Night Cap By James Scarpa
Melman Magic Ignites a Small Nightclub in Chicago.
Thinking small seems an unlikely way to get ahead in the nightclub business. But to hear brothers R.J. and Jerrod Melman talk, the cozy confines of Sub 51, the hip and
eclectic reservations-only nightspot they run downstairs from
their popular Hub 51 restaurant in Chicago, is a veritable blessing. In truth, that’s just one of several ways the budding hospitality impresarios are marching to their own beat.
“We’re lucky that it’s small,” says 26-year-old Jerrod Melman. Sub 51 occupies just 1,500 square feet, room enough
for 12 tables, a DJ booth with a state-of-the-art sound system,
a bar and 100-odd guests rocking away Thursday through
Saturday. “It makes it that much more exclusive. And that also
makes it a place where really great DJs want to come and play,
because it’s so small they can really relate to every guest in
“Playing a 100-person room is a lot different from playing a
The small size of Sub 51, located below Hub 51, gives the
nightclub an exclusive vibe.
Brothers Jerrod (left) and R. J. Melman follow in their
father’s hospitality footsteps, but add their own spark.
Just past its first anniversary, the Hub 51/Sub 51 tandem is
a business and critical success. Trendy 20- and 30-somethings
pack the club, with professional athletes and entertainment
celebrities often in attendance. Upstairs in the restaurant, the
crowd is varied. Chicago doctors, lawyers and advertising execs are lunch and dinner guests, while happy hour sees young
professionals sharing sushi in the bar and families often visit
for weekend brunch.
Success has something to do with bloodlines as well as
hard work, concede the brothers, who follow the footsteps of
their famous father, Richard Melman, founder and chairman of
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) in Chicago. Melman
pere is the creator of scores of innovative restaurant concepts,
ranging from R.J. Grunts, the whimsical, hippie-themed casual
eatery still going strong after nearly four decades, to concepts
that broke new culinary ground in casual dining, such as the
Spanish tapas eatery Café Ba Ba Reeba and the innovative
Mexican cuisine spot Hat Dance. “There is no illusion that a
lot of the opportunities we have are not because of him,” says
Jerrod. Adds R.J., “We’re thankful for the coaching he has
Thus, it is no surprise that a hospitality attitude pervades
Sub 51. “We have the mindset of restaurant people,” says
Jerrod, who, like his brother, cut his teeth as a LEYE restaurant
manager. “Our inclination is to say ‘yes’ to guests. In a lot of
clubs, the tendency is to say ‘no.’ Our staff wants to take care
of people and be gracious.”
Still, R.J. and Jerrod agree that the nightclub business is
a continual learning experience. Take the concept of bottle
service, for example. Initially, it struck them as unnecessary
and pricey. Although Sub 51 opened without bottle service,
after receiving numerous requests in the first few weeks, the
brothers relented and instituted it.
“When you have a room full of 100 people dancing, it’s
difficult to get to the bar and order a cocktail, or to order 10
different drinks from your server,” says Jerrod.
Spirits range in price from $225 to $300 by the bottle, with
vodka the predominant choice. “What most people look for is
priced at $225 to $250,” says R.J. “I think that’s pretty reasonable compared to other clubs around town.”
“We try to do things with the guests in mind,” says Jerrod.
“Not that we never make mistakes. But we think about how
we would like to be treated when we go out.” NCB
James Scarpa is a Chicago-based freelance journalist who writes often about food and