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The Future of Chicago Dining: Four Models of and for a Changing Scene

Where Chicago dining has been this past year tells us where it is going

Prior to the start of the pandemic restaurants were not expected--much less desired--to contain multitudes. Sure, cuisine or service model or atmosphere might evolve over time, but a restaurant was supposed to stay in its proverbial lane--be it price, genre, stars--and stray little; if a chef had other ambitions, he was to open an offshoot, not alter the flagship.

We know how that ended: COVID-19 changed it all, changed the entire metaphysics of what it even means to be a restaurant. Within a year of the initial shutdown, Alinea had given us a seven-layer dip; Rooh peddled nachos. Ghost kitchens beget ghost franchises. By necessity and by habit, we adapted, too, growing accustomed to and accepting of any number of alternative models: virtual restaurants, pop-ups, Instagram-only drops, fast casual spinoffs, et al. "Normal," or whatever dining out in March was, became new.

Typical sit-down restaurants will live on, of course, and there will still be plenty of big splashy openings in the months to come--Hinoki and Rose Mary in April alone--but it's looking more and more like their relevance and impact on the direction and quality of the area food scene have plateaued; it is in alternative service models where the work and talent of most influence and import to Chicago dining will arise. COVID projects launched because of necessity will soon become the templates for future intention, be it micro-bakeries or hotel dining suites; what was once improvised hustle will morph into real pathways for future restauranteurs. Consider the four practices and practitioners highlighted below--many of which overlap--as the foundation for the innovation ahead: guideposts for how it may come about and where to look for it.

The Mighty Micros

What They Are: Big ambitions in small packages define these ventures, which run the gamut from the many micro-bakeries operating out of homes or coffee shops to Instagram pizza pop-ups operating out of bars to small takeout storefronts to limited tasting menus; some are even all of the above. What connects them all are scale and artisanship: production tends to be limited to a few dozen orders at a time, if that; availability is often at the weekly or even monthly level. That’s in large part because the person running the show is also running the kitchen, operations, Instagram account, etc.--these are true one-person shows. Scarcity aside, there is in, say Jasmine Sheth’s regional Indian cuisine or Erin Koro’s pastries a level of craftsmanship and care that far exceeds the typical standard--and more than compensates for the difficulties of procuring it.

Key Player: Hermosa. By day, Hermosa is both a creative sandwich shop and a neighborhood snack stop; by weekend night, it is among Chicago’s singular options for Khmer food, not to mention one of the best South Asian restaurants in the city, period. While his fried chicken sandwich and other between-bread riffs on Asian classics tend to be press-and 'Gram-friendly, the true showcase of Ethan Lim’s talent and potential is his Cambodian Family Meal, whether as a three-course takeout option or as an eight-course sit-down meal in the storefront’s small alcove, where the bright herbal notes of the vegetable green curry and the complex heat of a mushroom nam tok make clear there are serious cooking chops at work here. Perhaps Lim could expand by moving to a larger space in a "trendier" neighborhood, but much of what makes Hermosa a singular experience is its literal singularity: from start to finish, whatever you order, however you order, it is his vision and his handiwork on the plate. His is another example of how we're starting to claw back the meaning of artisan again, one Cambodian steak frites at a time.

The Future: Micro operations have taken many forms in years prior--say, food trucks or stands at farmer’s markets--but the ease and low cost of entry provided by social media and delivery apps has led to an explosion in the number and diversity of operations, many of which are led by first-time food professionals. Whether that run continues as the homebound return to offices and restaurants remains to be seen, but expect some of the more successful pop-up operations of the past year to move past ghost kitchens and directly into brick and mortars; expect, too, to see these concepts adapt to and evolve with space, such as by locating in less-heralded dining neighborhoods or operating solely out of a takeout window. I anticipate a lot more restaurants within restaurants, too, be it a side hustle of an existing cook--see Superkhana below--or as an extension of the existing concept, such as a tasting menu one or two nights a week; expect more collaborations, one-offs, and so forth. I know this much to be true: the future of Chicago cooking is likely to come from here, not fine dining kitchens.

The Constant Pivots

What They Are: Restaurants evolve all the time--that’s what they’re supposed to do. We know the pandemic and subsequent city/state guidelines forced many to react in real time; the market to come, however, is likely to make such evolution a critical and deliberate component of the development process--intentional gradualism, you might say. The playbook, as exhibited by Saffron Street and Wazwan and several others, is starting to take shape: start with pop-ups or collaborations; transition to delivery apps; open a brick and mortar focused on a simplified menu of what sells; and, finally, launch the initial vision. A formal restaurant is, in other words, the end game for a brand, not the beginning.

Key Player: Kasama. Intended to be an all-day cafe with an emphasis on modern Filipino food at dinner, the pandemic instead forced it to become more of a neighborhood coffee and bakery shop, albeit one with high-level pastries and spins on Pinoy comfort foods. Over the past six months, it has gradually become a jack of all trades, proffering both foie gras danishes and riffs on breakfast sandwiches and Italian Beef, wine dinners and Big Kids sandwich collaborations. This year may yet enable Genie Kwon and Tim Flores to realize their initial vision, but a quick scan through IG shows the public has embraced them as a pastry/brunch splurge, and that will no doubt factor into their plans moving forward.

The Future: Don't be surprised if soft openings become more like soft months, with concepts and stores testing and tweaking--“user experience research," if you will--their approaches before settling on an identity. That will likely mean more fast casual, more delivery focus, more slavish attempts at going viral on social media; on the flip side, however, it may also yield in uptick in quality as restaurants focus on refining their models and ambitions rather than on flashy openings. Expect, too, an evolution of the Next model, with restaurants changing concepts on a monthly or even weekly level; collaborations and residencies will become the norm.

The Incubators

What They Are: Several restaurants--e.g., El Che, The Ruin Daily, Daisies--have temporarily lent their physical locations to host pop-ups and start-ups and misplaced vendors, sure, but the next step is for multiple operations to deliberately run out of a single location, as restaurants look to maximize their physical spaces, keep and develop talent, and expand their footprint. In its current phase, most of these ventures-in-ventures are highly specialized, with cooks focusing on a small, if not singular, concept or dish (e.g., donuts, quesabirria) and running these specials on off-days or at off-hours, giving new talent experience running a business at a smaller scale. While this collective approach builds on prior innovations in formative brick and mortar development--say, food trucks or food halls--the added mentoring and DIY elements, not to mention the opportunity increase revenue and opportunity without commensurate increases in overheard or investment, is likely to appeal to the fledgling and experienced alike; don’t be surprised if more established players--such as LEYE, which launched some small side ventures of its own within its space--jump in.

Key Player: Superkhana. By design or happy accident--presumably, a mix of both--the restaurant's loaning of its space and resources to both employees and friends of the brand have cultivated an entire wave of new talent and restaurant concepts. Superkhana the site now hosts several of the most exciting places to eat in Chicago right now: there’s a weekly Malaysian pick-up and roti pickup window (Kedai Tapao) on Mondays, Roman pizza and sandwiches (Pizza Finestra) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, bread drops (Loaf Lounge) on the weekend, and the more occasional pop-ups for Korean and desserts (Banana Phone) and south Indian diner food (Thommy’s Toddy Shop); Superkhana itself continues to operate on evenings and weekends. The big opportunity/limited real estate approach has had a dual benefit, not only giving these new ventures a stage to refine and expand their product and business model but also giving us the sort of hyper-focused specialists Chicago has long lacked. Expect several standalone ventures to arise from the work here.

The Future: Don't be surprised if groups of young guns pool their resources and go at it alone--instead of relying on outside investment or loans--in opening their own shared spaces; perhaps, too, established chefs will set up their restaurants as innovation labs, intentionally using their physical space and menu to help hone new talent and concepts--a Y Combinator for Chicago restaurants, so to speak. Expect more wine bars to host startup coffee shops or bakeries during the day; expect more coffee shops to take on evening functions. Access to space and to collaborators/cheerleaders will be the new opportunity drivers.

The Iconoclasts

What They Are: Prior to the pandemic only a handful of restaurants in town--Cellar Door Provisions and Birria Zaragoza chief among them--could truly be said to be expressing a unique or singular identity in their food, the kind of cooking that conveys the vision of the chef rather than the limitations of the customer. The pandemic has seemingly unshackled professional and amateur chefs alike, resulting in a rush of new voices—Tasting India and Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, to name a few—cooking authentically, uncompromisingly, and innovatively in their respective genres and idioms. It’s all about alignment here: Iconoclasts find ways to imbue the same spirit they have for their food into all aspects of their business--say, the way Jasmine Sheth’s passion for her native India guides her marketing or the way the tinkering orientation of Paulie Gee’s informs its customer engagement.

Key Player: Big Kids. An odd fit on any list, not the least of which because it’s deliberately odd, Big Kids has an almost counterintuitive approach to food, marketing, and environment--everything about being a restaurant, essentially. Its embrace of '90s nostalgia and irony culture--the earnest use of mass-produced cafeteria products (Bosco Stix, frozen calamari), the stoner cuisine riffs (egg rolls filled with spaghetti), the fun with the more embarrassing creations of previous decades (a recent “Salad ‘98” featured romaine, blue cheese, and raspberry vinaigrette)--would be more stoopid than subversive were it not for the fact that Ex-Blackbird chef Ryan Pfeiffer and his team are so genuinely hilarious and straight-up genuine in their affection for sandwiches, ducks, and one another; it also helps that the food is often spectacular, especially its vegetarian efforts--a vegan crunch wrap, a collard greens melt-- that are notably brightened by acidic elements (pickles, kraut) and a Monday-only smashburger that outpaces the SoCal style it emulates. There is a distinct sense of joy here, evident in all facets of how they operate and distinguishing them, a simple sandwich shop, from every other restaurant in town.

The Future: Big Kids is proof that a distinct point of view not only works--heck, they just won The Trib’s Reader’s Choice Award for Best New Restaurant--but will also be essential for restaurants to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic era. Mass appeal is no longer necessary for wide success, and the pandemic has proven that there is a market for (targeted) excellence: the future belongs to those who can both deliver on unique food experiences and distinguish themselves through unique identities. Expect a lot more wry Instagram takes--see Cat-Su Sando’s for an example of how Big Kids is influencing social media marketing--and a lot more idiosyncratic food. Make Chicago weird again, right?

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