THE LOOP — Brown Bag Seafood Co.'s weathered, whitewashed wood evokes a seaside vibe, but the New Eastside eatery's accents were scavenged from an Illinois barn just outside the city.
That's a nod to owner Donna Lee's overall vision for her first solo restaurant project: At every turn, Brown Bag, 340 E. Randolph St., takes the coastal fish shack concept and reimagines it from a Midwestern perspective, she said.
"I'm a person who eats a lot of seafood, and I'm always flying around — sometimes I'm alone, or with family or with friends or coworkers — and there wasn't a place that I could quickly grab quality seafood that was healthful anywhere [in Chicago], without sitting down to a seafood dinner at Shaw's or Joe's and spending an arm and a leg," the Hyde Park resident said.
"I wanted to make seafood much more accessible to people who want to have it for lunch or dinner."
The 2,000-square-foot storefront across the street from the future Maggie Daley Park will serve a mostly static menu with seasonal specials listed each morning on a giant roll of craft paper.
Each protein — options include whitefish, salmon, tuna, shrimp, crab and chicken — is available in one of five formats: sub sandwiches ("subbies"), as a salad, in tacos, "straight up" with seasoning options or in a "power box" with quinoa.
Available sides include four types of cole slaw, flavored tater tots (including a high-end truffle parmesan variety) and daily soup specials.
"The idea behind the concept is to create something that is super straight-forward," Lee said. We wanted to do something where people get to know exactly what they like and can depend on that item always being there."
Sourcing seafood from multiple national purveyors, Lee said she's working with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch team to make sure they serve only sustainable fish.
Pricing varies by protein, with the vegetarian pesto-flavored portobello cap starting at $6.99. Crab zucchini cakes top the menu at $12.99 per serving, with most entrees ranging between $9 and $12.
Craft beer and wine will also be available, Lee said. For aspiring home chefs, prepped meals and fresh seafood will be available for purchase at a counter attached to the restaurant's open kitchen.
Customers scribble their orders on paper slips (or bags for carryout) at a central kiosk that resembles a bank's writing stand. Seating is available inside or on the restaurant's patio space, which seats 30 and features a 12-foot communal picnic table.
Inside, the restaurant has seating for an additional 50 diners.
Lee said she was thrilled the restaurant would open as Chicago warms up.
"We'll have a very relaxed, hangout kind of vibe," she said, adding that she expects her customer base to include "a really great blend of residential business from the people who live in Lakeshore East, as well as office traffic from Prudential Tower, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the Aon Center. ... When Maggie Daley Park opens, we'll have a tourist element as well."
"I'd love to see people grabbing fresh seafood here and enjoying it in Millennium Park," she said.
The restaurant is scheduled to open May 6 for lunch and dinner service.