The highs in Chicago dining this year put our city on top of the world, while the lows were unbearably sad. In between was news with a common thread: to put good food in front of Chicagoans. Here, now, our look back at the food year that was.
The lead item in last year's year-in-review issue was "Goodbye, Charlie," reflecting chef Charlie Trotter's decision to close his restaurant after 25 years. No one thought we'd be saying goodbye to him again, but tragically, unexpectedly, Charlie Trotter died Nov. 5 from a stroke at age 54. Chicago's dining community, and that of the entire country, reacted with shock. And then, just 19 days later, Jean Banchet, who had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer three weeks previously, passed away in his Florida home; he was 72. It's sad to lose anyone in Chicago's restaurant community, but these were two giants.
Charlie Trotter's helped forge a new breed of American restaurant — imaginative, obsessive about sourcing, focused on pure, clean flavors. Banchet, whose Le Francais was once named the finest restaurant in America, introduced a philosophy of sauce reductions and a lighter cooking touch to French food — things we take for granted today, but new ideas in 1971. Together, the chefs helped establish Chicago as a food city to reckon with, and paved the way for Chicago's status as an international dining destination. Banchet and Trotter were two larger-than-life figures who inspired dozens of young chefs, and it's probably impossible to overstate their influence.
In addition, the restaurant community was rocked by the tragic death of Jason Cevallos, renowned bartender at many Chicago restaurants, most notably The Office, who died in Asia at 35 as a result of salmonella poisoning. And on Dec. 1, Vinny Garcia, one-half of the Bleeding Heart Bakery couple (his cakes were works of art), died at age 36 from complications brought on by leukemia.
How did the outside world view the Chicago restaurant scene? Quite positively, judging by the past 12 months. Michelin, the standard bearer of high gastronomy worldwide, recognized more Chicago restaurants than in its previous three editions, awarding coveted stars to 25 local restaurants. Alinea remained the lone three-star recipient, with two-star winners L2O, Grace and Sixteen nipping at Grant Achatz's heels (fellow two-star restaurant Graham Elliot closed this week).
At the James Beard Foundation Awards in May, Chicago was amply represented, headlined by One Off Hospitality's Paul Kahan co-winning its top national prize, Outstanding Chef. Stephanie Izard won Best Chef: Great Lakes over three locals, while The Aviary was named Outstanding Bar Program.
In local journalism, Chicago Reader's Mike Sula took home the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for his story about eating the urban squirrel, while WBEZ-FM radio's Nina Barrett and Lynette Kalsnes won the Radio Show/Audio Webcast category for their "Fear of Frying" segments.
The Chicago beverage scene also garnered well-deserved recognition in 2013: At the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans this past July, Charles Joly of The Aviary was named American bartender of the year, while Alex Renshaw, now at DrumBAR, was recognized as one of 10 "bartenders to watch" nationwide.
Chicago welcomed a lot of terrific restaurants this year, beginning with a flurry of December 2012 openings, notably Grace (the finest restaurant of the year), Boarding House (Alpana Singh's first foray as restaurateur) and Little Goat (Stephanie Izard's funky sequel to Girl & the Goat). It was a year of happy returns; Bub City, a name Rich Melman gave to a casual-seafood concept many years ago, returned as a barbecue restaurant owned and operated by Melman's three kids. Amy Morton returned to the restaurant world after a long hiatus, opening Found, in Evanston, to SRO crowds. Shin Thompson, who closed Bonsoiree in 2012, returned with Kabocha; Steven Chiappetti opened J. Rocco, a casual neighborhood Italian, in River North.
It was a good year for second (third and fourth) efforts too: Carrie and Michael Nahabedian opened the superb Brindille, just two blocks north of their acclaimed Naha; Jack Weiss, of the Tuscan duo Coco Pazzo and Coco Pazzo Cafe, went Roman with his latest restaurant, Tre Soldi; former Spiaggia GM Marty Fosse (Anteprima, Acre, Ombra) ventured outside Clark Street in Andersonville to open Azzurra in Wicker Park. Graham Elliot opened Graham Elliot Bistro, David Flom of Chicago Cut Steakhouse created The Local Chicago and Matthias Merges opened Billy Sunday in Logan Square and A10 in Hyde Park.
Other outstanding newcomers included Embeya, Juno and Travelle, and Chicago got its first fine-dining Peruvian restaurant when Gaston Acurio (the patron saint of Peruvian cooking) brought Tanta to River North. Lettuce Entertain You created still more concepts with Summer House Santa Monica, Stella Barra Pizzeria and Beatrix.
A rash of late openings show promise and considerable ambition: Nico Osteria, from the Blackbird team, in the Gold Coast; Cicchetti, a Venice-focused Italian by Dan Rosenthal (Trattoria No. 10, more) and featuring chef Michael Sheerin; The Dawson, the latest from Billy Lawless (The Gage, Henri) and Dusek's, a Pilsen newcomer from the Longman & Eagle crew.
But the splashiest food opening in 2013 wasn't even a restaurant; that distinction belongs to Eataly Chicago, a 63,000-square-foot Italian shopping/eating extravaganza that Mario Batali opened in River North; I'm still waiting for the crowds to subside.
A number of chefs and restaurants chose to serve their last meals on Dec. 31, none more significant than Ina Pinkney, who called it a career after 33 years of feeding Chicago. Four-star Courtright's, in the south suburbs, also served its last meal on New Year's Eve, as did Graham Elliot, though he has vowed to return in another location very soon. Other sad departures included Baume & Brix, Bel 50, Bombay Spice, Branch 27, Cafe 28, City Provisions, Dan McGee, Erwin, Ginza, grahamwich, Great Lake, Hearty, Indie Burger, Leopold, Maison, MorseL, N9ne, Oon, Park 52, Pizza Persona, Province, Sprout, Sweet Baby Ray's in Wrigleyville, The Tasting Room, Urban Union, West Town Tavern, Zealous and Zocolo.
Year in miscellany
Like any other year, 2013 featured white-hot trends that burned out quickly, histrionic outrage masked as civic pride, plus other food news tidbits that turned our heads momentarily. Doughnuts were a thing in 2012; 2013 shall go down as the year of fried chicken in Chicago (click here for an expanded examination). Kale salads seemed to be everywhere, pretzel buns took over fast food menus, while cronuts (croissants + doughnuts) and ramen burgers (with buns as noodles) became pop cultural flash points, more for their novelty, we suspect, than legitimate dishes with staying power.
The sight of food trucks on city streets (with on-board cooking) is beginning to feel ... normal. Taste of Chicago, in its truncated five-day festival format, turned its first profit since 2007, city officials said. And how can we forget: Chicagoans roared with anger when "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart dared poked fun at deep dish pizza. "This is not pizza," he said, "this is tomato soup in a bread bowl!"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun