Political movements are about the things that they’re about, but they also exist in the reality of a society at that moment—so much of the agitation of the 1960s was both rooted in principle (against war and bigotry), and yet inextricable from the particular circumstances of the Baby Boom generation, all those kids born at once in a time of prosperity and mass marketing to their needs and so on.

As we continue into the fifth, cranky month of Covid-19 life, the things we are riled up about are real and justice is worth fighting for, but the flavor of it is deeply affected by where we are in this crisis. And it is hard not to see much of it as coming out of the frustrations of this moment.

That, at least, is how I feel about protesting statues of Christopher Columbus, for instance. One of the most consequential figures in history in ways far beyond his own actions in life, and there’s good work to be done in recognizing how the colonialism he kicked off in the Americas left behind attitudes that need to be constantly reexamined. But to me it’s sort of like protesting the Ice Age or the First Law of Thermodynamics—if any question seems firmly settled by now, it’s whether Europeans are going to settle the New World. There’s sincerity about colonialism in the protests, but there’s also frustration that things didn’t work out this summer, that people didn’t get beach time and Lolla and hanging out with friends this year. And that’s got to be somebody’s fault, so why not go straight back to where it all began, with Columbus coming here in the first place! Hard to think of anyone more ultimately responsible for a disease spread by globalism, to be sure.

I feel something of the same going on with restaurants and chefs—we had 20-plus years of the chef as a hero, taking us to new sensations, artist and world explorer and pirate captain all in one. It was a great ride, and then it came to a screeching halt and what did we have? We were stuck at home making beans and sourdough, the people who worked in the industry were forced to scrape by with paltry benefits, there’s no guarantee that that cool world and how we felt to be part of it will ever come back. That sucks, man.

Someone must be to blame (besides Trump)! Maybe those way cool chefs were false prophets—they were exploiters and users, they yelled at us and paid us badly and scraped mold off jam and culturally appropriated food that wasn’t theirs. I got a couple of comments last week about how featuring “This Week’s Cancellations” was getting old, but it’s not old as long as it keeps happening. But it’s not even just about who the latest chef who did actual (alleged) bad things was. I sense a total disaffection with the world that we all found so glamorous and fun just five months ago—lies, it was all lies. Here’s a popular food newsletter writer, Alicia Kennedy, last week:

Imagine we let restaurants exist the way we let hardware stores exist. Has there ever been a rock star garden-hose expert, a celebrity buyer of hammers and drills? I’m sure there is a niche magazine dedicated to these professions, but they’re not given endorsement deals or TV shows. Maybe they deserve them.

Why have restaurants been a different beast—is it the presumed artistry? We know that argument doesn’t pass muster after Chicago’s Alinea was dragged for serving “a canapé that looks like the CDC’s illustration depicting the novel coronavirus” and failed in using art as their defense. We know that the restaurant industry, for the most part, doesn’t keep its workers safe in a pandemic, that even at the most successful restaurants, workers can be locked in unventilated spaces as mold spores swirl in the air. We know that restaurants, as we once understood them, should probably no longer exist if they cannot keep people safe from viral contagion, paid a living wage, and free from harassment and abuse. Where does that leave the restaurant

Hell, where does that leave the food writer? You can choose to write about food in a different way—anthropological, or memoiristically, or whatever, but this sounds like someone who is just done with the restaurant world we’ve been living in for a quarter century. (The condescension in the way she compares chefs to tradesmen, and the assumption that one failed artwork invalidates a form—Trump couldn’t sneer like this.) Food has bad practices that need reform, sure. But if Coronapé made you dismiss the very possibility of artistry in food, then damn, time to find a new hobby, isn’t it?

Chefs have failed us, they were bad people masquerading as artists and pied pipers who sold us a false world of foodly delights—this is where we are after five months which began with us rallying behind restaurants. The 86’d List brings together complaints about chefs’ bad behavior, which are often doubtless true and shameful, but what it also feels like is everybody getting mad at Dad—you promised us you’d take care of us and we’d all have a future in a restaurant world of boundless creativity, and you failed us! So tear chefs down.

Places that helped create the world of celebrity chefs, like Eater, have pivoted to being the stern accusers of the whole rotten idea of fame for chefs—a sure sign of what their audience clicks on now. And so this attitude has already percolated to foodies—after I wrote about Kuma’s Corner getting canceled last week, a reader called me out and said he expected real reporters at the Trib and Block Club to show just how terrible it really was (and it must be really terrible given Kuma’s response trying to be ahead of the story). Well, no, such stories never appeared; apparently it was just garden variety terrible, what Block Club had already reported, after all.

Most disturbingly, where we were all supportive of our restaurants, back when all this began, and hoped to see them open again soon, there’s an increasing strain of commentary that seems to suggest that restaurants are the problem—vectors for the spread of disease among employees and diners, exploiters of their workers. You can see that in a Facebook thread in which Rick Bayless, of all people, lashed out at Monica Eng of WBEZ, who has been the most apprehensive of food-related reporters when it comes to possible Covid-19 exposure. Eng shared a WBEZ piece, “Restaurant Workers Worry The ‘Bottom Line’ Is More Important Than Their Health.” The piece assumes a dark picture of the restaurant business, where greedy owners force people to work no matter their safety concerns, and fear of retribution keeps sources anonymous. Bayless replied:

We have hemorrhaged so much money during the pandemic, we may never dig out. We can see the end of the road from where we stand. I know you’re anti-restaurant Monica, but please recognize the reality of the situation. No one is trying to make money during this time. We are simply trying to hold on long enough for a change. The catastrophic loss of restaurants over the next few months will affect you—all of us—deeply.

To have two of the longest-running names on our city’s food scene at odds in public—not to mention the news that Frontera Grill, as eternal as, um, Blackbird, might be on the ropes… this is a dark and unsettling time.

Do what you want. Protest what you choose. It’s America! But me, I’m trying to keep to that attitude we had toward restaurants when all this started, which is that they are our friends, overall, that food and food media are about bringing pleasure and cultural diversity to our lives, more than settling scores and punishing those guilty of making Coronavirus jokes. I’m going to order from restaurants, give to GoFundMes, and when I see someone I know in the industry, let them know that I care about them, wish them the right mix of safety and ability to generate revenue—and support them in the most tangible way by buying and eating their food.


One person we know always has a kindly attitude toward restaurants is Maggie Hennessy, and she has an elegy for our now-lost world of dining at Plate, talking about her last, unfinished restaurant review (of Lao Peng You), and what we owe such places now:

Maybe I love independent eateries because they fight against these seemingly impossible odds. But idly observing something while it carries an unfairly heavy load is not real love. We all bear some responsibility in preserving one of the realest touchstones of our diverse humanity. Perhaps we buy a gift card or order from our favorite noodle shop. Maybe we call on our lawmakers to establish a stabilization fund to keep restaurants open. It’s our turn to lend support to the ones who welcome us with a warm meal, a hefty wine pour, and an open ear.


Condolences to the family of Calumet Fisheries manager Carlos Rosas, who died from Covid-19 at age 41. There are good remembrances at the Trib from Louisa Chu (who helped set up Anthony Bourdain’s visit) and Maureen O’Donnell at the Sun-Times. Here’s Chu:

“Bourdain aired on a Monday night,” [co-owner Mark Kotlick] said about the Chicago episode in which they appeared. “Saturdays we don’t get anyone in the store until about 10 or 11. We have a little doorbell in case we’re in the back, and that was buzzing off the hook. I thought it was broken. I come out and there’s 50 people waiting for us. We sold out of four to seven days of smoked fish by about 1 o’clock. We called our vendors and had them open up. Carlos was driving his little Toyota Corolla to pick up a couple of hundred pounds of salmon in there.”

Buzz 2


I’ve been watching Nick Kindelsperger’s Italian beef travels on Instagram, and now here’s his final report—actually two of them. The first one is a top 20 (with lots of thinking as to what makes a good beef), and while it calls out some interesting places you probably don’t know in the burbs… I’m pretty sure you can guess the top two, though 50-50 on the precise order. For me, as a student of the slow decline of traditional Chicago foods, what’s interesting to me is how Nick’s list confirms that the real action now in Italian beef is not in the city but in the blue collar suburbs—about 3/4 are either from outside the city, or far enough south or west in the city that they might as well be.

More novel is a second piece on modern takes on the basic beef flavors (beef and Italian seasoning meeting the oily heat of giardiniera). Some are what we might call Artisan Beef—like Tempesta’s occasional beef special—but others get more unusual, like the bar slider at Izakaya Mita, built on a Japanese dish called niku dofu. Then there was the curious coincidence that just as Kindelsperger was writing, Daniel Epsinosa’s Santa Masa Tamaleria started offering a beef and giardiniera tamale:

I emailed Daniel Espinoza, owner of Santa Masa Tamaleria, to ask him if he’d ever tried Italian beef tamales. He said no, but to my complete surprise, he said he’d try to make some.

That kind of feels like a violation of the Prime Directive to me, but it makes for an interesting climax to the story. Nick has since appeared on WLS and on 670 The Score to talk about beefs—and tweeted this Thursday:

I haven’t eaten an Italian beef in a week and honestly nothing sounds better right now


Speaking of eating too much of one thing, the last thing I finished before the lockdown was this guide to Chinatown—and within days I knew it was a picture of a place that wouldn’t be there when I got back. I have not been to Chinatown (and hardly eaten Chinese food) since, so I was very interested to read this piece by Louisa Chu, which looks at how the neighborhood, centered around restaurants more than any other in the city, is coping. It’s a complicated story—spaces are often unsuitable for outdoor dining, they’re still getting prank calls for bat soup, and the family-based nature of many of the businesses presents its own issues:

“I didn’t want to work at the restaurant, risk contracting COVID and bringing that home to my mom,” said John Choi, co-owner of Chi Yatai with co-founder Mier Zhou. Their stall down in the influential Richland basement food court was the last restaurant to open in Chinatown before the coronavirus pandemic, offering Japanese street food and Taiwanese bubble tea. They closed temporarily when Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered restaurants to shut down everything except takeout and delivery in March. Choi is the primary caretaker of his 77-year-old mother who is a three-time cancer survivor.

“So much more than the money we’d make from staying open for delivery or carryout orders, I want to protect my mom’s life and her health,” said Choi.


How are those closed-off streets with dining going? Ashok Selvam and Naomi Waxman look at that, and one owner they talk to is Chilam Balam’s Soraya Rendon:

Rendon and her team had a rocky pilot launch in June with diners who seemed to confuse open streets dining during a pandemic with an outdoor festival; she describes customers wandering around with drinks, congregating in large groups, and occupying random tables without regard for staff or other patrons.

Despite a difficult first night, however, Rendon says days two and three of the initial open streets run were “wonderful,” and she’s excited to do it again.

7. PIVOT-19

Amy Cavanaugh talks to three restaurants that have shifted their business models in recent months, changing what they’re offering as well as how they offer it. Yoshi Yamada of Superkhana International says their takeout window has changed everything: “We felt like the safest route for our staff, ourselves, and our customers was to do something with less contact than an indoor space. We incorporated a takeout window when we built the space, and all of a sudden, it’s become essential. There are financial realities — margins in restaurants are pretty slim to begin with, and it’s difficult to create a functional business model if you’re only able to fill 25 to 50 percent of seats. We also wanted to think about different ways of doing things, including partnering with people we’ve worked with before.”


Happy ending despite the city of Chicago: Tamale Guy Claudio Velez will open a restaurant in Ukrainian Village. Block Club Chicago has the news.


Mike Sula has a piece on a vegan ice “cream” startup/popup with a social justice theme, JUSTice, which donates profits to social justice organizations—thus “Aboleche Ice” suppports an immigrant group for instance. It could not be more exquisitely 2020.

He makes passing note of the flip side of that—as reported by Block Club last week, a guy named John Lawrence Geary started another vegan ice “cream” startup, called Peachy Vegan Ice Cream Popsicles. The hitch was, he sold them in Logan Square from a cart—just like the Mexican paleterias so familiar in that neighborhood. And that brought cries of cultural appropriation on social media that seem to have chased him out of the business:

“Do you understand the cultural significance of paletas and the amount of hardship and work it has taken the paleteros of our community to bring this every day in sweltering heat to support their families?? Can you all stop gentrifying for five minutes? Damn,” Gabriella Priscilla wrote.

I’m honestly not sure what I think here. On the one hand, the idea that you can call a method of selling cultural appropriation—that’s crazy, and The Good Humor Man, who was doing it in the early 1900s, would like to have a word with you. On the other hand, Geary really put his foot, or cart, in it, offering new agey organic vegan white people ice “cream” in a neighborhood where that is a widely-known Mexican business. Not that that won’t happen anyway—where this happened is not that far from the popsicles at Pretty Cool; it seems safe to say that ways to get more expensive frozen treats are inevitable—but yeah, he really kind of asked for it, and I’m not entirely sorry that people stood up for the paleterias.


Titus Ruscitti checks out things to eat in perhaps the region’s least-loved spot, Gary, Indiana, including a spot aimed at black truckers passing through: “There’s plenty of parking for 18 wheelers at Motha Trukn’ Kabobs. Their big blue Charcoal grilled chicken kebab with rice was nice. Ask for the house special sauce which is an interesting raspberry concoction.”


If you’re going to go out, go out with a bang, and Guthrie’s Tavern—a tavern that couldn’t serve food—did so by blasting and faulting Mayor Lightfoot for the city’s off and on again policies toward bars.

The big opening—arguably the biggest opening in the country this week—is Ever. Eater has some pics inside, but as I’m going in a few weeks, I’m not looking at them.


New York is caught up in a debate over what constitutes the minimum food to be legally serving food in a bar (and thus allowing it to be open, when only places that serve food are allowed). As Atlas Obscura pointed out last year, it’s not the first time New York has faced a legally fictitious sandwich—read the story of the early 20th century “Raines sandwich.”


Sandwich Tribunal has a really nice story about recreating a meal from someone who mattered, a long time ago. Food does matter. Sharing food matters. Food is one of the good things in this bad time, if you make it so.


We went for a couple of days to Door County. On the minus side, wow, Wisconsinites really aren’t wearing masks. On the plus side, we were nearly always where there was enough room to not come too near people, and restaurants at least had their act together in a way that felt comfortable to me. Our day of tromping around Newport State Park was better isolation than hiding in our house; I think one group of fellow hikers passed by the whole time. And after living here 30 years, I finally went to a Door County fish boil (Pelletier’s, in Fish Creek) and you know what? It’s was really good, honest regional food prepared reliably, A+ for a tourist attraction meant to separate FIBs from their money. I’m trying to keep a lid on really missing even the prospect of travel, and this little getaway, I think, helped a lot.