Those of the promontory The downstairs restaurant is closed forever, and the University of Chicago Commercial Real Estate Operations, which owns the building, is looking for a new tenant for its space.
But two years after the pandemic forced the restaurant’s initial closure, The Promontory’s second-floor venue, bar and patio are thriving, as anyone who lives at 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. W. has visited since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. Shows are now booked through the end of October.
Jake Austen, The Promontory’s location manager and talent buyer, and a native of Hyde Parker, still says he still runs the venue “very conservatively” and mainly books local artists.
“I try to find the best local artists to do the most creative things instead of giving huge guarantees to artists on tour,” he said in an interview.
It’s a low-risk proposition: There are two or three touring artists each month that are expensive to book, but the rest of the shows are cheaper to host and still attract audiences.
The promontory is part of the 16 on center society, which owns venues, bars and restaurants throughout Chicago; Austen called The Promontory “the most nimble” of them, noting curtains in the ballroom that can be closed to change the ballroom’s capacity.
“I could have a weekend where I might have a gospel concert that’s 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then we have a daytime party at 3pm that goes until 9pm, and then we have a reggae dance party that goes from 10pm until 2am or 3am on a Saturday,” he said.
“We give jazz concerts. We give practice lessons. Not only that — part of being on the South Side, which currently has no tradition of having venues, is that we do everything we can, and too much. We will have 20 events per week. We will find a way to have a morning event, an afternoon event, a night event.”
The Promontory opened in 2014, with a restaurant downstairs and the venue upstairs. Austen said the restaurant is “balanced at best” as the venue subsidizes it.
A six-year run for a restaurant isn’t bad; Austen said it might have continued had the pandemic not struck. Coincidentally, there was one last event featuring soca music, the Trinidadian derivative of calypso, in March 2020 before shutting down for months. A Mexican pop-up, El Oso directed by Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza, 4852 S. Pulaski Road, opened in the fall but was doomed to fail the second wave of COVID-19 hitting Chicago.
But The Promontory has survived as a venue. It has also recently been refurbished with new lighting and other features.
Even before the end of 2020, The Promontory was using its terraces for drinking and then concerts at a reduced capacity. This winter they opened indoors, again at a significantly reduced capacity, for pod seating with bottle service.
Business quickly resumed in spring 2021. Today Austen said most musicians are looking for work. Touring artists no longer insist that audiences show proof of vaccinations or masks, nor does he know of any local artists who ask for it.
The audience is predominantly South Side, with the exception of Caribbean and African music, which attracts concert-goers from outside the neighborhood. The venue must hold events almost every night to remain commercially viable. Austen highlighted the importance of hosting open mic poetry nights for young people, charity and other community events.
Many independent groups are only charged the cost of sound and security to rent The Promontory. Austen can book a local artist for the afternoon and a more profitable 9pm show to recoup the earlier investment.
“You’re always part of a community,” he said. “One of the reasons you do events, give breaks and help emerging artists is that if they could do something in a place five times bigger, they get huge and might decide to do an underplay with you.”
Rapper Vic Mensa has performed at The Promontory. Jennifer Hudson had her birthday party there. “They have great people from Chicago that are going to do cool stuff here,” Austen said. “You take care of them and they take care of you.”