GOLD COAST — Few things have changed about the Signature Room since it opened atop the John Hancock Center in 1993. But staff at the now-iconic eatery, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, say there's been one serious erosion in recent years: adherence to the high-end eatery's dress code.
"Oh my gosh — dress code is my daily struggle," said Angela Aspito, the director of operations who's been with the restaurant for 11 years. "Everyone's definition of business casual is so crazy, and you would not believe how many people get visibly angry when they feel like someone in the restaurant did not go to the lengths they did to dress for the experience."
The dress code — which bans shorts, gym shoes, athletic wear and torn jeans — has devolved from the jacket-and-tie expectation for dinner in the mid-1990s. But they haven't done away with the policy entirely because management "want[s] to maintain a level of elegance," Aspito said.
The Signature Room, which offers spectacular views of the city and Lake Michigan from the 95th floor, will also get a restyling of its own. The restaurant will be gutted in its first full remodel since it opened, with a planned re-opening in early 2015.
"We don't have a start date on that yet, but we're planning upwards of $5 million in improvements," Aspito said. "Both floors will be completely gutted and started from scratch...Our facility needs to have that same 'wow' when you walk off the elevator, and some of our things are getting a little tired."
The menu, too, has been changed over time, most recently by Rosalia Barron, who took over as executive chef in February and is the first female to hold the position.
She says her philosophy coming in was to avoid big changes as much as possible.
"It wasn't really about change, it was about maintaining, and going above that ... learning what made this restaurant already successful, and building from there," she said of her new menu.
Iconic dishes like the restaurant's rack of lamb and seafood tower that were hits in the 90s "will never leave our menu," she said.
"I changed some of the things, but there are components that cannot go away. It does not matter that it was very famous 20 years ago when we opened. ... It's iconic, almost like the building itself. I can't touch it," she said.
Little has changed about the restaurant's interior, either, including the 280-foot mural of Chicago iconography commissioned by local artist Gregory Gove in 1995, which Aspito says will likely survive the redesign.
Aspito says diners' dress is often the only noticeable distinction between today's Signature Room and the one that opened in 1993.
"Nine years ago nobody would have ever dared to walk off that elevator out of dress code," she said. "It's so interesting how the culture has changed."
Now, the standard attire ranges from older couples who "really dress to the nines, gown, three-piece suit, the whole deal," to twenty-somethings Aspito says come in wearing "jeans with high heels and a blouse, [or] Affliction T-shirts."
Aspito guesses that the variance stemmed from generational differences and the restaurant's mix of local and international patrons.
"The European guests, they're always dressed to the nines," she said. "They're not gonna walk the dog without a full suit on."
The dress code problem may persist, but at the end of the day, Barron says it's not that big a deal.
"There's no reason to turn them away," she said. "It makes no difference in the back of the house whether you're wearing jeans or whether you weren't. There have been times we serve a table that was completely out of dress code and they had the most incredible diners, who know their food and know their wines."
But for the sake of other diners who Barron says "spend two hours at the hairdresser" before dinner, Aspito compromises.
"We kind of have a few tables where we can sneak people in without parading them through the entire dining room if they're out of dress code," she said. "They're still great tables — but this way the entire dining room may not get a look at their attire."
In celebration of its anniversary, the Signature Room is offering 1993 prices on its lunch buffet for the next two Thursdays this month, dropping from the $20 it has cost since 2009 to $6.95. For more information call 312-787-9596 or go to the restaurant's website.