HYDE PARK — One of the most anticipated new restaurants in Hyde Park opens Tuesday, helmed by a restaurateur who is the antithesis of the celebrity chef.
Merges, who owns the Billy Sunday cocktail bar and Yusho restaurant in Logan Square, eschews the idea of an oversized personality or grandiose vision as a factor in a successful restaurant.
“I’m just not that important, nor do I want to be,” Merges said. “That’s not what restaurants and hospitality are, or should be, about.”
Merges talks about a focus on customers so intensely that he seems not to want to be noticed among the plates of braised rabbit, smoked eggplant pizza and pheasant agnolotti pasta.
“I get nervous every day with every plate that goes out because you have to earn it,” Merges said.
Prepping for the Tuesday opening, Merges rarely mentioned food. Part of that, he said, is a comfort with his menu and ability to modify it if something isn’t working, so he can focus on creating an atmosphere that promotes conversation and community and getting servers and cooks to work seamlessly together. Good food cannot overcome a bad experience, he said.
“If that was true, you could sit in folding chairs at a card table and have your mind blown, and that just doesn’t happen,” Merges said.
He said he’s let the space in the old Harper Theater building determine much of A10’s atmosphere, with its lamps made of cow bells, bar shelves crafted from reclaimed gymnasium ladders and rugs clinging to the walls.
“We had this vision that was organically growing,” Merges said, adding that it allowed him to ditch ideas that didn’t work in the restaurant with its stonework, exposed brick and old theater remnants. “I said, 'Doesn’t this feel like we’re in Southern Europe?'”
Merges and his wife, Rachel Crowl, the architect for A10, followed that feeling, dividing the restaurant into a bar surrounded by small tables for a couples looking for a casual dinner and a larger dining room with a view of the kitchen for larger parties.
On Tuesday night "I hope it feels like this restaurant has been open for 10 years,” Merges said.
Hyde Parkers will get their chance to try A10 themselves starting with dinner Tuesday night. A10 will also offer lunch and Sunday brunch.