One of the things I think about, especially while putting The Fooditor 99 together, is—what’s the fantastic restaurant that we Chicagoans just can’t see? It’s one of those things that happens, locals take something for granted and then someone from outside says, um, actually this place is perfect, don’t you see that? And that’s because we sit through all the buzz that says X place cost a bajillion dollars and very fancy people go there, so we all take X place seriously, even if we privately have doubts. While Y place that didn’t cost anywhere near that, and maybe took a couple of years to ramp up to being as good as it really, truly is, gets taken for granted.

Anyway, I have my candidates that I’ve championed—always Vera in its day, now Arbor and Daisies, and I feel like I saw Pizzeria Bebu back when they were on an indie label and you never heard of them. (Now notice Munno already!) When Chicago mag put Lula in at #4 on their 50 best last year, among the Alineas and Topolobampos, that was in the same vein. And now Julia Kramer makes the case for the specialness of Cellar Door Provisions for Bon Appetit:

I have a lot of thoughts about Cellar Door: about why it’s my favorite restaurant in Chicago, about why it’s significant that it’s in Chicago, about how it rejects and rethinks so many deeply ingrained aspects of restaurant culture. But I think the quiche—both in its greatness and in its limitations—makes the clearest introduction to the very particular mentality of this restaurant.

The quiche tells you what uncommonly, absurdly, perfectionist-ly good cooking is going on at Cellar Door Provisions. But it also tells you that there’s more to Cellar Door than creating the best possible version of something. It tells you that it also matters whether the cooks enjoy working on something. It matters that the food makes you feel good and healthy—not just as a diner but also as a cook.

It’s a good piece about one restaurant, but it’s also a good piece about what we should want from restaurants in general. Read it all.


Maggie Hennessy finds the beverage side of Bar Sótano lives up to the Bayless standard, but has mixed feelings about the food: “Though we tasted some intriguing, boundary-pushing nibbles, other elements of the menu fell flat… Perfumed with fried garlic and sprinkled with peanuts, the charred broccoli was reminiscent of Chinese takeout, though it edged on oversalted. Generous salting had the opposite effect on four pork taquitos ahogados. Stacked like Lincoln Logs, the fried corn tortilla shells encased juicy carnitas and tart pickled veggies as they soaked in a magnetic roasted tomato-arbol chile broth that balanced tart-rich umami with the clean heat of arbol chiles.”


Michael Nagrant read Funkenhausen’s menu on video last week and this week, he says that entering the place, “you’re met with what feels like a Hofbrauhaus outfitted in neo-Brady Bunch accents of gold, teal, and teak wood.” Surprisingly, it’s not all a meat palace: “Steuer’s facility with plants is tops. Charred broccolini drips with the acidic tang of buttermilk and finishes with a hazelnut crunch. The bitterness of the broccolini’s char is offset by the sweet juice of plump golden raisins.”


Avli Taverna, a new Greek restaurant in Lincoln Park, is “off to a promising start” says Phil Vettel… sounds like the start of a one star review, which it is. “Avli Taverna’s menu is well-rooted in the classics, and anyone who’s enjoyed Greek dining once or twice will find the menu more familiar than not. There’s even saganaki on the menu, though it isn’t the flamed-tableside creation invented in Chicago. Alexakis uses vlahotiri cheese, which is a little less salty than the type you’ll find in Greektown saganaki, and tops the melted cheese with peppered figs and honey. The result is a sweet-and-salty dish that might make you forswear the lemony-boozy style forever.”


I suppose people are still packing Jerry Kleiner’s early 2000s fever dream Carnivale, though the last time I heard anybody talk about actually going there, Mark Mendez was still chef. Anyway, it has a new one, Ozzy Amelotti, previously at Ella Elli and Vivere, and Crain’s Graham Meyer finds that “While the decor flaunts excess, the food looks contrastingly conservative on the menu, with dishes named to appeal to the timid, and no outlandish ingredients. The menu sets the bar low, and then the food clears it consistently. This may not be the formula for trendy restaurants now, but it works.”


One of the most exciting openings for me this year will be Jeong, the new restaurant from Korean food court stars Dave Park and Jennifer Tran of Hanbun. Anthony Todd has a preview at Chicago: “‘Korean food tends to be very intense and robust and in-your-face, but I want to take those flavors and make them more delicate,’ says Park. ​Jeong will join Parachute, Passerotto, and S.K.Y. as part of the growing trend of upscale Korean-influenced restaurants in Chicago.”


Hey, here’s an idea, get a bunch of women chefs to talk about women in the industry today, starting with Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter! Well, the podcast Radio Cherry Bombe did it too at the St. Jane Hotel last November, and here’s a recording of highlights from the panels featuring Christine, Adrienne Lo of Fat Rice, Beverly Kim of Parachute and others.


Ji Suk Yi has a nice piece on Erick Williams, the chef-owner of Virtue, and how the restaurant grows out of his beliefs and approach: ‘The basketball aficionado, who describes himself as ‘faith-based, super intense and really passionate,’ said the restaurant name embodies characteristics he holds dear such as hospitality and excellence… ‘[My kitchen] is kind and it’s a protective safe space, but it’s a challenging space. We don’t back away from pushing people to be better today than they were yesterday, and that goes for me too,’ he said.”


Steve Dolinsky’s segment on ABC 7 goes to three places for Korean fire chicken, buldak, best known locally as a drinking food at Dancen in Lincoln Square.


Don’t be deterred by the dull downtown spots for shawarma at the front of this Sandwich Tribunal piece—it gets more interesting once he starts talking about middle eastern fast food places in the southwest suburbs, and especially once he consults with a Syrian coworker: “I asked Salem to tell me his favorite shawarma place so I could try it. ‘Well you’d need an armed guard in Damascus,’ he said. I amended my request to his favorite local shawarma place. ‘I’ll meet you there.’ So it was that we ended up at Kabob Q in Willowbrook, IL.”


I suspect my pattern of visits to Texas is similar to many Chicagoans’—I enjoy visiting Austin, I’ve been to Dallas for work a couple of times and it seemed like L.A. minus the woodsy charm, and I’ve managed to avoid Houston the whole time I’ve been on this earth. Well, I’m newly converted to the idea that maybe that needs to change. First, I read Brett Martin’s piece on the quirky side of Houston, and how the internet helped it find each other. Second, I read Titus Ruscitti on things to eat in Dallas, of which an astonishing amount is Chinese food.


Last week I wrote about the claims of sexual harassment made against ex-Band of Bohemia chef Ian Davis—questioning whether they looked more like harassment or angry breakup. Eater has a good summary of what has shaken out since then, which is that reportedly there are up to eight women alleging bad behavior on Davis’ part. Apparently there’s been quite a lot of backchannel talk, including using the now-shuttered Instagram account to “keep tabs on abusive men in the food industry and… create whisper networks with databases as a resource for women who work in restaurants and bars.” That said, no one else of these eight accusers has come forward with specific allegations, and Davis’ attorney says he has not seen any new complaints.


Congrats to my neighborhood hot dog stand—possibly the place I’ve eaten most in Chicago, though visits would be heavily concentrated in the period when I took my kids to Fellger Park—Man-Jo-Vin’s, which will be officially inducted into the Hot Dog Hall of Fame by Vienna Beef on Tuesday. Dating back to 1953, it was purchased from the original owners by Nunzio Miceli, whose son Al and his wife Sandy have run it for the last few decades—save for a break when the old building was sold to be redeveloped into a three story condo building. Amazingly, though, they reopened it a year or so later in the new building, and it’s still going strong.


I’ve been reading a lot of food writing from other cities lately, and one thing that has become a cliché of the genre is the “the world of food isn’t inclusive enough for me” piece. Hey, you know what? That’s not what the world is for—it’s for going out and grabbing by the cojones and making it yours, as Al Swerengen once told me. That’s why one of my favorites of that subgenre was David Tamarkin’s piece on Michelle Fire and Big Chicks, the story of someone who did remake a little piece of the world how she thought it should be.

Having said that, I think Korsha Wilson’s much-tweeted piece from Eater last week on restaurant reviewers is pretty terrific, because she’s precise on the unspoken assumptions of the form:

The critical success of the Grill speaks to the origins of modern restaurant criticism — of which [1970s restaurant reviewer Craig] Claiborne himself is the patriarch, even devising the Times’s star system — which was largely to tell upper and middle class, implicitly white New Yorkers where to spend their money on their next night out. As a student of food criticism and restaurant goer, I’ve often thought about how being a black woman impacts my dining experience, and wished that more critics understood that experience.

The Grill is an expensive Manhattan restaurant deliberately echoing Mad Men-era comforts, aimed right at rich white men and the women decorating their arms, and Wilson can’t warm to its cultural assumptions:

While for some, Kennedy-era Manhattan is an inspirational time, calling to mind gleaming buildings and uncut optimism, for others, it represents a bleak period of misery and oppression. The original Four Seasons opened in the space in 1959, five years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, meaning I might not have been able to eat where the Grill now stands; in fact, it’s hard to imagine that this space would have been quick to welcome black diners even after the act was passed.

Restaurants are often a form of play in which we get to spend a little time in a made-up version of another time and place, and we don’t think much about how not everyone sees them that way. Personally, I think being able to go to such a place as a black woman in 2019 is a victory; you can make that experience your own now as you couldn’t in 1959. I think one of the more interesting things in pop culture in recent times is how J.K. Rowling took one of the most racist and classist tropes in classic children’s literature—the English boarding school setting—and singlehandedly integrated it in her own classics, so any kid of any background can belong at Hogwarts. Take the fantasy and make it yours; like Andy Warhol did, like the writers from the South who dominated the New York magazine biz in the 20s through the 60s did.

That said, I can understand why sometimes a theme is just too much for somebody. One of my favorite restaurants as a kid in my hometown was a friendly Southern restaurant. But I doubt that The Plantation would have seemed so friendly to Wilson.

Anyway, ultimately this is more about how much restaurant reviewing has represented a single perspective, which is not just white men but specifically a kind of white businessman on an expense account, which is a different kind of white man from, say, Jonathan Gold looking for tacos. (Though one should note that she overlooks that Claiborne was gay, and the author of a frank and scandalous memoir in the 80s.) For most reviewing publications, everything else has been relegated to the edges—so world cuisine gets shoved into a “cheap eats” category, and non-white-guy writers get shoved in there with them:

“Where are all the Black restaurant critics?” Nikita Richardson asked in a Grub Street op-ed. For Philadelphia, Ernest Owens recounted how, in a city where black people are a plurality, the food scene is trapped in “a self-perpetuating cycle” where “white writers write for mostly white audiences and cover mostly white-owned restaurants that cater mostly to white people,” driven in part by increasing gentrification. With some notable exceptions, women have historically been few and far between: In a 2014 article, then-LA Weekly restaurant critic Besha Rodell wondered why there are so few female food critics, noting that there were twice as many male critics at the time. As far as I can tell, there has never been a black food critic at a major publication or food section of a newspaper.

Now here’s the good news and the bad news: publications are more conscious of this than ever and are seeking to hire more women and people of color (gay men don’t seem to have been a problem in food sections). The bad news is, I think it’s actually going to worse before it gets better, if it ever does.

The reason is that the question isn’t just where are the black restaurant critics—it’s where are the restaurant critics, period? The fact is that the profession is shrinking with the newspaper business—in fact the same week Eater published a piece on how San Francisco, one of the top four restaurant cities in the country, has basically been without any major reviewer for months. (The piece was written by the woman who had been Eater’s San Francisco reviewer—until they eliminated the position.)

So women, people of color, etc. are getting new opportunities to finally review restaurants, from a non-Don Draper perspective. Yet they’ve also made the case against paying somebody to eat fancy meals and review them for the top 1% of readers, a case that budget-straitened publications will be only to eager to accept. So I think they’re finally getting opportunities just in time to be booted out of them as they dry up for good. This won’t always be true—the L.A. Times hired two people, one a woman (Patricia Escarcega), to replace Jonathan Gold—but the trend against funding a dining expense account at a newspaper laying off reporters is obvious.

What will that leave? The piece about San Francisco sees one future:

Other coverage, like Eater’s heatmaps and guides or the Infatuation’s blurbs, have a huge impact, says Josh Harris, co-owner of Bon Voyage, the dumpling-and-Singapore Sling oasis that opened in October. “But there is more of a feeling of permanence with a review,” he says. Who knows whether or not his latest bar-restaurant hybrid would have been critiqued, like Trick Dog, had there been a critic to critique it, he says, but he admits that business has been booming without it.

Permanence shmermanence, there’s just a basic difference of depth between a map or a blurb versus a 1500-word review that I’m not willing to give up without a fight. Maybe hot restaurants will be fine in a post-writing world, but vast amounts of the food scene will not get coverage of any form at all in such a world.

I suspect what will happen is that actual, longform reviewing will become the province of amateurs with the money to eat out and then blog it on their own—a crowd whiter and maler than the jury in Twelve Angry Men. Reviewing is increasingly going to be one of those things, like starting a garage band or making an independent film, that is dominated by middle-class dudes with the leisure to devote to their passion and no need to get paid for it.

There’s no reason it has to be like that, anybody could grab the world by the cojones and start writing on Blogspot and make themselves a voice on the local scene, and if you do it and tell me about it, I’ll happily link your reviews here. But it’s honestly what I see as the form’s future, as the publications that we looked to for dining guidance for so long show less and less interest in that kind of consumer driven aesthetic journalism.


You get to Bar Kumiko by the wrong door—a couple of different doors on Lake Street say 630, but the actual entrance is on the corner, unnumbered. As at the same owners’ Oriole, you’re greeted (at least this time of year) with a warm drink, tea with a little mezcal I believe, in an antechamber before you go around the corner and enter the vaguely Japanese bar and restaurant.

The menu has three parts—Julia Momose’s cocktails, mostly sake and shochu based plus a few highballs reflecting the Japanese taste for whiskey; a short list of deconstructed cocktails, like a Sazerac accompanied by tastes of the ingredients going into it; and a list of food half the length of the cocktails. (Which for a party of four made it easy—we ordered everything.)

The question was, would we be full after eating the whole menu? We half-joked about finishing the night with burgers at The Loyalist, and after the first few bites, it looked like we might have to. Things were quite tasty—warm oysters with a buttery dollop of caviar, very nice tempura shrimp with a squiggle of mayo—but lusher than they were filling. Two main courses were also, in a way, deconstructed—loup de mer and short rib accompanied by a host of ways to flavor the protein, from furikake seasoning to a pork-fat-enhanced mayo. The latter was so good we ordered it a second time—and surprisingly, by the end, we were full after all, ready for the small taste of Japanese milk bread with ice cream and shaved Perigord truffle that ended the meal. When they tell you to order four of them for four people, believe them.

Small, expensive and often wildly precious, not least in its assumption that a menu seven or eight items long is plenty to choose from (don’t choose, just order it all), Bar Kumiko is a place that your steak and potatoes grandpa would mock throughout the entire experience. For me, like at Oriole, it was precisely calibrated magic, every item that seemed to be setting them up for mockery delivering on an almost giddy delight, from the cocktails with distinctive flavors ringing changes on familiar recipes to the lush, but not overindulgent, food. How often I could return is a question with a food menu this short, but the first time was an utter charmer.