By Katie Iannitelli
“I’ve been on the advisory board of the IRA for two years,” says Clodagh Lawless, veteran Chicago restaurateur and co-owner of The Dearborn Tavern, 145 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (with her equally experienced sister, Amy Lawless).
I stop typing and raise an eyebrow at the Irish-born siblings sitting across from me, shoulder to shoulder, in a lounge-style, mirror-backed, leather upholstered booth. They are clad in business suits and wear masks that don’t hide their mischievous smiles.
Clodagh holds the suspense for a moment, then laughs.“Not that IRA,” she reveals with a grin. “The Illinois Restaurant Association - the I-R-A.”
Within the sphere of Illinois fine dining, being nominated to serve on this particular advisory council is a great honor, she explains, with distinctively Irish discomfort at the faintest thought of boasting.
But the truth is that both of these consummately professional sisters, as well as The Dearborn Tavern, have received countless awards and write ups and have been featured in online and print publications around the world.
Their success is no surprise. The two grew up, quite literally, in restaurants.
During the harsh economic conditions of Galway City’s 1970s urban sprawl, their parents, then dairy farmers on the outskirts of town, were forced to make a change.
“Farming was a tough industry in the seventies,” Clodagh says. “My dad sold the farm … and bought a pub.”
With no formal experience, Billy and Anne Lawless made “The Gallows” into a great success and went on to operate several other prosperous establishments in Ireland, eventually expanding into an 18-room hotel.
“Our parents are fantastic. They worked so hard,” Clodagh says, attributing their success to natural warmth and generosity. “Their level of hospitality was just so genuine.”
In fact, the sisters say, a Sunday didn’t go by without a customer or employee invited to their family’s dinner table.
“They were always on the lookout for anyone that was alone,” Clodagh says. “It definitely is an Irish hospitality trait. It’s a way: come in, come in, have a cup of tea, stay for dinner, you will. It’s just our culture. My mother would say, ‘There’s always enough in the pot.’”
As Amy, Clodagh, and their two brothers, J.P. and Billy, labored alongside their parents - washing dishes, serving coffee, clearing tables, bartending, waiting tables - they learned the business.
“All our memories were helping our parents in the restaurant,” Clodagh says. “They instilled so much in us, teaching us hospitality and hard work … in the going and doing of everyday life.”
Then, in 1997, while Amy attended college in Massachusetts on a rowing scholarship and Clodagh worked a post-university year at Irish Times Pub & Restaurant in Brookfield, Ill., their father moved the family, formally, to the United States.
“It manifested overnight,” Clodagh says. “My father is impulsive and is not afraid of a challenge. We weren’t quite ready, but all of the sudden we were all here.”
In 1998, their parents opened The Irish Oak at 3511 N. Clark St., which quickly became a staple in Chicago’s Irish American bar scene. While managing the pub, Clodagh and Amy dreamt of opening an upscale tavern together, but knew they needed to gain more experience operating downtown restaurants with considerable volumes.
Again, they found the opportunity to learn within their own family, and went to work with their brother, Billy, co-owner of The Gage restaurant at 24 S. Michigan Ave. While Clodagh focused on human resources and finances, Amy stepped up to manage the floor.
“I had to learn to run a business, something other than just bartending,” Amy says.
“It was great timing for us that we could just walk in the door,” Clodagh adds with gratitude, affirming that it was at The Gage where they truly earned their chops.
Meanwhile, living a floor apart in the same Wrigleyville building with their respective spouses and children, they continued to formulate a plan. They conducted market research, patronized restaurants from coast to coast, noted styles, tasted dishes, sipped cocktails, collected menus, and, most importantly, searched for just the right space.
“When we saw this location (the southeast corner of Dearborn St. and Randolph St.), we knew this was it,” Amy says. “Being on the corner, seeing all the hustle and bustle opposite Daley Plaza and the theaters. We knew it was the right fit for us. It felt like we were home.”
Once committed to their dream locale, they took on a host of new challenges.
“We wanted to do as much as possible on our own,” Clodagh says, noting that in previous restaurants their parents had conducted the bulk of the preliminary tasks. “The big, scary money things, meeting with all the construction guys, even learning how to read a print from scratch.”
The key to their success, they say, was in never being afraid to ask questions.
“Whether it was at a bank loan meeting or a construction meeting … it was gaining the confidence to say, ‘Right now I don’t get what you’re saying,’ without being ashamed or embarrassed. (If we had to, we would ask them) to explain it two or three times. We learned so much. That was such a sense of achievement.”
Anticipating a business-lunch and theater-going clientele, they partnered with Executive Chef Aaron Cuschieri, who took their vision (along with their vast collection of market-research menus) and created a list of offerings that could be made efficiently, from scratch, to serve patrons pressed for time.
Since opening in 2016, the sisters recount, they’ve learned from their mistakes, course corrected along the way, and have come to realize the importance of trusting each other in their respective and complementary roles.
“Amy is the hospitality person, the face of The Dearborn,” Clodagh says. “I’m in the office taking care of finances and the administrative side. We quickly learned to accept our strengths and know that you can’t know everything.”
In that vein, the sisters give limitless credit to their spouses. Clodagh’s husband, Colm Murphy, a stationary engineer with a knack for fixing anything, keeps the restaurant “looking like a bright new shiny penny” even when hundreds of guests are coming and going, Clodagh says.
Amy’s wife, Dr. Cynthia Galvan, “liaises as a medical consultant” to their team, helping them work through issues to do with employee wellness and health insurance. “Cynthia and Colm make us look good,” she says.
And while business boomed for three years, when COVID-19 hit in March, they had little choice but to close down operations temporarily.
“It was a ghost town in the Loop,” Amy says. “All the offices were closed; government buildings were closed.”
Giving up, however, was not on the menu. They waited it out and focused their efforts on instituting social distancing practices to encourage customer confidence during the pandemic.
“Our high standards were there beforehand,” Clodagh assures. “We’re strictly adhering to the guidelines given out from the CDC, but … we’re elevated on the sanitation side of things above and beyond what is mandated to us. We took out a lot of furniture to accommodate that. Everything is socially distanced. We will never be over capacity for what the current guidelines are.”
“We’re fortunate we have a big restaurant,” Amy says. “We have the space to do it. We’re able to space the tables. We have high ceilings, and the windows open completely. It’s nice and airy in here.”
In addition to the spaciously arranged indoor seating, the outdoor patio opened recently, adding 22 seats to their already huge footprint.
“We’re lucky to have that opportunity,” says Clodagh, who makes a point of keeping a positive attitude for herself and the team. While she puts on a brave face, though, it’s not hard to see that she and Amy both feel the weight of the situation.
“It’s very difficult to talk openly about it,” Clodagh says. “This is our livelihood. It’s a very troubling, worrying time. We have our private moments. We have each other to lean on and that’s the beauty of it.”
At the heart of their coping strategy seems to be mutual admiration laced with a good-humored, loving, sibling rivalry.
“I let Clodagh do the talking,” the more reserved Amy says. “Although I’m pretty sure I did teach (her) how to pour her first pint of Guinness in Galway. She won’t admit it.”
“Ah, I took her under my wing,” Clodagh says with a wink to her younger sister. “And I will always be wiser and older.” They both laugh, sharing a dash of comic relief from their current worries.
Perhaps it’s not readily apparent to them, but I see they’ve inherited more than hospitality and a strong work ethic from their parents. They are brimming with the same grit they attribute to their mom and dad.
“When (my father) gets something in his mind, he goes, he does, he conquers,” Clodagh says. “We hope we’ll continue to be like that during these uncertain times.”
Before I can convey my own impression that, given their can-do attitudes, their determination, and their abiding generosity, they’re sure to weather this storm and any others that come along, Clodagh confirms my opinion of her fortitude.
“When we get through this awful time, I wouldn’t be afraid to open another restaurant.”