In 2002, Doug Dunlay boarded a plane to go visit his cousin, Michael, in Pittsburgh. A Missouri native, Dunlay had spent more than seven years pouring time into his position as general manager at chain restaurant brand Houston’s.
At long last, he was ready to set out on his own.
“I went to Pittsburgh to talk him into quitting his job, selling his house, and moving to Chicago to open a restaurant,” he recalls. “After five or six days of pestering, [Michael] said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The year that followed has, in retrospect, turned out to be a particularly auspicious one for Chicago hospitality — as the Dunlay cousins founded Dunlays on Clark, a family-friendly neighborhood restaurant with a patio in Lincoln Park. Though it closed in 2018 after a 15-year run, Dunlays laid the foundation for what would become 4 Star Restaurant Group, named for its four partners and the four stars on the Chicago flag. The company, helmed by partners Doug Dunlay, Michael Dunlay, Josh Rutherford, and Derek Rettell, is now a stalwart in the city with seven well-regarded restaurants in numerous neighborhoods.
Of course, such a saga wasn’t even on Doug Dunlay’s radar in 2003, and opening his own venue was a dramatic transition from the corporate infrastructure he’d become accustomed to at Houston’s. “It felt like a risk,” he says. “At the time we had no real thoughts of anything beyond that one restaurant… We had a couple of people invest, we got an SBA loan, and we both took out second mortgages on our houses.”
Fortunately, neighborhood residents embraced the restaurant for its strong service and come-as-you-are ethos, a philosophy that extended to creating family-friendly restaurants. Though all had a desire to leave a legacy (not to mention make a living) in the local industry, Doug Dunlay says that the company endured because of its emphasis on the daily grind versus chasing accolades.
Throughout its tenure, the group is known as one of the first to recognize the buying power of parents and other customers with children in tow, attracting them with offers of free food for kids under a certain age. Crosby’s Kitchen helped define the Southport Corridor as a staple among the stroller set with menus of chicken fingers, grilled cheese, and skillet cookies a la mode. But it’s not all romper rooms for 4 Star, which also operates s swanky lounge Ella Elli down the street from Crosby’s in Lakeview. There are also two locations of barbecue behemoth Smoke Daddy. Tuco & Blondie attracts a diverse crowd including margarita sippers and those who yearn for the type of Mexican restaurants that were popular in the ‘80s. Most recently, 4 Star opened The Perch Kitchen & Tap in Wicker Park.
Two years later, a tailspin of pandemic-era indoor dining bans forced 4 Star to transition all its restaurants into carryout and delivery operations featuring family meals with entrees, sides, dessert, and wine. Dunlay says that while the group, which didn’t see any permanent closures during that period, has emerged stronger and more penny-wise, the financial free-fall of 2020 meant they had to lay off workers. “We had to say goodbye to a number of employees, which was extremely difficult because they were scared,” he says. “Looking from the outside and from behind, things we could have done better. It changed how we looked at our business model and how we’re viewing our growth in the future.”
Rolling with the punches has become a specialty for the partners, who have kept 4 Star bustling through massive economic and societal changes. There will always be some new curveballs to contend with, but they remain undaunted. After 20 years, “I’m a few pounds heavier and have a lot more gray hair,” Doug Dunlay says. “But still love it and look forward to continuing it.”