Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart
Owners, Koval Distillery
With a surge in craft distilling that shows early signs of following the craft beer trend line, Koval Distillery, founded in the ancient year of 2008, has become the grandaddy of the movement in Chicago. Husband-and-wife Robert Birnecker and Sonat Birnecker Hart launched the organic distillery to produce spirits using all local ingredients, bringing the farm-to-table ethos into the martini glass. In addition to producing award-winning whiskey and liqueurs, Koval has become a breeding ground for others looking to join the party by running classes and workshops in distilling. At press time, the Birneckers are in Austria launching Koval in the country where Robert was born, and where his distilling grandfather taught him the craft.
Co-Owner, The Boarding House and Master Sommelier
When the longtime “Check, Please!” host announced she was opening her first restaurant, Chicago took notice. Alpana Singh’s first venture, The Boarding House, has been polarizing among diners and critics, but there is no question she has our attention. In addition to her truly impressive wine knowledge and keen mind, Singh is focused on nurturing talent from within to bring her vision of Boarding House’s culture and cuisine to its fullest realization. With this first venture, she is doubtlessly poised to retain her influence on the Chicago dining scene whether or not she’s on our television screens.
Chef/Owner, Hot Doug’s
Doug does hot dogs. That is all Doug does, and that is all Doug cares to do. In this town, where fusion and innovation often reigns supreme, his stalwart commitment to tubular meat on a bun makes him a unique and powerful player. Unconcerned with trends or opinions or second locations (but now an author, of “Hot Doug’s, The Book”), Doug wants simply to provide great food and great service, and in return customers line the block regardless of weather, temperature, or day of the week. Honest, and humble, and not a bit pretentious, Doug and his hot dog stand are not just foodie favorites but true Chicago icons.
Owner, Epic Burger
Friedman’s story is of a man who, after years of working with food processed in labs and manufacturing facilities, decided to get back to his roots. He did that through Epic Burger, which is wholly committed to whole and natural foods, from humanely-raised, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef, to cage-free eggs, to biodegradable packaging made from plants. That commitment has paid off, as Epic Burger has more than doubled its storefronts in Chicago in the past two years, and continues to add to its loyal burger fan base.
Owner, Henri and The Gage
Some of us would rank Billy Lawless high on this list for his raunchy humor alone. Others might point to the fact that he runs the only two genuine destination restaurants—The Gage and Henri—on Michigan Avenue between the Art Institute and the river (with Purple Pig lying just north and Terzo Piano anchoring the Modern Wing to the south). But we’re most intrigued by the soon-to-open Lawless venture the Dawson at 730 West Grand. With a kitchen headed by Rene De Leon, who worked his sous chef magic at Next, a menu focusing on a variety of regional American styles and a West Town location sure to draw more locals than Millennium Park tourists, this is a joint worth watching. And if you see Billy, ask him to tell you his dirtiest joke. You’ll never see a more engagingly mischievous smile.
Goose Island sold out to A-B InBev and just like that, 312 was being made not just out of area code, but out of state. What’s a lover of local, largish craft breweries to do? Await the opening of the new 1.7-million barrel Lagunitas brewery in Chicago later this year. The California-based maker of such delightful brews as A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale is building what it calls “the potentially largest craft brewing facility in the USofA” at 15th and Rockwell. Founder and Chicago native Tony Magee announced last month that the head brewer will be Mary Nowak, “a full-on capital ‘w’ Woman.” Lagunitas beer has been on a rapid growth curve in Chicago in advance of its brewery debut, thanks to a blend of tasty brews and savvy grassroots marketing, and the new facility will serve the stuff up to visitors in an elevated tap room overlooking all of the hot brewing action.
Owner, Hoosier Mama Pie Company
For years, Paula Haney has ridden the wave of nostalgia into the hearts of pie-lovers in Chicago at Hoosier Mama Pie Company. The Indiana native (hence the Hoosier reference) started out working in a shared kitchen space and slinging her wares at farmers’ markets. But lines have been out the door ever since opening her dainty little pie shop in West Town. Haney is the queen of Americana desserts in Chicago, and the key is keeping her pastries simple, homey, refined and filled with the best ingredients. Her plethora of pies are popular enough to merit a pie cookbook, “The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie,” set to debut mid-August. The pie prodigy isn’t stopping there, with plans to open a new pie shop in Evanston later this year.
Associate Partner, Lettuce Entertain You
It was odd, on a slow afternoon this past spring, to see erstwhile Whistler mixologist Paul McGee training the bartenders at the River North reboot of Lettuce Entertain You’s country-western barbecue joint Bub City. But there he was, standing at the end of the bar, looking like he’d arrived fresh from the set of an Eels video as he offered guidance with Victorian reserve and expedited table orders by adjusting lime wedges on bottles of light beer just so. Tasting the bourbon cocktails he created for Bub City started to make McGee’s move to Lettuce seem more sensible–as did the recent debut of his Three Dots and a Dash, now serving up tiki drinks to rave reviews from those who’ve found the alley entrance at Hubbard and Clark.
Executive Chef, Next
During one recent dinner service at the Grant Achatz/Nick Kokonas-owned Next Restaurant, Chef Dave Beran came up short on both of his expediters even as a kitchen table full of media types were breathing down his neck. Out in the main dining room, diners never suspected Beran had to install himself as Next’s air-traffic controller as they experienced the exquisite vegan menu with nary a hiccup. Look for joyful pyrotechnics as the young, down-to-earth Michigander and his mentor Achatz debut the competition-inspired Next Bocuse d’Or menu at the end of the month.
Cody Hudson, Robert McAdams and Peter Toalson
Partners, Land and Sea Dept.
Recipe for supernova restaurant launches? Take one music club honcho, one graphic design guru and one master furniture craftsman and, huh? Logical or not, the Land and Sea boys proved they were no Longman & Eagle one-hit-wonder with this summer’s Logan Square sensation Parson’s Chicken & Fish, which has been described as a hipster Harold’s. (As if the original South Side chain wasn’t.) Though masters of visual communication and social media, the self-described “development firm” is opaque in its own doings, preferring to put its chefs and events front and center.