It’s Saturday night, and we’re sitting directly in front of the blazing hearth, the warm, bright heart of the exposed kitchen at The Graceful Ordinary. This restaurant opened in St. Charles late last year under the leadership of Chef Chris Curren (Blue 13, Fulton Market Kitchen, Homestead on the Roof, and other Chicago restaurants) and his wife, Megan.
Chef Curren is turning out spectacular dishes at his new place. We were knocked out by the Tuna Conserva, a plate of lush red knobs of fish, accented with swirls of avocado paste, puffed black rice and peanuts, a fabulous-looking and tasting starter. One of the most popular dishes in the restaurant, the Octopus Carpaccio, is thin strips of the sea creature, dotted with clusters of lemon purée, pickled mustard seeds and chili oil. Despite all the flavors going on, the octopus holds its own in a dish that is anything but ordinary. And before you ask, an “ordinary” is an early American term for a community-focused bar.
The Graceful Ordinary seems to be a big hit in St. Charles, which does not have a lot of places operating on the same level as Chef Curren’s. The dining room is packed, and a line was forming at the host station. “It’s been that way since we opened,” Chef Curren tells us. “We’re jammed every night of the week.”
And having a ready—and hungry—local population is just one of the reasons Chef Curren is happy to be in St. Charles, about forty-five miles outside Chicago. He is not alone in his exodus to the suburbs.
“The suburban food scene is often associated with homogeneous chain restaurants,” The New York Times wrote a few weeks ago. “But as tastes and demographics change, chefs are finding a home for ambitious cuisine outside cities. Opening a restaurant in the suburbs often means cheaper rent and less competition.”
Chef Curren echoes the attractiveness of reduced rent and competition, but he also mentions other, less obvious reasons for a chef to move to the suburbs.
“I don’t see any disadvantages to moving out here,” says Chef Curren. “Now, I’m not sure we could do what we’re doing in just any suburban area. We’re able to do what we’re doing because of the people in the Fox River Valley [St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia] and the other entertainment options in the area.”
Those other entertainment options include Pollyanna Brewing Company, which has won a lot of recognition for its beers and is the perfect place for a pre-dinner libation. We enjoy several of Pollyanna’s outstanding brews, including the much-lauded Roselle Red, a delicious ale that took home the gold medal at the 2021 Great American Beer Fest. About a minute’s walk away is the Arcada Theater, a grand vaudeville house built in 1926, renovated and featuring rotating musical acts in a downstairs theater and an upstairs night-clubby lounge. If you’re going to make the hike out to St. Charles, there’s more to do than eat, although that is our primary reason for going out to that western suburb.
“We have the advantage of being close enough to the city,” says Chef Curren, “and we have local diners who are maybe used to going into the city for dinner. But if you’re living nearby and have the option of not going into the city for a fine dining experience, you’re going to take advantage of The Graceful Ordinary, a restaurant in your own backyard.”
Curren also concurs that the increasing sophistication of the dining public, whether they live in town or country, is rising. In the past, there was some risk in opening places like the long-gone 302 West in Geneva or Le Francais in Wheeling; now, you can usually count on people everywhere recognizing the value of a well-made fine-dining experience.
Chef Curren kind of surprises us when he says, “It’s a lot easier opening a restaurant out here than it is in Chicago, and that’s because the St. Charles city government is on a much smaller scale. We have personal relationships with pretty much everyone in city government, and there’s a desire among city officials to have restaurants like ours in their neighborhood, for their constituents. They want the people of their city—residents and business owners—to grow and thrive and be successful, because that’s beneficial to everyone in the city.
“Also, when it’s time to go through licensing and other issues we had throughout the build, we were able to have one-on-one conversations with city personnel. We can go to them directly rather than having to go through many different offices, as we do in Chicago because it’s so much bigger. Everything here is on a smaller scale. City officials here might be dealing with five to six licenses; in Chicago, they’re dealing with thousands.
“Of course, the price of real estate is much different in St. Charles then it is in the city of Chicago. It’s not inexpensive out here, but the cost is certainly less daunting. And this area has been seeing a boom in the housing market, because the pandemic has helped a lot of people realize, ‘Hey, I don’t need to be next door to my office or sit on the El for a half hour to get to work. For the same amount of money as I’d get a condo in Chicago, I can get a house out here with a backyard and outdoor space.’ People from the city are taking advantage of the lower prices for real estate out here, and that means there are more people here who might be looking for the fine-dining experience.”
And as Megan Curren pointed out in the New York Times article, “While many Chicago restaurants are hurting financially because of the pandemic, St. Charles is recovering faster. And people are moving into—not out of—St. Charles.”
Predictably, of course, Chef Curren believes there are some perceived disadvantages for chefs who choose to leave the town for the country. “There are great restaurants out here, just not as many. So, when I was working at Fulton Market Kitchen, I could walk down the street to Swift & Sons or The Aviary, Publican, Duck Duck Goat, and those are all a short walk from each other. So, we could say, on the spur of the moment, ‘Let’s go to Chris Pandel’s restaurant, or Stephanie Izard’s restaurant’; well, places like that are simply not so accessible out here.”
Many have spoken of Chicago’s chef community, and how supportive it is for new chefs as well as old hands to have fellow chefs so nearby and ready to jump in and help others in the industry. Chef Curren has experienced that camaraderie, and he tells us, “All the time, chefs ask, ‘Can I borrow this’ or ‘Can I use this piece of equipment,’ but that happens less out here. We do have those relationships out here, but we’re doing things at The Graceful Ordinary that other restaurants in the Fox Valley are not doing, so we’re not cannibalizing anyone else’s business. We do, though, have great relationships, for instance, with the guys at Flagship on the Fox, which is also run by people from the city, and we do things with them, and we borrow things from them. So, there’s a community here, but Chicago is one of those special places. If you go outside Chicago to other big cities, it’s competitive, everyone’s trying to get one up on the other guy. In Chicago, everyone is trying to lift each other up because they understand that the more great restaurants there are in an area, the better it is for everybody. And that happens in St. Charles, too.”
I wondered though, if simply accessing ingredients—the produce and the proteins needed to serve the public—is more challenging in St. Charles then it is in Chicago. Chef Curren mentioned that in Chicago, if he needs, say, a few extra steaks, or the supplier missed some items on a shipment, a truck that’s scheduled to make deliveries in the area can bring out the necessary items. Those kinds of last-minute shipments are more possible in the city than in the suburbs because there are simply way more purveyors—and delivery trucks—in the city. “But many of our suppliers are in the suburbs,” Chef Curren notes, “and we’re very, very close to many local farmers. Nichols is one of those local farms, they’re in Marengo right next door to the town I live in, and there are five or six farms around here that we work with, and one is growing specialty items just for us.”
If a chef is considering a move to the suburbs, however, it comes down to what the chef is looking for at that point in his or her professional and personal lives. “The quality of life in St. Charles, and where I’m at in my career, and in my family life, it’s so much better here,” says Curren. “I’ve lived out here for seven years, and both Megan and I used to commute into the city—110 miles a day—and that takes a toll. And then there’s the beauty of the landscape that we live in. The Graceful Ordinary is right on the Fox River. For me, it’s perfect.”
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org