Benjamin Brittsan opened his first restaurant in downtown Highland Park in August of 2010. Nearly two years later, the chef says he continues to learn what his customers are looking for in a dining experience.
Brittsan sat down with Patch at Benjamin Restaurant this week over soft pretzels, Cuban sandwiches and crispy frites to discuss what he's learned in his year and a half of serving North Shore residents. The learning began, he says, when he realized that his restaurant, which serves seasonal, contemporary American cuisine, was coming off as less approachable than he would have liked.
"We came off a little pretentious at the beginning," Brittsan said, "I don't want it to come off that way because that's not how I am."
To change that perception, Brittsan made some subtle changes. He put sandwiches back on the menu in addition to the restaurant's signature hamburger to appeal more to families. He started playing less Rat Pack music, and more a more contemporary mix of alternative, rock and jazz. He also started offering customers the option of bringing bottles of wine in that the chef would create a tasting menu for. It's something he saw happen at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and was excited to bring to Highland Park.
"You never want to make a customer leave unhappy, and I think we did in the beginning," Brittsan said.
After reading criticisms that his restaurant was "too expensive, too snooty or too pretentious" on online forums and hearing them word-of-mouth, Brittsan made a larger change: he hired new staff. This includes general manager Eric Feltman, who has worked for Lyric Opera and at a consulting firm for years. Feltman trained the staff to portray a comfortable attitude rather than the austere attitude associated with finer dining.
"When I think about what was here when I arrived, it's night and day," Feltman said.
He explained that the emphasis on comfort gets conveyed by the staff's increased interest in the customer. Waiters are encouraged to be more curious about the diners in an effort to be more helpful.
"We want to know more about you as a guest," Feltman said. "We're paying attention."
Benjamin also recently began serving brunch on Sundays, which includes stuffed French toast -- thick cut brioche, spiced Mascarpone, citrus and cured maple syrup as well as a lamb and feta frittata. He has also made an effort to reduce the prices for popular items like the scallops (from $29 to $25) to make the restaurant an easier place to frequent more often. The ingredients, Brittsan said, are still almost all organic and sustainable.
Restaurants attempting to adapt to their clientele is not a new phenomenon, and the changes are sometimes far more radical than messing with the menu or staff. John Des Rosiers recently closed Moderno, his modern Italian restaurant in Renaissance Place, and reopened as Royce, an upscale American restaurant. Feltman, however, said that Benjamin's changes would stay true to the restaurant's original concept.
"How wonderful that Moderno recognized that the offering was not correct for the community and were willing and able to make that change that would welcome the community back," Feltman said. "For us, the original concept keeps us on track."
Brittsan echoes Feltman's sentiment.
"We haven't really changed that much," he said. "We've just changed our approach."