Exclusive Interview with BLVD Chicago and Studio K: Creating One of the Top Restaurants in Chicago
When a designer and client are perfectly matched the sky’s the limit! And when passion meets passion the results are spectacular! I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kara Callero, a co-owner of BLVD Chicago, one of the top restaurants in Chicago, and the designer behind the space, Studio K founder, Karen Herold.
If you love hospitality design there is a good chance you have heard of Studio K, or perhaps you have visited one of their stunning restaurant creations without knowing they were one of the masterminds behind it. And if you live in Chicago, or have visited recently, and love dining out, then perhaps you have already had the pleasure of experiencing BLVD Chicago.
Curious about the team and concept behind BLVD’s exquisite design and how it came to life, I asked Kara and Karen to share some background and highlights from their collaboration. Read on to hear what these powerhouse women had to say and see images of BLVD Chicago in the making. And a special cheers to the BLVD Chicago team who will be celebrating their one year anniversary later this month!
BLVD owners Frank Callero, Kara Callero, and Steve Zaleski outside the BLVD entrance pre-renovation.
I always admire people who jump into new business ventures full force, so after reading up a bit on the team behind BLVD Chicago and Sancerre Hospitality, the company behind the restaurant – I immediately wondered why the trio of owners decided to open their first restaurant. So I asked Kara to tell me more.
KARA: My background is in PR and marketing for restaurants and chefs so I was introduced to the industry from that standpoint professionally. My husband, Frank, who is one of the other owners, has a background in real estate law, so he is an attorney by trade and also dabbled in real estate development. By virtue of being a real estate attorney, he was part of a number of restaurant transactions, leasing and buying spaces for restaurants specifically. And our third partner, who is Frank’s cousin, Steve, has a background in accounting and then real estate with Frank as well. So we all kind of touched hospitality in various ways in our prior professional careers and have always been interested in it and interested in creating experiences for people.
BLVD was a mix of all of that. We purchased the space almost three years ago now. It was a full real estate development project so it allowed them to build out and develop a space, a large space, and then allowed us to put our own business, being a hospitality business, into the space.
Main Dining Room at BLVD Chicago. Photo by Anthony Tahlier.
How did you decide on Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood as the home for BLVD?
KARA: I am originally from California, but Frank and Steve grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and it is the city we all call home now. The West Loop is a neighborhood that is very rapidly growing and developing. We got in right before things went absolutely crazy, but we definitely saw the direction the neighborhood was going in terms of restaurants, hotels, even residential and office spaces – it’s just blowing up over here and so to us, it was an area that made sense to open a restaurant.
How did you and Karen meet?
KARA: When we first started talking about opening a restaurant, knowing that we did not have a tone of experience and that we needed to work with people who had a lot of experience in the industry we started doing some research on spaces we really liked in the city. We looked into who was a part of those, so designers, architects, development companies all of those things. And Karen obviously came up. We had actually originally looked at a different space and I called her then. That space didn’t end up being what we thought it would be, so we took some time to find something else and then I called her back to set up a meeting.
KARA: The first time we met was actually in the raw space itself, dirt floors, collapsed roof, I mean it was essentially four walls. We met there and walked the space and talked about what we wanted to do with it and the concept that to us made sense for such a grand large space with these incredible ceiling heights, really unlike anything else in the city, and she kind of agreed that made sense and here we are today.
You and your team were inspired by 1950s Hollywood glamour, can you tell me about where this concept came from?
KARA: When we decided we wanted to move forward with opening a restaurant, we knew we wanted to create this full experience for people. I think great food is the benchmark for a successful restaurant in Chicago, and really anywhere today, so we wanted to capture and really captivate people from the moment they walked in the door. Thinking about what that meant and what these full experiences meant, who was doing that and when we landed on the 1950s and Sunset Boulevard where people went out for more than just a really great meal. They went out for the drama of the space and the music and the people watching and of course the food, great beverage program, and great service, but it was that full all-encompassing experience. So that was really the root of BLVD and of our concept for the space.
Photo by Anthony Tahlier
How well had you and your team developed this concept before you began talking to Karen?
KARA: We did a lot of research on what went on back then specifically on Sunset Boulevard, pulled inspiration photos of some different restaurants and spaces that inspired us from both an aesthetic standpoint as well as a vibe/atmosphere/environmental standpoint. And we put that together into a package we shared with Karen to give her some inspiration and insight on what we wanted this whole thing to be.
Ah, you were being a very good client!
KARA: We were very particular as I am sure Karen will tell you!
Ok, Karen tell me about when you first heard Kara and her team talking about their concept and where you took it from there?
KAREN: Yes that is absolutely true and a really great thing! I do really talk about Kara and her team like that. There are a lot of clients that have a lot of opinions but don’t really get involved, or there are people who don’t get involved at all. But to have that combination of a group of clients that is not only very opinionated about what they want to see but then also have the tenacity to keep with it and stay on it the whole time and really follow through, that is a very different kind of experience, because many clients will have an opinion at the beginning and then will kind of move on and be busy with something else. And Kara and the team were very involved from day one until, well, now. And so, in the beginning, that was challenging (chuckle)!
I remember one day I said to Kara and her husband, I said listen with Boca, and all the restaurants you know me for, there are three meetings, one when they meet me and they tell me what they want, one when I show them what they want, and one where they ask me to save money. And we were at like three of those meetings in month one!
KARA: Literally! (chuckle)
KAREN: So, we definitely became really close, really fast. We had a lot of meetings, and at the beginning that is a little challenging because you don’t know each other, you don’t know each other’s tastes. For me, it is one of my projects and this is there only main project. In the beginning that took some getting used to, but the great thing is that when everyone’s passion is that aligned then you really come together on it because everyone works with the same goal.
It was really great to have that strong inspiration of Hollywood glam and then within that really strong inspiration still have a tremendous amount of freedom to turn it into something that works kind of with my aesthetic and the style I like. We had a lot of freedom to turn it into a fairly minimal version of that glam. It was really nice that we could have that directive fuel but make it very contemporary and very much now. Sometimes I get these themes and I am like, oh really, is that what we are going to have to do.
KARA: Yes we really wanted to stay away from that themey feel.
BLVD Chicago Bar. Photo by Anthony Tahlier.
KAREN: It was really great we didn’t have to do that! And it was really nice for us internally, and very few people I think will see this or recognize it or appreciate it, but from an architectural point of view, this was one of the most challenging projects I have ever done. There is not one thing that lines up in the building, every column, and every angle, there is no symmetry so we had to fake a lot of symmetry because the whole design was very symmetrical.
We have this staircase that looks like this swooping old glam staircase, but in commercial design, you cannot have a staircase that long without a landing. But then if you introduce that landing it doesn’t look like anything you want from the movies. So we had to kind of fake that it is one continuous curve by adding a railing that is taller than the actual railing that we need and that we use to kind of hide that landing. So there were a lot of very intricate technical things, that for me were just really frustrating at times, but also so great to have the chance to work on something like that and not just metal cladding walls with pretty materials.
What was your favorite part of working together?
KAREN: The shared commitment.
KARA: Ya I would agree.
KAREN: I think the shared commitment that from both sides, you know how the other person cares and for neither side its a job, it just has to happen the right way.
That is a win, and so often that can go very wrong! The end result definitely shows how right this went!
KAREN: That was another thing, Kara and her team were kind of an underdog in the city in the sense of first restaurant, no real experience. So many people say oh we are opening then and then, there is all the pre-hoopla, which most of the time never comes true because it is always 6 months after. It was done in a very restrained way, a very quiet way, kind of like we are just doing what we are doing, and we are not looking what other people are doing and not looking at what they are going to think of what we are doing. We are just doing our own thing for our own reasons and that is really interesting to work like that. Just really focusing in like that.
And then it is so rewarding when it is done to blow people’s minds up! People had no idea because it is so unassuming from the outside and Kara and her team are very unassuming. There was no big boasting of look what we are going to do, so it kind of just showed up and I think no one saw it coming and no one thought it was going to be this, with this amazing food and the music.
One of my big clients from McDonald’s, the creative director of McDonald’s, every single time when he is entertaining, he is always telling me like oh I was at BLVD again. There are so many people in the neighborhood now that this is there go to place, and this is competing with Boca right across the street, a really high-end Sushi restaurant. So that is really cool to see, you get a little “lalalala”. The underdog taking the world by storm!
Photo by Anthony Tahlier
What was the most painful part of the project?
KARA: I think we can agree it was definitely the staircase, wouldn’t you say Karen?
KAREN: Yes it was the staircase with a close number two in the shades of fabric (giggle).
KARA: Yes I would agree with that.
Photo by Anthony Tahlier
KAREN: We had to test them in the closet because we had zero daylight in the space. We were looking at all these different shades of golds and silvers and all these metallic shades of pink. In daylight, there were huge differences but then every time I would have to be like guys come in the closet with me, this is how it is going to look. So I have definitely never had as many fabric meetings.
But the staircase I actually got in a little bit of a heated discussion with Kara’s husband, but I won a bottle of tequila so it is all forgotten now. I remember I said to Frank, because Frank didn’t want to do it, he wanted to follow the ramp with the railing, and I was so upset about it and I said to Frank, Frank your raping her, your raping my restaurant, you cannot do this, don’t do this, I know your the owner but you cannot rape her. I was like physically upset! Kara and I won that one.
KARA: Yes you won that bottle and it came out perfect! Because it was our first restaurant we were so particular about every single detail, we hadn’t done it before, thus all of the meetings and going into closets to look at fabric colors.
Custom chandelier by Preciosa Lighting. Photo by Anthony Tahlier.
What is your favorite design feature?
KAREN: The staircase and tower at the end of the bar – the champagne tower without champagne. Oh and now there is the new chandelier.
KARA: Yes the new chandelier. A year in the making, it is finally in. It is huge, 9 x 15’, weighing 1000 lbs, all hand-cut crystals.
Was the chandelier a custom design? Who made it?
KAREN: Yes I designed one that failed, so we worked together to design this new one. It is inspired by a piece of jewelry hanging from the sky.
KARA: It was made by Preciosa in the Czech Republic. It took 12 hours to install. Each of the thousands of crystals had to be individually attached on site.
Kara, how do you think Karen’s design impacts the way people receive BLVD?
KARA: Going back to what I said earlier about how we wanted to create this full experience for people. I think that the design is incredibly important to that and it definitely captivates you from the moment you walk in the door. You walk down this narrow hallway not knowing what to expect, the exterior very unassuming, and then you are immediately taken aback by how grandiose the space is. Everything from the lighting to all the different design elements, gold mirrors, luxe fabrics. So I think the design is incredibly important to the concept of the experience and that is exactly what we wanted when we decided that we wanted to open the restaurant.
Karen, what effect did this project have on your business?
KAREN: Well, I definitely have had more compliments from this space than many more well-known spaces. It has had a tremendous effect of people being like “what”, it surprises people. And for me, it has proven something. I run my business very different from other designers, I don’t have a specific Studio K look, we have a very specific approach to how we do business, but we don’t have this look that we repeat.
BLVD was kind of like the perfect storm for that. Here is a client with a very strong vision, one that I really agree with, that then really let me do the part that I do. And that then comes together as a complete project that could have never happened if either of the parties were missing. Which to me is how design should be, it shouldn’t be a fabricated thing in someone’s mind, kind of in a vacuum and just creating something that is pretty per se. It is supposed to be someone’s idea and vision of creating a brand that I can then help with the experience part of that. So to me, this has been really good proof that this is a really good concept for a design company, to become a tool for an owner, so it kind of comes through me.
The Women’s Restroom at BLVD. Photo by Kailley Lindman.
You have received a lot of attention on the bathroom, and of course, you know we love this particular space given our feature of it in Vol. 2 of our print edition. Why did the bathroom receive such special treatment? Did you ever expect it would get this attention once it was done?
KARA: We really wanted to make it feel like this old Hollywood dressing room. When you think about those they were these large spaces with individual sinks, meant to be something more than just a bathroom. I don’t think we thought it was going to be the most Instagrammed room in the space, but it has definitely has become that.
So there you have it! If you are in Chicago’s West Loop or plan to be there soon we highly suggest you plan an evening out at BLVD Chicago! Globally inspired modern American shareable plates, cocktails, and music in a most glamorous setting await you! BLVD Chicago may be new on the restaurant scene but it has made its way on to the list of top restaurants in Chicago without a doubt!
All photos courtesy of BLVD Chicago and Studio K