I got my first vaccine shot last Tuesday. So the crisis is officially coming to an end. Well, not just because of me but because more and more people I know have gotten them, or will soon.

We’ll return to the world we knew. But like at the end of a war, we have a chance to make it, well, not exactly the world we knew, but something better. The effort to get rid of tipping, mentioned below and more on that in a moment, is one example of the kind of change we could make happen to make the restaurant industry more equitable and decent.

I’m going to throw out one change I’d like to see. So much of the restaurant awards complex took the period of lockdown off. I’d like to politely suggest they continue to do so, and tread lightly back into this world.

Of the big dogs, Michelin handled the situation with relative sensitivity, recognizing in America that they were in no position to judge restaurants by their usual elite standards when everyone they had honored in the past had pivoted to short ribs in cardboard boxes, and service was a matter of how efficiently you lined cars up in the pickup line. Under the circumstances, they wisely bowed out (though not in Europe).

The other big dog, the James Beard Awards, made a royal hash of it, calling off their awards when their judges failed to deliver the racially balanced slate of winners that to be honest, everything about how the awards are structured made nearly impossible. (The voting body is largely high end chefs and elite food and travel writers; the awards had traditionally gone to high end restaurants, and the high end chefs had routinely been allowed to nominate their own proteges. Yet somehow the Beards expected this group, without any change in the structure of the awards or clear messaging from the top, to magically get the idea that they were all supposed to vote for BIPOC nominees now.)

So they both backed off of the scene in 2020. And the result has been an explosion in creativity and new ways of serving customers. Now, I’m not saying that it’s a direct thing—that these new ideas only happened because there was no Michelin, no Beard awards.

But the award shows do peddle certain views of what restaurants should be, rooted in old ways of dining, Paris in the 20s and New York in the 80s, a somewhat settled and rigid idea of who restaurants are for and what diners want from them. This is why I think both have had some trouble comprehending Chicago, because so much of our dining has been about inventing a more casual style of dining and cooking—that doesn’t feel the need to check off all the things high end dining, and media about high end dining, have demanded restaurants have. And if that’s been strong for a decade on our scene, the last year pushed it into hyperdrive.

So it’s been a year of experimentation, of finding out what really pleases diners and what chefs really want to make. Some, no doubt, will race back into pre-lockdown haute cuisine, thrilled to be able to make delicate crudos and cover a plate with dots again. To not put a side of garlic mashed potatoes in every order. But that should be their choice—not the expectation of some out of town group. Let Chicago be Chicago and discover for ourselves what our post-lockdown food is going to be—and while we’re at it let Houston be Houston, and San Diego be San Diego, and let all the places that have interesting scenes rooted in immigration patterns and a few exciting young chefs find their own ideas of what dining out is now. I’m not saying these guys shouldn’t give awards—I’ve been pretty critical of the Beards bailing on the restaurant industry in a time of need, and a well-chosen award can really help a lesser-known chef working in a less familiar tradition—but do so with humility and respect for the local culture in all its uniqueness and diversity. Follow the Prime Directive, not to interfere in the natural development of local civilizations.

Buzz 2


I have a feeling tipping will never die, but following a year of lockdown, could it finally become the exception rather than the rule, and is that a good thing? Big Jones is one of the latest to eliminate tipping in favor of a service charge, and chef Paul Fehribach explains his thinking to Eater:

“I think the biggest problem with tipping for me is the power that it gives a customer over one of my employees,” Fehribach says. “It’s a power that’s not appropriate in any other business. Why it’s appropriate in the restaurant business, I don’t know.”

Pete Ternes of Middle Brow Bungalow makes a similar point:

“Tips allow you to rely on customers to effectively pay your labor costs,” says Ternes. “It’s a little bit backward: Like every other industry in the damn world, we should be pricing labor costs into our product. If everyone did that, we’d have to design a business plan around it.”


It’s time for the Reader’s annual best of voting—so our chance to find out, as we do each year, that there are readers who think Sultan’s Market is the absolute height of middle eastern food in Chicago. But as always (I helped with it a couple of years) the staffers have their shot, too, so here’s Mike Sula praising the Kimski/Marz Brewing Community Kitchen + Canteen’s free meals program, Kaylen Ralph on deep diving one of Chicago’s ethnic groceries, Dmitry Samarov on the limbo in which the Skylark has existed for a year, and more.


The Tribune has a Reader’s Choice thing going on too, and in the meantime they kicked it off in the manner of Time magazine picking You as the Person of the Year, by naming every hospitality worker in town Person of the Year. But then, recognizing that that’s kind of an empty gesture, they talk about some individual servers and folks nominated by their employers and customers. Like Josh Keesecker, a bartender at Shaw’s:

“Josh Keesecker has this uncanny ability to not only remember previous guests, but specific things about them. He knows what kind of oysters will suit me and always tips me off to the best dishes on the menu…Josh has a family to support. This past year has been tough on so many, including him, but I’ve never heard one complaint. His attention is always on serving the customer, and Josh and the others treat me like family.”

More honorees are in this piece.


I’ve known for a while that David Hammond and Monica Eng were working on a book about only-in-Chicago foods, though they’ve been fairly quiet about it. This week in NewCity Hammond gives us a a first preview, talking about Malört, taffy grapes and Bridgeport breaded steak sandwiches:

simply a chicken-fried steak with marinara sauce and melted mozzarella, served on a segment of Gonnella bread. The standard condiments, as with the Italian beef sandwich, are sweet peppers, giardiniera, or both; we go with both, as this combination provides a good blast of sweet and heat that complement the savory meat. After eating a breaded steak sandwich from Ricobene’s, a friend of mine reflected, “There were moments when I was absolutely convinced that I was eating breaded carpet padding.”

Long time players of the LTHForum home game will recognize that as a quote from the legendary Erik M.


I’ve been urging someone to take up reviewing as publications give up the mission, and now Brad Cawn, who wrote this piece for Fooditor, has launched a site called Last Meal Chicago devoted to reviews that show thoughtfulness about how restaurants absorb influences and turn them into something new. His latest review is on Porto and Ever and where the tasting menu will go in the post-lockdown world:

We are long overdue for a reconsideration of what fine dining has to offer, especially in a post-pandemic world; we’ve already reconceived and repositioned the role of casual restaurants in the last year, after all. The standouts among the literally hundreds of pop-ups and virtual kitchens conceived during/because of the COVID-19 outbreak are the storytellers: narrative imbues the cuisine of the motherland, BBQ, sandwiches, even pizza. These restaurants are personal; they fit the moment. How can a multi-hour meal of decontextualized bites, built on a 19th century service model and leaning hard on overused luxury ingredients, ever compare?

Porto he finds less Galician as advertised, than stuck in Gallic tradition:

Though the technique was largely impeccable—and potentially enough to earn a star—the food consistently lacked the identity and intensity it promised. No smoke. No salinity. No sharpness. A duck breast, brilliantly cooked to a rare- medium rare, bore no trace of its dry aging or the grill, and its fermented plum jus and sunchoke purée accompaniments harkened to a turkey dinner more than I presume intended; mackerel bore the char and crisp skin you expect, but the fish lacked its trademark oiliness and saltiness, and an accompanying squid ink “escabeche” provided little to no acidity in support.

Ever comes in for a smack, to wake it up:

My experience with [Curtis] Duffy’s cuisine over the years has left the impression he does his best work in his opening and final salvos, and Ever is no exception: an amuse of little canapes–croquettes, pate choux pastry, soup–built around potatoes is air-tight, clear in their conception as to the straight line to deliciousness the combination of spuds, dairy, and truffle can provide; a knockout mignardise at meal’s end finds caramel coated in finely-shaved truffles, a novel mix of forest floor and sticky-sweet. It’s telling that neither is listed on the menu provided to guests.

Alas, there is little joy on the plates between start and finish, their collective impression polite, muted, boring.

It’s exciting to have someone engage with the food so thoughtfully—and it’s not all going to be high end; here’s a piece on a burger at Big Kids. The inevitable “what’s wrong with reviewing” piece is here.


I admitted on Twitter this week that I’m somewhat lost trying to keep track of all the popups, which you have to order from Tuesday morning to get food on Friday, and all that. I’m having to devote a considerable amount of my food brain to where chefs of the 80s worked and what those places were famous for, having to keep 2021 in my head at the same time is tough, especially with popups and ghost kitchens, which don’t give me the clues of a physical location for remembering stuff.

So Titus Ruscitti has a great piece this week on some things to be found out there in ghost kitchens and so on. You had me at “the city’s first or least it’s only current Azerbaijani restaurant”:

When I first started reading about these large venues that host multiple restaurants I was a bit skeptic. Heck I still am and that’s bc a decent percentage of the spaces rented out in these ghost kitchen campuses are by the likes of Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A etc. This one in Avondale pictured above hosts a TGI-Friday’s. But it’s also the home to House of Fire which is the city’s first or least it’s only current Azerbaijani restaurant. Azerbaijan being a former Soviet Republic that stretches across both Europe and Asia. Thus you can expect those wonderful aromas and flavors associated with Central Asian cuisine. I love both Georgian Dumplings (Khinkali) and also the Russian version called pelmeni. So I was excited to try the Azeri dumplings called Gurze. They’re made with lamb and seasoned with what might be cinnamon and dill as well as other bold spices and served with a yogurt dipping sauce.


Has anyone been screwed over more this year than Tamale Guy Claudio Velez? Attention got him ratted out to the city, he got COVID, and now the one bright side—that partners opened a much talked-about Tamale Guy restaurant—has gone bad. He’s suing those partners, Pierre and Kristin Vega:

“Almost immediately after signing a lease for a restaurant, they slowly but surely tried to squeeze him out of the business and take control,” Velez’s lawyer, Michael Pomerantz, told the Tribune on Thursday.

Velez was last at the restaurant on Tuesday, the day after the suit was filed. Left without income from the restaurant, he’d hoped to make tamales and resume his work selling them to bar patrons, he said.

“I just wanted to cook some tamales to support my two daughters and pay my rent. I wanted to start working again, like I used to at the bars,” Velez said in Spanish through a translator. “But Pierre said I couldn’t work out of there. He said, ‘There’s no space in the refrigerators. If you try to do work here, I’m going to sue you.’”


Not the oldest, but perhaps the most storied pizza chain in Chicago—to mark Lou Malnati’s (the chain’s) 50th birthday, Steve Dolinsky talks to Marc Malnati on Pizza City USA.


Don’t rage cook Ma Po Tofu, you’ll just make a hot mess, warns friend of Fooditor Maggie Hennessy in a column for Salon.


Paula Vettel, wife of Phil Vettel, died of cancer last Monday. Here’s the retired reviewer’s own remembrance of his wife and dining companion.


Years ago I had “hunter beef”—a cured meat something like central Asian basturma/pastrami—at a little spot on Devon called Spinzer’s. That’s where Sandwich Tribunal goes first, to explore the history of this Pakistani foodstuff.


Before pumpkin spice lattes, before hot and cold lassis at Alinea, classic soda fountains used to start making hot sodas when the weather turned cold. Which means the start of spring was exactly the least appropriate time for a piece on them at Atlas Obscura, but check it out anyway.


That’s what a lot of people tell me when I start to interview them for my book. Here’s a guy who did: Ken McGarrie, whose career has taken him all over including The Hunt Club in Chicago, has written and self-published a guide for people who’ve just been promoted to a managerial position in a restaurant, The Surprise Restaurant Manager, with a foreword by Fabio Viviani.


One I’ve missed is Lula Cafe—when there’s so much gussied-up comfort food being served in cardboard boxes, I missed their direct and simple well-made farm to table food. They reopened for takeout recently after, I believe, being closed since August (I could be off), and I was right there to get the farm dinner. Chicken with nettle risotto, salad, and a simple dessert of whipped ricotta and marmalade—this is the simple, no-BS food that Chicago has been so good at for so long, and I want it back already!

In my new more austere life, I’ve avoided one of the major food groups, hamburgers and French fries—I think I’d previously had exactly one burger since the start of the year, homemade. But I was invited back to Michael Muser’s Amuzed podcast—I had little enough new to say, having been on it in October, so I decided it would be fun to do my interview with Muser for my book on his podcast, and just get him telling the story of his life. So look for that next week, but in the meantime, since we recorded it in Muser’s studio, a former walk-in bank vault in the building where Reve Burger operates, and he sent me home with Reve Burgers for my wife and myself. It’s a nice fat burger, met 1200% of my new daily requirement for red meat, but the great thing is that it’s really nicely seared for some Maillard reaction crustiness and burnt flavor on the patty. Now, here’s what’s interesting about that: Reve of course originally started as something to keep some revenue coming in for Ever and to occupy the cooks on staff, but with Ever reopening, Muser had to find new staff to crank out the burgers and milkshakes. As he said to me, “What’s the largest group that lost their jobs in the pandemic? Black women.

So now Reve Burger has a staff that, at least the day I went, is all black, mostly women, and seems pleased to be making high end burgers and shakes in an atmosphere where they mostly run their own lives as long as they turn out those beautifully seared burgers to Curtis Duffy’s specs. “When’s the last time I had a wine steward about to cry that I was going to put him on salary instead of hourly? NEVER,” boomed Muser as he talked about the staff that was happy to be part of a team that respects and values cooks. To me, this is what we can hope will come out of lockdown all over town. And maybe I’m prejudiced (and burger-deprived), but that is a tasty burger.