Buzz List For November 5, 2018

Why real estate determines what you eat, Halloween howls at HaiSous, Diner Grill is back and average as ever, and Steve is on Rahm's podcast for a change

Michael Gebert
Diner Grill, pre-fire and renovation

1. RANDOLPH CLOSED, TAKE ALTERNATE ROUTE

Two big closings from big names at either end of Randolph: Gideon Sweet, the former Graham Elliot Bistro most recently being run by Matthias Merges’ group, has shuttered, and BellyQ/Urbanbelly, Bill Kim’s Korean restaurants with the Cornerstone Group in the former OneSixtyBlue space, will close by year’s end. (Another Urbanbelly continues in Wicker Park.) Note, for what it’s worth, that both places were run by Charlie Trotter alums seeking to crack the casual-upscale food market. (Porkchop also closed recently, not that it was in the same class.)

Kim plans to keep the Urbanbelly brand going in new directions, possibly outside of Chicago, but as Phil Vettel notes about the once-middle-of-nowhere OneSixtyBlue location, “Today, the area is being developed so aggressively that the profits from a sale far outpace any restaurant revenue. ‘That’s the reality,’ [Cornerstone president Josh] Zadikoff said. ‘It’s been a good run for 21 years, but there’s a time and place for everything.’”

It’s been obvious for a while that the Randolph street restaurant area west of the expressway was coming to a close for its first—really second—wave of pioneers. Marché, which opened in 1993, is usually credited with kicking the area off as a gritty-chic nightlife destination, though Vivo was probably first, opening in 1991. (J.P. Graziano, founded in 1937, and a few others like Perez Restaurant were there to greet them like the Indians greeting Columbus.) The flavor then was Jerry Kleiner’s brand of cartoonish, Tim Burton-esque excess—I remember a dot com holiday party where getting down the stairs in a holiday party state was not aided by Vivo’s stair rail, which undulated like a snake.

It seems incredible now, but that era of restaurants had already boomed and busted once by the early 2000s; as Kevin Boehm recalled here at Fooditor, “When we opened Girl & the Goat [in 2010], I think I got knocked over by a tumbleweed… literally everything was going out of business. Every single building was for lease around here. There were people who were like, why are you guys moving over there? It’s getting kind of dead on that side.”

Five minutes later, Girl & the Goat was the hottest reservation in town and the neighborhood was taking off like it never had before—G.E.B. and Nellcote and Maude’s Liquor Bar and Little Goat Diner and Au Cheval and Leña Brava and Formento’s and so on. Fulton, two blocks away, and a second cluster further west where Elske and Smyth are also developed. But it was there on Randolph Street near Girl & the Goat that you also saw the chains and the big real estate players start to move in.

Friend of Fooditor Royal Lichter, of Lichter Reality on the northwest side, assessed the situation at LTHForum: “Virtually none of the original restaurants/eateries (other than maybe Girl and the Goat and JP Graziano) that colonized this area will last. They will all be washed out as long-time property owners let the vastly below-market lease rates expire so they can cash out and sell to big firms like Sterling Bay and Thor Equities.”

Is this bad? It’s change, change is inevitable, and surely this has all been change that beats the kind of change that so much of America has experienced, where old industrial districts die out, leaving only empty shells like locusts. I’ll wax nostalgic like anybody for all the old wholesalers along here, but that business was already coming to an end with the arrival of bigger national companies like Chef’s Warehouse, as Dave Yourd, whose family had JDY Meats in the area for four generations, told me: “Part of our business was [selling to restaurants on] Fulton Market, and we really saw that imploding, really quickly, with the neighborhood… that was a part of our business that was going to have to change or disappear.”

Instead we got an exciting district of hot new restaurants for a while. They terraformed a fading planet into a new green ecosystem, and now the big players move in to conquer it. And, as the next item will show, those big players aren’t incompatible with cutting edge restaurants by any means—they want to sell the idea of living and working where the action is as much as anybody. But Randolph Street will increasingly be the neighborhood of chains who have big funding and know how to shave operations to the bone. Who pop open quickly and sometimes shut down just as fast.

And then that cycle will repeat, somewhere else, keeping the city vibrant and alive as it also kills some old piece of it that people had affection for. I stumbled on an interview with the late Jonathan Gold where he was talking about how Chicago had changed since he first visited it with his parents (who were from here), and about the constant reinvention that takes place here: “I love the way that food neighborhoods just pop out of nowhere, and totally blossom, and then it’s on to the next. I never heard the [words] ‘Logan Square,’ and suddenly everything’s in Logan Square. You see stuff happening in Hyde Park now, which was—probably still is—the most dismal food neighborhood anywhere… and believe me: I’ve spent a lot of time in Hyde Park. [Laughs] There’s this sense of excitement and experimentation.”

2. BAY OF GRACE

If turning an old horse barn or tool and die shop into a restaurant was the way you did it in 2012, the new horse barn for the 2020s will be a building like Fulton West, a LEED certified Sterling Bay development full of co-working spaces and hipster art, located “within walking distance of public transportation and Chicago’s famous restaurant Row on Randolph Street.” Which they can’t sell as an amenity if they help kill it off, right?

And so comes the news that chef Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser will open their new restaurant, name to be announced later, in Fulton West, about two blocks straight north of Smyth and The Loyalist. Which is to say, the news is that Fulton West has just upped the ante on all the other big properties in the area, by placing a likely-to-be-Michelin-star-festooned restaurant (the immediate area already has three stars, between Smyth and Elske) as its face forward to the neighborhood. If you wonder if the everyday workers in a building like that will really be frequent diners at Duffy-Muser II, note that the tenants in this building include Sterling Bay’s own Chicago headquarters.

3. SOUS LES TOITS DE PILSEN

Hey, how about another story about real estate and gentrification? Thai Dang of HaiSous found himself in hot water after Halloween after he grumbled on Instagram about some trick or treating families from the neighborhood who apparently still look at him as some big white gentrifying force destroying the neighborhood. His response on Facebook describes the event from his perspective:

“Our experience on Halloween leading up to my frustration came after a group of parents stood outside and would not let their children come in for candy claiming we were ‘gentrifiers.’ I joked with the parent and hand walked their kids inside to choose candy of their choice. The other children stayed outside with their parents who continued the gentrification conversation in front of the children… My fear was that conversation like that encourages youth to hate or believe that we (a white woman and asian man) are out to harm them. I come from a huge family of immigrant kids, but this less than warm tone is felt by us often here in Pilsen where we too live.”

Well, that’s his after the fact explanation. Dang’s original Insta-thing just showed a picture of one of the kids (not her face, but no doubt recognizable to her family) and the words: “Some people only came in to get free candy with their kids & say how they didn’t know we’re here… but you knew we had treats!” Grousing about giving out candy on Halloween, yeah, that’s not a good look, even with the broader context. But neither is vandalizing businesses, blasting mom and pop restaurants that provide jobs to the neighborhood for existing, cooks being victims of crime and so on all still happening in Pilsen, a year after S.K.Y. opened to that kind of abuse.

Chi Resists (“an independent, revolutionary, educational, community centered, art focused resistance effort”) organized a boycott on Friday night, but have not, as yet, posted any evidence of how many showed up for it.

4. COULD BE FINER

Mike Sula praises with some damns the reopened, post-fire Diner Grill: “I ordered a rib eye, slapped on the sizzling flattop and angled over a mound of shredded hash browns, with cackleberries, cooked over easy, to the side. It was thin, watery, and rubbery, and tasted of the concentrated animal feeding operation it came from. But if I’d more than $11 to work with I’d have gone to Boeufhaus. Times are tough. One needs protein.” Still, there’s no denying the appeal of the place: “If you like to pretend you’re Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross or a wisecracking drifter from a Tom Waits song, it’s still there for you.”

5. NO TELL

News to me that there’s been something in the starchy old Montgomery Ward catalog warehouse called the Motel Bar for a dozen years, and apparently it’s gotten an even more playfully anachronistic overhaul recently, but Crain’s finds it fun: “the look takes its cues from modernistic motels you might have encountered along interstate highways back in the 1960s or so, the bars of which our parents hustled us past. We’re pretty sure Motel Bar is more life-affirming than those dimly lit spaces filled with day drinkers, and it definitely has better food… American cheese and iceberg lettuce bedeck a burger, for example, and Ritz cracker breading gives pork tenderloin a crisp crust. Rotating specials inspired by TV dinners may include Salisbury steak, meatloaf and chicken pot pie. The food never veers off into self-defeating parody, though.”

6. NECK MUSIC

Titus Ruscitti loves what everybody loves at Passerotto: “My favorite bite of the night was of course the dish that was most Korean-Italian of them all. They take rice cakes and pan fry them until they’re nice and browned and then cover them in an extremely flavorful lamb ragu made from lambs neck. Some Parmesan is shaved on top of the hot ragu which allows it melt a bit upon contact. I absolutely loved this. One of my favorites plates of the year in fact.”

He also has praise for a Puerto Rican sandwich shop recently opened on Fullerton, Rosaisela Tacos y Mas: “Then there’s the steak sandwich. Lots of online love for that too. As there should be. It’ also very well made. They take chopped up steak which is probably the same stuff used in the tacos and fry up some onions alongside it before melting in the typical white processed cheese used to make this style of sandwich. It’s not the same without it. Lettuce, tomato, and a bit of mayo are the other condiments that round this sandwich out. It’s a little different than the others but just as good in terms of satisfaction. I like to call these Cuban/ Puerto Rican sandwiches ‘Logan Square Style Steak Sandwiches’ bc they’re common around the ‘hood.”

7. YŪGENITOR

Speaking of Grace and real estate, Anthony Todd has more details on what to expect in the we’ll-finally-be-able-to-stop-calling-it-Grace-space when Yūgen opens “in just a few days.” Chef Mari “Katsumura’s Japanese background informs the menu, although she’s not trying to replicate what’s popular in Japan. ‘I spent many years studying other people’s cuisine, different cultures, and I wanted to do something that was true to myself, that Chicago hasn’t seen before,’ says Katsumura. Rather than putting together a contemporary menu with an Asian influence or a few Japanese ingredients, she came up with a few traditional Japanese dishes; her lineup progressed from there.”

Todd also points out that the price for high end traditional Japanese will be $205 for a 13 course tasting menu (though there’s also a lounge with more accessible items). We’ll see how willing Chicagoans are to eat non-sushi Japanese at one of the highest menu prices in town.

8. TOURA SÓTANO

I get the feeling from Phil Vettel’s preview of Rick and Lanie Bayless’ Bar Sótano that he’s finding going behind the scenes more fun than holding power of life and death over restaurants (an opinion Fooditor agrees with). In this case he attended a staff tasting of food and drink, at which Bayless & co. definitely wanted feedback, like: “Spice is king among the Chile Stall cocktails, but the drinks aren’t as picante as one might suppose; ordinarily, I’d approach a cocktail with serrano and ancho chiles with oven mitts, but this drink, its fire muted by cucumber and egg white, is wonderfully balanced. Another standout is the rye, chile liqueur and Cocchi Rosa blend that drinks like a Manhattan with attitude.”

9. LORD OF THE BOWLS

I’ve been expecting Mike Satinover, of the Akahoshi ramen pop ups, to write a ramen book, but in the meantime maybe the next step toward that just started at The Takeout, which is Satinover, aka Ramen Lord, going step by step through making “A+ ramen.” In the first installment, he talks broth (not surprisingly).

10. PIZZA MAYOR

You think you’ve heard enough of Steve Dolinsky talking about pizza by now, but you haven’t heard him talking about it (in fast-paced Chicago guy-ese) with Rahm Emanuel on the latter’s podcast.

11. THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE PUP

Well, this is interesting: Paradise Pup, a well-loved burger stand along River Road in Des Plaines, was suddenly shut down, and locals claimed on social media that they saw its lot full of black vans and guys going through its trash. The speculation ran to an impending tax case, but in the meantime, they have reopened and mum’s the word.

12. GEORGE AND TAMMY

Chicago’s newspaper industry continues to display all the stability of a country music marriage. Tribune Publishing is up for sale and three bids had been submitted by the deadline on Thursday, including newspaper group McClatchy (Miami Herald, etc.), AIM Media, a Texas newspaper group, and something called Donerail Group, which Bloomberg says ominously “could sell some of Tribune Publishing’s newspaper assets to individual buyers.” Because what the Trib needs is another owner whose idea of being a guardian of a free press is selling it off piece by piece, like evil garden gnome Sam Zell or Bob Guccione lookalike Michael Ferro before them. A fourth contender (why he didn’t have to submit by Thursday is unknown to me) is said to be Michael Sacks, CEO of Grosvenor Capital Management.

While the Sun-Times just lost its apparent owner: former Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, front man for the collection of unions that bought the paper, has resigned as Sun Times Media CEO. Robert Feder reports internal tension between Eisendrath and the board and/or editor in chief Chris Fusco.

In the meantime, best wishes to Greg Trotter, a food and beverage business reporter at the Trib who has been mentioned here several times in the past, because whenever he did a deep dive into something related to food, it always proved worth reading. He is leaving the Tribune, and daily journalism, to work for the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

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