Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater interviews the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Provided, Andrew Cebulka]
October marks the start of another year for fine dining establishment Stars Rooftop & Grill Room. Chef Nathan Thurston has helmed the kitchen since day one and was involved with the restaurant far before it opened. From the "Grates of Hell" (a massive grill) to being chastised for taking away the mushroom bruschetta, Thurston talks with Eater about the first twelve months in business.
Where in the progression of the Stars did you come aboard?
I came in in December 2011, and we opened in October 2013. I was on the project for eleven months before it opened. I came in to design the kitchen and carry out the vision of the ownership of the concept of live fire cooking. Before, when I was at the Ocean Room, it was a very refined environment, and I was excited to move into something new—simple food prepared correctly. It was a refreshing transition.
I got to lay out the kitchen and bring in the Grates of Hell, the foundation of our kitchen. When we got it, it was really difficult to get it off the semitruck. We had to rent a special forklift and shut down the street for ten minutes. It's a very unique cooking appliance, we're lucky to have it. We've got a well stocked kitchen with some great equipment.
Every restaurant has a deadline to open and we pushed hard and me team was on board. We did a lot of our recipe development at the Art Institute and Trident [Technical College] kitchens, because we didn't have a kitchen here that was legal to use. It was nice to try all the recipes and test them before we even got in our kitchen.
How does it feel to be a year in?
It feels great. We've maintained some local patrons, and we've got some really great business. We're way ahead of our financial projections, and we we feel the growth for Stars down the road is strong. We have a great following. We started brunch two months ago and we're doing at least 120 [diners] every Sunday—which is a good number. Perhaps lunch will be a possibility for us next year. Outside of that, it's completely successful in all realms. We feel the quality of our product and service has a strong performance and reputation and we couldn't be happier.
Is this where you expected the restaurant to be since day one?
The people we have aligned with this project are successful, and they're not used to doing something that isn't successful. Keith Jones, the managing member and owner, has had very few failures in his career. And every restaurant that I've been apart of has been successful as well—I think we both have the intentions of maintaining that. We both put a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make sure that it is successful. And part of it is adjusting according to what your guests are telling. Whether it's the prices are too high, or you don't have enough variety on the menu, or you're not opening at the right time. We've tried to use that feedback and adjust our business model. I think the key to our success is fine tuning enough that we see results. There's been a lot of fine tuning because this is an interesting part of town. On the weekends, it's out of control. The nightlife is crazy. Our rooftop bar is busy. We've had lines to The Macintosh [several buildings south of Stars] or past that some nights. It's a popular place, and everyone wants to drink on a roof. It's a huge draw. It drives diners to come in to have dinner before or after.
Speaking of your block, how has the neighborhood changed since you opened?
It's pretty dynamic, it still has the buzzing sound of construction. When you're on the roof you can get a 360 of what's going on. It's interesting how even the skyline has changed since we opened, with PeopleMatter coming in and the progress on the hotel and the clearing they've done. I was here pretty much every morning during construction, and I'd say the foot traffic has almost doubled since that time as other businesses have come around. There's a better energy here. Before, it was kind of dead in the day time and wouldn't open up until later in the night when people started going to bars and now it's busy the whole day. Glazed [Gourmet Doughnuts] brings people here in the morning and other businesses are always popping up. It's interesting to see how it's changed. I mean, 20 years ago, you didn't even go past Calhoun Street, and now it's booming. It's exciting.
How has the Stars' menu evolved?
There's a couple of menu items that have been there since we've opened, like the mushroom bruschetta. I tried to take it off the menu and people got pretty upset. And that's when you know you have a winning dish, when people get upset. The reason we did it the first time, it was spring and we tried to change it to peas with burrata and mint. It was a great dish, but people wanted the mushroom bruschetta. You have to remember to listen to your clientele. We brought it back, and it's still there, and it's our number one appetizer. It's a good reflection of what's local. The mushrooms are from Mepkin Abbey. We make the bread in-house. The greens are from Ambrose Farms. It's a dish I'm proud that's number one.
And what are you looking forward to in the next year (besides the lunch you already mentioned)?
We have banquet operations on the second floor and the roof. And we can hold about 170. Our focus now is evolving that program. Trying to add new options like an oyster roast or a whole pig. Something to enhance our operations and what we can offer. Dinner is solid, brunch is solid, so we want to maintain that. Once we see an opportunity for lunch, we'll evaluate that. It's on our radar.
· All Stars Rooftop & Grill Room Coverage [-ECHS-]
· Grates of Hell [CP]