Delayed Gratification – Empire

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NMAG01016_TableForTwo_Empire-087_800pxA fifth high school. The Route 59 reconstruction. A reserved spot at the downtown Metra parking lot. Naperville residents over the years have gotten used to the idea of waiting for things. But even the most patient among the citizenry had to wonder just what in the name of prolonged delays was going on behind the scaffolds at Chicago and Main Street, the prime riverfront spot that once housed a popular branch of the Rosebud restaurant collective before a devastating fire in 2010 condemned the charred site to a seemingly endless developmental limbo.

As encouraging signs for the future of the site emerged—the team behind the popular Ballydoyle pubs in Downers Grove and Aurora was working on a new concept for the space, construction workers and equipment were seen coming and going from the building, announcements were proffered about mythical opening dates—it seemed as though the long wait might finally come to an end. But weeks turned into months turned into years, and pretty soon only die-hard civic optimists were left with even a shred of hope that a new eatery would open for business before the Spider-Man film franchise was rebooted.

NMAG01016_TableForTwo_Empire-035_800pxNow those glass-half-fullers have been rewarded for their faith, as Empire has finally emerged from the long-cooled ashes to add another intriguing option to the bustling downtown nightlife scene.

So what took so long? If you can dig back into the recesses of your mind and recall anything about the physical space of the old pre-inferno Rosebud, forget it. Because other than the enviable riverfront perch, almost nothing else is the same. It turns out the company line about the glacial progress of the rehab being attributable to the need for a complete gut job was spot-on.

NMAG01016_TableForTwo_Empire-047_800pxWith enough wood to qualify as a small forest and enough steel to briefly revive the sagging industrial economy of Gary, Indiana, the urban-chic interior of Empire is like being inside a whiskey barrel—which is appropriate, given the attention being lavished upon Kentucky’s favorite export here. Outside, the revamped deck overlooking the DuPage River immediately reclaims its title as one of the best al fresco options in town, while the rooftop patio is sure to be a hotspot no matter the season, thanks to the retractable roof that promises to keep the party going through all kinds of weather.

Overall, this is a clean, classic and straightforward space, designed to attract and accommodate large, boisterous and well-lubricated crowds.

This aesthetic carries over to the menu as well, where a compact selection of burgers, sandwiches and salads is dwarfed by several pages of craft beers, wines, cocktails and whiskeys. Nevertheless, those who can get past the lack of an encyclopedic food slate will find that the limited range of options is offset by the impressive execution.

We started with a quartet of massive tater tots, studded with cheese and bacon and topped with a fried egg and a habanero-ranch drizzle. Sensitive taste buds, be forewarned—this is much more than a drizzle, and much more habanero than ranch. From there, my companion opted for a loaded Southwest salad, while I bypassed the creative burger assemblies in favor of a stacked brisket sandwich—a calculated gamble in a place that is clearly looking to demonstrate its hamburger prowess, but one that paid off deliciously.

We wrapped things up with the only dessert on the menu—a grease-stained paper bag full of hot, puffy, sugary donuts. In truth, those doughy delights took their sweet time getting to our table on what was sure to be one of many busy nights at this new downtown destination. But like almost everything else about Empire, they were well worth the wait.


48 W. Chicago