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Gather Round the Neighborhood's Newest Eatery

By Patty Wetli | December 20, 2012 6:24am | Updated on December 20, 2012 7:42am

LINCOLN SQUARE — Gather restaurant, Lincoln Square's newest eatery, has a Trotter alum in the kitchen, but that doesn't mean diners should expect to find roasted squab, nettles risotto or pigs' feet on the menu.

"There's nothing that's going to intimidate people or freak people out. It's great ingredients, handled well, that taste delicious," said David Breo, 42, Gather's co-owner and general manager. "It was very important to me to find a chef with huge talent but that bought into that vision."

Ken Carter, whose resume includes stints at Cibo Matto and Charlie Trotter's (locations in Las Vegas and Chicago), immediately connected with Breo.

"We talked on the phone for, like, an hour," said Carter, 29, who worked closely with Breo on the development of Gather's menu, which includes a sizeable selection of items intended for sharing. "It's definitely a collaboration."

Though Trotter's influence might not seem readily apparent in dishes such as grilled flatbread or seared chicken, "90 percent of the things I've learned in my career are from there," said Carter, pointing to lessons that include the impact of vegetables in purees and sauces and allowing the "brightness" of foods to shine through instead of relying on butter or oil for flavor.

His task is to translate those techniques into Gather's humbler fare, like the restaurant's signature burger. It's a basic dish — bread, meat, cheese, onion and bacon — but there's nothing basic about the execution.

The bun is a buttered brioche made on the premises, the meat is ground by Carter and his staff of three from the same beef used for Gather's Angus steak, and the bacon comes from pork belly seasoned and cured on site in a small smoker.

"It's probably my favorite" item on the menu, said Carter. "Right now, I like taking simple ingredients and not taking any shortcuts."

The same could be said of the vibe Breo aims to create at Gather.

"There are nice touches but you don't feel stuffy or uncomfortable," said Breo, 42, who's spent the past 20 years kicking around ideas for his own place with friends Geoffrey Euston, Patrick Jacobs and Jack O’Brien, his partners in Gather.

"It grew from 'We should open a bar' to 'We should open a casual spot.'"

A veteran of Chicago's Park Hyatt (NoMI) and Lettuce Entertain You, Breo left the Hyatt in March.

"I told the guys, 'This is the time.' This industry is hard. It's mentally and physically taxing. I really wanted to put my energy into something that could be my own."

Breo inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his grandfather, who was launching new ventures well into his 60s.

"I asked him why and he said, 'Because 15 people have jobs because of this.' And that has stayed with me." (The admiration runs both ways. Breo's now 95-year-old grandfather flew in from Birmingham, Ala., for Gather's opening night last week.)

For Gather, Breo ultimately hit on a concept that matches his own style of entertaining — a neighborhood joint that would be refined but not fancy, with lots of vibrance and noise — and sold the vision to his lifelong pals.

"They're the silent partners who are in my ear all day," he joked.

Having settled on the model for Gather, Breo was, for a time, a restaurateur without a restaurant.

"The goal was to find the neighborhood that needed this," he said. "Coincidentally, it happened to be the neighborhood I love."

When LM shuttered its doors, Breo, who lives in Lincoln Square with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, jumped at the chance to take over the storefront at 4539 N. Lincoln Ave.

The partners inked a deal on the space in September and turned around a complete renovation in lightning speed.

"I haven't seen my family in six weeks," said Breo.

Alterations include a private dining area in the rear of the restaurant and, most significantly, an open kitchen with counter seating.

"So, chefs are rock stars, right? They've all got a little ego," said Breo. "They're on stage."

"I think over time this is going to be the coolest place to eat in the city," Carter said of the counter seats. He plans to offer diners who snag the coveted stools tastings and petite plates. "We'll have fun with them."

Such novelty might attract diners to Gather but consistent quality, according to Breo, is what will keep them coming back."

"I believe people go to certain places for innovation," he said, and he willingly cedes that territory to neighbors like Goosefoot and Elizabeth. "They're more ambitious than us."

Gather's more modest goals can be summed up in the restaurant's name.

Said Breo, "We wanted to convey that we were here for the community to come together and share great wine and food."