The Black Sheep is the culmination of chef/owner James Toland’s life’s work. For over 23 years he’s labored as a chef, gaining the knowledge and expertise needed to create his ideal restaurant. Best described as progressive American cuisine, The Black Sheep aims to take fine dining and make it available to the masses. In true punk rock fashion, Toland’s goal is to break the rules commonly associated with upscale eateries, providing a unique encounter that’s both affordable and approachable. His passion for the underground is evident throughout The Black Sheep, thereby encouraging the restaurant to be experienced firsthand by those who support local music.
Toland got his start as a chef at the age of 17. He was a struggling actor in New York and ultimately decided that the time was right for a different career path. “A friend of my roommate suggested that I work at the restaurant where he was working. I didn’t have any experience as a chef, but I gave it a try and loved it,” he said. “I went over to Europe and apprenticed for some pretty good restaurants for a couple years and then came back to the States. I kept working at my craft and getting better positions year after year. I spent most of my career at elite, destination hotels, so I was able to hone my skills very quietly, without necessarily making a big international name for myself. When I came back to Chicago I had the opportunity to be somewhat of a dark horse and just kind of unleash my craft on the city. So far it’s been accepted and received very, very well.” When it came time to begin construction on The Black Sheep, Toland and his friends did much of the work on their own. He also enlisted members of legendary Chicago bands like Naked Raygun and Pegboy to provide assistance. “We did a lot of it ourselves. I learned a lot about carpentry, electricity, plumbing and all those things. If I couldn’t do it then I called on the likes of Joe Haggerty, Eric Spicer or Jeff Pezzati to lend a hand, because they’re experts in some of those fields. It was challenging. The old adage of ‘twice as expensive and twice as long’, we tried to avoid that, but it’s kind of true,” Toland said.
The Black Sheep opened in June of 2011 and so far business has exceeded expectations. Moving forward, Toland hopes to increase the restaurant’s late-night crowd, as the kitchen is open till 11:30 PM Tuesday through Thursday and 12:30 AM Friday and Saturday, with the bar always open later. Located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood at 1132 W. Grand Ave., The Black Sheep’s easy accessibility to various parts of the city is certainly one of its strongest attributes. In terms of its menu, Toland said, “It’s a small menu. The a la carte menu is only 15 items. All the plates, they’re not necessarily appetizers and entrees, but lesser-expensive things and more expensive things. You can come in and have the beets for $14, which if you’re a vegetarian, that and the chilled English pea soup could absolutely be a meal for less than $25. You can have a customizable experience or you could share some of the bigger entrees, like the mutton or the chicken thigh. They are focused plates and they’re artistically fashioned, but there’s simplicity about them. We go for really, really big flavors, as opposed to too many flavors. We like to take something that’s very simple and make it over the top”.
In addition to a fondness for underground music, Toland also shares an enthusiasm for local artists. He chose several recognized Chicagoans to aid in designing The Black Sheep’s distinctive interior. “It was intended to be very warm and comfortable, yet edgy,” he said. “I solicited a lot of my Chicago craftsman and artist friends to lend their vision. I grabbed Joshua Gilbert, who’s a master sculptor and does iron work, to custom fabricate a lot of our tables and our bar. There’s quite a bit of iron work that’s in there. Pearl Dick blew all the glass for our lighting fixtures and she’s with Chicago Hot Glass. Leah Bohannon made an amazing fused glass window for us. Richard Bell is a master carpenter, and an artist in his own right, and he did all the millwork, cabinetry and tables. Vincent Grech, who’s a pretty well-known Chicago artist and musician, did all the art panels on the walls. The panels are all silkscreens of photographs that I like or of album covers. I’ve heard it described as a crime scene by some older folks and then other people have said it’s really cool. We removed the white tablecloths, we got rid of all that pomp and circumstance or that pretension that usually comes with fine dining restaurants, so you can come in wearing jeans and a Black Flag t-shirt and feel just as welcome as if you were in a suit.”
To coincide with The Black Sheep’s opening, Toland decided to put together a band and release a record. He formed The Black Sheep Band, which is an all-star group of sorts, featuring members of Screeching Weasel, Stiff Little Fingers and more. The resulting four-song LP is currently available on colored vinyl via Underground Communiqué Records and was engineered by Jeff Dean at Million Yen Studios. “The Black Sheep Band is a supergroup of Chicago underground rockers. You’ve got Eric Spicer, Dan Schafer, Jake Burns, Gina and Dan Knapik, Herb Rosen, Mike Byrne and Pete Mittler. It was punk rock fantasy camp for a lot of us, not just me,” Toland said. “It all started with me calling Eric, who’s a good buddy, and asking him to do this for charity. I wanted to have a record in conjunction with the opening of this restaurant. He was already working on the HVAC and we had spent a lot of time cracking beers around the dusty work space, so we thought up this idea. The reason it benefits the Children’s Memorial Hospital is because that’s where my daughter went after she was in a really bad car accident 14 years ago and they saved her life. I wanted to give back to that hospital. We got the core of the band together and we rehearsed for about five weeks at Cobra Lounge. It was just so much fun for all of us. Everybody wrote some songs and we’re all really happy with the way it turned out. Dan gave us a great song, Gina and Dan gave us a great song, Eric and I wrote a pretty darn good song and then to have Jake Burns sing it was just unbelievable.” When asked about the possibility of doing more records in the future Toland said, “Yeah, that’s volume one. Volume two is in the works. There are a lot of people who are interested. We’ll see once I get my head out of the clouds from opening this restaurant. Eric will be back for it, Jeff Pezzati wants to do a song and we’re talking to a couple other big names”.
Another music-related point of interest is The Black Sheep’s policy concerning touring bands eating for free. Toland explained, “Having spent some time living out of a van, I know what a good meal can mean on a tour that’s going very badly or going very well. Touring musicians typically are doing it for the love, not the money, and it can be tough on the road. Per diems don’t go very far. This is sort of a way for bands to come in and recharge. If they’re just a young, struggling, underground rock ‘n roll band, great, as long as you’re playing rock ‘n roll and you’ve got a gig in the city of Chicago you’re welcome. You’ve just got to pay for your own booze”. He continued, “I’m also working with Brian now over at MP Productions. We’ve kind of teamed-up, so The Black Sheep is actually going to be co-sponsoring a lot of their bigger shows down the line. He’s going to be pushing the bigger name bands and the bands we really have mad respect for over to us after the shows he’s doing. Riot Mike is also going to send some bands over. I imagine we’re probably going to be giving the farm away here during Riot Fest, but whatever”.
Looking ahead, Toland hopes that someday The Black Sheep will achieve international notoriety. “I think we built a restaurant that is arguably one of the best restaurants in the city of Chicago, just based on the talent pool that I have in the kitchen and the front of the house. There’s the uniqueness of the cuisine, the uniqueness of the whole concept, the craftsmanship that goes into it and the experience that people are getting out of it. I think that we’ve really built something that’s incredibly special. I hope that we’re considered one of the better restaurants in the city and then the nation. If I can get ranked and get in the top 50 in the world someday, that would be fantastic,” he said. As for why someone who’s a fan of Chicago’s independent music scene should try The Black Sheep, Toland said, “We built it for you. Someone once told me, ‘Make it an honest, genuine representation of your passion and your love’. For me that’s food, underground music and undiscovered art, and I wanted all of that to be celebrated. We’re trying to take something that’s normally reserved for the rich and privileged and bring it to the streets, bring it to the people. This is for everybody, that’s my mission. I hope we can attain that”.