Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Our Uber ride pulls up to a storefront with graffiti over the door. The only clue that we're in the right place is a frayed sign on the inside of the door with etchings of an owl, a buck's head, and a diamond, with the name "Elizabeth" printed in cursive underneath. A soccer supply outfit sits to the left of the restaurant; the shop to the right sells new and used tires. Is this really the Michelin one-star destination for which I purchased two tickets that totaled over $350?
Welcome to the intimate, idiosyncratic domain of Iliana Regan, a chef-savant unlike any other in the U.S. Regan worked front of the house in Chicago luminaries like Trio, Tru, and Alinea before circling back to the kitchen, where she had started in the food business as a teenager. She grew up on a farm in Indiana and had learned the essentials of foraging, which she drew upon when she began an underground supper club in her apartment in 2010. "New Gatherer" was the term she coined for her style of cooking.
Guests who loved the food helped her invest in the Lincoln Square space on Chicago's northern edge that became Elizabeth, named for her late older sister. She carried over the supper club vibe into the restaurant, at first offering communal seating and reservations solely through the ticketing system developed by Alinea and Next restaurateur Nick Kokonas. Open for two years this month, Regan has gradually evolved how Elizabeth operates. She did away with large-group seating in favor of two- and four-tops. Now the space feels like a rambling (if windowless) farmhouse kitchen: Regan and her corps of cooks produce dinner in plain view, under a painted pressed tin ceiling, next to clusters of thick wooden tables with mismatched chairs.