"I've always wanted a restaurant, but I thought it would be something I'd do later in life, like, after I'm a famous novelist or something. But, uh, that is not gonna happen," Iliana Regan told Julia Thiel of the Reader. Forget being Virginia Woolf, the restaurant now looks like it's going to happen by late summer or early fall. Regan, whose One Sister underground dinners have amazed guests with an Alinea-level range of courses cooked pretty much solo by Regan in her kitchen and served in her apartment, has told her email list that she's moving forward with Elizabeth, a restaurant she describes as feeling like "a dreamy cabin," most likely in a space in Lincoln Square. It will aim for the same artfulness with ingredients she's grown or foraged herself, while upping the offerings to three separate themed menus cooked right in front of guests. We talked to Regan to find out more about her plans, how the menus will work and maintain the communal feel of her apartment dinners, and what this means for her apartment dinners (short answer: they'll end in June and they're pretty much booked, so unless she adds a few dates, wait for Elizabeth).
So did you plan to turn your underground dinners into a restaurant all along?
I did, yeah. Some people see having underground dinners as the antithesis of restaurant dining, but from the beginning at farmers' markets and making pierogi [a mainstay of her menus], it was about making a little name for myself and always pushing it to gain a little more exposure and hopefully attract investors through my dinners (which I did).
People can't believe I'm doing what I do in my house, which has a certain warm and hospitable feel which is also kind of the antithesis of what you get in a restaurant. The challenge is to have a restaurant that creates that same feeling of magic and still feels like a home.
The space we hope to get has a wonderful feel, there's an open kitchen and there's nothing separating us from the diners except the row of stainless steel fridges we'll be plating on top of.
The communal experience has been a big part of your dinners. How will you make that happen in a restaurant?
I'm a little on the fence about the communal dining, but I think it's going to be part of it. Probably with smaller tables of 8 or so. But the people who've come to the dinners, even when they've been hesitant at first, have ended up saying they loved it. There's really only been a few times that tables haven't clicked.
But the centerpiece courses [courses in which everyone takes their food from a kind of art piece] have been such a hit. I wanted to keep that element of the dinner party feel. And I hope with a little more staff I'll be able to do some more theatrical things at tableside.
My plan is to have three tasting menus— one that's smaller and more economical, then one that's lengthier, and then one long one. I want them to be different menus— I don't want to just take the best things from one menu and call that another menu.
If you look at the logo I designed, the three symbols on it represent something that means something in terms of my childhood with my sister, and each one is going to be a different menu.
The owl will be the farm to table-focused one. The deer one is a little more about the forest and foraging, influenced by the woods. And then the diamond one will be the deluxe one, with lavish ingredients, like black truffle. It's also the most whimsical, and the longest— but that doesn't mean it's the best. They're really each intended to be a different experience, and if you come back three times within the same season, you could have three very different experiences.
It's about 40 courses coming out of the kitchen each night. I don't think the staff will like me, but it will work.
So how do three different menus work with the communal seating?
I'm still thinking about that. I think what I'm going to do is sell a certain number of seats per menu. It's like Next in the sense that I know exactly what I'll be serving, which makes it easy to plan— I've got everything so down, I know exactly how much to make of everything.
But I don't want to sell tickets— when I've told people at the dinners about this, they say, please, please don't sell tickets. Please let us talk to somebody! So I think I'll take emails, but call them back.
Understandably, you don't want to get into specifics about the space, which may or may not be the space in the end. But tell us about it anyway.
We've looked at a lot of things, and even made offers on some things. We've talked about options like my investors buying a building and renting the space back to the restaurant business. But we found a rental space which is already built out, which means we would be in business so much faster. Maybe as early as mid-July or August— I'd just be thrilled to have that kind of late summer produce.
It also has a liquor license, which opens up a whole new area. We'd still be BYOB, but we'd also have some classic cocktails, some local beers, and some wines. I don't want a huge wine list, but Tracy Kellner at Provenance is going to help me pair some wines with the seasons.
Tell us about the name, Elizabeth.
I named it for my sister, who passed away— actually I guess One Sister is sort of named in tribute to her, too, because it said one sister, one person's vision about using things that grow locally and that I grow myself or forage for.
You know, I started at the farmer's market in Crown Point [Indiana], because the regulations were so much easier, made it easier to cook on site. And it was all things I grew myself. Even when the pierogis took off as a business, they were filled with things I grew or found.
I think that's one of the things people love and enjoy about the food. Even in the winter, 70-80% of the garnishes are homegrown or foraged. In summer it's even more.