Trenchermen (Chicago): Steampunk, Victorian, or “factory” — however one describes this restaurant’s indescribable design, it works

Designer-restaurateur Kevin Heisner created a sophisticated but relaxed look for Wicker Park’s Trenchermen, his newest venture.  Photo by Anthony Tahlier

Wicker Park’s Trenchermen is garnering attention and accolades for the rollicking, wonderfully executed, yet difficult-to-categorize cooking of brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin.

But there’s also a lot of buzz about this Wicker Park’s restaurant’s rollicking, wonderfully executed but difficult-to-categorize design.  I’ve seen it described alternately as steampunk, Victorian and early 20th century “factory.”  There was one observer who noted Japanese and Danish minimalist influences, while another likened it to Hogwarts.

Yet none of these alone encapsulates what designer-restaurateur Kevin Heisner (Nightwood, Bangers & Lace) has done with the space, which opened in July and most recently housed zen-drenched Spring restaurant.

Heisner’s outré design had many sources, including Turkish bath tiles, the steampunk movement and “classic French velvet.”  Photo by Michael Stryder

Heisner himself is reluctant to sum it all up in a neat sentence or two.

He can tell you that he and his business partner, Matt Eisler, like“turn-of-the-century, industrial.”  Or that he has a great appreciation for midcentury modern design, but isn’t fond of “super-super clean, sterile modern spaces.”   Or that the duo “really liked the Turkish bathhouse” — the vintage building’s original tenant — “and wanted to expose more of it.”

Yet as Heisner and I dissected each of the 138-seat restaurant’s four areas — or as he calls them, “stages” — it became clear he doesn’t work from concepts.  His designs are simultaneously cerebral and visceral.

Later in our conversation he will say that he approaches his projects as if they’re “sculptures,” and he’s not afraid to manipulate them until he gets it right.

“[The design] is going to change.  And it’s not going to change because I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says.

Heisner began the Trenchermen project by totally gutting the subterranean Spring.  He also elevated the restaurant’s entry and a portion of its main dining room to street level.

“I wanted to give a street presence to the space.  And not have diners feel like they were sunken,” he says.

The restaurant’s striking foyer is a tribute to curiosity shops and midcentury modern design.  Photo by Anthony Tahlier

The entry area is, in part, a modern take on an old curiosity shop.  Both the white oak host stand and the display cabinet behind it recall museum drawers.

The clean-lined pieces also display a capricious collection of trinkets, oddities and antiquities.  A second wall is adorned with a series of hand-blown terrarium “capsules” that pop through vertical steel structures. Vertical blond wood wall coverings express Heisner’s regard for midcentury modern.

Yet there’s also an old-fashioned elegance to the foyer.  The bathhouse, Heisner learned, originally had Carrara marble ceilings.  So he specified a new marble ceiling in this stage.  (Cost considerations prohibited him from applying marble in other spots.)  A mix of black-and-white patterned floor tiles also evokes the bygone spa and was inspired by the flooring in an actual Istanbul bathhouse.  “It has an original feel,” Heisner says of the reproduction tile.

A short staircase leads guests down into “The White Room,” or main bar area.  As the building once held bathing pools, Heisner found a treasure trove of original, white-glazed subway tiles hidden here beneath Spring’s drywall.  Although the gleaming tilework needed patching in places, it was in excellent condition overall.   The vintage tiles jibe with what comes closest to a concept for Trenchermen — “We were trying to go for something refined but casual,” Heisner says.

The White Room features subway tile from the original Turkish bathhouse as well as a showpiece rectangular bar and dining space.  Photo by Anthony Tahlier

Heisner also crafted or specified additional elements that would give the restaurant its sophisticated but relaxed look.

The bar itself is highly decorative, yet restrained.  The monolithic, rectangular structure is the room’s focal point.  And Heisner worked it from the floor straight up to the ceiling.  The knee wall appears to be covered with a seemingly endless string of identical Victorian steam radiator covers.  Heisner fabricated the “radiators” from resin, using a mold made from a single cover.

The room was intended as a place for both drinking and dining.  So Heisner set the walnut wood bar counter at dining height and extended one end to create a clever four-top.  Although the bar’s accompanying stools are stock pieces (a metal base, brown leather disc top), the designer selected ones with white baseball stitching, which adds panache.

Suspended from industrial pipes, walnut slat shelves hover above the drinking/dining counters.  They hold a collection of oversized green glass jugs, which are lit by ship lights.  A custom storage piece forms the bar’s core.  And from its top, distressed mirrors flare out to the room’s plank wood ceiling.  Heisner even addressed the ductwork , which he gave an aged iron patina.

“I like when people can’t tell if something is original or not,” he says.

The dining room repeats elements used elsewhere in the eatery while bringing in totally new features, such as the wine rack wall.  Photo by Anthony Thalier

Diners also can sit in a series of booths that line The White Room’s west wall.  Upholstered with velvety button-tufted chocolate leather, the booths are spotlighted by avant-garde, steampunky fixtures that Heisner fashioned from cast-iron plumbing pipes.

To connect the bar and dining room, the designer cut window-like openings into the wall.  And he also repeated a number of features to create a dialogue between the rooms.

Both have ceramic tile flooring, which looks deceptively like end grain wood, and decorative faux potbelly stoves that sit atop tiled platforms.  Those baseball stitched barstools reappear as seating for the two communal dining tables.  The leather upholstered booths mimic those in the bar, while a leather upholstered banquette plays off the booths across the dining room.

Yet, the dining room also has a character all its own.

“It’s important to have elements repeat without being repetitious,” Heisner says.  Only a bit of white subway tile was found in the room, so the designer went with the more rustic exposed brick that he uncovered.  Heisner also installed a colossal stained-cedar wine rack wall at the back of the room.  And he designed a trilogy of grand metal-and-glass light structures that run down the room’s center and evoke inverted Victorian-era skylights.  The largest “chandelier” connects by a pole to a large midcentury modern style walnut server; the two smaller pieces hang over the communal dining tables.

Specimen speakers bring a pop of color into the intimate, elevated dining area.  Photo by Shane Welch

A staircase at the room’s front mirrors the steps over in the bar.  However, here, guests ascend to an intimate dining space that also doubles as a semi-private dining room.  Once again, Heisner draws from other areas of the restaurant — the tiled floor harkens back to the entry, and the antique mirrored ceiling plays off the mirrored trim that accents the main bar and outlines the chandelier tops.  But he also puts in a few new twists.  Looking “to add more color,” he upholstered the banquettes in an indigo “classic French velvet,” and placed fire-engine-red Specimen gramophone-style speakers around the space.

For this little stage, at least, please add “French café” to the adjectives list.

2030 West North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647

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