Dining and food culture in Chicago

End of the Zeroes: Chicago Restaurants, 2000-2009

Brazilian, Burgers, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, French, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Ice Cream, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, New American, Organics, Pastry, Punk Haute, Seafood, Steakhouse, Trends & Essays, Vegetarian 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant



Since 2000, Chicago has gone from being a Rat Pack-worthy steak-and-potato-slinging stereotype to a destination for international culinary travelers. Chicago’s affordability, its diners’ willingness to suspend disbelief and its proximity to the sublime bounty of the Midwest all play a role in that transformation. Most important to the renaissance are the places that put everything together to inspire our collective culinary imagination, the best restaurants that opened in Chicago this decade.

The history of cuisine was written in the kitchens of millions of chefs, but we only remember a few by name, guys like Escoffier, Careme and Robuchon. There are probably only three Chicago chefs, as of now, who have a shot at making that list: Jean Banchet, Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz. Though Achatz started making a name for himself at Trio, Alinea was the game changer, the restaurant where every aspect of dining from menus and silverware to the wine service and emotional content of the food was reimagined.

Love it or hate it, this was ground zero for what is now today’s communal table free-for-all. More importantly, Avec was the place that launched a thousand salumi, the fringe of Chicago’s now-burgeoning charcuterie movement. Koren Grieveson’s restrained soulful style is still the late-night hang of choice for chefs.

You probably don’t remember Gerhard Doll or David Hayden, the chef-stewards who drove the good ship Avenues through a successful seafood-driven era, but there’s no doubt you won’t forget the Pop Rock and foie-lollipop fantasia, the convenience-store chic of Graham Elliot Bowles. Without Bowles’ whimsical, accessible style, the emotional roller coaster of Grant Achatz’s cooking and the theater at Homaro Cantu’s Moto likely wouldn’t have quite captured the nation’s imagination, nor garnered Chicago cuisine the countless magazine features it received mid-decade. Today, Curtis Duffy, the culinary love child of Achatz, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters, is executing some of the most exciting cuisine Chicago has to offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Stairway to (Hamburger) Heaven: Edzo’s brings a seventies show to Evanston

Burgers, Evanston 4 Comments »

kdk_1598By Michael Nagrant

If you lived on the north side of Chicago in the early eighties you might have seen a gleaming brick red Crown Victoria rolling down Dempster Avenue blasting Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.” If you pulled up next to that bitchin’ ride and glanced in the back seat, you probably would have seen a young Eddie Lakin slunk down in the maroon leather bench seat slurping on a milkshake.

Lakin’s father, the car’s owner, grew up in Albany Park with the Skokie hotdog barons who opened legendary spots like Herm’s and Poochies, and many weekends, he’d take his son to visit his friends’ restaurants. It was there, chowing down on burgers and Polishes, that the seeds for his forthcoming Evanston burger shack Edzo’s were planted.

Lakin is probably the most overqualified owner of a burger and hot dog joint since Hot Doug Sohn walked out of Kendall College and bestowed duck fat French fries upon the world. A political science graduate of the University of Illinois, Lakin worked as a record store clerk after college, but realized there was no future in it, and enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC). He says, “You come up with an idea in the morning, do the prep, plate it, and send it out to the customer all in the same day. There’s an immediacy to cooking that’s really gratifying.” Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2008: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 New Higher-End Restaurants
Mercat a la Planxa
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 New Casual Concepts or Storefronts
Cafecito Read the rest of this entry »

Reinventing Breakfast: Local chefs dish on morning matters

Breakfast/Brunch No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

In Chicago you can score foie gras milkshakes and edible seaweed-flavored paper for dinner. Breakfast, though, has remained a relatively familiar selection of eggs, pancakes and bacon. Innovation usually comes in the form of sickeningly sweet towers of chocolate and fruit-infused pancakes or savory breakfast burritos as big as Jay Leno’s head. Breakfast is really one of the last frontiers for culinary innovation. There’s really no master of the flat-top, no diner designer kicking out orange-juice bubbles and French-toast snow to the morning masses. To find out why, I checked in with John Bubala, former chef/owner of Timo, who now teaches classic-breakfast cooking at Kendall College culinary school, as well as Chicago’s top dinner dramatists, Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto and Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot restaurant to see why innovation has been slow and what their visions of breakfast look like.
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Bowles Breaks Out: The ex-Avenues chef has a place to call his own

Punk Haute, River North No Comments »

gebday2065326x97By Michael Nagrant

With his fierce tattoos, imposing frame and black lacquer glasses, chef Graham Elliot Bowles looks like the lovechild of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and a bouncer from a death-metal bar. However, the aggressive-looking “innocence” tattoo on his left forearm is more a reflection of the artist who also did ink for Pantera than of Bowles’ true personality. As Bowles says, “I look like I’m ready to hurt someone, when I really just want to cry on their shoulder.”

Opening his eponymous restaurant Graham Elliot (opened June 2), the tattoo that might mean the most is the one on his right forearm: a German monogram depicting four “f”s, a graphic from the punk band Jawbreaker that stands for “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, frei.” (Hardy, God-fearing, Cheerful, Free). Read the rest of this entry »

Mass Appeal: Resolution for a food revolution

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve got no problem making them for others. Sure it’s already three weeks into the year, but I’m gonna make a resolution for chefs, and as I’ve learned, they’re not always the most scrupulous bunch. It’s a good bet that whatever personal resolutions many local chefs made for 2007, they’ve already been violated like Ned Beatty’s character in “Deliverance.” So I propose a new resolution, which requires no abstinence from sin or substance-I’d like to see local food stars commit to making well-prepared, well-farmed and creative food affordable in 2007. Read the rest of this entry »