“WATCH THE AMOUNT OF PEOPLE THAT WALK by with a Portillo’s, Jimmy’s John’s or Potbelly bag in their hand,” Carrie Nahabedian laments. “Look at that guy—he just has a sandwich and is going back to his office. Maybe he’ll get a soda from the vending machine.”
Fresh off her 2016 Jean Banchet Lifetime Achievement Award, chef Carrie has debuted a new lunch menu at her River North mainstay. We’re sitting at table 81, prime real estate for people-watching at the corner of Clark and Illinois. And after just a few minutes observing passers-by, it’s clear that the business lunch has changed quite a bit since NAHA first opened its doors 16 years ago.
“When we opened in 2000, people went out for lunch more,” Nahabedian says. “Lunch has changed immensely because society has changed so dramatically. Though there are an incredible amount of restaurants open for lunch, there are only a few of us at our level that are open for lunch.” Blackbird, Topolobampo and Sepia are among the few others still offering a more elevated lunch experience—although increasingly for diners on a tighter budget for both their time and money. “We’re here for people who don’t want fast casual, but efficient upscale. That’s what I’m calling this menu—efficient upscale.”
NAHA’s new lunch menu looks remarkably different from before—when she was still offering a six-course lunch tasting menu for $65. Everything fits on one page and mezze are available a la carte, starting at $3 for olives. There’s a two-course business lunch (daily soup plus choice of entrée) for $18 and the restaurant is open a half hour earlier, starting at 11 am, which makes ordering lemon ricotta pancakes for lunch a little more defensible. Sure, you can get the mass market version a few blocks away at Beatrix for a few dollars less, but the ricotta won’t be housemade and it will be topped with a smattering of blackberries instead of heaps of Oregon huckleberries and Burton’s maple syrup.
“I’m very conscious of pricing but pricing is reflective of what it costs to run a restaurant in this neighborhood,” she says. NAHA aims to add value in ways that its fast casual competitors can’t emulate. There’s still bread service with three different kinds of housemade breads. Even if you skip dessert, you’ll get a couple of bites of mignardise to conclude.
There’s no skimping here, with either service or substance. Since many people forego alcohol at lunch, Nahabedian highlights an intriguing selection of non-alcoholic beverages, including raspberry hibiscus iced tea and Lemoncocco, a Sicilian lemon and coconut drink, alongside the by-the-glass wine selection.
Gallery: Lunch offerings at NAHA
NAHABEDIAN HAS STRADDLED THE LINE between upscale dreams and everyday realities for a while. She recalls when NAHA was recognized as having one of the best burgers in the city of Chicago more than a decade ago on WGN—and overnight went from selling a dozen burgers in one service to 120 burgers a day at lunch. “Right then and there it stuck that not only does this incredible restaurant have great food and is known for contemporary cuisine, but by the way it has one of the best burgers in the city of Chicago,” she says.
This accolade, while perhaps not as prestigious as many of NAHA’s other awards (she has a Michelin star and won Best Chef Great Lakes at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2008), had a tremendous and long-lasting effect on the bottom line. It made NAHA more accessible and less intimidating to people who might walk by and shy away from the idea of a multi-course fine dining lunch.
Today, the lunch menu has three freshly ground half-pound burgers, along with a vegan option, for between $13-$17. “You can have any type of cheese from the cheese course on your burger,” Nahabedian says. “It’s not just the usual Swiss, American, cheddar and blue cheese. We don’t have industrial cheeses.” It’s in these details that a restaurant like NAHA stands out. Even so, the struggle between real and perceived value exists.
Lunch is a challenge for everyone. Everyone wants the RL crowd, but you’re not going to have it. They’ve been there since day one.
“Lunch is a challenge for everyone,” Nahabedian says. “Everyone wants the RL crowd—”—well-heeled Gold Coast ladies who lunch—”but you’re not going to have it. They’ve been there since day one, 150 feet from Michigan Avenue.” With her new menu, Nahabedian is doubling down on efforts to cultivate the ever-elusive and unpredictable downtown lunch crowd, although at times her frustration is so evident that you wonder why she bothers.
“It challenges and humbles you because at the end of the day it’s a convenience rather than a moneymaker,” she explains. “You want lunch to break even for your costs. It’s not a big chunk of business. It’s a very low percentage. You think it’s a big deal that you’re spending $25 but we run around with our heads cut off and we make $700 for lunch [in one day].” Somebody who comes in and orders a burger and water will have a great experience, but only once somebody upgrades by drinking a glass of wine, or adding an appetizer or dessert does the price point start to make sense for a restaurant like NAHA. The one happy caveat to this dire situation is private dining, which Nahabedian concedes is “a whole different ballgame” in terms of an appreciative crowd willing to pay for what they get.
An older gentleman, clearly a regular, politely interrupts us at this point in our conversation to tell Carrie how much he loves the new menu and thank her for reopening for lunch. It’s taking care of people like him that make jumping through the hoops of lunch worth it.
“Yesterday we sold one of every item on the menu,” Nahabedian says. “I’m proud of the menu because there’s something for everyone and nobody will get bored. I don’t want to go to a restaurant and there are just five choices. When you’re exciting, you keep people coming back.”
Amber Gibson whole-heartedly endorses pancakes for lunch. You can follow her world travels on Instagram @amberyv and Twitter @ambergib.
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