award for outstanding new restaurant).

But it still bears the Pump Room name.

"It's treacherous, keeping the old name," Schrager said. "I met with local restaurant people and they all said, 'Change the name.' Then I thought to let people vote (via a public online poll), and you know what? The same people who told me I had to change the name voted to keep it."

Retaining the Pump Room name is probably a bit of public relations genius; ask fans of Marshall Field's or the Sears Tower how they feel when Chicago icons are renamed.

The new Pump Room's footprint is about the same, though the look is utterly different. Hanging over the sunken dining room are hundreds of glowing orbs in various sizes and finishes, part of a dramatic art installation, silently suggesting that despite the familiar name, the new Pump Room has its own orbit, its own place in the universe.

Gone are the white tablecloths, in favor of grainy, bleached-oak tables. Not one but two 12-seat communal tables sit at opposite ends of the restaurant. Semicircular booths, a gracious nod to the past, are wrapped in butter-soft, camel-hued Italian leather. There still is a Booth One — in the old days, available only to the absolutely top VIPs — where the original phone is on display (yes, if you were a big enough star back then, you could conduct a phone conversation right at your dining-room table).

Though there is a separate street entrance (where you'll find most of the restaurant's historic black-and-white celebrity photos, turning the tiny vestibule into a virtual time capsule), the main access is now an open doorway adjacent to the hotel's lobby, itself redesigned as a friendly gathering space.

It's a less intimidating look and a less luxurious one, in keeping with Schrager's intention to keep the restaurant, and indeed the entire hotel, friendly and affordable.

"This will be a vibrant restaurant that people can come to repeatedly," he said. "If it isn't a good value, I'll get run out of town on a rail."

By recasting the Pump Room in the mold of ABC Kitchen, Vongerichten is again bringing a successful New York concept to Chicago; in 1999, he partnered with Richard Melman to open the Thai-French restaurant Vong, a copy of the New York original that lasted two years before morphing into the much simpler Vong's Thai Kitchen, which closed in 2009.

The Pump Room menu contains at least 15 items from ABC Kitchen, including crab toast with lemon aioli, the chicken-liver toast (Vongerichten points out that chicken liver was on the Pump Room's 1929 menu), and the roasted carrot and avocado salad. But because of the kitchen's seasonal and local focus and the end of the summer season, virtually the entire menu will be recast in the coming weeks.

What you can expect — indeed, what you can see now — are appetizers in the mid-teens, main courses in the mid-$20s and a pervasive farm-to-table, organic and sustainable ethic. Overseeing the day-to-day operations will be Bradford Phillips, last seen at LM Le Restaurant in Lincoln Square.

"We interviewed a dozen chefs," Vongerichten said. "He was the most accurate with the flavors, similar to how we cook."

Celebrities are nice, but Schrager knows the Pump Room's success will depend on whether everyday Chicagoans embrace it. He has certainly made it easier, and less expensive, for them to try.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel
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