2/06/2013 04:08:00 PM

John des Rosiers Versus Suburban Diners: Why Moderno Became Royce

Royce in Highland Park
When chef John des Rosiers opened Moderno in Chicago's North Shore, he attempted to bring artistry and sophistication to the area. It delivered elegant plates of housemade pasta, shared entrees of whole hand-caught fish and veal shoulder, and classic cocktails.

“The people that loved it really, really liked it,” des Rosiers said. Unfortunately, those people were few and far between, and the restaurant closed eight months after it opened in Highland Park. Des Rosier did not throw in the towel though. He already had one successful suburban restaurant, Inovasi in Lake Bluff, as well as grab-and-go Wisma in the Chicago French Market. It took three weeks (during late December and early January) to transform Moderno into Royce, a farm-to-table restaurant with a more casual atmosphere and approachable menu of burgers, salads and appetizers (as well as some banoffee pie worth the 30-minute drive from Chicago).

We spoke with des Rosiers about the struggles of fighting a losing battle with his own customers - diners who do not necessary appreciate his elevated small plates - as well as the decision to give up on Moderno, a successful restaurant in the eyes of diners and critics, but never fully understood by its patrons.

“I’ll never do anything really cool in the suburbs again, it’s not worth it.” des Rosiers said. “I am tired of fighting my customers. I want to fight my competitors for a change.”

Read the full interview below.

Zagat: What were some of the successes and failures of Moderno?
des Rosiers: Well, obviously the failure is that we closed the restaurant. We built the restaurant that we said we were going to build. We wanted to open an artistic place with a menu that focused on ingredients and everything made by hand. And we accomplished that. If it were a small restaurant, if we were seventy seats, I think that Moderno would still be here and be doing well. It was such a large space and there were so many chairs in it, that it needs to be something that most of the people in Highland Park and the surrounding suburbs frequent, not just a small percentage of them. I think that the thing I learned the most is that it is difficult to do an artistic restaurant on the North Shore. I think when you do something that big it has to be something that a lot of people can gravitate towards and understand.

Zagat: Why did you decide to re-concept?
des Rosiers: We knew back in October we were going to have to do something. Either it was going to be that we keep putting in money to keep the restaurant open or spend more on advertising and trying to make it something the people would eventually grab onto. But I think that would have taken well over a year to three years with a substantial investment. Or [we knew we could] close it and do something we were proud of, that the town would gravitate towards and the town would like. It just made more sense to close and redo it - financially and personally. I think that some people were upset with the menu and what we did. They didn’t like it because it was uncomfortable. Most people saw it as a really great weekend place, but we can’t survive in that size of a restaurant only on weekends.

Zagat: How did you decide on the concept and menu for Royce?
des Rosiers: The concept for the restaurant, I came up with back in June when Moderno was still open. Phil [Rubino] and I were out in New York, and were in a restaurant when we saw an old Rolls Royce go by from the '30s. And I told Phil it would be really cool to build another restaurant with a menu good burgers and starting courses and things like that. We were going to build this restaurant anyway.

Zagat: Why is Royce a better fit for the neighborhood?
des Rosiers: It’s more affordable, so people can go to it more often. If we do something where they like coming to us more than once a week, then it works a whole lot better for us in the long run than a place they just want to go to once. When people read the menu they know what all the different items are. The menu is easy to understand and it’s familiar food. We just do our part and make sure we execute it really well, buy amazing ingredients and make everything from scratch in the restaurant. So the idea is that we are giving them a really good version of things they have seen before.

Zagat: How has the initial reaction to Royce compared to Moderno’s?
des Rosiers: For a lot of our customers, both between the way the restaurant looks inside, the menu and what people say when they leave, it’s completely the opposite. They love the way the place looks; they feel very comfortable being inside it. It’s more intimate than it was before - it’s much quieter. It’s more comfortable, both physical and aesthetically. People really like that. Everyone has been amazing about the menu and the food. We spent a lot of time and a lot of effort to hear what our customers were saying during the six months we were at Moderno. At Royce, we made sure that every single thing we heard from people was addressed and fixed. In some ways, it creates a sense of ownership for the town, because they told us what they were looking for and we paid attention.

Zagat: For your next project, would you attempt another sophisticated suburban concept or move to the city?
des Rosiers: My next project will be in the city. We are going to build more than one Royce, we are probably going to build three, four, five of them. My next thing that I do immediately will probably be to build another Royce. I’m guessing it will be sometime late this year. Then, the next artistic restaurant I do will be in the city.

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