How the James Beard Foundation came to move its annual awards ceremony from New York City to Chicago is an interesting story.
Alpana Singh, owner and operator of Chicago’s acclaimed wine-focused restaurant The Boarding House as well as the recently opened Seven Lions, described to me how she kindled the flame: “I was actually the one who started the conversation. At a Beard dinner in New York a couple of years ago, I serendipitously sat next to a gentleman who was on the board of the James Beard Foundation, and we started chitchatting so I just casually asked, ‘Would you ever consider bringing the Beard awards to Chicago?’”
The next morning Singh sent an email to Don Welsh, the president and chief executive of Choose Chicago—the organization tasked with marketing Chicago as a tourist and event destination—and the conversations “just snowballed from there,” she says.
That dinner conversation was the impetus that turned Chicago into the winning city—the first time that the Beard Foundation accepted another city’s invitation to host its awards.
When I asked the Foundation for insights on “Why Chicago,” they shared these comments from James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro: “The James Beard Foundation has enjoyed a special friendship with the city of Chicago for decades. It’s a city that boasts over 40 James Beard Award winners, as well as a special community of chefs and restaurateurs who have always supported the work of our Foundation. We believe celebrating our 2015 Awards in Chicago is consistent with our mission to honor excellence all across America.”
The tally of more than 40 Beard winners even before this year’s ceremony, when 10 Chicago finalists are in the running for awards, speaks to the culinary expertise that thrives in this city. Or, as Singh puts it: “The Beard decision is a great endorsement of what’s happening in Chicago with the food scene.”
In our own nod to the vibrancy of Chicago’s food scene, FSR is highlighting 23 of the best new restaurants to open in recent months in the Windy City—from the extravagant and elite fine-dining enclave 42 grams, with average checks starting at $185 per person, to upscale-casual restaurants like Bohemian House, Seven Lions, and Fig & Olive where checks average a more modest $30–$40.
Singh’s decision to open Seven Lions was fueled in part by her passion for the city (she serves on the Chicago tourism board) and by the opportunity to locate in a historic setting on Michigan Avenue. “I was impressed by Mayor Emanual’s push to make Chicago a world-class destination,” she says. The city appears to be winning that bid as well, having set a tourism record in 2014 with 50.2 million visitors.