Buzz List for January 2, 2018

We waited a week to tell you what we think Grace's closing means, here it is! Plus Beatnik gets scoped out, more ten bests, Gold goes to Dialogue, and this town ain't big enough for two big burgers.

Grace/Facebook
Grace, 2012-2017

Happy New Year! Here’s to hoping we have a restaurant scene in 2018…

1. REFULGENT GRACE

The big news just before Christmas was the sudden, and to many shocking, closing of Grace, ranked with Alinea as one of the city’s most exceptional high end restaurants, and renowned as well as the climax of the story of chef Curtis Duffy, who passed through family trauma and intense ambition to achieve his dreams with an exceptional restaurant earning the highest honors in the world.

But Grace had issues underneath the surface, as some in the Chicago food community knew, and the closing came at the end of a long period of negotiation in which Duffy and GM Michael Muser sought to buy out their original backer, real estate mogul Michael Olszewski. The New York Times’ pair of stories, here and here, told the story from the Muser-Duffy side, revealing that Duffy had left the restaurant during much of the summer of 2017 before leaving for good at the start of December, and that the purchase may have fallen through because a new investor backed out.

Olszewski fired back through a Sun-Times piece on Christmas Eve which alleged that his disaffection with the pair was due to a fine during a health inspection, among other things, and that he fired Muser at the end of November. That Grace got tagged with a violation by the health department is not really that uncommon (if it doesn’t come with a shutdown, it’s really more of an advisory notice, sometimes with a stiff monetary penalty). But if Olszewski plans to fight a PR battle by lobbing the results of governmental proceedings at his ex-partners, well, there’s at least one proceeding in Grace’s past where that might backfire on him. And in the end, “here’s why I couldn’t get along with my lousy Michelin 3-star team” is not an argument that makes you someone chefs want to work for.

Jeff Ruby lamented what this means for the city, to lose one of the restaurants with an international, Michelin-stoked profile: “Grace represented so many things. It was a glimpse into the mechanisms of a pure hospitality that in 2017 simply does not exist much anymore; it was the ultimate redemption and triumph for Duffy; and a much-needed feather in Chicago’s hat. To take away such a rare place is a massive blow to the city, akin to losing the queen in a chess match. (Alinea, of course, is still the king.)”

Well, maybe it’s that bad for us. When Eater’s Ryan Sutton tweeted that Chicago was down to one Michelin 3-starred restaurant, my response was that no, Michelin was down to one 3-starred Chicago restaurant—Chicago still has plenty of great restaurants, just maybe not the ones that suit Michelin’s starchy parameters. But it’s true that world-class ambition is somewhat rare of late here—as I observed to Eater, more recent openings like Oriole and Smyth are “both reactions to Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea… Grace was the last one that was trying to equal those places, rather than be an alternative to them.”

In any case, the net result was that Grace shut down for good, the entire staff walking out once Duffy and Muser were gone. The pair have an 18-month non-compete agreement, though how valid such things are in Illinois is a very open question, and they could easily run the clock out on that time just getting a new place built and open, with some all-star-chef events in other cities along the way.

Olszewski’s road to opening a new restaurant in the Grace space with comparable talent (if he really wants to) seems much more doubtful—though that may not matter; the high demand location on West Randolph is itself a marketable commodity, and either he or the landlord could find it easier and more profitable to treat it purely as a real estate parcel, some place to put a taco bar or the like, rather than as a restaurant that once aimed for the very top—and achieved it.

2. FIRST GRACE, THEN GLAZE

Not that Grace was the only year-end closing! Glazed and Infused, seemingly the most successful and fast-expanding of the high end doughnut chains that seemed to be popping up everywhere a couple of years ago, shut down abruptly, along with owner Scott Harris’ Davanti Enoteca in River North. (None of the media mentioned it, but according to LTHForum, one of the Francescas, in LaGrange, also closed—is the Mia Francesca empire in trouble?) Other closings at the tail end of 2017 included the West Loop’s The Lunatic, The Lover and The Poet and Won Fun/2Fun, and Ampersand, the Ravenswood wine bar, which Phil Vettel reviewed positively once (my experience was not so good).

3. THE SKY IS FALLING

Though Grace’s closing is unique in its particulars, it seemed to many to confirm Peter Frost’s forecast in Chicago mag of a restaurant bubble bursting sometime in the near future: “The boom of higher-end openings in Chicago over the past four years has depleted the available pool of waitstaff and kitchen help. What’s more, the fight for qualified workers has sent wages soaring, imperiling already thin margins. Add to that rising rents and property taxes, and the city’s restaurant industry is due for a reckoning.”

And certainly if you talk to people in the industry, the idea that the industry is unsustainable in its present state is taken as gospel truth. I plan on exploring this more deeply soon, but let me just throw out a countering view: yes, it’s tougher than ever to be in the biz, perhaps, but that’s because the business is so good that competition is keener than ever. Total spending on dining out keeps going up, so the sky may not fall—but it may drop a few rocks on places that aren’t good enough, or appealing enough to the right crowd in the right location.

4. ADMITTED L7 REVIEWS BEATNIK

Mike Sula starts his Beatnik review by telling them to turn the music down, no matter that he knows this makes him strictly from squaresville in this setting: “Beatnik tries to flood all your senses. Dripping candelabras and shimmering chandeliers illuminate an eyeball-crossing mishmash of antique styles and patterns from all points of the globe (Paris, Egypt, Bali), a picker’s display of patchwork exotica.” He finds an intriguing menu that winds up in the weeds at times: “In these [balkanized] times, it’s nice to see so many cultures come together at once, and there are some interesting ideas here, like lemongrass-scented sepia steaks (since 86’d from the menu) perched on tubular squid-ink masa dumplings (Hey, you got your Thailand in my Mexico!).”

5. YEAR END SALE

It was two weeks ago now, but the Trib got in six short reviews before the year was up of places that at least warrant a few grafs, Beatnik, Barrio, The Delta, Ronero, Gideon Sweet and Royal Grocer and Co…. alas, after their personnel changes in the kitchen.

6. LAST SURVIVING FOOD WRITERS DISH

Eater does its usual roundup of local food writers on 2017 in review—the easiest way to find them all is by going to writer Elizabeth Atkinson’s page. Everybody likes Proxi! But it does make you aware of who you’re not hearing from because they dropped out of the field of reviewers this year—notably Lisa Shames and Anthony Todd.

7. COOKIE MONETIZER

Only a Twitter mention by Louisa Chu pointed me to this rather hidden Trib story by Greg Trotter about a baker in Morgan Park, Laine’s Bake Shop, who supplies cookies to Whole Foods and Starbucks. But don’t miss it, it’s a strong look inside the food business and why getting to a big client may just be the start of your challenges.

8. GAME OF FORAGES

The Takeout attends a Game of Thrones dinner at Elizabeth and lives to tell the tale!

9. JONESVILLE

Big Jones’ Paul Fehribach gets a nice writeup in his hometown paper: “As a big city chef cooking southern food at his Chicago restaurant, Big Jones, 50-year-old Jasper native Paul Fehribach doesn’t forget his southern Indiana roots… Fehribach recalls fishing, hunting squirrel and deer, searching for morel mushrooms and picking persimmons and wild cherries.”

10. NEXT LEVEL

Jonathan Gold goes behind the locked door to try Dialogue, the Santa Monica restaurant from Next’s Dave Beran, and finds at least one thing that Beran brought from Next: a duck press. Really, read it all to read how a master conveys a masterly tasting menu in words.

11. LOW AND SLOW

Low-meat restaurant Bad Hunter is one of those also doing low-alcohol drinks, as David Hammond describes at Newcity, as he asks local mixologists how they cut the booze while delivering a pleasant experience. As Adam Kamin of The Delta observes, “Not every cocktail needs to have a two-ounce base-spirit pour of a 100-proof bourbon. We’re not all John Wayne—nor should we try to be.”

12. NIXTAMALCAST

I listened to lots of things while cooking this holiday season, and I really enjoyed hearing Rick Bayless geek out with Modernist Bread co-author Francisco Migoya on The Feed—I don’t quite understand his description of nixtamalized corn tortilla-bread, but I look forward to trying it!

13. BONBURGER

Bon Appétit helped make the Au Cheval burger a three-hour-wait event, and now they’ve declared The Loyalist burger the new burger to beat all burgers in Chicago. Will it have a similar effect? We’ll see!

14. GUIDE GUIDE

Julia Thiel has a pair of pieces looking at locally focused guidebooks: two on craft beer here, two on food (including The Fooditor 99) here.

15. MORE TEN BESTS!

Mike Sula finds good things to eat even in hotels in 2017.

The inimitable Kenny Z, on Twitter, with 15 lush, mostly Italian favorites.

Another Twitter friend, Karl Davis, who has been to both Dialogue and Vespertine already.

One on Facebook, Erick Neu.

And me, at Sky Full of Bacon.

16. TRONC’D AGAIN

Congrats to Tronc ubermind Michael Ferro, who still seems to be rather short on ideas for saving the newspaper business he owns, but has managed one idea to perfection—the $5 million he announced Tronc would pay him next year (the announcement snuck out just before Christmas, in hopes not a creature would stir at it) matches up closely with the roughly $6 million he cut from Tronc’s payrolls last year. Win-win! (Steve Daniels of Crain’s, via Twitter)

FOODITOR 99 NEWS

So if you were a Foie Milkshake or Black Truffle Cheeseburger level supporter of Fooditor via our Patreon, your reward—an autographed copy of The Fooditor 99 with a bonus #100—has been sent out and should arrive this week. In the meantime, the book is available from Amazon and at Roscoe Books (2142 W. Roscoe), and all 99 places in it remain open so far, I chose well!

I’ll have two appearances on audio this week, more or less: I’ll be on WGN Radio Saturday at 9 pm with Dave Hoekstra, and sometime this week I’ll make a return visit to James VanOsdol’s Car Con Carne as we eat at Big Guys Sausage Stand in Berwyn and are joined in the Mazda 3 by owner Brendan O’Connor.

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