DOWNTOWN — Neighbors testified to a laundry list of complaints about the Bottled Blonde, a controversial River North restaurant, in an hours-long city hearing Tuesday.
The hearing marked the first testimony in the case after months of hearings and years of complaints from neighbors. Those neighbors, who have said the restaurant at 504 N. Wells St. is actually a club, testified they've had issues with patrons being "rowdy," "loud," and littering and vomiting near their homes.
The Bottled Blonde could have its licenses suspended or revoked pending the outcome of the hearings.
The city alleges the restaurant violated its legal agreement of operation, charges that formed the heart of Tuesday's testimony. The agreement stated the restaurant would operate primarily as a restaurant with less than half of its sales coming from liquor, would keep its waiting patrons in a single-file line of no more than 25 people, and would provide security and an employee to clean up litter, among other things.
Barbara Gressel, a deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, testified the restaurant's sales were dominated by liquor and not food: Between March 2016 and February 2017, between 62 percent and 69 percent of the Bottled Blonde's sales each month came from alcohol.
And Gressel pointed to other potential problems, saying she'd seen "very overcrowded" conditions at the restaurant, videos of drunken people going to the bathroom and falling down outside the Bottled Blonde, and "extremely disturbing" photos and videos that showed sparklers inside bottles of alcohol at the restaurant.
Michelle Schwartz, who lives in a building next door to the Bottled Blonde, said she found vomit outside her building's door — something that had never happened in the years before the restaurant opened. Pressed by the Bottled Blonde's attorney, Timothy Fitzgerald, Schwartz said she wasn't sure who had vomited and couldn't confirm it came from a Bottled Blonde patron.
Schwartz said she also experienced problems with "impassable" crowds of people blocking the sidewalk, forcing her to walk her dog in the street. She saw people outside the bar flicking cigarette butts on the ground, she said.
Even during one instance when she saw security officials working outside the Bottled Blonde, Schwartz said the guards weren't able to control the waiting patrons. Another night, Schwartz she was awakened at 12:30 a.m. by "loud screaming and yelling and honking" coming from Bottled Blonde patrons outside the restaurant.
Nick Jordan, who lives across the street from the Bottled Blonde, said he once saw a line of about 75 people outside the restaurant. There is "typically" security outside the Bottled Blonde, he said, adding that he doesn't think they "effectively" control the patrons waiting to get inside.
Others also testified to problems with the Bottled Blonde: Joanna Angarone, director of Business Affairs for 42nd Ward Ald. Brendan Reilly, said she went there for a private event and no employees offered her a food menu and she didn't see any other patrons eating food. The restaurant did not put required bottle locks on bottles, and the patrons were loud outside the restaurant even at 2 a.m., she added.
Angarone also said a waitress served her group their first round of drinks, but afterward they served themselves because there were no locks on the bottles — allegedly a violation of the restaurant's operation agreement, which the city argued called for bottle locks to prevent overserving.
Fitzgerald asked Angarone if she had asked for a menu and intended to eat, and she said she had not. Asked if she had informed waiters or waitresses of the bottle lock issue, Angarone said she had not, though she took photos of the bottles served to her group.
And Chicago Police officer Declan Coen, who investigated the Bottled Blonde, said he made several undercover, two-hour visits to the restaurant and consistently saw more people drinking and socializing than eating. In one instance, he estimated there were 200 patrons, but only 22 were eating.
Coen had to give up his booth for a group who had reserved bottle service, and he was told that all tables, after a certain time, were reserved for bottle service, he testified.
Coen said the restaurant's lights dimmed at 10 p.m., its menu became limited to only pizza, and the music grew louder as the night went on. Servers also donned different attire: During the day, they wore tank tops and shorts; at night, they donned what he described as lingerie with bustiers and stockings.
Based on his observations, Coen said he thought the Bottled Blonde was acting more as a tavern than a restaurant despite its operation agreement.
Fitzgerald said the Bottled Blonde's operation agreement does not require a dress code for its servers, and questioned if Coen's estimates of how many people were eating could be misleading since he was not able to know if those patrons had eaten before his arrival.
The hearing was continued to Sept. 13 so that the Bottled Blonde and city could call more witnesses.
The case and restaurant gained public attention after the Bottled Blonde posted a lengthy dress code that banned Jordan shoes, leather, "obnoxious" prints and "odd-colored" pants, among many other items.
Read the charges: