I know a lot more about Chicago than NYC. I’ve bumped around Chicago for a little over six years. I’ve spent had the pleasure of eating, staging and working at a myriad of restaurants here. I’m going to try and break my experience here down into a manageable chunk, there is a lot to this city and all of it is different than NYC.
There are a couple of different scenes in Chicago. there isn’t a ton of street food, most of the food trucks tend to hang out at sporting events or Humboldt Park, It feels like Chicago has been fighting the food truck scene since it started, which is kind of a bummer, but they do thrive towards the south end of Chicago.
You also have a couple of hand pushed Ice Cream Carts, some stalls that sell tacos and elotes. There are a couple of amazing people that shack outside of The Owl and sell polish sausages for when everyone comes out walking funny a couple of guys that wander into bars selling tortas, and the piece de resistance of Chicago, The fucking Tamale guy (a local legend and hero to the late-night barfly).
The feeling in restaurants here is different. It’s less intense, less powder keg ready to blow, more a gentle thud at the back of your head. A gentle push, much more friendly and less intense environment. This is due largely to a lack of culinary workforce. The people that work here tend to be either very good or very bad. There isn’t a lot of in between.
Yes, Chef, a common phrase inside of every kitchen twenty years ago has all but disappeared in Chicago. There is less of an emphasis on authority, and more of an emphasis on team building. you are not a line cook, you are a line cook at Blackbeard (I made this up), “Blackbeard cooks ain’t nothing to fuck with” and to be honest, It feels good. You’re more than just a shit head cook, you’re this restaurant’s shit-head line cook.
Restaurants build their menus differently in Chicago. Restaurants here tend to jump around. There is much less this is a French menu with Korean influences, and much more, I put a Korean dish on my menu, you’ll like it. There is much less focus on what kind of restaurant you are and more of a focus on the individual dishes.
Just as an example, most restaurants have pasta in Chicago. There is going to be an agnolotti or a dumpling or a bucatini on the menu. but there are only a handful of restaurants that call themselves Italian.
The front of house is different here as well. There is a huge amount of importance on what you are selling, and the stories behind the dishes. There is much more of an emphasis on figuring out what kind of experience your guest wants, and then give the guest what they want. This can be anything from a meal with
If you come to a very nice restaurant in Chicago, there is going to be less whatever you need right now, There still is a ton of it, but it’s less. Servers are more open ( not in the super high end, they’re still robots, but in the mid-high end). They are very much more like a great server at a local bar. They talk to you, understand your needs and become friends with you. There is a lot more personality.
The restaurants that make in Chicago are the ones that adapt promptly, and that go into service with a hard on for quality and a need for individuality. There is a lot more to it, of course, but the ones that are really adored have a flavor that runs through them they know who the are and what they like, and they are overconfident that when you try it, you will fall in love. Places like Cafe Marie-Jeanne, Girl and the Goat and Avec.
There are also a lot of restaurants that have stood the test of time and have pushed forward to stay relevant and well-loved. Restaurants that define neighborhoods in Chicago, Lula in Logan Square, Blackbird in the West Loop, Big Star in Wicker Park.
These restaurants see the future and adapt. They are not stagnant, they keep a couple of dishes that the neighborhood love and then expand and evolve on who they are. If they didn’t do that they would die. A lot of restaurants die like this. It feels like every month a place that’s been adored for 80 years closes.
On the other side, there are the classics, We have Manny’s, we also have Calumet Fisheries, The Immortal Dinner Grill, and the ever important Weiner Circle. Places that will never changeThey are a taste of the past, and they are important. They live in a world that is ever constant and ever consistent. People know what they are getting and they are excited about it. Consistency keeps them alive and popular.
The dive bars are awesome. Everyone has a favorite, and odds are that there is a watering hole near your apartment. There are bars that cater to gamers, and bars that cater to dancers. The bars have deep rich history and striking personality. The spirit of bars in Chicago is very Midwest, You will find a bar that suits you. Someone opened that bar here, you just have to find it.