How Matthias Merges Became One of Chicago's Best Restaurateurs
Ever since opening his original Yusho a few years back, Matthias Merges has emerged as one of Chicago’s foremost restaurateurs, quietly amassing a stunning and diverse portfolio of restaurants and bars that span the city from Albany Park to Hyde Park. With razor-sharp attention to detail, an un-paralleled eye for aesthetic and palpable passion for cooking and mixology that manifests in multifaceted menus, Merges and co. have steadily formed a dining and drinking empire emblematic of Chicago’s best. There’s no better time than now to look back and round up the storied successes and new endeavors of this laudable chef.
After spending several years in the hallowed kitchen of Charlie Trotter’s, Yusho represented Merges’ time to shine on his own. The concept was a stark departure from the work he had been doing at the Lincoln Park restaurant, taking him to a modest stretch of Avondale to cook up Japanese cuisine. Just north of Logan Square, the Yusho location was bold new territory, coupled with the sheer fact that Yusho was carving out a new niche with ramen, draft cocktails, chicken thigh skewers and pork katsu steam buns. Not only did Yusho mark Merges’ solo debut, but it’s where Chicagoans fell in love with the unique and vibrant design by Rachel Crowl, Merges’ wife, of fcSTUDIO. The whole concept, from menu to atmosphere, became an instant transportive hit; so much so that Yusho has since expanded to Hyde Park and even Las Vegas.
On the heels of Yusho’s success, Merges ventured into central Logan Square for his next concept, a richly American cocktail bar called Billy Sunday. While Yusho skews colorful, eliciting an awe-inspiring sense of a Tokyo streetscape, Billy Sunday is dimly lit, cozy and almost Victorian. It’s Merges’ ode to olden taverns, with a highly elevated “bar food” program and masterful cocktails by Alex Bachman. In a neighborhood populated with bars on seemingly ever corner, Billy Sunday stands out for its innovative and dazzling drinks, like Box Lunch (goat’s milk, genepi, Palo Cortado, oatmeal spices) and Fool’s Gold (Continental and Malted Rye whiskies, apricot honey, lemon, chamomile soda, honeycomb snack). Coupled with incredible dishes like crispy pork skins with beer BBQ and chicken liver mousse with butternut squash schmaltz, Billy Sunday instantly raised the bar in a whole new way.
Merges then hopped to the opposite side of the city for his European-accented A10 in Hyde Park, a sunny and welcoming restaurant with a penchant for pasta, octopus a la plancha, roasted chicken and seasonal soft-serve. Similar to pioneering Yusho, A10 found itself riding the wave of new developments and a restaurant renaissance in the south side neighborhood.
Of late, it’s been perhaps most fascinating to see Merges dip into the beer industry by aligning with new craft beer taprooms and brewpubs. The first was The Finch Kitchen in partnership with Finch’s Beer Company on the western fringes of Albany Park. Along with a bevy of house-brewed beers, Merges curates a menu of upscale brewpub fare, including warm pretzels, fires with gribiche and curry aioli, beer-steamed mussels and a variety of sausages. Try the barese sausage with polenta, heirloom tomatoes and shaved pecorino, or even the tofu version with braised greens, bean sprouts, green beans and shiso.
Not long after The Finch Kitchen took flight, Merges helped open Old Irving Brewing Co., the incarnation of what was originally to be Crooked Fork Brewery from Homaro Cantu. When Cantu passed away, friend and colleague Merges came aboard to fulfill the chef’s vision of an inviting and wholly original brewpub on the northwest side. True to form, Merges features uncommon brewpub fare like fried zucchini, braised beef tongue and pig’s feet croquettes, along with hearty sandwiches like a crispy chicken version and the namesake burger served on focaccia.
The latest news in Merges’ seemingly never-ending efforts represents a new opportunity for the chef. In taking over Wicker Park’s The Bedford and Buck’s, the chef is venturing into a new neighborhood and new cuisines. While the names and concepts will stay the same, he’ll upgrade with some menu tweaks and welcome additions, freshening things up as he adds the two spots to his colorful portfolio.
From Japanese cuisine and timeworn cocktails to housemade pasta and beer-friendly sausages, Merges has proven to be one of the most dynamic and exciting chefs in the city and beyond.
- Matt Kirouac