When Chicago hosts three Hollywood movie shoots (“Divergent,” “Jupiter Ascending,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction”), two A-list stars who are keeping their significant others company while they film here (Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga) and one bar-hopping championship sports team (Blackhawks, obviously), all in a span of 12 months, an uptick in celebrity sightings around the city is to be expected.
Not as expected?
That afternoon Kutcher and girlfriend Mila Kunis shopped at Chicago Premium Outlets in Aurora in July or that night they left Japonais in the Goose Island neighborhood on Divvy Bikes in August. Maybe stars really are just like us.
For the most part though, bold names dined and hung out in the River North, Near North and Gold Coast neighborhoods. Where exactly? I’ll cover that in my Top Celebrity Hangouts of 2013 rankings over the next five weeks, beginning with No. 5 today and counting down to No. 1 on Dec. 20. The rankings are based on star power and number of sightings. Let’s get started with No. 5: Siena Tavern.
Spotted: Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, George Lucas, Pharrell Williams, Dwyane Wade, John Cusack, Chris Bosh, Andy Cohen, Maria Menounos, Gabrielle Union, Kristin Cavallari, Emmy Rossum, Jennifer Beals, Joanna Krupa, Jill Zarin, Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, Tom Berenger
Regulars: Lance Briggs, Marc Trestman
Owners: DineAmic Group, owners of Public House and Bull & Bear; and former “Top Chef” contestant Fabio Viviani
Back story: “We typically look for a location first and then base the concept on that,” said co-owner David Rekhson of DineAmic Group. “We found a location in River North and felt there was a void in the market with Italian cuisine. There hadn’t been a new (Italian) restaurant open in quite some time in River North and we felt that was a good genre to explore. Also, we made friends with Fabio a couple years ago and were looking for a project to work on together. With his background in Italian cuisine, it was a natural fit.”
Celeb story: Siena Tavern is no stranger to crank calls. Someone claiming to be Justin Bieber’s agent called to make reservations for the pop star when he was in town in July, but no one showed up. Another time someone claiming to be Michael Jordan called to make reservations. “That’s rare,” Rekhson said. “Normally (celebs) have people who work for them make reservations. We thought this was a prank. Two hours later, Michael Jordan shows up and walks up to the host stand and says, ‘So, did you think I was pranking you?’”
Draw: Siena Tavern doesn’t just wait for celebrities to visit. It actively invites those who are in town or coming to town to dine at the restaurant. Having a famous chef doesn’t hurt either. “People are drawn to him,” Rekhson said of Viviani. “He’s a success story. And he makes friends with a lot of people when he’s on shows and doing various other projects.” Rekhson also believes the restaurant attracts celebs because of its River North location and the fact that it is new this year.
VIP section: If it’s a star and their large entourage or a cast dinner, like the one that took place with the cast of “Chicago Fire” in October, Siena Tavern seats them in the private dining room known as The Cellar. But generally, most celebs are seated in the secluded, elevated booths in the west corner of the restaurant.
Discount: “It’s case by case,” Rekhson said. “There’s no firm policy in place. We’re in the hospitality business. (Celebrities) coming in is definitely a value to us, and we want to reciprocate that. We’ll comp a round of drinks or bring them dessert or appetizer or take care of a bill here and there. They’re good for business.”
Sample tweet: “Perfect Chicken Goodness from Fabio Viviani, one of my favorites from Top Chef @ Siena Tavern” — Emmy Rossum
Dish: “(Michael Jordan) likes the meatball a lot,” Rekhson said of Siena Tavern’s wagyu beef meatball. “It’s one of our staples. It’s pretty big: 12 ounces. We would love to have a photo of him palming it like a basketball.” Pharrell Williams, Dwyane Wade and Maria Menounos also have ordered the meatball dish.
Impact: “It’s always exciting and entertaining for customers,” Rekhson said. “If you’re at dinner and sitting next to Michael Jordan, that’s pretty cool. It’s fun to see people’s reactions. (Celebs are) one of the many ingredients that make us successful.”
Future outlook: Because Siena Tavern opened this year, it doesn’t have to worry about going out of style any time soon. And while RPM Italian likely steals away some Italian-hungry celebs (and vice versa), Siena Tavern still managed to attract a strong clientele this year and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
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