Ryan Poli's San Sebastian Dream

This is The Feast 14, in which we highlight the most anticipated projects of the new season. Here now, Chef Ryan Poli discusses his forthcoming sibling concepts Tavernita and Barcito, opening in late September/early October.

We've already given chef Ryan Poli 30 seconds to pitch us on his forthcoming restaurant, Tavernita and Barcito slated to open by early October (watch the video here). But it would only be fair to give him a couple more minutes to expound on the side-by-side concepts, since both will be the first of their kind in Chicago. The Feast sat down with Poli to gain insight into his vision for a San Sebastian-style pinxto bar and to find out why it's his lifelong dream.

How did Tavernita come about?
I met Alfredo [Sandoval, proprietor] through a mutual friend, Paul Tanguay of the Tippling Brothers. The concept they originally had was a Latin American gastro bar. I told them that I wanted to do a Spanish-inspired, small plate type of restaurant.

What ideas did you have in mind for Tavernita prior to your recon trip to Spain?
Before we went, I told Alfredo that I thought the corner bar should be its own entity—a San Sebastian pintxo bar. He had never been to San Sebastian, so he didn’t understand the concept. So, he went to Spain and had been out there maybe a half day and called me saying, ‘I understand everything you’re talking about. No one’s doing this in Chicago, we definitely have to do this.'

For the unfamiliar, what is a pintxo bar?
San Sebastian is an incredible place—very old world Europe—and there are all these bars with plates laid out with different pintxos (snacks with toothpicks). You just grab a beer and a plate and start helping yourself, and when you’re leaving, they say ‘What did you have?’ and you pay. It’s kind of like the honor system there. Here, there will be a glass case with the pinxtos of the day, and the chef behind the counter will be making things so you can go up to the counter, order, and be charged accordingly. It will be a rustic, fun, energetic capture of San Sebastian in Chicago.

Why was it really important to you to do this concept?
My whole culinary career I was studying French cuisine—I learned about classic Paul Bocuse-style cuisine at Le Francais with Jean Banchet and Thomas [Keller’s] take on modern French cuisine at The French Laundry. So, I thought the next step was to go to France. But I had a friend who was working in San Sebastian who told me I should go out there, and I found Sergi Arola at La Broche. I went out there thinking I was going to learn all these cool, ultra-modern Spanish techniques with foams and gels, but what really happened was I fell in love with the culture, the street food, the little tapas bars. That was in 2003. I moved there in 2007 and lived there for a year, and when I moved back to Chicago, I realized my passion was Spanish food and the lifestyle there.

So why open this concept now?
When I got together with the Boka guys, they were all for it, but said, ‘We have this restaurant Perennial that we want to get off the ground first.’ But Alfredo was very open to the idea. He said ‘I’ve only been to Spain once, but we should go back together so you can show me what you’re talking about. Let's explore it further.’ [The Feast]

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