Above all else, Rich Melman is a businessman. His business just so happens to be restaurants. The Lettuce Entertain You kingpin’s accessible, mainstream (insert more synonyms for average here) restaurants such as Big Bowl, Maggiano’s and Mon Ami Gabi smack of chain to savvy diners but still manage to pack ’em in nightly and send diners home happy. And that’s precisely the key to Melman’s success—give the people what they want. It’s apparently one of the lessons Melman handed down to sons R.J. and Jerrod, who recently opened their own place, Hub 51, in River North.
The Melman boys set out with the premise that they’d create a restaurant just like one they’d want to hang out in and build a menu of dishes they like to eat when they go out. Their ideal night out must be a fairly common one—Hub 51 was packed every time we visited. The massive space is part airy garage, part Chili’s (22-year-old tank-top–clad waitresses and soft-serve tunes like the Boss and Sheryl Crow will do that), and the crowd is typical for the neighborhood. Tourists, local businessmen in loosened ties, well-heeled ladies who lunch—all are welcome in the Melmans’ House of Everything. And they’re all likely to find something on the menu that speaks to them.
Chef Michael Bellovich gets top billing, but apparently R.J. and Jerrod laid out the floor plan for the menu, and it includes everything from maki to tacos to ribs. With the net cast that wide, it wasn’t surprising that not everything was good, or even executed well. The miso-glazed salmon maki was flavorful and fresh enough; ditto for the Del Mar seafood salad, a crunchy, shrimp-studded assortment of textures that included edamame, jicama, red pepper and green beans. And tender, cumin-spiked Niman Ranch pork made for juicy tacos, thanks to fantastic housemade corn tortillas studded with roasted kernels. But little else stood out as something worth ordering again, or even finishing. The thickly ground beef of the burger just didn’t get cooked enough and wound up a mess of red with just a hint of exterior crust, so greasy it soaked through and disintegrated the bun. The dry-rubbed pork ribs were skimpy and, oddly enough, plated with more dry five-spice rub for dipping; with no sauce, it’s impossible to dip dry into dry. Well-seasoned and brined pork tenderloin’s potential was obliterated by overcooking to a chewy medium-well. And the mushy turkey meat loaf had the appearance and mouthfeel of uncooked Spam (and I like Spam, but it’s gotta be pan-fried, or all bets are off).
Regardless of the flaws, regardless of my personal feelings about the place, this isn’t the kind of restaurant that is shaken or even affected by reviews. As long as there are diners out there who are content with mediocre food, so long as they find it in a good location and an upbeat atmosphere, Hub 51 (and the thousands of restaurants just like it) will undoubtedly be a success. Like father, like sons.
By Heather Shouse