You’ll have to excuse Bill Brandt if he’s more than a bit giddy about the impending debut of his new baby. It’s only been gestating for the past two years. Assuming all goes well with a final task force inspection by the Health Department, Brandt and partner Nick Kantalonis will finally open Big Bricks, 3830 N. Lincoln Ave., on February 1.
Brandt and Kantalonis, owners of Bricks Pizza in Old Town and Lincoln Park’s Marquee Lounge, respectively, are no strangers to Chicago’s bar and restaurant scene, but even these veterans couldn’t have predicted such a delayed timetable for their pizza and BBQ joint venture.
“It took a year just to get a building permit,” says Brandt. The two then completely gutted the space, the former home of Grizzly’s Lounge and an upstairs apartment, with Kantalonis effectively serving as general contractor. “We didn’t set out to do this much work,” says Brandt of the extensive remodel, which included new electrical, plumbing and roof, to say nothing of choosing paint colors and tile. “We know we’re doing this right. We’ll have this building for the rest of our lives.”
In expanding his operation to a second location, Brandt settled on Northcenter for the same reason many of its residents do: space. “People have moved up to this area to have kids, buy a house,” he says. Brandt’s motives were more prosaic; he came in search of parking. “In Old Town, there’s nowhere to park,” he says, which largely limits his customer base to neighborhood foot traffic. The new location sits across the street from a city lot, with additional parking in the rear, allowing Big Bricks to become more of a dining destination.
With three times the square footage of the original Bricks at 1909 N. Lincoln Ave. to play with, Brandt decided to think, well, big. “Everything’s brand new and laid out properly,” he says. “I wanted to do here what I couldn’t do at Bricks.”
Who knew that inside this pizza purveyor, beat the heart of a barbecue man? A 4,200-pound wood-burning BBQ pit, hoisted into the building by crane, is the centerpiece of Big Bricks; even though the pit is anchored in the restaurant’s basement, Brandt is so proud of his new toy, he might offer tours. “It can hold 200 slabs of baby back ribs,” he boasts.
Watching as a slew of BBQ joints opened up around the city while he sat on the sidelines was painful for Brandt, who also aims to use the pit to flavor the ham and chicken used in Bricks signature pizzas. “There’s always room for more,” he says of the competition. And Ribfest, Brandt’s putting you on notice. “We’re going to be a big player,” he vows.
It’s worth noting that Brandt’s enthusiasm is hardly limited to his gleaming BBQ pit; it extends to pretty much every nook and cranny of Big Bricks: the tin ceiling in the family-friendly dining area (“We’ve got a stack of high chairs ready to go”), the 20 taps behind the bar, the space-age cooling system that serves the restaurant’s 18 refrigerators, even the fryers in the kitchen (Big Bricks will have French fries!).
Climbing to the private party room on the second floor, which doubles as overflow dining space, Brandt marvels at the stunning natural mahogany bar, which glistens with gold in the sunlight. The wood floors were purchased from a salvage company in Iowa, originally harvested from old growth wood that Brandt admires for its character.
Big Bricks opens into a spacious bar area, the elegant design of which echoes the Art Deco period of the building’s construction circa 1930. A sure-to-become-iconic Berliner Beer sign, purchased at auction in Wisconsin, dates back to the same decade, a nod to the neighborhood’s German heritage. “Nick has a gift,” Brandt says, crediting his partner’s aesthetic vision. “He could see how it was supposed to be.”
For a couple of guys used to running their own operations, Brandt and Kantalonis work surprisingly well as a team; the pairing has proven drama free, if not downright comforting at times. “When you’re going up against the city, it’s nice to have that support,” says Brandt. “You can say, “OK it’s not just me.’”
While the long wait to see Big Bricks come to fruition has been frustrating, the partners are clearly energized by the buzz of a new business. “We both wanted to do something else,” says Brandt. Why take on the headache, aggravation and long hours required of a start-up? “Why does Bill Gates need more money?” asks Kantalonis. “What are you going to do, just veg out? It’s fun with him, it’s boring by myself.”
In about a week, things are bound to get even more interesting. Brandt can hardly wait; he’s already making plans to add brunch and gradually expand the menu. But for now, he says, “We just want to get the doors open and start selling some pizza and some ribs.”