Chicago is a city built on neighborhood restaurants. Ten years after owner David Breo chose an intimate space on Lincoln Avenue to open his first restaurant, Gather continues to draw crowds, from Lincoln Square and beyond.
What accounts for its staying power? Gather quickly caught on due to its quality service (Breo held management roles at NoMI and Spiaggia) and comfort food fare that gently pushed the envelope. That was courtesy of chef Ken Carter, who previously held the role of chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s. Their combined experience imbued the space with professional polish, while servers got to know the clientele, many of whom quickly became regulars.
Dishes like whipped ricotta with clover honey and balsamic; crispy Brussels sprouts with candied pistachios and wispy bonito flakes; and a half chicken with a seared breast, fried leg, creamy polenta, and mushrooms — all of which have been on menu since the start — are executed at the highest level, and served with a smart collection of well-priced wines.
Carter has since moved out West, and new chef Aras Dailide (Joe’s Imports, Seattle’s How to Cook a Wolf) is building upon the already-solid foundation with a few of his own twists. And while Breo and his partners with Community Food + Wine Group continue to oversee it all, new managing partner Emily McDaniel executes the day-to-day operations.
McDaniel first arrived at Gather from Knoxville, Tenn., in 2013, less than a year after Gather opened. She worked her way up from server, ultimately learning she’d been made partner on Christmas Day. “I got to share that with my entire family, who were happy but not surprised because they know how dedicated I am to my job,” she says.
That sort of commitment to Gather is baked into the DNA of the business. Their staff, regulars, and even first-time visitors continue to make the restaurant a wonderful place to, well, gather, over great food and drink. We chatted with McDaniel about how and why Gather has such staying power.
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Resy: Gather opened Dec. 11, 2012. It’s now been around more than 10 years. Did you ever think that would happen?
McDaniel: One of the biggest things about Gather is the neighborhood and community – they brought us through the pandemic to make sure we survived. None of us really knew what was happening when the pandemic hit and there was fear about how we’d make it through. After that, I feel confident it’ll be around for another 10 years.
Do you consider Gather a neighborhood restaurant?
McDaniel: We are certainly a neighborhood spot. We have so many regulars that come in on a weekly basis that live around the corner. We are a destination for some people, especially those from the suburbs who don’t want to go all the way downtown.
One of the biggest things about Gather is the neighborhood and community – they brought us through the pandemic to make sure we survived.— Emily McDaniel
I know from experience it’s not always easy to get into Gather, even a couple of weeks out. Any tips for snagging a table?
McDaniel: Something that has been consistent is we keep about half of our tables open for walk-ins for people in the neighborhood. They mean so much to us.
It seems like Gather has always put a strong emphasis on service. How does that show through your staff and training?
McDaniel: The number one thing we look for when interviewing for people to join the team is whether they are good people, who care about their team and the guest experience. Experience and knowledge are important, too, but we provide every opportunity to learn and grow. We have weekly trainings with the entire staff so they feel confident. We’re really team-oriented and we work together to support each other.
David had a career in fine dining and higher-end hospitality at the Park Hyatt’s NoMI and Spiaggia. Was the idea for Gather always to be different?
McDaniel: I hate to speak for him, but I’ve heard multiple stories about him living with his wife and daughter in Lincoln Square. He fell in love with the neighborhood and wanted to open something to provide a chef-driven experience as opposed to bar food. The other places he worked were a bit more corporate, and he did start Gather with some of those standards, but loosened up a bit when he was able to see the successes and fun he could have with a neighborhood restaurant.
I found an article when Gather opened where David said, ‘We wanted to create a place that would suit friends wanting to share killer food and drinks after an evening out, as well as couples looking to enjoy a nice dinner and a great bottle of wine without having to go downtown and drop a lot of cash.’ How does that reflect things today 10 years later?”
McDaniel: I think it’s the same – it hasn’t changed one bit.
And Ken Carter, the founding chef who was here until last year, worked at Charlie Trotter’s. How did his training play into what was happening in the kitchen?
McDaniel: Ken is an amazing chef and learned a lot at Trotter’s — he especially loved teaching his staff. He had high standards for food. He was more playful with his food than the fine dining space, which became part of the culture around food at Gather.
What is new chef Aras Dailide’s background and how has he impacted the menu?
McDaniel: Aras was most recently at Joe’s Imports, and he comes from a similar cultural background as Gather. Quality food, value-driven, everything is made from scratch. He’s very talented. The entire menu besides the Gather mainstays [raviolo, crispy brussels, cauliflower, steak tartare, the whipped ricotta, and the half chicken] is all new from him.
The beloved burger has disappeared. Why? Will it make a triumphant comeback?
McDaniel: I feel you on that! When I started as a server I was a vegetarian. When I tasted that burger during training, I never went back. It’s one of my favorite burgers in the city. But there were challenges. People are particular about their burgers and like to make modifications, which was hard for our small kitchen. We were looking to improve the quality of life for our culinary team. We took a chance at taking the burger off the menu and it really was the best decision we ever made. It really helped our kitchen be able to deliver quality food in a timely manner. If we could expand the kitchen we might be able to bring it back. Maybe we’ll do a Tuesday burger special — so don’t lose hope completely.
Gather had a six-seat marble-topped chef’s counter for years. You decided to remove it. Why?
McDaniel: That was another experiment we tried last year to see how we could improve the efficiency of the entire restaurant. One of the biggest challenges in our tiny kitchen was the chef having to cook every night and expedite. So we took the seats away to bring the chef to the outside to lead the team, as they should. The kitchen improved even more. I was sad to see that counter space go, but it truly benefits the entire restaurant.
As the wine director, what’s the philosophy behind your program?
McDaniel: We love to provide the best representation of classic varietals that are familiar to guests. And we also like to incorporate what I call the fun oddballs – wines people have never heard of, ideally ones that we can connect to a wine they’re more familiar with. Our staff loves those wines. And we really prioritize value—we don’t mark up our wine as much as most restaurants do.
What are your favorite oddball wines on the list?
McDaniel: My passion above all is Spanish and I love Old World wines. When we have a New World wine it’s usually made in an Old World way. I visited Spain in 2015 and had the time of my life. Every time I drink Spanish wine it brings me back to that trip. My favorite wine on the list is probably Breca Garnacha. Another that’s really fun is Jonata, a blend of syrah, cab and petite sirah from Ballard Canyon, California. It’s a mind-blowing wine that’s bold, beautiful, and really elegant.
What’s it like being a female leader in a traditionally male-dominated industry? Do you think you bring a different perspective to the job?
I have learned a lot being a woman in this role. To be honest, when I first became a manager, I wanted to be heard like a man would be, and I lost touch a little with what it’s like to be a woman and use your voice. I pressed “play” when I became sole management. What a disaster. The staff couldn’t wait to question or challenge me. The guests never felt that natural warmth from me because I was so focused on saying the “right” thing. Every mistake I made was only magnified — or so I felt. I wasn’t genuine, because I was so focused on the words and the actions I felt I was supposed to say or do.
So how did you change things?
McDaniel: I let go of what I thought was the “right” way of doing things and trusted that my gut would still lead me to the right way. And it did. I created so many connections with the neighborhood crowd based on my genuine passion to make everyone happy. I learned to listen to and collaborate on what my staff felt they needed. I learned to trust that I purposely hired people who wanted to be a part of something special, who had the desire to care for their team and each and every guest. And then to let go and let them do their job, while still collaborating and supporting them each and every step. The goal was truly simple to me because it was already ingrained into who I was naturally. I started to be myself more, and that was really empowering.
Sounds like a really good experience for you and to impart on others. What advice do you have for other women in the industry?
McDaniel: Be yourself and absolutely trust yourself wholeheartedly, even if no one understands your reasoning immediately. Stay true to what you believe and know is right.
What changes do you want to see still happen in the restaurant industry?
McDaniel: Quality of life. For years, there was the expectation that people working in a restaurant should give every hour of their life. That doesn’t lead to happiness or longevity. It leads to burnout. So providing schedules for work-life balance and not overworking your staff so they can have time off to enjoy other parts of life. We’ve been working toward that at Gather.
Six years after Gather opened, the team opened The Warbler right next door. Was there ever any fear of cannibalizing your clientele?
McDaniel: I was terrified. I had just become general manager six months before The Warbler opened and had no idea what to expect. I wanted to keep the main thing the main thing – so keeping the high level of service. And of course the neighborhood would be excited to try this new restaurant – but those regulars came back and things normalized after being a little slow. We created two different identities. Warbler became more about cocktails and sunshine and Gather became more about dinner and wine.
What is the vision for Gather’s future?
McDaniel: Nothing too different; we just want to continue to create that same level of quality and experience. For the restaurant group, we’d like to open more restaurants with the same focus, whether in Lincoln Square or other neighborhoods.
Gather has clearly hit on something that resonates with people. What advice do you have for other young restaurant owners or people looking to open a neighborhood restaurant?
McDaniel: Many things that sound simple, but the keys to success are connecting to your community and creating consistency. That’s the value of the food and wine and the quality of the meal. Be consistent with that. Celebrate the small successes and continue to do that and it will lead to bigger successes.
Ari Bendersky, a lifestyle journalist specializing in food, wine, spirits, and travel, has written for New York Times, WSJ magazine, Eater, Men’s Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Departures, RollingStone.com, and more. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Follow Resy, too.