Imagine the people you crossed paths with in 2013 are now your work partners in 2018. That’s how it went for Jeff Williams, Anton Valkov, Petros Papatheofanis, and Cristian Mendoza Jarquin. They all met while working at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago.
“While at Sable, we had always talked about potentially opening a place. But then we all went our different ways and did different things. At the end of the day, we were all friends and wanted to keep in touch with each other’s lives.”
It was Williams who first made the foray into The Press Room, a 60-seat restaurant located in the lower level of Publishing House, an urban-loft bed and breakfast in Chicago’s famed West Loop neighborhood. With no culinary degree, Williams gained tremendous culinary experience in Michelin-starred kitchens throughout the world, training with chefs like Magnus Nilsson, Blaine Wetzel, and Daniel Burns. After a long stint as executive sous chef of Sable Kitchen & Bar, he left to open The Press Room in 2017. He was soon joined by Papatheofanis as general manager.
When the two friends learned that the previous owner was looking to sell the place, they called the other two and “we got together to put this plan in motion,” says Papatheofanis. “I think it was our knowledge of teaming up with good people that made us want to take this opportunity. Knowing that we would have phenomenal food and service, all the components to a successful restaurant.”
There were plenty of meetings to negotiate what would be best for the restaurant, the previous owner, and the new owners. Negotiations also took place on the little details—like restaurant fixtures—as to what belonged to The Publishing House and what would belong to the four newcomers.
“On our end, it was more a matter of figuring out what was best for us in terms of how we would approach it and run the place.”
All four friends are listed as official co-owners and each runs their own lane.
“Most people that are passionate about F&B start working together and eventually find themselves in a place where they’re ready to open their own. When you get to that point, you realize you have certain strengths and weaknesses. So, partnerships form,” Papatheofanis explains. “We have a chef, we have service-driven people, we have finance and management, and we have front of house and beverage. You need help. If they happen to be friends, that’s how it comes about.”
“I don’t have to be the best at everything,” Jarquin continues. “But I want to surround myself with people that have expertise. I saw how passionate these guys are. I saw how me working with them would build a great restaurant. That’s past friendship—that’s talent. I wouldn’t have gone into this just because they were my friends. They’re the best in their fields, which makes me the best in mine.”
Chef Williams in particular, is thrilled with an arrangement that allows him “to just focus on the kitchen—where I should be—and that everyone else is going to make sure the restaurant is operating to where it needs to be.”
While Williams’ background is in fine dining, patrons will find nothing but comfort on the menus of The Press Room. “I wanted to take the techniques that go into that [fine dining] style of food and apply it to something you might eat every day. Elevated comfort food with flavor elements that are nostalgic without being too heavy handed.”
Take, for instance, the charred broccoli dish served with crispy parmesan conjures thick memories of the best broccoli cheddar soup of your childhood.
The roast chicken, made with a concentrated chicken stock that is brewed in house (20 gallons made from 50 pounds of chicken bones is reduced to just one unctuous gallon).
As Williams rules the kitchen, Valkov has a strong hold on the bar.
“I decided to do classic cocktails,” he says. “We won’t want to intimidate people with anything too crazy or with weird ingredients—even though those can be amazing. We just serve up our elevated versions of the classics…the cocktails our grandparents used to drink.”
Valkov is particularly proud of his wine list, curated on the basis of discovery and discussion.
“I wanted to set up our wines so that we can have a conversation instead of just taking an order and bringing the wine. People appreciate it. They feel comfortable trying something different,” he explains. “We price our wines reasonably, too. If a price is comparable and the list is explained, people are more willing to try things and it feels casual. Encouraging guests to be adventurous and broaden horizons without lecturing.”
While the four clearly have a deep respect of each other’s capabilities, their partnership most certainly requires an amalgamation of ideas.
“That’s the challenge,” Valkov chimes in. “We’re new to ownership and everyone has different views and ideas. Bringing them up and finding the right thing is an exciting challenge. There can be disagreements but we all want what’s best for the restaurant. Trying to find the best way to convince your partners that your idea is really good is the challenge I’m passionate about and excited about.”
Other challenges they face are those that come with the West Loop territory—expensive operations and over-saturation. “We’re the little guys right next to the Boka conglomerate. Having those restaurants be a short walk away is always a challenge.”
The Press Room’s competitive edge is that it cares about turning guests into regulars.
“We’re very casual but we have excellent hospitality,” Papatheofanis says. “We build relationships. We’re more reasonably priced. It’s friendly, warm, and casual. The owners are always there personally taking care of you and remembering your name every time you come in.”
“It’s important that people feel comfortable and don’t need to make special reservations,” Valkov continues. “Randolph Street takes a lot of planning but you can just pop in to The Press Room. It’s not intimidating…it’s just hanging out, indulging in good conversation.”
Given that The Press Room is still fairly new and situated in a place with such fierce competition, they’re neighborhood-focused hospitality approach is a success. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to get a table,” Valkov admits. “But we always make people comfortable while they wait. They hear our story. We hear theirs. We then start to see them two to three times a week.”
All in all, The Press Room is embodying what it loves so much about the Chicago restaurant scene as a whole—“people just care.”