1. BANCHETS 2024

The Jean Banchet Awards took place Sunday night, and after a string of very high end restaurants taking the top prize—Oriole, Smyth and George Trois being the last three—the show returned to the mid-2010s when more accessible spots like Monteverde and Fat Rice won, giving Restaurant of the Year to the upscale for middle eastern food, but still quite reasonably-priced, Galit. Chef-owner Zach Engel, who is opening another restaurant this year with partner Andres Clavero, observed how life changes for a restaurant owner by saying “Andres and I don’t do anything any more,” crediting the staff lined up behind him for Galit’s success. Clavero’s response, reflecting the fact that they met in New Orleans, was “what’s changed is nothing. We continue to share stories through food, and shalom y’all.”

Chef of the Year went to Paul Virant, whose mini restaurant empire is also undergoing change this year. His flagship, Vie, in Western Springs, has closed (but will reopen this spring as Petite Vie). Nevertheless, Virant is an important chef over the last couple of decades, an early advocate for farm to table cooking dating back to his time at Blackbird, who after having his own restaurants in the suburbs, returned to the city a few years ago with the Japanese restaurant Gaijin.

Rising Chef of the Year went to three chefs—the three partners in super-hot Warlord, Trevor Fleming, Emily Kraszyk, and John Lupton. Pastry Chef of the Year went to Tatum Sinclair, pastry chef at Valhalla and other restaurants from that same group, who won Rising Pastry Chef in 2019. Sommelier of the year went to Christian Shaum, of Bazaar Meat.

Best New Restaurant of the year went to the Indian tasting menu spot Indienne. Neighborhood Restaurant went to Pompette in Bucktown. Heritage Restaurant went to much-loved Mexican spot Rubi’s on 18th, which grew out of a long-running Maxwell Street stand; co-owner Gilberto Ramirez, dressed in a white straw cowboy hat, dabbed at his eyes as family members made their thank-yous. Also making it a strong year for Latino businesses, Best Counter Service went to Omarcito’s, located in a container building in Logan Square near Hermosa; owner Omar Cadena also gave one of the most affecting thank-yous for being recognized for his little spot. And speaking of Logan Square, Bar of the year went to the recently reopened Best Intentions.

Bronzeville Winery on the south side took Best Hospitality, while Best Design went to Lettuce Entertain You’s Omakase Room, part of Sushi-San in River North. The Culinary Excellence award, a “life achievement” award, went to retired Tribune reviewer Phil Vettel, who gave a nice speech, summed up by this bit: “The only thing more surreal than being paid for dining is being given an award for it.”


The James Beard Awards issued their long list of semifinalists last week, and recognized quite a number of Chicago names—also making it clear that one of the places where they get ideas of who to consider is from the Banchet Awards. The 17 semifinalists from Chicago include Duck Inn (which won the Banchet Neighborhood Restaurant award last year) as Outstanding Restaurant, and John and Karen Shields shortlisted for Outstanding Chef for Smyth (2020 Banchet winner for Restaurant of the Year). Atelier, whose chef Christian Hunter was a Banchet nominee this year for Rising Chef, is a Beard shortlister for Best New Restaurant; Zubair Mohajir of Coach House by Wazwan (a Rising Chef Banchet Nominee in 2022) was shortlisted for Emerging Chef. Nicolas and Oliver Poilevey are shortlisted for Outstanding Restaurateurs for Le Bouchon, Obelix (a Banchet Best New Restaurant this year) and Taqueria Chingon (a Banchet Heritage restaurant nominee last year). (Oliver Poilevey also has the distinction of having appeared on stage at the Banchets—reading his eulogy for his parents several years ago.) Another Outstanding Restaurateur nod went to Marcos Carbajal, second-generation head of his family’s business, Carnitas Uruapan.

Loba Pastry (a Pastry Program Banchet nominee this year) was shortlisted for Outstanding Bakery, while Elske’s Anna Posey (Banchet winner for Best Chef with her husband David in 2020) was shortlisted for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker; and Middlebrow Bungalow, which won Jess Galli the Banchet award for Rising Chef in 2020, was shortlisted in Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages. Lula Cafe was shortlisted for Oustanding Hospitality; chef-0wner Jason Hammel won Chef of  the Year at the Banchets in 2019.

Seven Chicago chefs were shortlisted for Best Chef Great Lakes, include Joe Frillman of Daisies (a Banchet Restaurant of the Year nominee this year) Joe Fontelera of Boonie’s (a Banchet Heritage nominee this year), James Martin of Bocadillo (a rising chef nominee last year), and Sujan Sarkar, chef of Banchet Best New Restaurant winner Indienne. The others are Jenner Tomaska of Esme, past Banchet nominee Diana Davila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria, and the big surprise in this category—maybe the first to go to a pop-up chef—is a semifinalist nod to Donald Young, formerly of Temporis and Venteux, now on his own as Duck Sel. Finally, let’s mention one more Illinois name, though one closer to St. Louis than Chicago, the innovative Scratch Brewing in Ava, Illinois.

Here’s a recap category by category at Choose Chicago.


Louisa Chu reviews Anelya, and explains many of its dishes, like why the meal begins with a serving cart of appetizers called zakusky:

To eat like a Ukrainian at home, there’s always zakusky waiting on the table, [chef Johnny Clark] said, almost like hors d’oeuvres served on platters.

“I wanted to re-create that, because I feel like that’s a really important part of the Ukrainian eating experience,” the chef said. “It’s just there to welcome you to the table.”

Or the duck-based borsch (no T) they serve:

The chef made his borsch deeply yet subtly different with tender shredded duck, cool cultured cream on the side and intensely smoked pears. It’s in the style of Poltava, he said, one of the more historic gastronomic cities in Ukraine.

“They traditionally made this borsch with game birds,” he added, like pigeon or squab, on a coal or wood fired heater turned stove called a pich, since kitchens weren’t allowed in most Soviet Union homes.


Roscoe Village, where I live, seems pretty conventionally middle class American and almost suburban as Chicago neighborhoods go—but there’s one exception that my neighbors hardly seem aware of, the Kyrgyz spot Bai Cafe, cranking out homey Central Asian food for an audience of cab drivers and other immigrants. (Look, I know that Bai technically is in Lakeview, but right on the edge, and quite far from, say, Boystown.) Anyway, Bai must be wondering what’s with all the publicity of late; they were featured in Lisa Futterman’s piece at WTTW a couple of weeks ago, and now here’s a piece at the Tribune calling out five local Central Asian restaurants—I know most of the ones on the north side, but there are a couple closer to downtown that were new to me, like:

Tary Coffee House in River North offers a stylish and modern deep dive into the coffee and tea culture of Kazakhstan. Here in this white, light space warmed up by folkloristic rugs, clay cups and silver kettles, you can enjoy tary in your cappuccino ($7.25), tea, porridge, ice cream or cheesecake. This millet grain has been popular with Kazakh farmers for ages since it tolerates the harsh climate. If you fancy something else, go with the cottage cheese pancakes ($14) with balkaimak (honey sour cream) and pomegranate, or fried baursak bites with or without cottage cheese and jam ($9.95-$13). Another more savory lunch option is the balgyn kuyrdak ($25) with braised beef, young potatoes, red onions and farmers bread. They have several vegetarian soups, mains and alternative milks.


Michael Nagrant visits a classic, if not quite a Chicago one: Wells Brothers pizza, a tavern cut legend in Racine:

You entered in the side door of Wells Brothers underneath that watchful chef statue. We all know the moment of walking from a tight concourse into the cathedral of grass in a baseball stadium. Walking in to Wells Brothers was kinda invigorating like that. The razor chafe of winter wind gave way to a fiery blaze of Wisconsin warmth from stained glass chandeliers still wrapped with festive bows two weeks past Christmas and in the “you betchas” from ladies who’ve given their lives to this particular host stand. You were nervous these women would not have your reservation because perfection never comes when you want it too much.

I’ve tried twice to go, and both times they turned out to be closed, I don’t know why. (I think one was 4th of July week.) Maybe this year it will finally happen…


Pizza Matta comes from the guys at Giant, so you might expect an arty variation on East Coast pizza, but I was impressed that it was simply a very well-executed traditionalist thin crust pizza. Steve Dolinsky has more:

Chicago isn’t blessed with a ton of slice shops. But at Pizza Matta – a sister restaurant to Giant in Logan Square – the vibe is certainly East Coast, with its compact dining room and modest case.

“You know we have Giant next door and we take a lot of feedback from customers and the feedback was they wanted slices,” said owner Jason Vincent.

Vincent spent months working on an East Coast style thin that now ferments for eight days, allowing for more depth and complexity.


Chicago mag’s cover story this month is the 20 best cocktails in Chicago. I don’t know that I could narrow such a list down, too much personal taste involved, but it does make for a good overview of the best cocktail bars in Chicago (since, one presumes, the top cocktails and the best places to get one surely overlap to a considerable degree). So we get weird science cocktails from The Aviary and a Mai Tai at Three Dots and a Dash representing tiki drinks at #3 (I guess the anti-tiki Puritanism of a couple of years ago has blown over) and a Negroni slushy at Parson’s. See it here, along with some sidebar content.


Maggie Hennessy reviews John’s Food and Wine, and lands on the not-entirely-satisfied-without-traditional service side:

I acutely felt the lack of human touch throughout my meal—not just because this is a wine-focused restaurant full of cool, ever-changing pours that warrant a little storytelling. It also manifested in the harried pacing of courses and disconcerting sense that the main shepherd of our experience was the restaurant’s POS system. I longed for those small leisurely moments, like perusing a menu with a drink in my hand.

Even John Kessler, the most pro-John’s reviewer so far, noted that the system seems to be missing the opportunities to guide customers on the wine list (and thus sell more of it).


Mike Sula looks at some new and upcoming cookbooks at the Reader. This sounds fascinating, if not necessarily something you’ll be cooking from much:

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat, Christina Ward (Process), September 26, 2023
Ward is the Milwaukee-based editor at “forbidden” books publisher Feral House, and her own third title is a deep dive into how fringe spiritual movements shaped the modern American diet—with recipes. The book’s purview spans U.S. history, but of special note to Chicagoans are the accounts of the restrictive diets and food-based cures of the neo-Zoroastrian Mazdaznan sect (yet, with a sugary doughnut recipe), and the food sovereignty efforts of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, with recipes for Moor Salad,  and bean pie and bean soup, respectively.


There was at least one joke at the Banchet awards show about the mess that erupted between the now-split partners behind Maple & Ash, Etta. etc. Crain’s has a piece on the mess that has closed several of the Etta locations and their spinoffs:

Wintrust Bank filed a complaint in Cook County Circuit Court on Jan. 17 alleging Etta Collective owner David Pisor had defaulted on a $2.5 million loan he took out in July 2022. The complaint, coupled with a string of recent Etta closures and a bankruptcy filing, paints a bleak picture for the company that maintains it has big plans for expansion in Chicago and beyond.

Another bummer: Pisor was evidently a backer and landlord for Aya Pastry, and:

Pisor stated his intention to sell the company’s property at 1332 W. Grand Ave., which is home to Aya Pastry. Pisor told Crain’s that he does not intend to sell the business itself, just the property.


Last week’s comments on Sandwich Tribunal’s exploration of the Francheezie (a diner staple a little harder to find these days) got me a couple of comments from readers, with fond memories of the cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dog. From Tracy Liang:

My favorite “old person’s” restaurant, The Bagel on Broadway features the Francheezie on its menu. It is delicious, if a little salty.

Not surprising with that cowl of bacon. And Ben Llaneta, affirming the northsideness of the Franceezie, worte:

Still a couple places up here in McHenry County that serve Francheezies. As an immigrant kid in the ‘70s I remember seeing them on menus all over, including a few places in the Loop.

Friend of Fooditor Stacey Ballis made this observation:

I love a francheezie. The special occasion dog of my youth. Nookie’s Two of blessed memory used to make a stellar one.

You know what’s where Nookie’s Too used to be? John’s Food and Wine. I have an idea for them…


Crain’s talks to Nick Kokonas about the economics of Alinea, specifically what kinds of customers you have to draw, and from where, to keep a restaurant at that price point going. They’re not coming from where you think:

On a global scale, most people would consider Michelin the ultimate in restaurant guides…

In fact, there are only a few thousand print copies of the Chicago edition of the Michelin Guide printed every year. But its influence is so legendary that every year when a new guide is released, all the media — newspapers (including Crain’s) and magazines and TV stations — cover it like a major news event. And so that three-star award is publicized far beyond the actual guidebook’s reach itself. European travelers are very dependent on Michelin still.

Having said all that, it’s clear that things are changing. People under the age of 45 who grew up on the internet aren’t likely to know Michelin and its restaurant history. There are no one or two restaurant arbiters anymore. Young people now get more news from Instagram than anywhere else. The single most important media for us has been the Netflix show “Chef’s Table.” We were featured on that at the start of its second season six years ago, and that single episode has been viewed millions of times since around the world — in 120 countries in all. To this day we keep encountering people who saw that show and then put Alinea on their must-visit bucket list.

Kokonas said the same to me a few years ago—it’s not so much Michelin as Chef’s Table that tells tourists from all over the world, when in America, this is where you need to go.


I finally got out of the house, after a couple of weeks of cooking for myself. A few months back, I had gone to Pompette, and thought at the time that I should go back soon, and often. Which of course, I didn’t until now. But we went the other night—actually just walked in, which it seems like you can hardly do any more, at any place that’s at all new and notable—and mostly ordered vegetable-based food, except (this will be a big except) I ordered a bowl of oxtail stew, just because you never see that any more. And it turned out to be pretty heavy and with a considerable layer of oil expressed by the oxtail (yeah, I know, “oxtail stew” might have been the first clue about that). Otherwise, we were very happy with the vegetable dishes, like the roasted beet salad, brussels sprouts, and (this was dessert) the parsnip creme brulee, which went over better than the parsnip dessert I had a decade ago at Schwa, which firmly divided our table along gender lines. Anyway, I continue to admire Pompette (congrats on the Banchet win, by the way) for doing vegetables and salads well, more appealingly than “the french fries and austere side salads that cast a monotone over all our nation’s cooking,” in Paul Fehribach’s phrase.

And that put me in a mood to explore more all-day cafes, which could be the catchphrase of 2024 if I still got invited to participate in Eater’s Chicago year-end media roundup. I wanted to check out John’s Food and Wine, given the considerable diversity of responses to the server-less way of operating they have, but they were closed on Wednesdays, so instead I went to Nettare, in West Town. I went in thinking about Michael Nagrant’s review, wondering if they paid attention to such things yet. Well, I’d been there all of five minutes when I heard the chef telling a couple a few seats down from me at the chef’s counter that the Italian beef sandwich made, somewhat quirkily, with beef tongue had been praised by… Michael Nagrant. So they’re savvy about what remains of food reviewing, anyway.

In any case I don’t know that being an “all-day cafe” made dinner at Nettare much like dinner at Pompette, but it did remind me of another place (which Nagrant had also mentioned)—Warlord. Partly that was because there was a lot of meat on the “something like a tasting menu” I ordered, but also, I just got the same kind of feel from it that I get at Warlord, that the chef (singular in this case, I think) is doing what he wants, and you’re along for the ride. Which might annoy some people, but was just fine by me—each course was a surprise, and felt like the chef stretching and trying new things. Not everything worked perfectly—the beef cheeks had a bitter burnt crust, but the dish was delicious when you got a layer in and dipped the tender brisket-like meat in the center with the housemade white barbecue sauce; a side of spaetzle seemed fried to the hardness of corn nuts—but I didn’t mind, or judge by the standards of some place that had made it all five thousand times before. When I walked in the chef was testing housemade pretzels, which he announced as “pretty good. They’ll get better,” which seemed like just the right attitude for this restaurant to have.

So they’d heard of Nagrant, but I flew under the radar there. I went there solo because that night my wife was at a needlepoint club she goes to, where among other things they chitchat about restaurants, and she told me afterwards that one of the other people had just been to this place called Nettare, and when they asked her how she heard about it, she said she’d read about it here, at Fooditor. The reply was “Oh, from Mike Gebert?” So sorry for sneaking in under the radar, guys, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I’ll be back. Hopefully faster than it took me to get back to Pompette…

Me with Rebecca Fyffe of Landmark Pest Control, presenting the Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year award

Me with Rebecca Fyffe of Landmark Pest Control, presenting the Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year award (photo: Susan Snyder)