About twenty years ago, some of us from the Chicago branch of Chowhound, the now-defunct national food chat site, launched a Chowathon, an odyssey of eating that would bring us to twenty-four food and drink establishments in twenty-four hours. Our focus was to be on small local restaurants with some Chicago history, so we went to, for instance, Manny’s for corned beef, Filbert’s for soda and Ramova Grill for chili.
Walking into Ramova Grill for the first time felt like walking into old-time Chicago, as though you might hear Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John whispering conspiratorially in one of the wooden booths that lined the walls. The joint was kind of dingy—not dirty, just rundown bordering on dilapidated, but that was a huge part of its charm.
The legendary chili, however, received none of our praise. Several in the group speculated that the Ramova chili was nothing more than Hormel with cinnamon added. It may not have been much more than that, but there’s no denying it was a much-beloved bowl in the neighborhood, which may have been due to the place’s history rather than its recipe.
With the advent of streaming services and the economic blows suffered by movie theaters during the pandemic shutdown, it’s hard to remember just how important cinemas were to a community. Throughout much of the past century, movie theaters were cultural institutions that contributed greatly to the personality of a neighborhood, drawing residents from surrounding communities and providing a focus for local nightlife.
Much like the Music Box, its smaller sister on the North Side of Chicago, the Ramova Theater reflects the influence of both Atmospheric and Spanish Revival styles of architecture. Unlike the boxier design of contemporary cineplexes, the Atmospheric style was typically less symmetrical and much more fantasy-forward. The interiors of the Ramova Theater and the Music Box (both designed by Meyer O. Nathan and opening in 1929) resembled a Spanish courtyard, with faux marble embellishments and a twinkling starry night sky simulated on the ceiling. Theaters in those days were designed to take you to another place, with both the films they showed and via the buildings themselves, grand palaces for the common man. You may have worked punch-press all week long, but when you went to the movies on Saturday night, uniformed attendants waited upon you in rooms with golden chandeliers, and you sat in air-conditioned comfort, feeling like nobility.
By the time the Ramova Theater closed in the 1980s, it had become a second-run movie house long past its prime. The Ramova Grill closed in 2012, and as much as we enjoyed the charm (if not so much the chow) of the old place, we were glad to hear that Kevin Hickey (Ritz Carlton Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, Allium) would be taking over the kitchen when the complex’s grand reopening takes place in late spring-early summer.of next year. Hickey was in the vanguard of resuscitating the Bridgeport neighborhood with his Duck Inn, which was named one of the “Best New Restaurants in America” by Esquire and one of the “Top 10 restaurants in America” by USA Today.
There’s every reason to expect big things from the resurrected Ramova Grill. Whatever comes of the Ramova renovation, it’s an undeniable benefit to have Hickey on board, just don’t expect to be served (or to pay for) the fancy-pants vittles served at the Ritz or the Four Seasons. Instead, Hickey tells us, “The Ramova Grill will offer a wide array of classic Americana diner food. From breakfast through lunch and dinner. We will be paying homage to the many great foods that were once offered in the neighborhood, and we’ll be taking inspiration from the Lithuanian and Eastern European foods of the area.”
We’re especially interested in the traditional Lithuanian and Eastern European menu items. Incidentally, Ramova means “peaceful peace,” or something like that, in Lithuanian.
The push to renovate the Ramova has gone on for years, spearheaded by groups like Save the Ramova, headed by real estate agent Maureen Sullivan, who said she’d been going there since she was four years old, and who worked tirelessly to get the old theater the respect—and the renovation—she felt it deserved. Hickey also used to be a regular customer; he tells us: “I grew up in Bridgeport and was a regular at the Ramova movie theater. I attended the karate dojo above the original Ramova Grill and ate there regularly to ensure that any good I did for my body through exercise would be ruined with a bowl of chili, cheeseburger and fries. The whole building encapsulates my childhood.”
What the project needed was an ambitious developer. Enter Tyler Nevius, a senior executive for the Endeavor talent and entertainment agency, who was based in Brooklyn.
Nevius has a love for Chicago, as well as a love of music and community. He wanted to do something big in Chicago, but he wasn’t entirely sure what that big thing would be. “My wife and I always said, ‘We’re going to go to Chicago, we’re going to build something on our own. And we’re going to do it in a way that brings all types of people together. And we know it has to be the South Side.’ And to be quite frank, we didn’t know what any of that meant. We just knew we wanted to be where different cultures of people have lived for generations.”
Some friends of Nevius and his wife were visiting the city over Labor Day 2017, and they stopped by The Duck Inn. Nevius told us his friends mentioned they “had a friend who works in sports entertainment and who wants to do something in the South Side. He thinks he’s going to build a cool music venue, and he’s planning to partner with cool breweries.” Hickey heard that and said, ‘You tell your friend to check out the Ramova.’”
Nevius did take Hickey’s advice and he did check out the Ramova. He liked what he saw. He made some arrangements with the then-alderman, Patrick Daley Thompson, who had been looking for ways to rejuvenate the Halsted corridor in Bridgeport.
Nevius likes beer, and he wanted a brewery next to the restaurant. He found a brewer who cannot yet be announced but who Nevius tells us “makes some of the best beer I’ve ever had, and they’re amazing people who really understand what we’re trying to do here. So, they came on as our partner. Then I started talking to musicians, and we’ve had some legendary musicians who decided to invest in this.”
Part of the deal that Nevius developed was to include a “community benefits agreement.” By this agreement, Nevius and the Ramova properties will make their spaces available for the community, for nonprofits, high schoolers and community groups. Says Nevius, “We’ve built every aspect of this project around the community. Our ownership group is community-based, most of them all live within walking distance, and I moved to Bridgeport a while ago. (Hickey’s family has been here six generations.) And what we’re doing here is going to help the community immensely.
“We’re gonna have hundreds and thousands of people coming in and out of the Ramova. Every show is going to bring in a lot of people who will be walking out on the streets. We’re going to be able to serve some of them, but a lot will have to go elsewhere, so you’ll see other restaurants, local establishments, set up to serve those big numbers of people. I hope you see people leave our brewery and go to Marz Community Brewing Company, which is not even half-a-mile away. You’ve got Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar, you’ve got Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream, Kimski and Bridgeport Coffee, and we’d love to see those groups thrive and work with them to do more and more with our community.”
The revitalized Ramova, says Nevius, will be “the anchor that’s needed to revitalize the Halsted Street business strip in Bridgeport. It will bring jobs to the community and people to patronize the existing (and hopefully future) businesses. It will serve as a cultural gathering place for the community to come together and celebrate the diverse artists and programs we hope to bring.”
“We sit down every week with architects from the O’Riley Office and go through design and development issues,” Nevius says. “We’re bringing back the Ramova to what it looked like in its heyday. Whenever you take on a historical building like this, you have to work with the national parks [who operate the National Register of Historic Places]. They’ve got a historical preservation group, and they review what you’re doing. We worked with both the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) and National Park Services (NPS) to make sure we’re redeveloping Ramova in a manner that meets the expectations and standards set by these groups. It’s a rigorous but very rewarding process that’s meant to benefit the community and provide some support for the groups that choose to take this on.”
Dan O’Riley, principal at the O’Riley Office, says that “Working with SHPO and NPS was an iterative process. I’d propose design solutions that aligned with Nevius’ programmatic requirements and my overall architectural intent; SHPO would review all that and provide feedback. For larger issues like the addition of the balconies in the auditorium, SHPO reviewed and provided feedback, and when our ideas were deemed acceptable by SHPO, they would be elevated to NPS for their review, feedback and approvals. This process necessitated the generation of a lot of sketches, diagrams and renderings that wouldn’t typically be part of the design process. Very often it felt like solving a geometry proof: a ruling would be made by an authority (SHPO or NPS) and I’d have to demonstrate, step by step, how a particular design solution addressed that ruling. While it slowed things down a bit, it kept the design intent honest. Nothing was capricious.”
The O’Riley Office explains on their website that the Ramova renovation involves “an adaptive reuse of an existing movie theater… an adjacent commercial building and greystone two-flat. The project will include a live performance venue with a capacity for 1,800 people, an on-site brewery and tap room, and The Ramova Grill, all bringing a mix of world-class entertainment experiences and community-focused programming. The Ramova will offer an impressive set of live performances, closely planned community events, and world-class food and beer to create a new gathering place for the South Side.”
It’s an ambitious plan, and there is still a lot of work to do. “As a historic preservation project, we’ll be retaining as much of the existing plasterwork as possible in the entry lobby, concessions area and auditorium to maintain the spirit of an ‘atmospheric theater,’ original to the Ramova,” O’Riley says. “Necessary additions or modifications to the interior, due to a shift in program or to comply with today’s code, are being treated as jewel boxes: discrete insertions, different from the existing architecture in their detailing, their color and in their texture. These additions include a large balcony in the auditorium, millwork bars for concessions, communicating stairs and toilet rooms.”
Of all those working together to make the Ramova renovation a reality, Hickey is likely the most recognizable local figure to Chicagoans. Together with Nevius and the O’Riley Office, he says, “the team at The Duck Inn will be involved in every aspect of the project from design, style and culture. Primarily, we will be overseeing all the food and beverage operations at The Ramova, from the Ramova Grill to the food in the Tap Room, the bars and foodservice in the venue and catered events.”
There is still a lot of work to do. As of July, Hickey tells us, “We have just started digging out the basement to create the brewery, so it’s a very exciting time!”
What’s most exciting to some of us is the prospect of enjoying music in an architecturally fascinating space followed by what will undoubtedly be Hickey’s masterful take on—and what we expect to be his significant upgrade of—the traditional chili at the Ramova Grill.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org