Blackbird: Ever Ascending

By Ariel Cheung | May 4, 2018 | Feature Features

As Blackbird celebrates its 20th year with a special “Blackbird at 20” dinner series starting May 8, the founders, chefs and alums who helped craft its legacy reflect on what makes this West Loop pioneer a timeless standout.
The founders of Blackbird (clockwise from top left): Paul Kahan Rick Diarmit, Donnie Madia and Eduard Seitan; Blackbird dishes

Rick Diarmit, founding partner
“It’s a Cinderella story, it really is. In our first or second year, Richard M. Daley came in, and the following day, he went back to City Hall and said Blackbird would be the vehicle to join downtown to the West Loop. And as it turned out, it actually did. We were a beaming light on a dark, dismal street that he paved for us. There weren’t any sidewalks or curbs or streetlights. He said, ‘I’m going to light it, and they’re going to come.’ And now people are walking from downtown to Randolph.”

Paul Kahan, founding partner and executive chef
“I feel like all too often now in cooking, there’s a lot of flash and not a lot of substance. I’m glad you can encapsulate something in a sphere that explodes when I put it in my mouth, but it doesn’t taste very good. Emeril [Lagasse] said this place has a lot of soul, and I think that’s the key component of [current chef de cuisine Ryan Pfeiffer’s] food. For me, I think Ryan is the future of that restaurant—he can continue to move forward in that innovative but super soulful niche.”

Donnie Madia, founding partner
“I don’t think we wanted to open 10 restaurants; we just wanted to have the best 65-seat restaurant in Chicago. Now, when people open one restaurant, they’ve already got the second idea in their head. They open a year later, and it just doesn’t work. So we were very cautious. We wanted to make sure we had Blackbird right.”

Eduard Seitan, founding partner
“When we opened, we needed all the financial help we could get. Donnie went to his mom, Paul put everything on his credit cards. I asked my parents for some money, and they gave us everything they’d saved. I brought my parents to show them the future Blackbird, and my dad looked at the building and said, ‘I love you, you can have all this money, but I know we’re never going to see it back,’ because there was absolutely nothing on the block. Now, the success blows my mind.”

David Barriball, general manager (2015 to present)
“I think the original goal when they opened was to have an approachable restaurant that would be fine dining, but not stuffy. A place where everyone is welcome. And today, we still offer a $25 three-course menu at lunch. The idea is still to make sure anyone can come to Blackbird. Nothing is about what Donnie wants or Paul; it’s always what our guests are looking for. And this vision when they opened aligns with both Ryan [Pfeiffer] and myself. You could say it’s come full circle—I look at it more as upholding those standards that have been there all along.”


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