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HEAD OF THE TABLE Restaurateur Billy Lawless inside one of his newest spots, Beacon Tavern, which features elevated interpretations of tavern classics
Bar Tenderby David Hammond | Photography by Frank Ishman | Men's Book Chicago magazine | August 30, 2016
Broad-shouldered, gregarious and brimming with bonhomie, Billy Lawless is the Galwayman behind such well-regarded Chicago restaurants as The Gage, Acanto and The Dawson—plus newcomers Beacon Tavern and Coda di Volpe.
Where’d you start in the restaurant business?
First job when I was 11 was washing plates, cups and saucers in one of my dad’s bars. I liked it. Dad’s places were in the center of Galway, always lively and vibrant. I later lived in Cairo for two years to gain work experience. My father had a plan for me.
Any important early Chicago dining experiences?
I got to Chicago in November 1998, went to Blackbird and appreciated the honesty of their concept. It was a mind-opening dining experience. My first time at Marché, I was served by a guy in leather pants and nothing else. As a young, impressionable Irish immigrant, I thought that audacity was great.
When you started into the restaurant business, what‘d you aim to achieve?
I wanted to do something more elevated than an Irish pub, an honest place that resonated with people, where they feel a kinship. My big challenge as a restaurateur is to connect with people. To be able to give the guest a connection with you may be a risk to some, but it’s incredibly rewarding. And if I’m being brutally honest, I think we do this really well.
What can diners expect at your new place, Coda di Volpe?
A midcentury, sexy, Italian vibe. Chris Thompson, our executive chef, is focused on southern Italian, so close to 90 percent of the wine menu will be from the “lower boot.” Favorite dish is our spaghetti with clams, tomato, ’nduja and preserved lemon, a nod to the seaside town of Tropea.
You’re a U.S. citizen now, right?
Became a citizen in 2008. It was a huge moment for me. I have nostalgia for Ireland, and when I go back there I really enjoy it, but my future is here. My kids were born in America. All the great opportunities I’ve had in life have happened here.