Chef Erling Wu-Bower doesn’t mince words when it comes to the dining scene in his hometown. “Chicago is one of the best restaurant cities in the U.S.,” he told FSR in February. Wu-Bower was the co-owner and executive chef at Pacific Standard Time before departing in early August; chef Perry Hendrix assumed the post two weeks later. “It is both progressive and old school, inexpensive and haute. There is very good food, for everyone, at every price point,” Wu-Bower added.
Nevertheless, Chicago, like the rest of the country, was dealt a blow
in March. The dine-in bans and shelter-in-place orders were especially stringent in big cities, making the economic impact all the more detrimental to restaurants in those busy areas.
One particularly bustling neighborhood within Chicago is River North, where Pacific Standard Time opened in spring 2018. Though the concept was relatively new, Wu-Bower has been a fixture in the city’s kitchens for many years. Previously he cooked at Avec and the Publican, two institutions that have helped define Chicago cuisine over the last two decades. The menus may differ wildly, but all three restaurants share a similar unfussiness that many feel is integral to eating in the city.
“I think the Chicago dining scene is more casual than most cities in the U.S., in a good way,” chef Sara Portner told FSR earlier this year. “There’s a bunch of places with solid menus where you can get a full meal or just sit at the bar and get a glass of wine and something small.”
Most recently Portner was the sous chef at Café Cancale, under Chicago’s heralded One Off Hospitality Group. Opened in May 2019 at the well-trafficked, six-corner intersection of Wicker Park, Café Cancale went a step beyond the usual bistro by exploring the cuisine of the rarely represented northwestern region of France. Despite its enviable location, the restaurant had barely marked its first anniversary when it was forced to close permanently.
It was not alone. Other, more established concepts also shuttered their doors amid the pandemic, including Michelin-starred Blackbird, which had been a Chicago fixture for more than 20 years and turned out some of the city’s most successful chefs and restaurateurs.
Still, many concepts have found creative ways to adapt. The city is accustomed to weathering rough winters (which often translate to slower business for many restaurants), so perhaps it was better equipped than other markets to ride out the pandemic.
“Chicago has a resilient history, and even in these difficult times I have been inspired by how the hospitality community has come together to support one another,” says Eric Lees, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Spiaggia.
Considered by many to be the best Italian restaurant in the country, the 35-year-old institution marries classic techniques like hand-rolled pasta and freshly whipped ricotta with luxe ingredients (the caviale e burrata, or burrata served with Golden Osetra caviar, is the perfect example).
Even before COVID-19, classic spots like Spiaggia weren’t content to rest on their laurels. “We’re constantly evolving and changing the menu; that to me means pulling inspiration from how modern restaurants in Italy are doing food right now,” Lees says. “Massimo Bottura started the trend of integrating Japanese influence into Italian cooking, and I experienced it everywhere on my last trip to Italy. I’ve applied that to several dishes on the new menu at Spiaggia.”
International flavors are increasingly prevalent in Chicago’s best restaurants, with Korean, Indian, and Filipino chefs making big splashes with ingredients and dishes that are new to many diners.
“The newer restaurants opening in Chicago are really starting to take conceptual risks,” Wu-Bower said in February. “Chefs and restaurateurs are breaking the mold; Passerotto, HaiSous, S.K.Y., and Giant are a few of the spots that come to mind.”
Chef Margaret Pak of Thattu, an Indian concept that focuses on food from Kerala, is similarly enthusiastic about Chicago’s varied cuisine. “The diversity and specialization of cuisine in Chicago is so exciting,” she says. “Between the classic Uncle Mike’s Place for Filipino breakfast, to Kimski for Korean-Polish wings, and Lao Peng You for Xi’an Bing [lamb-and-cumin bread], there’s such an array of accessible multicultural dishes without breaking the bank.”
Though Thattu remains committed to highlighting Kerala cuisine, Pak is rethinking its future trajectory. During COVID-19, the concept’s annual contract within Politan Row food hall reached its end, and Pak opted for a nimbler approach. To date, Thattu has hosted a handful of pop-ups in Kimski, and plans are underway to partner with fellow Indian concept Superkhana International and other restaurants for similar events.
“Our current plan is to continue doing takeout pop-ups until we find a new, sustainable home,” Pak says. “Given the uncertainty facing the restaurant industry, we are considering different, alternative formats going forward. Our concept will remain the same in that we will continue to showcase Keralan cuisine.”
Thattu has also been preparing meals as part of Marz Community Brewing’s Community Kitchen, which provides meals to those in need via food pantries, hospitals, churches, and other community organizations.
Though Chicago has long been known for its tight-knit neighborhoods, what’s different now is that cutting-edge restaurants are no longer limited to the most urban areas. Instead, young, enterprising chefs and restaurateurs are increasingly drawn to more low-key residential neighborhoods, where foodies are all too happy to welcome them. For all the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus, it can do little to dim the restaurant community’s vibrancy and ongoing culinary evolution. Indeed, Chicagoans’ embrace of and interest in food has proved an unexpected asset during dine-in bans.
“I think restaurant-goers are more educated on food than ever before; they know where to source fresh ingredients and are more adventurous in their own kitchens; it’s such a brilliant idea,” Lees says, pointing to Tortello, a new fresh-pasta concept where guests can also purchase noodles and sauce for their own kitchens. “These unique culinary ideas where you can experience restaurant-quality cuisine in the comfort of your own home couldn’t be more relevant than now.”
More off-premises options aren’t the only limited-service-style flourish that restaurants may adopt as a result of COVID-19. Like most U.S. cities, Chicago has become enamoured with food halls over the last five years, but that’s not to say it’s reached a tipping point.
Even back in February, before the coronavirus had arrived stateside, Portner predicted the traditional restaurant model would shift significantly in the future. “I think we’ll see an evolution of the food hall in the years to come,” she told FSR. “More people are wanting chef-driven food in a truncated setting.”
The past six months have been a sea change for everyday life, restaurants included. All signs indicate that it could be at least another six months, if not longer, before things return to normal (though the new normal will look quite different from the past status quo). Regardless of what changes may come down the pipeline, resiliency is baked into the restaurant industry—something that’s especially apparent in a city as diverse and food-forward as Chicago.
“Even though things are difficult in the restaurant industry right now, I know we will continue to evolve and adapt in these changing times,” Lees says. “We saw it firsthand when shelter-in-place happened and restaurants quickly pivoted to finding creative ways to sell their products. I love that about Chicago. We have so much energy, and that translates to the culinary scene; you’ll never be bored eating here.”