On Friday I interviewed some chefs, and asked them how their restaurants were doing in the age of Coronavirus. A little slump, but not terrible, most of them said. The main thing they’d noticed was that hotels were hurting—they were seeing a lot of applications suddenly from hotel restaurant workers.

By Sunday afternoon, just 48 hours later, the entire bar and restaurant scene had been ordered closed by Governor Pritzker, effective at the end of service on Monday and continuing through Monday, March 30. The pictures of clueless St. Patrick’s Day drinkers crowding Chicago bars made shutting them down inevitable.

A decade we had H1N1, and almost nobody remembers it even happened. We’ll remember this.

We might spend one month staying home, as we would in a nasty winter, and then it’s over and normal resumes. That’s got to be what a lot of people are hoping. But there’s just as good a chance that a lot of things that have been on the cusp of changing in our world for a while, will change in big ways. Maybe lots more people will discover that they like working from home. Maybe students will discover that they learn better electronically. I get a newsletter about the entertainment industry, and a lot of it is about, what if this is the thing that finally kills off regular moviegoing, and makes it a once a year thing like live theater while we stream everything else?

For the restaurant industry, there’s a lot of possibilities. We were already projected to reach a 50-50 point where takeout/delivery/drive-through food saw as much spending as in-restaurant dining. Well, it will either be 100% of that, or closure, for the next two weeks.

And we might never go back, ratifying a fundamental change in how we eat. Takeout is a side business for many restaurants, but how will restaurants change if it becomes the main source of income, or even double or triple the 5-10% it typically is now? How does the restaurant scene, or even the whole city, change if seating people in a pleasant room with nice chairs and attentive service becomes the side gig instead?

Eons ago mid-last week, Amy Cavanaugh had an excellent piece at Chicago mag about how restaurants are being affected, maybe forever:

Even once the threat of the virus passes, restaurant owners worry that the damage may be lasting — not just economically, but socially.

“The tavern culture is one of close contact, often with strangers, shaking hands, clinking glasses and even shared plates. All this is at risk,” [Hopleaf owner Michael] Roper says. “My fear is beyond the current crisis: Habits change, fears become engrained. We already struggle with people going out less and staying home with laptops, Netflix, Uber Eats and Door Dash. This could have long-lasting effects that would be catastrophic for our business.”

For now, there’s efforts at imperfect but maybe useful ways to tide the little guys over so they’re still there some months from now, with lots of encouragement to buy gift cards for future use (as for Edzo’s here). Special events were already being canceled or postponed—including the James Beard Awards in Chicago, pushed from May to the fall.

On a higher price level, there’s one high-visibility restaurant group in particular that is dependent on out of town traffic—The Alinea Group. They’ve since shut down entirely (no way to do Next Paris To Go), but before they did, Nick Kokonas had a Medium post laying out how they were reacting to a huge jump in cancellations. Starting with allowing cancellations at all: “Customers may book, cancel, reschedule, or refund at their request, no questions asked.” More interesting is how they’re planning for a prolonged slowdown, including what he calls potentially “mothballing” some or all of their restaurants:

If we decide it is prudent to close our restaurants, or are required to do so, we will essentially ‘mothball’ the businesses by furloughing 95% of employees while paying TAG’s share of their healthcare benefits which are critical during this pandemic…

Modeling this all took some time, but we’ve estimated losses of between $170,000 and $900,000 monthly for our restaurant group, depending on various scenarios…

At some point fairly soon, it will likely not make sense to remain open, even if it is safe to do so.

And indeed it didn’t.

Phillip Foss has a piece at The Takeout with a similar view, if no charts: “Bottom line is this: Some of your favorite restaurants will close in the coming weeks and months. You can count on it… We’ve seen something like this before. I was working in a large hotel in 2009 when the recession arrived, causing expendable income and tourism to dry up like raisins in the desert sun, and the accounting department cut back everywhere. The same thing is happening all over the country right now, especially in big cities.”

Chandra Ram at Plate has advice for restaurants on how to handle it... including the huge uncertainty of it all: “I wish I had the answers for how to survive this time, but—spoiler alert—anyone who claims to have the answers is lying. We just don’t know what’s next, and how bad this is going to get. What you can do immediately is communicate openly and transparently to your customers. People learned from the 2008 recession and Sept 11 how important it is to support small businesses in tough times.”

Monica Eng has chef reactions to Governor Pritzker’s move, gathered at a meetup at Chef’s Special:

“I didn’t sleep last night thinking about this,” said John Manion, chef and owner of El Che restaurant right before the announcement.

“We have gone through a weekend where every day it has gotten more serious,” Manion said. “For me, in my small business, I’m going to close. I just can’t in good conscience be part of the problem anymore but I’m a small business and can make that decision. We are going to of course take care of our hourly employees but we are going to need some help and relief.”

Manion is among chefs who have taken part in an Instagram-based call for relief to Governor Pritzker, including Jason Hammel and Noah Sandoval.

I expect that we will see places that people like, and were doing okay until now, not make it in the coming months. And not just restaurants—people will lose jobs, hit hard times, and leave the industry. Farms will be strained, maybe done in, by the loss of their restaurant customers. And we will likely lose media as well—The Tribune is run by beady-eyed piranhas, the Reader could face a similar crisis as Seattle’s alt-biweekly The Stranger which is suffering from loss of event revenue, and Time Out owns a shuttered food hall (they closed, due to their size being well over the 500-person limit, even before everything closed). Not a promising picture.

The restaurant economy has been fantastically good since the 2009 financial crisis, and Chicago’s real estate industry has gotten fat off its back—and that time has ended. What rough beast slouches toward Randolph Street in its place is what we will all have to wait to see.


It’s not up yet, but Sunday afternoon I was among those appearing on Amuzed, with Phillip Foss and others along with hosts Michael Muser and Pat Kiely, talking about the restaurant situation. Watch for it today.


First there was the ramen craze. Then there was the trough after the peak of the ramen craze. And now there’s a couple of new ramen places that have everybody excited again, as Nick Kindelsperger reports as part of the Trib’s Japanese theme this month. He tried 24 bowls, ranked 12 as outstanding, and had a tie for first place. One is Chicago Ramen, specializing in tsukemen out in Des Plaines: “The chicken-vegetable-pork broth with miso paste comes out screaming hot and as thick as gravy. Take a sip and it can seem aggressively salty and meaty. But dunk some of the noodles in and each slurp is a riveting balance of cold and hot, bouncy and creamy.”

The other is Menya Goku in North Center, from the owners of Wasabi (also on the list at #12) and Ramen Takeya (whose paitan is at #6): “Each sip of the porky broth was spicy, but not incendiary, with a thick nuttiness that clung to the wire-thin, yet still springy noodles. Thanks to the addition of Sichuan peppercorns, a numbing citrus note hovered around the heat, making it feel like you just wrapped a thick sweater around your body.”

Mike Sula also has praise for Menya Goku this week after praising Chicago Ramen last week: “Menya Goku could skate by on the tan tan men alone, featuring a thin, almost snappy noodle from the Ippudo chain. These don’t have much on the popular Sun brand sourced by many spots, but they’re almost inconsequential amid the nutty powerfully soporific broth, whose heat, electrified by both sansho pepper and Sichuan peppercorn, amps up the deeper one descends into its depths. Tan tan men isn’t the rarity that tsukemen is in Chicago, but this is the first one I’ve taken seriously.”

Buzz 2


Phil Vettel tries two speedy takes on omakase. One is under Kaze Chan at Lettuce Entertain You’s Sushi San, and Vettel says “The 45-minute omakase is definitely more approachable than the hourslong versions at other Chicago spots, but it’s hardly rudimentary… I’ll make note of the delicious nori-bound combo of king crab and sea urchin, and the chopped unagi (freshwater eel) with sansho pepper, avocado and panko.”

While Sushi Suite 202 is “a tricked-out hotel room inside the Hotel Lincoln… When it’s time, you’ll be ushered to one of the six sushi-bar seats, mere inches away from your chef. Kin Wangchuk and Jordan Dominguez take turns running the show. Some gorgeous pieces of fish are on display in a glass-topped box, and though a few pieces on the cutting board have been presliced, clearly this happened moments before.”


Mike Sula also has a piece on Jibaritos y Mas, on its way to becoming a chain devoted to the Chicago invention of Puerto Rican culture: “’You have to get dirty,’ says Jesus Arrieta, [Yelitza] Rivera’s son, who enlisted with his mother four years ago when she opened Jibaritos y Mas at the corner of Fullerton and Kimball, the footprint of a nascent jibarito empire. ‘You gotta hold it with your two hands and don’t be scared of it. You have to attack it.’”


Graham Meyer seems to find Avli River North quite pleasant, despite some early service problems (but none of the noise problems that seemed to bedevil Phil Vettel): “The familiarly named dishes on the menu generally taste just as you’d hope or one step better. Chicken souvlaki ($12 for one skewer, $18 for two) matches a grill-marked exterior with a tender, juicy interior, enhanced further by a squeeze of charred lemon—fulfilling expectations. Gyros ($13) have puffy pita with personality, a sour-cream-like tzatziki and full-flavored, ungreasy Berkshire pork shoulder substituted for the beef-lamb-cone stuff—exceeding them.”


Ina Pinkney’s breakfast column is back and her first stop, wisely, is warm and homey Lizzy J Cafe (next door to Menya Goku, by the way): “Chef Jamie Gilmore has a catering company and recently decided to open a cafe to show off her great palate, superb food and homey hospitality. The space she created has reminders of love all around, with charming signs and seats for about 20.”

Then she’s off to Albany Park for El Fogon de Elena: “Please begin with the empanadas. They are sold by the piece, so order a selection. And take my advice: Over order!” Finally, a return visit to Frances’ Deli, under new chef Derek Rylon (Batter & Berries): “The menu is full of pancakes, crepes, waffles and French toast options, as well as omelets and specialties that I crave. Hello, chicken and waffles and blintzes.”


I wouldn’t have bet on Le Bouchon being Titus Ruscitti’s lone review this week, bur he did visit Lyon a couple of years ago: “Le Bouchon thrives on the fact its menu is super consistent to where it’s pretty much all good so just order what sounds like something you’d enjoy. For me that’s a simple but perfectly executed Lyonnaise Salad which must have the real French lardon as they do here.”


“At first, Kevin Boehm, the co-owner of Boka Group, describes the changes to Bellemore as ‘Bellemore 2.0.’ About halfway through our chat, he revises that and says it’s ‘more like Bellemore 1.25.’” That’s the opening of Anthony Todd’s piece, which explains why Bellemore‘s management and Chef Jimmy Papadopolous are reconfiguring the restaurant at a lower brasserie price point—”Gone is the calligraphy-laden website, the Instagram-famous (and insanely pricy) oyster pie, and the traditional three-course tasting menu. The dining room has been slightly redesigned, there’s more bar seating, and everything is just a little bit brighter.” I guess all the Instagrammers had taken pictures of the oyster pie by now—last time I ate there, I sat near the pass, and that thing was flying out at $69 a slice.


Something’s always changing at Mitsuwa, the Japanese food hall/mall in Arlington Heights, and Louisa Chu has a slideshow guide to what’s out there now.


Chewing starts a new season by talking to Michael Pollan about coffee and David Lebovitz about cocktail culture in France (he has a cool book, Drinking French, on that topic).


Read Boka Group head Kevin Boehm’s tribute to his mother, Dorothy Boehm, who passed away Saturday, here.


Well, needless to say what I’ve mostly been eating lately is Chinese food in Chinatown. Nevertheless, I have tried a couple of things, though this could turn out to be the last of this item for a while:

Before the Coronavirus concerns fully hit, I went back to Gaijin—which at that point was packed. My goal was to try the Osaka versus the Hiroshima styles of okonomiyaki, as well as some of the other dishes such as the yakisoba. The difference is said to be that Osaka style is all mixed together, while Hiroshima is layered—or was it the other way around? The big difference was that Hiroshima-style has yakisoba noodles mixed in. In any case, it was all good, I especially liked a special of a whitefish Osaka style okonomiyaki, lots of fish mixed in, and I have to say it reheated surprisingly well the next day. I really like that a high quality (in technique and ingredient) version of this street dish exists here now.

Speaking of Japanese specialties, I had a niece visiting who wanted to go to the Art Institute, so I finally had a reason to be downtown at the right time for Hanabusa, the cafe offering what everyone describes as “Japanese souffle pancakes.” They’re fun, little pillowy pancakes an inch thick, mostly topped with sweet stuff though I pushed that by ordering one with pork floss and nori on it. (Too weird, porky-fishy pancakes, stick to the sweet stuff.) I enjoyed it though to me it seems a missed opportunity that it only opens at 11—pancakes and fruit are not the stuff of lunch to me.

After doing an interview in Hyde Park, I decided to try Soul Shack, the soul food fast casual place along 53rd. It was a bit chaotic when I got in there, which I can’t say made me think it was going to prove to be anything great—but I was very happy with the fried chicken wings, good flavor and a crackly exterior, and some excellent porky greens. As part of the interview (which you’ll read soon) we had slices of pie from Justice of the Pies—and oh man, the key lime pie with basil and strawberries on top, which sounds more like a cocktail, was terrific, one of the best things I’ve had this year. Her pies are only for catering right now, she gave up her riverfront space downtown, but she has plans for a new product coming to carts in the spring or summer (pending, like everything, where we are by then). So watch for that.

Sparrow Black 2019