When successful restaurateurs decide to open a second location, one of the biggest challenges becomes how to nurture the newcomer while keeping an eye on its established sibling.
David Breo and Ken Carter solved that dilemma by opening The Warbler, debuting Jan. 23, next door to their 5-year-old Lincoln Square eatery, Gather, 4539 N. Lincoln Ave.
The two storefronts are separated by a gangway, cutting down Breo and Carter’s commute to mere steps.
“I’m here every day, Ken’s here every day,” said Breo, managing partner of an ownership group that also includes Carter, the restaurants’ head chef.
“Mentally, we got to a place where we could take on another location, but the question always was, How much time would that take away from Gather?” Breo said. “The last thing we want is for people to perceive Gather has dipped.”
The answer unexpectedly fell into their laps when the owners of Mash (formerly Bad Dog Tavern), at 4535 N. Lincoln Ave., mentioned in passing to Breo they were looking to downsize.
“We jumped,” said Breo. “It’s not so much perfect timing as the perfect location.”
After Mash closed in December 2016, the Gather team set about creating a concept that would build on the goodwill earned by Gather and yet feel like an entirely different experience.
“Gather is more of a cozy, warm, sit-down-dinner-with-a-glass-of-red-wine place,” said Carter. “Next door, we wanted bright, lively, come as you are.”
The “brightness” comes from the addition of multiple sets of double doors that let light flood the space.
“We oddly spent a lot of money to knock holes in walls,” said Breo.
In addition to a 25-seat bar and 75-seat dining room, The Warbler boasts a 40-seat private dining room, with a full wall of south-facing windows that open onto a private patio.
The private indoor/outdoor area was designed to fill demand for an event space that Gather couldn’t, said Breo.
“We would never rent out Gather,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to meet that niche.”
A larger, 120-seat patio will be back action after missing all of summer 2017 too. Once the warm weather hits, The Warbler will serve lunch al fresco.
“It’s going to be really, really special,” Breo promised.
The Warbler’s kitchen provides Carter with a much bigger sandbox to play in, and the chef, who trained under Charlie Trotter, has had a field day.
Where Gather’s menu lists a single pasta option, The Warbler’s menu has six, plus a full complement of salads, flatbreads, appetizers, entrees and an entire section devoted to vegetables.
“It’s how I like to cook,” said Carter. “I just love vegetables, I just love pasta. Now we have the infrastructure to do all house-made pastas.”
While The Warbler was under construction, Carter used the lead time to bring on board kitchen staff at Gather with an eye toward transitioning a core group to the new restaurant.
“That’s one big thing I had in my planning. When Gather opened, I was head down, cooking every day,” said Carter. “With Warbler, I have my team running the kitchen. We all know the routine.”
Though Carter said he intends to change the menu frequently, particularly come spring when locally grown produce becomes readily available, the inaugural lineup of dishes represents the tone he intends to establish at The Warbler.
Among his personal favorites are the freekeh salad, freekeh being a grain foodies have dubbed “the new quinoa;” roasted carrots, with carrot hummus, dried dates, crispy chickpeas and a pistachio dukkah spice mix; and Korean-style chicken wings with tamari glaze and sesame seeds.
“The technique and the skill is at a very high level, but we don’t want people to be intimidated,” Breo said.
Diners can geek out over the ingredients, and staff has been trained to provide as much detail as requested, or they can just enjoy their chicken wings and mac ‘n’ cheese, he said.
Prices are equally approachable, with most menu items falling in the $10-$15 range; entrees top out at $26 for a strip loin.
“All we want is for you to be satisfied,” said Breo. “Accolades are nice, recognition is nice, but I’m much more concerned with the response from neighbors. It means more to me when people come in and bring their friends from across the city or suburbs and say, ‘I want to show them how great you are.’”
It’s an ethos Breo has in common with Carter, and that shared sense of values is one reason the 34-year-old chef has opted to stay within the Gather/Warbler fold rather than strike out on his own.
“My whole career, I had a goal to have a restaurant. When I met David and the other partners, we had the same goals,” Carter said. “The way I think about the kitchen is the way he [Breo] thinks about the dining experience. The most important thing to us is the guest experience. It’s all about . . . is this person going to come back.”
“We refer to it as ‘hugs,’” Breo said. “It could be the food, it could be the ambiance; somewhere in there, whether it’s a cocktail, food or service, [diners] need to get that hug.”
The Warbler is open daily at 4:30 p.m. for dinner and hugs. Look for weekend brunch to be added in the spring.