A light week, as a lot of people seem to be following my model, of not going anywhere till the weather gets back into digits. Also, note that next week, the newsletter will be delayed so I can include the results of the Jean Banchet Awards (besides my usual gig of writing the obituaries, I’ll be co-presenting the Best Neighborhood Restaurant award).


Last week when Michael Nagrant reviewed John’s Food and Wine, and ripped into its post-service way of serving, I couldn’t help but think of what I’d heard John Kessler say about it (I haven’t been, but I know he’s gone multiple times). This week Kessler reviews it and I can’t help but read it thinking of Nagrant’s reaction:

John’s Food & Wine, nestled in a boutique-heavy stretch of Lincoln Park, has made the odd but smart decision to keep its staffing costs down by employing a small crew and nixing designated servers. In the front of the house, there is an attendant at the till who checks you in and takes your order. This type of service usually goes by “fast-casual,” but there’s nothing casual about the meticulous lobster salad that comes out of this kitchen. Whatever you call it — fast-fancy? wham-bam bistro? — a meal here begins with a moment of cognitive dissonance and then hits its marks just right. On a busy night, you may have to wait in the front with a glass of wine, but when your table is set, you can order, take your place, and be stuffing your face within minutes. Even if the service hits snags — and it will — you’ll focus on this restaurant’s strength, which is its food.

Though Kessler has already found his own solution to the service issues Nagrant focused on:

Tip Skip the line and grab any open seat at the long marble bar, which has full service.


Steve Dolinsky is pretty impressed by Nettare, the Italian all-day-cafe in West Town:

The homemade focaccia – chewy and dense – is one sign the kitchen takes great care with everything at Nettare, a new restaurant and market near the corner of Chicago and Damen in West Town. From the highly curated list of spirits in their market up front, to the dishes they serve in the airy, spacious dining room in the back, the focus is regional.

“The game plan is to showcase and highlight really cool things from the Midwest and the Great Lakes region,” said John Dahlstrom, the chef of Nettare.


On Instagram Michael Nagrant called Erling Wu-Bower’s Maxwell’s Trading Co. “the best restaurant opening in Chicago for 2024, so far.” Well, I had read his review at The Hunger and after learning a bit about his marriage, and the Beatles, I was less sure what he thought about the place, so it’s good to have the summary. Here’s one example, which explains how James McCartney’s legacy for his son Paul came up—it starts with a reference to Olivia Wu, Wu-Bower’s mother and among other things a former Sun-Times food editor:

At Maxwells Trading, Wu-Bower has gone full tilt on all of these influences and more. Call it fusion, mishmash, or whatever you want, but to do so connotes a lack of focus, which is far from what’s here. Just as the wide access to styles Paul and John were blessed with created the universality and unmatched unique creativity of The Beatles, so it goes at Maxwells Trading.

Wu-Bower has synthesized everything he’s ever tasted into a very personal vision that tastes like nothing else in town.


Nick Kindelsperger’s archive of stuff he wrote before leaving the Trib continues with a history of Italian beef:

Looking through the Tribune’s archives, it’s a bit shocking to find that the Italian beef hasn’t been the obvious sandwich choice for that long. Unlike barbecue, which shows up in the archives all the way back in the 1850s, the Italian beef doesn’t even make an appearance until the 1950s.

…On May 26, 1962, we get what may be the first recipe for the Italian beef from Mary Meade. (As I found out recently, the name was a pseudonym for a number of different women writers.) There’s a lot of tomato paste, which isn’t as common today, but the recipe looks pretty close. Plus it has the first mention of dipping bread in the beef juices: “In the true Italian fashion, the sliced Italian or French bread should be dipped into the stock before being layered with the thin slices of beef.”


I’ve seen Frank’s Pizzeria driving out west on Belmont, and it just got a mention a few weeks ago, but Dennis Lee actually goes there, still mourning the closing of John’s Pizzeria in Bucktown, and writes up what’s another classic Chicago tavern pizza joint:

The interior of Frank’s Pizzeria is just pure Chicago nostalgia.

The tables are decked out with red and white checkered plastic tablecloths, the water comes served in red plastic tumblers, the space is tiny, everything about the place is flat-out wonderful.

When Young [Choi] and I stepped in, we were immediately greeted by the owner, who has the best name ever. That’s because like me, he is a fellow Dennis. Owner Dennis Prosio is warm, chatty, and welcoming, and if you visit Frank’s sometime, he’ll likely be there. As of now, he told us, he’s around seven days a week, which is a lot of time to be putting into work when you’re a sprightly 84 years old.


Cynthia Clampitt has a piece at NewCity on why rye bread is ubiquitous here:

Turns out the Midwest really is the center of rye production and rye use in the United States. You can get it other places, but mostly it’s shipped from right here. Of course, knowing the region, I had some idea that it was related to settlement patterns. But it turns out that much of the Midwest offers an environment ideally suited to cultivating rye. Rye only germinates in soil that is hovering around the freezing point and thrives in places that are a bit dry and perhaps not ideal for wheat, like the Great Plains. But given the fact that many of those who immigrated to the Midwest settled areas with agricultural conditions like those in their home countries, perhaps it was inevitable that rye would take hold.


Should We Add the Francheezie to the Chicago Sandwich Canon? asks Sandwich Tribunal. Well, I’d add it to the Endangered Chicago Sandwich List—as in, I never heard of it before I moved here, and I feel like it’s at least 20 years since I’ve seen one on a menu, though the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed hot dog was something you used to see regularly on menus in diners—or as one of Jim Behymer’s friends calls them, “old person restaurants.” Sandwich Tribunal continues:

While I have only been to a few of the locations serving it, I have noticed a pattern. They tend to be “family restaurants,” the kinds of places that serve breakfast “all day” but close by 3pm. The kinds of places with naugahyde booths and striped awnings, with maroon and cream color schemes. The kinds of places that people go to when Denny’s is too far away and IHOP has too many foreign-sounding dishes.

It’s a fun look at a forgotten Chicago food, and makes me want to eat one with a glass of Cohasset Punch.


U of I’s alumni magazine profiles Monica Eng.


Jason Hammel talked about Lula Cafe and its cookbook on KCRW’s Good Food.


After some months of health problems and debt, Al’s Deli in Evanston is closing for good. I used to go there on occasion back when my kids were in a school up north, and I always kind of liked this sandwich shop—not at all a classic deli—with its French theme and decor; it seemed like the kind of place someone opens to class up their small town, or a slice of the 1970s, or both. This post at Facebook kind of fills in the story, even if you don’t know all the names:

An update on Al’s Deli. As everyone knows the biggest obstacle to reopening has been the $28,000 debt to the bank. Two weeks ago the bank said it would settle for $6,000 which was a good offer. However my potential partner then changed what he was offering in the partnership. This would have left me with all the risk, no exit strategy and could have led to more 11 hour days. At 70 years old I don’t think I can handle it.
So this Friday from 3 to 6:30 pm I will be selling the posters, antiques and other things at the deli. The landlord will start clearing the place out on Febuary 1. Please bring cash as I’ve already informed the IRS and the Illinios Dept. of Revenue that I have closed for good.
Let me just say I am so sorry this has happened and I would like to thank all the fans of Al’s Deli. I hope our 74 years has touched you in a good way, along with Bob’s last 52 years, my last 44 and our father, AL, last 41. My parents and many friends have always wanted to know when I would get a real job. Well hopefully I’ll find one soon.
Also a sandwich place closing: Big Kids, a few doors over from Lula Cafe. Block Club has a story here.