We approach total reopening on June 11, says the city, and the Tribune’s new reviewers are out there eating, though still only one of the places they visited recently is reopened for indoor dining.

Louisa Chu goes to Dear Margaret and begins by describing how Chinese such as herself remember their ancestors:

Such fond remembrances are foundational to Dear Margaret, a relatively new restaurant in Chicago named for the late grandmother of executive chef Ryan Brosseau. He and owner Lacey Irby have quietly staked a claim as one of the best in the midwest, with a restaurant that has already proven its mettle after opening in the midst of a pandemic winter… here’s this pretty little fish dish that evoked memories of childhood nights at Montrose Beach and my one exquisite dinner at a Tokyo tempura dinner. The herbaceous tartar sauce was so stunning, it had me doing the fry-to-sauce calculus, wondering if I had enough. All this beauty and bounty in a takeout box.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that was Chu’s experience dining in her car. A necessity of timing, to be sure, and Chu tells a lovely story of the way we find meaning in eating in the way I sincerely hope we’re almost done eating, fine food out of cardboard boxes—but Dear Margaret has “romantic little neighborhood spot” written all over it, and one hopes it will get reviewed again once it realizes that destiny.

Meanwhile, Nick Kindelsperger actually dines in with other humans at Andros Taverna, the new Greek restaurant from Doug Psaltis and his wife Hsing Chen:

If, like me, you spent the past year ordering takeout and forking food out of tiny boxes, you may have forgotten the joy of watching strangers eat… Turns out I missed groups raising their glasses for an impromptu toast, the gawking that occurs when servers drop off the next course at a neighboring table, and even the frantic turned heads when dropped silverware unexpectedly clangs on the floor.

From there Kindelsperger proceeds to find joy in classics done exceedingly well:

Any regular visitor to Chicago’s classic Greektown restaurants will probably recognize most of the dishes, though they will undoubtedly look stripped to the bone. Take the grilled Mediterranean octopus ($28), which arrives with nothing but a lemon wedge. This could seem needlessly spare for the price, until you cut in and realize that you never knew octopus could be as tender and juicy as pork, without any trace of rubberiness.

Instead of some elaborate cooking method, Psaltis noted that the kitchen doesn’t fuss with the octopus much. It’s all about sourcing. “The octopus is from Spain,” he said. “It’s unparalleled. It’s the best quality I’ve ever had.”

Taken together the two reviews are more reporting than Anton Ego-esque flights of fancy—both involve interviewing the people behind the restaurants, and tallying individual items to highlight standouts, but nevertheless, remaining pretty down to earth about the experiences.

So that’s the good news; the Tribune’s food reviewing, its future in question not long ago, is in good hands now. Here’s the bad news.

For some years, the Trib’s way of managing a paywall has been to allow a certain number of free reads, and then after that to require a subscription. This is perfectly reasonable, and from the point of view of someone like me doing a media digest, it works in that if I link to a story and you follow it, you can read the story, but if you keep following them, at some point you ought to be a subscriber and help pay for the writing of them.

But now there’s a new wrinkle. Certain stories are being flagged as “exclusive content reserved for our subscribers.” You will see that message right now if you are not a subscriber and click to read either the Dear Margaret review or the Andros Taverna one. Evidently they’ve taken my comments that reviewing is a core appeal of a newspaper to heart, and made it so you have to subscribe to partake of it—to be part of that conversation.

So where does that leave me, with my media digest? I’m trying to offer my readers a panoramic view of the commentary on restaurants at the moment, from major media to indie reviewers like Titus Ruscitti. But if you can’t click on my link and get to the story without being a subscriber, what’s the point of me covering it? If you don’t subscribe you can’t ever see it, and if you do subscribe, you don’t need me telling you to read what you already pay for.

Yes, I could quote liberally enough from the piece so as to make the subscription not strictly necessary, but I don’t believe in skirting paywalls so blatantly, and anyway, I’ll get a cease and desist letter for that eventually.

In the end, it’s not my responsibility to keep the Tribune in a conversation that they’ve made it a matter of policy to be out of. So I’m not sure what I ought to do here, but if the Trib’s reviews are going to be off-limits to many people,* then that’s a choice they’ve made for me. My little newsletter is about things available to the public, and I’ll point you to things you can actually access. If the Tribune chooses to be inaccessible to you, and to the national food media who once looked to Vettel and Co. to know what was going on in Chicago, then it can take care of itself. (By the way, the same is true of Crain’s, which now requires a business-priced subscription for nearly everything; I have no idea, as a result, if their reviews have resumed or not.)

At least that’s how I lean now—that it’s not worth my effort to cover writing that its own publisher has closed off to the general public this way. What do you think?

* Among those they’re locking out of the conversation are food media people in other cities—like Tom Sietsema who’s been writing so much about the new reviewers at the Trib. This is a failing of the newspaper business generally. I might want to read, say, Soleil Ho’s writing in the San Franscisco Chronicle occasionally. But once I’ve read all my freebies, there is no way to read more without committing a couple of hundred bucks a year to having access to local SF politics and high school sports in Tiburon and the Sunday magazine on weekend getaways in Sonoma. There is no intermediate step that allows me to pay a little to read only what interests me, and so they remain committed to being a bunch of walled regional fiefdoms in a time of global media and niche interests.


There’s a story in the New York Times about people who used to have restaurants and are now making foods in jars and selling them. It’s the new alt economy, and they’re fighting capitalism and the bad old restaurant world! Never mind that chefs have been doing this all along—I’ve got any number of barbecue sauces at home tied to some restaurant at any given moment, and a variety of products bearing names like Rick Bayless and This Little Goat in my pantry. The Times, like so much of media, has the habit of announcing the invention of things that have long already existed.

But there are interesting things worth checking out here, notably from the first person mentioned in the story: Jennifer Kim, who had Passerotto and now has an effort literally called Alt Economy. What is maybe new is the depth of the collective aspect of these efforts:

A recent kit included an Asian-inspired charcuterie box with spiced, air-cured beef encrusted with sumac and Urfa pepper; a firm, Alpine-style cheese from Vermont selected by the Chicago-based cheesemonger Alisha Norris; umami-rich sunchoke miso butter with preserved lemon; and bread from Loaf Lounge Bread, a Chicago-based company founded by two former restaurant bakers. Kim sources ingredients from nearby purveyors as much as possible, acting as a conduit between suppliers and diners.

Not the only effort like this that brings a variety of vendors together, but maybe one of the most wide-ranging. That’s cool—and kind of new.

One other thing I just want to comment on. I heard about this piece because Kim posted about it on Instagram, where she said:

When Passerotto closed in September, I was 100% sure I would ride off into the food media sunset. Without a brick + mortar, it felt as though I had lost credibility as a chef and an owner. Award orgs like @michelinguide @beardfoundation @jeanbanchetawards don’t recognize categories outside of traditional business models and, although we all have mixed feelings about the award processes and intentions, they still offer chefs+owners opportunities for social advancement, especially if your place is a small independent spot.

Actually she’d already had some pretty good publicity about her efforts, and if 2020 was about anything, it’s that food media were eager to write about startups and popups and unusual foods made in unusual places, like hers. All you gotta do is pitch some writers! But I’d like to say something about the awards shows. Awards tend to be lagging indicators, and it’s absolutely right that Michelin is not going to honor somebody’s underground supper club out of their apartment when it’s three months old, or even three years old. Iliana Regan’s One Sister never got a star, but Elizabeth did. That’s how they work. The Beards are more open to such things—Margaret Pak of Thattu, a popup in a food hall, made the short list in its year of existence.

But I can tell you that the Banchets try to be on top of what’s evolving on the food scene. A couple of years ago they had a category for alternative dining—mostly food trucks, though Trevor Teich’s underground dinner Claudia was also a nominee. They planned to do it the next year, but by then it seemed hard to find trucks or underground dining that lasted long enough to be nominated. Instead that was the year of food halls, and so they created a new category for counter service dining that would include those things. (Thattu was among the nominees, and look who made the Beards short list a couple of months later.)

Last year, of course, food halls all closed up and instead we had Detroit pizza popups and Japanese convenience store sandwiches and so on, as well as people making other kinds of food like Jennifer Kim is. There were no Banchet awards last year, so none of that got nominated, but if they happen this year, I would expect an effort to assess what’s happening all over the food scene, and reflect it in the nominees and categories. Kim—a 2020 Banchet winner—shouldn’t count herself out yet.


I’ve heard it a lot lately—that “everyone” thinks restaurant employees are staying home because they get decent unemployment benefits right now, as has been said a lot lately. (The people saying it are usually less saying that themselves, than attacking straw men who think it’s that simple.) I’m not convinced that everyone thinks that. I suspect there’s a natural rate of churn through the industry that has been ramped up by a lot of things during lockdown, and a lot less in the way of a rate of replacement—as Michael Muser tells Josh Noel at the Tribune, “My concern is they’re gone — they’re gone. I don’t think there’s this small army of hospitality people waiting for some green light to come back.” Anyway, Noel looks at the issue and the range of responses to it, as well as the need for better wage structures in a business that has long been in need of reform and may finally be forced to accept it. (Not exclusively for subscribers.)


Time Out Market reopens on June 17, with some of its previous vendors plus new ones. The first time around it was lacking on the black Chicago side, so this time they have hot barbecue fave Soul and Smoke, Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, and Shawn Michelle’s ice cream, the latter two both from Bronzeville. See the full list at Time Out.

Jonathan Waxman, who brought California cuisine to New York with Barbuto, will bring it to the new River North Avec on June 13, one night only. Go here to reserve your spot.

And farmers markets are opening up all over the place—Green City’s West Loop location is going, and so’s a market in Portage Park (Block Club has more), and a vegan market at the Plant—a former meat processor—in Back of the Yards (also Block Club). Wait, aren’t most vegetables vegan? Yes, but they also have craft vendors making vegan stuff.

To me the big news about farmers markets is that they’ve gotten rid of most of the city overregulation they suffered from last year—regulated because they could be, even as grocery stores saw no similar regulation. So you had to line up for entry, walk in a prescribed path, couldn’t really look at the goods except from several feet away, no matter where you stood in line for something someone would come tell you that you were standing in the wrong place… a lot of busybody effort went into sucking the fun out of farmers markets in 2020, based on no proven science about COVID-19. Honest to God, I found myself driving to Elmhurst just because it had a relatively libertarian farmers market (including local beer) and it was more fun to make an adventure out of the drive than to get ordered about in Andersonville or Lincoln Square. But all that seems to be over—well, except for the masks. Yes, we’re still wearing masks, vaccinated, outdoors, in the fresh air. But I can take that for now.

For more coverage of farmers markets, check out Bob Benenson’s Local Food Forum.


“I think that fermented foods have changed lives. My form of love and expression is just being able to give that to the community.” So says Sebastian Vargo of “Vargo Brother Ferments, which has been churning out a prodigious variety of lacto-fermented pickles, krauts, kimchi, condiments, and kombuchas since last summer,” per Mike Sula. (Look for obligatory fighting-capitalism quote at the end.)


I read that Chinatown stalwart Ken Kee had been modernized into a “Hong Kong-style cafe.” But what does that mean, exactly? Steve Dolinsky explains.


At Chicago, Amy Cavanaugh rounds up all the new barbecue being offered around town, like John Manion’s Babygold Barbecue at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, and the inevitable Soul and Smoke.


I can’t think of many things that say “stay away” more than a dessert shop in Boystown called Sugar Blow patronized by influencers, but Titus Ruscitti points out what’s interesting about it—it’s Venezuelan:

Over the last five years or so Chicago has gone from virtually no Venezuelan restaurants to what’s now a couple handfuls worth of options. It’s not all a feel good story though as many of the people behind these newly opened restaurants came to the United States to escape unrest in Venezuela. Many have opened restaurants as a means of making a living and also to feed many of those that have recently relocated and might be looking for a taste of the old country…

Lots of online reviews mention the sandwiches and the baguettes they use to build some of their interesting sandwich options. The bread is baked in house and comes stuffed with options like steak or chicken. The meats are grilled and then chopped down and all of the sandwiches come with a blanket of melted cheese on top as well as some standard food-service fries that are kicked up with a dry spice blend.

He also looks at the fish sandwich offerings around town.


Wine from Virginia—it’s not all Thomas Jefferson any more! David Hammond checks it out:

Although Virginia has a long way to go to approach California’s level of production, the fact that it is an “emerging” wine region means there are values out there. Napa wines are, notoriously, too damn expensive; wines from Virginia, which have yet to gain the cachet enjoyed by California wines, are still reasonably priced, and there are a lot of very good Virginia wines.


Big congrats to Friend of Fooditor Meathead Goldwyn on finally being inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame, after many nominations for his cookbook and peerlessly scientific site AmazingRibs.com. No other Chicagoans got in this year, and it’s somewhat surprising that it took till now for the Kansas City-based organization to (posthumously) honor Kansas City’s best-known BBQ business owners, Arthur Bryant and Ollie Gates. (Henry Perry, who founded what became Arthur Bryant’s, was already in the Hall.)


Why are there no Waffle Houses in Chicago? Some great things you have to find in their natural habitats, and that’s why John Greenfield takes off on his bike for the nearest one—in Avon, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. Personally, I like Waffle House—one of the best pictures I ever took of my two sons was in a Waffle House in Richmond—but I’d have called an audible for breakfast at Milktooth.


The only sushi I’d had for a year was a platter for the whole family from Lawrence Fish Market—then I got an invite to Sushi Suite 202, which is sushi in a hotel room at the Hotel Lincoln. Not one of those things I’d ever thought to do on my own, but kind of perfect for this moment when we’re easing back into dining out, but still might want a reduced crowd around us.

You go in the room (on the second floor, if you hadn’t guessed), which has the feel of a basement hangout, and there’s a bar at one end, and then the sushi counter at the other. Capacity for each is… four. Once the personable chef starts up, though, there’s nothing small time about the setup, which features a set menu of very high quality fish, mostly brushed with soy sauce or occasionally handled in some other way (lightly torched, for instance), produced efficiently over the next 75 minutes. Alongside we had pairing pours of sake and wine, well chosen for what we were eating. I might have had doubts about the seriousness of the concept, but I was entirely happy with the meal, kind of charmed, really, and felt that it was appropriate to its price point—17 courses for $125 before tax and tip—relative to other omakase in town. So pick a close friend, or three, and reserve a spot in this hotel room.

I’m starting to interview some of my book interviewees in person, so I had lunches with two of them at neighborhood spots that seemed potentially interesting. In neither case did I think that the potential was met, though, so I mention them just for the record. The Night Market is an Asian—mainly Filipino—restaurant in the former police station that Arun Sampanthavivat had originally turned into a Thai restaurant. The space is still substantially nicer than the average Thai spot. but the very long menu seemed to be a lot of expected things—bowls, wings and so on. The one section that seemed original and potentially interesting was Filipino burritos—but the one I tried, filled with sisig (pork) along with rice, cheese and salsa verde, did not have the cross-cultural pizazz of Korean burritos. Imagine if Chipotle added sisig as a choice for their burritos…

And Chipotle came to mind again when I saw the very sleek and modern menu at Jarasa Kabob up on Dempster. As my dining companion pointed out, if you’re just down the street from Pita Inn, you need to be ready to wow people with middle eastern food, and my chieken shawarma wrap was extremely… acceptable. What was unacceptable bordering on baffling was a side order of muthawma. To be honest I was thinking muhammara, the spicy pepper dip, but this turned out to be its polar opposite—North Polar since it was ice cold, but basically cold mashed potatoes with a hint of lemon. Where is that what you want alongside your hot shawarma wrap? Mystifying.