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Pioneering restaurateur Rich Melman celebrates Chicago legacy

Richard Melman sits front Summer House his latest resturant venture inspired time he spends SantMonicCalif.

Richard Melman sits in front of Summer House, his latest resturant venture inspired the time he spends in Santa Monica, Calif.

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Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

Rich Melman is a man for all seasons.

Why else would he be opening his new restaurant Summer House, 1954 N. Halsted, in the middle of autumn?

Melman is a Chicagoan and has the same incongruity in the restaurant field that Chicagoan Bill Veeck had in baseball.

Melman named his first restaurant R.J. Grunts — R. for Richard, J. for his late business partner Jerry Orzoff — and Grunt for the sound Orzoff’s girlfriend made when she ate.

And in an era where many restaurants close, Grunts is rolling through its 42nd year at 2056 Lincoln Park West.

On Thursday, Melman will be inducted into the Chefs Hall of Fame as Industry Leader of the Year in ceremonies at the Castle in Chicago. With 175 restaurants under his belt, Melman is the sizzle behind today’s Chicago restaurant scene.

The 71-year-old Melman has learned many lessons since Grunts.

Summer House is in a bright space that will be split by Stella Barra Pizzeria, which his Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises chain operates in Hollywood and Santa Monica, Calif. The eateries will open in a few weeks.

Sitting in a booth at Summer House underneath a huge blue YES sign, Melman says diners should keep an open mind.

“Too many people say no today,” he says. “The answer is yes, we just have to figure out how to do it.”

And he keeps moving in a forward spirit.

“I never take this business for granted,” Melman says. “It is the same energy and the same intensity. That might be the common theme from Grunts to this. The day I no longer feel nervous about an opening will probably be the day I retire. I did everything I could do to be successful when I opened R.J. Grunts. I was there constantly. First week, second week, third week, no business. I had no money. Then miraculously, after two and a half months one Friday it caught on.”

Melman is totally focused on opening Summer House, which will serve California styled comfort food. He does not want to meet at Grunts for an interview.

“Our fifth restaurant was Lawrence of Oregano,” he explains. “And our sixth restaurant was the Pump Room. I was so excited about the Pump Room that I didn’t focus as much as I could have on Lawrence of Oregano. It was successful, but not as good as it could have been. I learned not to get ahead of yourself. When I do something I want to give it all my energy. I don’t want to be thinking about Grunts.”

Summer House and Stella Barra are in the closed Tilli’s restaurant space. Summer House will seat 140 on the south side, while the 100-seat pizzeria with rear patio occupies the front.

“I love Santa Monica,” Melman says. “I wanted to do a restaurant that reminds me of how I feel when I am in Santa Monica. Bright, skylights. I thought people in the winter might like something like that. But who knows? I’m never confident people will show up.”


Twitter: @cstdhoekstra

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