In the largest U.S. cities, the dining competition is fierce across all traditional dayparts. To that end, some restaurants are setting themselves apart by pushing into less saturated dining occasions, particularly late night.
These concepts are going beyond the 24-hour diners and college-centric dives of yore to offer fine dining into the wee hours. Intuitively, it may seem like a loss leader, yielding few dividends, but data from The Coca-Cola Company indicates that post-midnight business could represent an untapped opportunity to lure diners. Some 53 percent of young Americans ages 18–24 reported they would dine out more frequently if restaurants were open later.
Bourbon on Division, Chicago
When Jun Lin decided to open Bourbon on Division in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, he asked himself a simple question: What sort of restaurant would he want to eat at and when would he eat there?
A Chicago native and foodservice veteran, Lin opened his concept in the very spot his two parents had their own restaurant after emigrating from China.
“I tried to make a restaurant that has the things I’d be looking for after a shift. When I get off [work], I want to have a solid drink and a great sandwich. So in the truest way, we’re making food for food people,” Lin says.
Indicative of its owner’s love of the dark whiskey, Bourbon on Division serves brisket, ribs, and pulled pork alongside an extensive list of liquors and beers. But the real differentiator for Bourbon on Division is its hours. Last call comes no earlier than 3 a.m.
The restaurant is open nightly until 4 a.m.—and until 5 a.m. on Saturdays. Lin lucked out to some degree with those über-late hours. In Chicago, only specially permitted businesses can stay open beyond 2 a.m., and most after-hours options for food are concentrated downtown. A few miles away from the pack, Lin was grandfathered into a license because of his parents’ restaurant.
“There are only so many places open as late as we are, so to some degree we’re the only option, but we don’t want our customers to think of us that way,” Lin says. “We want our spot to be a destination, and for those coming in after working a full shift themselves. We want to give them an excellent experience.”
Since opening in 2014, Gemma has snagged best new restaurant nods from the Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, among others. Add to that, the modern American bistro stays open beyond 1 a.m. every night except Monday.
As the first Texas restaurant from front-of-house manager Allison Yoder and her husband, Executive Chef Stephen Rogers, Gemma burst onto the Dallas food scene with creative, seasonal dishes that reflect its owners’ West Coast roots and international travels.
Yoder says the dining room, known to stay busy past 2 a.m., is small but intimate and friendly. “We’re not afraid to give people a hug. It’s not uptight, it’s not pretentious, but the vibe is pretty high energy,” she says.
The late-night scene didn’t develop at Gemma immediately, but the dearth of night owl options in the area—aside from taco trucks—eventually drove customers to the restaurant. Now, Yoder says, Sundays are like industry nights when local chefs, bartenders, and servers visit after their shifts end. On weekends, it’s a theater crowd, and on weeknights it’s diners who are tired of late-night Tex-Mex.
The menu is tweaked slightly for after-hours dining, but instead of paring down, Gemma adds late-night specialties like Korean Short Ribs and a Reverse Happy Hour, with $2 oysters from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sommeliers stay late, too, making recommendations.
Yoder says her staff helps keep customers happy from the dinner rush into the late night. “If you’re there at 1, you’re there at 1. You can order, and it’ll be relaxing. We aren’t going to push you out,” she adds.
Via Carota, New York City
While every town has its well-kept secrets and late-night gems, there’s no shortage of options in the city that never sleeps. Nevertheless, chef-partners Jody Williams and Rita Sodi of Via Corata are doing something that few attempt: refined dining after midnight.
Since 2014, the chef-partners have found a winning formula at the Greenwich Village restaurant, which serves late-night Tuscan classics. Via Carota accepts customer arrivals as late as 1 a.m. on weekends.
Sodi and Williams’ third New York City restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so late-night dining creates a sense of exclusivity without shortchanging diners who might not be able to get a table during peak business hours.
Inspired by Sodi’s time spent living in a 17th century villa outside Florence, Italy, Via Carota offers classic Italian dishes defined by their simplicity. Sides are used sparingly, sauces aren’t overcomplicated, and the pasta—Sodi’s specialty, and the foundation of her other concept, I Sodi—is cooked just beyond firmness.
Sodi still owns part of her family’s farm outside Florence, and at harvest she has green olives pressed in Tuscany. The extra-virgin olive oil is shipped directly to her, making Via Carota’s traditional Italian dishes pop until the early morning hours.
Until more upscale establishments move into the world of late-night eats, dedication to quality ingredients and an upscale experience will remain a strong differentiator for Via Carota and likeminded restaurants.