Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat: Chicago’s Food & Drink Fifty 2014

The Big Heat 8 Comments »
Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

This year’s selection of Chicago’s dining and drinking leadership focuses on the artists behind the beautiful and delicious compositions on our plates and in our glasses. A few on our list may be celebrities, at least in the food community, but that’s not why they got into this business, with its long hours, burnt fingers and demanding customers. Whether it’s food or drink, fine dining or pizza, salumi or chocolate, these chefs, mixologists and artisans toil behind the scenes so that we can enjoy some of the finest and most innovative food and drink in the country. It’s thanks to this impressive group—and the hundreds right behind them on our ever-growing short list—that Chicago is considered a national culinary treasure. It’s unquestionable that we lost one of our giants this past year with the passing of Charlie Trotter, but his legacy is carried forward in the artistry of the many who served under him. And they, in turn, are inspiring the next generation to learn classic cooking techniques, respect the work of legends past and dare to innovate. Oui, Chef. (Amber Gibson)

Big Heat was written by Brendan Buck, Stefan Castellanos, Amber Gibson, Veronica Hinke, Ben Kramer,  Marla Seidell and Sara Tenenbaum

All photos taken on location at the Arts Club of Chicago by Joe Mazza of BraveLux.

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The Top 5 of Everything 2010: Resto

Guides & Lists 1 Comment »

Girl and The Goat

Top 5 Restaurant Openings: Higher/Middle End
Davanti Enoteca
Girl and The Goat
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 Restaurant Openings: Lower End/Ethnic
Franks ‘N’ Dawgs
Mac and Min’s
Del Seoul
Gaztro-Wagon (storefront)
M Burger
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 Hangover Helpers
Op la, Saigon Sisters
Pork belly kimchi fries, Del Seoul
Sonoran hot dog, Big Star
Tempura fried pickles, Lillie’s Q
Griddled burger with a side of loaded fries, Edzo’s
—Michael Nagrant Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2009: Food & Drink

Cookbooks, Guides & Lists 3 Comments »

Top 5 New Fine Dining RestaurantsIMG_9074
Cibo Matto
Brown Trout
Kith and Kin
—Michael Nagrant

Top 5 New Informal Restaurants
Café Senegal
Han 202
—Michael Nagrant Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Down with the Drawing Room: A new sheriff’s in town at the Rush Street spot

Gold Coast, New American No Comments »

chow4By Michael Nagrant

At 8:30pm on a Friday night, The Drawing Room at Le Passage is kind of a lonely hearts club. There’s a six-top of cargo-shorts-wearing sunburned dudes slurping down Coronas. There’s a bony bald-headed Nosferatu-like guy in a smart-looking suit making his way through some food. In the opposite corner, an employee, head-to-toe in black sporting a taut ponytail, a “Marked for Death”-era Steven Seagal look-alike, warily scans the room. Finally, there’s a lanky, lonely old dude, who with his slicked-back gray hair, Harry Caray face-engulfing black-rimmed glasses, turquoise nylon windbreaker and Daisy-Duke-length boating shorts looks like a Viagra Triangle Aristotle Onassis.

Clearly he’s somebody, a regular or a Gold Coast moneybag, because even though he strolls in twenty minutes after us, he gets his drink first, while our table only an apology from the bartender that we’re next. But that’s the way it’s always been in this canyon under Rush Street: if you’re somebody, you get served, and if you’re nobody, it’s back behind the velvet rope with the herd. At least that’s how it was in the Billy Dec days, when his homey David Schwimmer ran free in the VIP Room. Sitting here now, beside white stone columns and under the glinting crystal chandelier, you can almost hear the ghost whispering, “Yo, I’m Ross from ‘Friends,’ baby. Let’s hook up.”

And so while the pecking order may not have changed under the new management of Three Headed Productions, I’d heard the food and drink had. Read the rest of this entry »

The Out-of-Towners: Best of Chicago (that you can write about while living in New York)

Trends & Essays No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

“These Vagabond shoes are longing to stray…”
“New York, New York”–Fred Ebb

When New York’s food critics wake up to find that they’re “king of the hill, top of the heap,” it’s a sure bet they can’t wait to turn their eyes to the rest of the world. Such was the case last week, when Frank Bruni, New York Times chief reviewer, ate from coast to coast, scouring for America’s ten best newest restaurants (opened between Jan 1, 2006 and December 31, 2007) and JJ Goode, a New York freelance food writer, examined the nation’s best breakfasts. Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2007: Food

Guides & Lists, Trends & Essays No Comments »

Top 5 Restaurant Openings

Aigre Doux
Old Town Brasserie
—Michael Nagrant Read the rest of this entry »

It Takes a Village: One night, during a West Loop walk…

Greektown, Pakistani, West Loop No Comments »

chowchappliBy Michael Nagrant

Despite the fact that condos are popping up in the West Loop like sightings of Britney Spears’ nether-region, the number of great restaurants hasn’t followed suit. Since Jerry Kleiner’s prescient Daniel Boone-like maneuvering in the late nineties there’s been a slow dribble of similar establishments such as Blackbird, Moto, Follia and, now, Sepia. Of course, great doesn’t have to mean haute, but most of the ethnic spots in the area feel like Grecian theme parks.

As a denizen of the West Loop, I’m jealous of a foodie mecca like Lincoln Square, which has three top Thai spots (Opart Thai, Spoon Thai, Thai Oscar), and seems to be the landing pad for every new chef-driven restaurant. Lincoln Square’s also a five-minute drive from Uptown’s little Vietnam, Albany Park’s Middle Eastern bazaar and Devon’s Pakistani and Indian fare. It’s enough to make a food writer move.

Despite the West Loop’s culinary shortcomings, though, I dig my ‘hood and its affordable proximity to the Loop. Read the rest of this entry »

Mercury Falling: Michigan Avenue’s Gage has an identity crisis

Gastropub, Loop No Comments »

chow-picBy Michael Nagrant

I’ve taken measure of the Gage and were it a thermometer, the reading is pretty lukewarm. It’s surprising because as a critic, I’ve been about as slow as the Jamaican bobsled team in filing a review on this somewhat new Michigan Avenue restaurant. It opened in April, and everyone from the fleet Time Out to the tortoise-like Phil Vettel has weighed in. Almost all the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

In fact, walking into the dark, woody and gleaming green ceramic-brick womb of this spot seemed like a fait accompli. I didn’t even have a review planned, rather I’d just hoped to score some uplifting tavern spirit on a dreary, drizzle-soaked afternoon. As a denizen of the West Loop, I’d really hoped to find a new regular watering hole, a place to park myself for a pint and a tasty bar meal whenever inspiration hit. The Gage is owned by the Lawless family, who among other holdings, own Lincoln Square’s Grafton Pub. I’ve been an ardent fan of their curry fries and burgers, so I figured this would be a great alternative to making the northern trek.

Things started out well. My server was a pretty affable guy, who either had answers about the menu or knew where to get them when we asked. Though he also looked and sounded a lot like Darryl Hammond’s Donald Trump impression on Saturday Night Live. Every time I looked at his hovering form, I feared he was going to tell me I was fired. Read the rest of this entry »