LA GRANGE – Dan Spain was all set to open his first restaurant in March after almost a year of building.
A pandemic put those plans on hold.
After three months of waiting and preparation never imagined, The Elm, what La Grange Park native Spain touts as an upscale, big-city vibe in a neighborhood setting, opens its doors at 23 W. Harris Ave. in La Grange this past weekend.
"I'm in real estate and development, so this is a new venture, and I knew it would be a challenge," Spain said, "but it's by far the hardest project I've ever been a part of. Opening your first restaurant during a global pandemic, it was beyond challenging. But I had no other option."
Spain has served customers outdoors since May 27 in The Elm's 2,700-square-foot outdoor rooftop patio. With the state moving into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan June 26, restaurants can now offer indoor dining with restrictions, such as masks, parties of 10 or fewer people and spacing people six feet apart.
Which means The Elm's guests can finally see what the inside looks like.
"It's been a heck of a month," Spain said. "It's been pretty substantial in terms of moving parts. All my vendors are just starting to rehire. I didn't completely grasp how many people are involved besides the restaurateurs. The domino effect is substantial."
Spain bought the property in November 2018, talking his wife Caitlin, a Western Springs native and fellow Lyons Township High School graduate, into building The Elm, a 13,000-square foot, two-level restaurant with a 580-person occupancy, pre COVID-19.
Building began in April 2019, with Caitlin handling the interior design. Spain brought aboard Eddie Jobin from Parker's American Restaurant & Bar as his chef to build a contemporary menu ranging from traditional cheeseburgers to pork chops, halibut, salmon and surf and turf.
Staff was trained for three days until March 13, when the state mandated that restaurants must end dine-in service by March 16.
"I had to say to 16 people I just hired that I had to furlough them until further notice, and I had to tell 24 people I can't hire you that first week," Spain said. "I was supposed to hire 24 more people that Wednesday, but what are you going to do?"
Spain initially resisted curbside pickup.
"When you have a restaurant that size, you don't open for pick up," he said.
The eatery eventually did curbside for about two weeks before opening The Elm's outdoor area with 20 tables upstairs on the rooftop and six more on a first-floor patio.
Spain is still clarifying the rules for indoor dining with the village, but he believes he should be able to seat 50 to 60 people on the first floor dining area, with another 75 upstairs outside on the patio. For now Spain isn't seating customers in The Elm's 20-seat U-shaped bar on the first floor.
Sanitizers are everywhere, staff is all wearing masks with an attendant checking the bathroom.
"Obviously safety is of utmost importance, not only to make sure staff is protected but that the consumer feels comfortable and safe," Spain said. "I want to make sure everyone is comfortable. One person's comfort is different than others."
The Elm is open for private events with its two private event rooms, but parties must be 50 or less, and have to be seated for plated dinners with no cocktail hour.
The Elm is reservation only, and reservations can be made at resy.com, but parties of six or more have to call in.
Spain said that every day diners tell him that this is their first night out since quarantine, and thank him for building a restaurant such as this one in the community.
"Everybody is trying to get back to a sense of normalcy and that's what we're hoping to provide," Spain said. "You go all in with a restaurant of that size, I embraced the challenge. Luckily the community has been phenomenal in its response so far."
Perhaps a pandemic is not an ideal time to open a restaurant, but that's beyond Spain's control. He avoids speculating on the projections for the rest of the year and beyond.
"I'm like, one day at a time, I'm just taking it a day at a time and happy we're going to Phase 4, happy that people are trusting us enough to come to our establishment," Spain said. "Literally, I'm taking this one day at a time."