Located on the Division Street strip in Gold Coast are longtime establishments like The Original Mother’s and Butch McGuire’s. The typical frat boy-ish scene left that part of the Gold Coast without many true nightclubs, with some closed club fronts still standing. But right next door, the new Play Chicago Kitchen and Cocktails (7 W. Division St, Chicago IL 60610; www.theplaychicago.com) might bring some life back into the neighborhood’s nightlife scene.
“The space is more so a place we call the funhouse,” said Executive Chef Melva Jarvis, who happens to be a member of the LGBT community, and who stressed to Windy City Times that this spot is all-inclusive. “The name says it all—come play with us. The food is fun and the staff is fun.”
Jarvis—whose track record includes Streeterville’s Bottled Blonde, Caesars Palace Las Vegas and the Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games—curated Play’s inventive approach to American classics. Jarvis took entrees like burgers and macaroni and cheese and flipped them with creative extras like a half-lobster tail and a signature Cajun cheese sauce.
She said, “I created a menu that is playful and fun and different things, outside of the box. We have some typical bar food, but it’s a little bit more elevated.”
Jarvis’ inspiration for the menu is simpler than the 24-karat gold wings and surf-and-turf burger make it seem. She wanted to ensure the menu evokes the vibe embodied in the place’s name.
“[I am] thinking outside of the box and putting things into play with certain times, like a burger,” Jarvis said. “Everyone has a traditional burger with either thick-cut bacon or smoked bacon. I do candied bacon—spicy-sweet bacon that goes on top of a burger.”
“I [do] things a lot of places don’t do in Chicago,” Jarvis continued. “No one in Chicago has 24-karat gold wings.”
The aforementioned wings are a major player at the establishment, according to Jarvis. The Instagram-worthy, gold-infused wings can easily be found at the trendiest spots in Los Angeles and New York, but they hadn’t hit the Chicago nightlife scene until Jarvis stepped in, she said.
“Food trends are changing fast,” Jarvis said. “They’re changing almost weekly. You have to keep up with all of them unless you have your own unique style and you’re doing things different, like me.”
Jarvis flipped the script with the wings, using a golden-colored bourbon barbecue sauce with a generous amount of gold flakes instead of just the simple gold flakes to add a necessary flavor to the eye-catching dish. To Jarvis, both taste and presentation are vital to keep the people coming back to a trendy spot like this.
Jarvis began her restaurant career as a prep cook. She proved herself more than just a cook when she started putting her own twist on the restaurant’s recipes.
“The chefs always saw that I was doing something different, like ‘Well, Melva’s just never going to follow this recipe but it tastes good.'”
Her inventive twists on recipes did not go unnoticed by her bosses; after just two years, she was promoted to junior sous chef. There, she taught her employees some of her creative tricks and lent them a helpful, innovative hand.
Despite spending most of her time at Play, Jarvis is in a relationship with a woman she has known for three years. They met on a dating site after both of them were ending past relationships. At the beginning, the pair would talk for hours and spend time together without any romance involved. In the past year, their lives intertwined in a way that felt normal to them both.
“I was like, ‘you know what? You’ve been my best friend, and we’ll make this work.’ It just seemed so natural,” Jarvis said.
Their relationship isn’t founded on food, but it is something Jarvis enjoys with her partner.
“She knows everything I like, everything I don’t,” Jarvis said. “She knows what I eat, what I don’t. She pretty much knows my whole day-to-day.”
Before opening Play, Jarvis showed her creativity on a national scale. Her time on Guy’s Grocery Games showcased her ability to improvise on both a budget and deadline. As a contestant on the fried food episode, she made a personal connection with the show’s host: food legend and internet culture icon Guy Fieri.
“The way he is on TV is how he is all the time,” Jarvis said. “He loves to joke, play, laugh and have fun. That is all it is. I can never have a serious moment with him.”
Jarvis’ history in the Chicago restaurant industry stretches across various cuisines and markets, and she’s seen and ate much of Chicago’s best food. When asked about her favorite spots in the city, she laughed.
“As long as I don’t have to cook it, I’ll go to places where it’s going to be quick, fast and I won’t have to do much thinking behind it,” Jarvis said. “Places where I don’t have to critique as much. When you’re a chef, you go to upscale restaurants and you critique. It’s like, that steak wasn’t up to my expectations, I didn’t like this part or that part. If I go to Popeye’s Chicken, it’s always the same.”