Two weeks ago here, I suggested that restaurant reviews were basically extinct in local media. And this week, we saw Phil Vettel announce that he was leaving the Tribune as of this past Friday:

After much deliberation and considerable angst, I’ve accepted the Tribune’s buyout offer, and will leave the paper on Friday. It has been a helluva ride: 41 years with the Tribune, 31-plus years as the paper’s restaurant critic. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the food of culinary giants — I’ll save the list for my farewell column — and have had the awesome responsibility of chronicling what I believe will come to be seen as a Golden Age of Chicago dining. I never forgot to appreciate that privilege, and I tried to execute my reviews faithfully and honestly.

Eater rounded up some thoughts on the matter, including my own, here. Editor Ashok Selvam notes,

As the sun sets on Vettel’s four decades at the Tribune, a career that started in 1979, when he joined the Suburban Tribune after graduating from Eastern Illinois University, it’s doubtful that the paper will replace Vettel. This leaves America’s third-largest city — one that prominently touts culinary tourism in its marketing materials — without a full-time food critic.

A personal perspective, not so much of the gentleman himself but of his place on the food scene for me over the last few decades. Through much of my early career/hobby as a food writer, Vettel played an essential role for the group I was part of—he was the Establishment we were rebelling against, the backstop against which we would lob our opinions. In Chowhound and LTHForum days, he was the reviewer of mainstream downtown restaurants when we were all about weird foods in farflung neighborhoods. Later, we would often find things to champion around town that we felt he and other mainstream reviewers insufficiently appreciated. Couldn’t they see what we saw? (Sometines they did—Burt’s Pizza, Birrieria Zaragoza.)

It was a useful thing rhetorically to have him, and the mainstream, as the context for our contrarian views. But the thing about rebelling is, you often don’t realize what you’re really in opposition to until the old Establishment is already done for. We were like bebop players rebelling against Big Band jazz, not realizing that the real other side wasn’t jazz at all—it was rock and roll teenyboppers about to tsunami us both. The values of the Establishment—its commitment to an ideal of objectivity in reviewing, for certain places and people being what was important and relevant to most of their mainstream audience—were revealed to be more valuable when suddenly there were new online “authorities” who were making money in questionable new ways off the places they wrote about. The value of writers with a standardized approach to writing about restaurants, who’d been around the block a few times and could speak from learned experience, became clearer when we started having sites whose mission was to hype everything up while imparting next to no actual information (but lots of attitude), and reviewing was folded into promotion, and then dropped altogether.

As I said at Eater, picking a high end restaurant more or less at random, “If Elske opened now, where would you hear about it?” You’d read about the people behind it, sure, but who would taste the food and tell you if it was any good? Today’s writer-unfriendly media landscape is also in many ways restaurant-unfriendly. If you’re a food and bev writer in the normal times (when they come back), you’re youngish and you know the bar scene and a certain class of restaurants from your own experience, and certain other restaurants from being invited to try them by their PR firms.

But you are generally not invited to dine on the cuff at existing high end restaurants, a lot of which don’t bother with locally-focused writers unless they have a track record with the owners already, and with no dining budget from a publication, you’re not likely to be paying your own way to eat at them often enough to know them well and be able to talk about what a place is like under its new chef versus its old chef. The writers who can do that have been priced out of the business of writing; when I want to know how high end restaurants are, I no longer look to any media source—I just ask the people I know personally who dine out a lot. Some of that filters through to social media, but not always. For the average diner interested in fine dining and not well connected like I am, there basically is no public source any more for that information. My number one meal of last year was Norman Fenton’s at Brass Heart—who’s said one word about that besides me?

So this is the world that exits with Phil Vettel’s retirement. Now we live in one in which the high end restaurants that were once the currency of food media often get no reviewer scrutiny at all. I wish him well in what follows, and I wish us some kind of substitute for what we had, but hell if I know what it will be.

Here’s Vettel’s farewell piece at the Trib, which calls out five favorite reviews over the years. A parting thought:

As I leave, the restaurant scene is in turmoil, roiled by circumstances not of its making, forced to navigate uncharted waters and find sense in senseless times. At the outset of the pandemic, restaurants were the first businesses to be shut down by the state, and the last to reopen — and then, only as a fraction of their true selves. In the past 10 months I’ve written many stories about the industry’s struggle to survive. I’ve been awed by the resilience, perseverance and courage displayed by Chicago’s restaurant workers.


It is too symbolic of how the world has changed as sitdown critic Vettel retires, the Tribune launches a feature devoted to the best in cardboard boxes right now: the Takeout 100. You probably know most of them (no, really, Honey Butter Fried Chicken?), but we can all use our memories jogged under the pressure of ordering food right this instant.


Indoor dining—coming soon or not? A joke on right-of-center sites has been that America’s cities would discover that indoor dining was safe as soon as a recovering restaurant economy would benefit Biden rather than Trump.  “Very close” is the phrase that Mayor Lightfoot used to describe indoor dining on Thursday, as Governor Pritzker expressed optimism that COVID restrictions could be lifted next week. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’…

Meanwhile, a fire broke out on the second floor of Gibson’s on Rush Street, but happily all the patrons were evacuated safely… the who? As Eater reports:

For weeks, locals have complained Gibsons were serving customers indoors and ignoring COVID-19 rules; the state halted indoor dining in Chicago on October 30. Social media posts also show diners eating indoors. Adding to the mystery are the wooden blinds that are closed behind the first-floor windows that keep passers-by curious to what’s happening inside. Gibsons, via a statement sent Thursday morning, says they’ve followed all safety mandates.

City of Chicago inspectors actually visited Gibsons on January 8. BACP spokesperson Isaac Reichman says inspectors found Gibsons to be compliant even though some customers were seated indoors. Regulations allow for indoor dining if there’s a door or window that can be raised which opens a wall by at least 50 percent. Tables are required to be within eight feet of that opening.

What a brilliant idea! It’s like the typical igloo for dining, but you make it part of a permanent building and place tables inside it. We look forward to more of these kinds of permanent igloo-rants opening in Chicago.


At ABC 7, Steve Dolinsky looks at Village Farmstand, an Evanston shop selling goods from local farmers:

A documentary filmmaker, [owner Matt] Wechsler knew a lot of farmers looking for ways to keep selling their goods.

“This was a network of farms in Central Illinois that primarily sold to restaurants in the city. That was their bread and butter for 17 years. With all of these restaurants shutting down it really made it difficult for them and it’s a way for these farmers to really grow their businesses,” he said.

He also checks out Rye Deli and Drink. And at his pizza podcast, he talks to Nella Grassano of Hyde Park’s Nella Pizza e Pasta.


The backlash against Tank Noodle last week for the family that owns it going to Trump’s rally that led to violent attack on the Capitol (no evidence that any of them participated in that) was I think rooted partly in white surprise that immigrants could be pro-Trump. A piece in the Washington Post by the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen explains why he believes South Vietnamese immigrants in America bear a certain resemblance to American Southerners:

The South Vietnamese are particularly vocal about their love for Trump, and at this rally and other pro-Trump rallies, the South Vietnamese flag appears often. In America, white nationalists and Vietnamese nationalists share a common condition: a radicalized nostalgia for a lost country and a lost cause…

The depth of anti-communist feeling in the Vietnamese community, which includes many military veterans and former government officials, meant that it has always leaned strongly Republican. While Asian Americans as a whole voted 2 to 1 for Joe Biden over Trump, Vietnamese Americans supported Trump over Biden, 57 percent to 41 percent. A deep animus toward China, amplified by misinformation in Vietnamese-language media, bolsters the support for a president they see as tougher on foreign policy. This dovetailed with their anticommunism.

An interesting view of  an American subculture rarely reflected in our media.


One restaurant I’ve wondered a few times about during lockdown is Hai Sous, a bit far for takeout for me. NewCity has a piece on how they’re doing; noting how co-owner Thai Dang seems to maintain a positive attitude though all this,

While his attitude may not change, Dang has proven adaptable in the face of calamity. For the second time in a year, Chicago has prohibited indoor dining, but Dang hasn’t given up hope. After pivoting from the reduced-patron tasting menu that HaiSous was serving to follow Chicago restrictions, the team introduced a $40-per-person dinner and cook-along experience.


Who would be crazy enough to open a restaurant in this atmosphere? Enough people, apparently, that Eater can run The Ten Most Anticipated Restaurants of 2021—including Jenner Tomaska’s Esme, Jose Andres’ Jaleo, and Joe Flamm’s Rose Mary, to name a few.

Meanwhile we have an honest to goodness real restaurant opening in former Table, Donkey and Stick/Le Sud chef Ryan Brosseau’s Dear Margaret, which he has opened with former PR person Lacey Irby, doing French Canadian food.

And the hard luck story of Trevor Teich and his very good restaurant Claudia—which was last seen as a sort of pop-up on the second floor of an office building—maybe finally finds a permanent home as he takes over the Bucktown spot that is practically a history of modern Chicago dining in itself, having been Stephanie Izard’s Scylla, Glory, Takashi, Charlie McKenna’s Dixie, and most recently Stone Flower.


Sandwich Tribunal examines the British love for fish finger sandwiches:

First, though, some shopping would be required. In addition to the requisite squishy white bread, butter, and (optional) minimalist greenery such as arugula, we’ll need some perfectly rectangular fish fingers, a good malt vinegar, and some decent tartar sauce. I found all three at Winston’s Market, a nearby Irish market that also carries some local and UK products.


Last week I remembered restaurants that closed in 2020. This week, let’s remember Chicago food world people who passed last year. If I missed anyone you know about, let me know.

• Donna Malnati, 93, whose offspring launched two pizza chains (Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s), for which she developed two different crust recipes.

• Arnold Loeb, 83, owner of kosher butcher and sausage maker Romanian Kosher Sausage Shop.

• Rodelio Aglibot, 52, Asian chef and consultant best known as the opening chef of Sunda.

• Emilia Pontarelli, 93, nonna of Tony’s Italian Deli in Edison Park, of COVID.

• Saul Moreno, 58, owner of Restaurant Cuetzala in Rogers Park, of COVID.

• Francisco Hernandez, 65, produce procurer for Rick Bayless’ restaurants.

Hecky Powell, 71, activist and owner of Hecky’s BBQ in Evanston, of COVID.

• Carlos Rosas, 41, manager at Calumet Fisheries, of COVID.

• Dave Shelton, 64, owner of Medusa’s all-ages music club.

• Jill Dedinsky, 49, chef for The Goddess and Grocer.

• Harriet Friedlander, co-founder of the Evanston Farmers Market.

• Reggie Watkins, 65, sous chef and first hire at Charlie Trotter.

• Samuel Linares, 76, owner of La Casa de Samuel in Pilsen, of COVID.

• Mike Mills, 79, champion BBQ competitor and owner of 17th Street BBQ in Murphysboro, Illinois.

• Dennis Ray Wheaton, restaurant critic for Chicago magazine in the 1990s and early 2000s.


My Zoom interview with Gordon Sinclair for Culinary Historians of Chicago is here.


What do you say when you like a place fine, but the hype would have it as a modern-day miracle? That’s one of the jobs a reviewer has, and not always easy to do—bring hype back to earth by offering measured praise that doesn’t sound like a slam under the circumstances. So: Taqueria Chingon, a new upscale taco spot that some have touted as maybe the best taco spot in town. Reportedly they’ve had things like foie gras tacos, though nothing so exotic was on the menu the day I went. I had a taco al pastor, straight off the trompo, and a carne asada taco which didn’t have a grilled meat texture so much as being a bit like steamed cabeza. They were pretty good, but not the best of either I’ve had—I’d wish for the pastor to be more crisped up on the edges. The best thing I tried was a butternut squash taco, with black sesame seeds and a dollop of goat cheese—something genuinely new to me, and delicious. The housemade tortillas were quite good, chewy and filling. A nice place after a few weeks, we can hope for it to refine its game with time—and get closer to the hype.

I’ve been staying away from sweets but I still had one kid here for the holidays, which made me susceptible to an offer of doughnuts—vegan doughnuts from Liberation Donuts, related to vegan restaurant Upton’s Breakroom. So what makes a doughnut vegan? No eggs or dairy, the latter only really apparent in a chocolate doughnut which had good chocolaty flavor but not the richness of butter or creamness. Otherwise they were just good doughnuts; my favorites included one with strawberries and a banana “cream” one, and one with bits of bruleed pineapple.