BRIDGEPORT — The inspiration for the Duck Inn, the new 1960s-style tavern serving gourmet food, isn’t necessarily steeped somewhere in the memory of revered chef and neighborhood native Kevin Hickey.
Sure, the name resurrects Hickey’s great grandmother’s short-lived, Depression-era lunch counter at 35th and Ashland. And of course he remembers the Gem Bar, the long-shuttered corner tavern at 2701 S. Eleanor St. that Hickey and his pals at the Rockit Ranch group have renovated.
In fact, it’s just down the street from where he was raised. He was close with the Gembara family who ran the place. Played ball with the kids.
But Hickey, 45, said inspiration for the new “gastrotavern” comes from a recent visit to Roberta’s, an out-of-the-way Brooklyn restaurant making a strong case that humble and high-end can live on the same menu.
If it can exist on the outskirts of Brooklyn, why not in Bridgeport?
“The people who have been living here either their whole lives or generations, are people like me … and I think there’s new people here too looking for something new, something different, something that’s not the same. I’m not going to say better or anything like that, because I eat in Bridgeport all the time.
“The problem is now I’m running out of places to go. That’s been one of the problems in Bridgeport, there’s not a lot of choices. But it’s a bit better than when I was a kid,” Hickey said.
Decked out in “Mad Men”-esque mid-century modern flourishes, The Duck Inn has a decidedly old-school feel, a place to get loose on good cocktails and fatty foods.
Guests will first enter the tavern and lounge, where they can have a seat at the bar or the handful of tables and dive into the menu of upscale bar food, or head to the back dining room, where the food will be “a little more intense, technique-wise, but approachable,” Hickey said.
Choices in the bar and lounge include “friendly priced” burgers, chili-cheese fries, fried cheese curds, foie gras tamales, and a new version of Hickey’s popular homemade Chicago hot dog, this one made with a blend of beef and duck meat and duck fat.
On tap is a roster of beers that are almost exclusively Chicago-made, including specialty beers and collaborations from Une Annee, Moody Tongue, Begyle and Bridgeport’sMarz Community Brewing. Bottles and cans of beer are mostly local, too.
Mixologist Brandon Phillips, meanwhile, is preparing a menu of highball cocktails. But don’t expect gin and tonics.
“These will be kind of funky. It’s going to be like we’re using ethnic sodas … Korean, Chinese, Mexican sodas and mixing them with funky, interesting alcohols, not the usual run-of-the-mill stuff,” he said.
The back dining room will feature more refined food than its upfront counterpart.
The menu will change with the seasons — that’s one of Hickey’s trademarks — but he said diners can expect fare like a braised beef brisket rolled braciola style, or the rotisserie duck, roasted nightly atop a cast-iron bed of potatoes catching all of the glorious duck fat drippings.
“Chicagoans like flavor. They like rich. Strong. I’m just trying to get the most out of what at it’s best,” Hickey said.
Diners will also have the option for wine pairings or a unique program that pairs meals with adventurous, shareable large-format beers.
Out back, the restaurant’s sunken patio, with its overhead tree canopy and possible outdoor pizza oven, is set to be a prime hangout for the warmer months.
If the fancy throwback cocktails and indulgent menus don’t harken back to easier times, the Duck Inn’s vibe probably will.
The long bar is adorned with diamond shapes reminiscent of the bygone era. The walls are flecked with painted brass sunburst stars and 1960s-era celebrity liquor ads. Some nights, they’ll crank up the lounge’s restored Grundig stereo console to play records.
So … why the 1960s?
Hickey said he’s always liked the style of the era, but he figures the building was built in 1914 and The Duck Inn will open 100 years later and “it just smacks right in the middle.”
“I just wanted to have fun with it,” he said.
Hickey last year left his prominent, Michelin-starred tenure as executive chef with the Four Seasons to join up with Billy Dec’s Rockit Ranch, where he’s helped revamp some of the hitmaking restaurant group’s menus.
The forthcoming opening of the Duck Inn is somewhat of a homecoming for the chef, so he’s making use of his longstanding neighborhood ties.
Filbert’s, the venerable root beer and soda company, is making a special “Duck L’Orange” cream soda for the bar, and the sausage for the gourmet sausage will be made offsite at the nearby Makowski’s Real Sausage Company.
The granddaughters of family friends who bought the home of his great grandmother, owner of the original Duck Inn, will be the new Duck Inn’s hostesses.
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