Empire bar in Naperville combines old design, new menu
The tables are made of wood from an old barn in Indiana.
The name is from an old TV show about prohibition.
The paneling on the bar is from some old whiskey barrels from Kentucky.
The host table is an old receiving stand from a warehouse.
Everything old gives an industrial look to the Empire craft beer and burger bar opening next week in downtown Naperville.
But design touches new give an old building fresh life as the bar at 48 W. Chicago Ave. -- created by Phil and Marta Cullen, the couple behind the Ballydoyle Irish pubs in Downers Grove and Aurora -- prepares to serve its first customers.
There's a new retractable roof above a semi-outdoor third-story deck with an elevator and chairlift to make the area accessible to everyone.
"That's the new part that's really good compared to the older restaurants that people with wheelchairs can't get into," Marta said.
There's a creative new menu born of five years of research on customer tastes at Ballydoyle, resulting in things like the 50/50 burger -- half ground beef and half bacon -- and the "burger cigar" -- an appetizer of hamburger meat shaped like a cylinder.
There's a new whiskey bar to serve as a waiting area, a new stage to host live music and a new waterfront deck on the south side of the building offering vistas of the DuPage River.
Yet in a way, the bar itself is old news. Since the Cullens bought the building three years ago, the restaurant has always been said to be "opening soon." But renovations on the former home of Rosebud Italian restaurant, damaged by a fire in 2010, took much longer than they expected. And cost more, too.
"It was in bad shape, but it was really worse than I thought," Phil said about the structure, which is actually a compilation of a three-story former hotel on the east and a two-story former factory on the west.
The Cullens said they've put millions into renovations to turn Empire into an experience, not just another place to grab a burger and a beer. Part of the experience is the historical look and feel, says Marta, an interior designer who runs Dream Interiors in Downers Grove.
"We really saved the vintage buildings by keeping them and working with them," she said.
Saving the buildings meant redoing the floor to provide a stronger structure to handle a capacity of nearly 500.
"There's enough steel to build a bridge in here," Phil said.
Saving the buildings also meant finding a way to prevent flooding. The answer? Filling the basement with gravel so water can trickle in during storms and flow back out when the river recedes.
But some of the other interesting elements of Empire's design are just for fun, like some mahogany panels from a Hinsdale house owned by the Comiskey family of the Chicago White Sox and the retractable roof on the patio.
The idea for the roof came from a ski bar Phil visited while skiing in Colorado when he was in college. With the roof open on a snowy night, he remembers being awed by snow falling directly into the bar. Now he can recreate that moment for Naperville bargoers because the patio is heated and air-conditioned for all-season use.
"When the roof opens," he said, "you can see from here to the stars."