Towards A Working Theory On Why Food Got So Much Better In Chicago Since The Start Of The Pandemic
The undoing of the Hogsaltification of the city's restaurant scene
As symbols for the possible new paradigm of dining go, my personal favorite goes like this: there were times this past year when a former Gibson’s line cook and his mom could operate their own Indonesian restaurant and his former bosses, operators of one of the largest and most profile restaurant groups in the country, could not (at least not legally). So could a guy making Nigerian burritos and a couple exploring the fronteras of Polish and Columbian food. And a guy delivering onigiri. And on and on and on.
Instagram pop-ups of the world, unite.
Whatever may come after our plague year, whether the changes are fundamental and permanent or break in our collective desire to eat cheddar bay biscuits again, we can at least say this: we have witnessed the makings of a Great Reset in the restaurant scene, one where a balancing of power, potential, and players have given emerging, often voiceless, talent a chance to shine.
How did we get here? The pandemic was the ultimate black swan, of course, changing who served, what was served, and how it was served. Without the need for a physical space and all the capital that entails, cooks and entrepreneurs could work to scale: they could create a service model—such as taking orders on Mondays for delivery over the following weekend—that matched their capacity, competence, and/or crazy. Ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants proliferated; choice increased exponentially. Twenty-five new pizza joints. A dozen micro-bakeries. Two new Malaysian restaurants. Three new Pinoy restaurants (at least!). A guy who makes Indian BBQ out of his house in Bridgeport; a guy who makes south Indian condiments out of Superkhana. (I can do this all day...)
The aforementioned root cause is obvious, of course, but here’s the thing: it accounts only for how the makers of food get it to you; it doesn’t account for the commensurate uptick in quality that came along with it. It’s not like the city lacks for talent; it’s always had it. But the means of incubating, showcasing, and leveraging that talent have been minimized, even inhibited, by the consolidation of resources--if not creativity--within a relatively small group of restauranteurs: Lettuce Entertain You, Boka Group, Hogsalt, even the Alinea Group. You didn’t know you could get great rendang in this city until the guy making it was unshackled from rigatoni duty at Gibson’s Italia.
I realize this reads as a critique of businesses who not only advanced the dining scene--in their respective earlier days, anyway--and employ thousands, but the relationship was/is quite reciprocal: what restaurants have offered and/or what customers have supposed they wanted are feeding off each other in a way that enabled area restaurant groups--the folks behind Etta being the latest example--to expand through homogenization. It’s how we got burrata and brussels sprouts and steak on EVERY menu; it’s how we got the primacy given to brunch, which may be Chicago restaurants’ original sin. Even Ever seems to be performing the “Chicago Three-Michelin Star” script for visiting gastro-tourists, even as there are no visiting gastro-tourists.
Call it Hogsaltification: replicating essentially the same restaurant--same menus, same vibe--for the same people and the same profit. It’s great for their bottom line—and the food "influencers" who support their bottom line—but terrible for everyone else, especially the cooking talent lurking behind the kitchen doors at these places.
With structural impediments lessened—though perhaps only temporarily—and the ability to take one’s wares directly to consumers, we’ve seen a great flourishing in the range and ambitions of area food; it’s been led by less-heralded professionals and amateurs alike. As a backhanded compliment, I used to describe the restaurant scene here as manageable--as compared to New York and LA--because the number of worthy new and existing restaurants was finite and could be frequented with some regularity and/or without FOMO; now its vitality, even its joy, comes from the fact that it’s almost impossible to keep up with the new upstarts and their ideas. There’s an energy here that reminds me of Portland or Austin ten years ago, or LA or D.C. five years ago: it’s really exciting to eat here again.*
That would have been impossible to say a mere thirteen months ago.
Now what? Two things to watch for in the coming months:
The return of The Big Restaurant: Spring brings several marquee restaurant openings from notable and starred area chefs, including an izakaya from Kyoten’s Otto Phan (Hinoki)**, a contemporary American spot from ex-Next executive chef Jenner Tomaska (Esme), and a Italian-Croatian restaurant from ex-Spiaggia executive chef Joe Flamm (Rose Mary). All are sure to be draws in their initial opening months, but it will be curious to see whether they take any cues from the developments over the last year or continue on with the Before Times model of what’s typically expected of, say, a West Loop (Rose Mary) or Lincoln Park (Esme) restaurant. More than that, after several years of snooze-worthy and bland upper-level dining, will any truly excite?
The come-up of the newcomers: A new phase, with all its opportunities and risks, is coming for the new (virtual) stars: to brick-and-mortar or not? It’s not just a question of scale but also soul--i.e., will something be lost, be it in quality or spirit, if/when Hermosa’s family meal becomes readily available for dozens and not just the one table a week on which Ethan Lim attends to currently? If Jasmine Sheth’s Tasting India goes from an once-and-gone weekly thali to a set menu of a la carte items, will it still have the same energy and sense of possibility? Scarcity, as I realized upon rushing to Kedai Tapao to get some roti only to discover it sold out within thirty minutes of their opening, is behind some of the excitement, but the earnest and accidental “drops” approach--the streetwear fashion industry parlance for introducing limited-time and/or limited-quantity items to drive up interest--will be harder to pull off for those who want to expand. Of course, some will ensconce themselves at the virtual level, staying small to stay sane; the ones aiming bigger will have to find ways of balancing their promise with the putting-big-girl-pants-on reality of running a restaurant: staffing, supply chains, marketing, et al.
There is still, I think, the promise of a middle ground. Imagine a post-pandemic ecosystem with mainstream corporate rock—Hogsalt, Boka, LEYE, et al.—and thriving indie rock scene equivalents, the latter filled with daring takes that operate out of, say, a hot dog stand, or in less pricey neighborhoods, or only on weekends. Superkhana, for instance, is currently functioning as the equivalent of a Y Combinator for culinary talent, allowing in-house staff and friends to use its restaurant space and operating hours to take on passion projects and side hustles, including the aforementioned Kedai Tapao and Thommy’s; others are engaging in collaborations (i.e., Kasama and Big Kids), hosting like-minded upstarts (i.e., Side Practice Coffee), or sharing underutilized spaces with upstarts (i.e., El Che). The major players have only one real operating model, and it may very well thrive again; the micro players now and to come, though, keep innovating new ones. That’s going to develop more talent more quickly, which is only going to expand opportunity and keep the scene thriving.
(*Don’t want to negate the fact that said energy, coupled with/causing gentrification, led to increasing segregation, housing and income inequalities, and corporatization in these cities.)
(**While Kyoten didn’t get starred in the great Michelin omakase rush of 2019, I think Chef Phan’s sushi, albeit a little oddly sequenced, is superior to that of Mako’s, which got a star.)