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How Grace's Shutter Sent Shockwaves Through Chicago

Will a new restaurant work in the same space?

Marc Much
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicago continues to feel the fallout from Grace’s shutter as restaurateurs, chefs, and the media gather their thoughts after chef Curtis Duffy and general manager Michael Muser left the acclaimed West Loop restaurant. Another day means another tidbit: Duffy first quit Grace in May before returning and then again leaving on Monday, according to the New York Times. The paper also reported that Muser was fired December 1. The news points to a simmering feud with Duffy and Muser on one side and restaurant owner Michael Olszewski on the other.

Olszewski wants to open a new restaurant in the lavish space, where each chair cost $1,000, according to the For Grace documentary. He’s determined it “will make Chicago and the restaurant community proud.”

Former Grace GM Michael Muser and chef Curtis Duffy.
Jason Little

Nick Kokonas now co-owns Chicago’s only three-Michelin-star restaurant, Alinea. Kokonas, who’s celebrating a birthday on Friday, is skeptical about future success in the Grace space.

“I cannot imagine an established operator wanting to go in and taking over the existing restaurant space any more than someone would go into Trotter’s and make a go of it,” he wrote via email. “If the space were sold and redone, certainly anything is possible. The kitchen there is stunning and useful. But if the current owner is trying to open up Grace 2.0 — I cannot imagine that working without Curtis and Michael.”

That’s an opinion shared by chef Brian Fisher, whose restaurant in Lakeview — Entente — just earned its first Michelin star two months ago. He played darts with Duffy in Grace’s basement after a meal three years ago, and while he didn’t know him well, the chef’s accomplishments endeared him to Fisher and many chefs in Chicago. Without Duffy and Muser, all that space represents is “fancy kitchen equipment,” he said.

“Good luck,” Fisher said of Olszewski opening a new restaurant. “You have your work cut out for you.”

Duffy worked on the opening team in 2005 at Alinea, and Kokonas considers him a part of his company’s family. Kokonas hasn’t spoken with Duffy recently — they talked a while ago about bookings, presumably regarding Kokonas’s Tock website. Kokonas acknowledged that tensions at Grace had been brewing for a while.

Fooditor’s Michael Gebert has followed Grace from the start. Chicago hasn’t seen another restaurant quite like Grace open since it debuted in 2012, he wrote via email. Forget Alinea’s reinvention in 2016; the last luxury restaurant to open in Chicago may have been in 2008, when Sixteen debuted inside the Trump Tower.

“But what's come along since then?” Gebert replied. “Oriole is more youthful and a little more informal, Smyth and Elske are markedly more informal. They're both reactions to Charlie Trotter's and Alinea (John Shields worked at both, David Posey at Alinea). Grace was the last one that was trying to equal those places, rather than be an alternative to them.”

Ryan McCaskey, the chef behind two-starred Acadia in the South Loop, channeled Star Wars, where the galaxy needs balance, echoing Gebert.

“I feel it’s bad for the city of Chicago, there needs to be balance in order for the scene to truly move forward,” McCaskey texted. “I love Curtis, love his integrity, passion, and commitment to excellence. There has to be people like us to keep the restaurant scene in balance. Too many places now at the mid level, and racing to get more under their belt. It’s diluting the scene here, not adding to it.”

Grace’s dining room
Marc Much

For Fisher, a young chef starting to receive acclaim, there are lessons to be learned. He gushes about his present situation at Entente, where he has a strong relationship with restaurant owner Ty Fujimura. Grace’s demise gives Fisher motivation to learn about the business side of the industry so he can protect himself from falling into a similar trap. However, those using Grace as proof that the restaurant bubble is bursting are mistaken, Fisher said.

“It’s more of a unicorn example,” Fisher said. “Without knowing anything about the business itself, I didn’t think this was anything near that side of the conversation.”

Kokonas sees other lessons. Don’t depend on a single investor, and make sure there’s an investor who acts as an operations-level worker. Real estate and partnership deals made on day one can haunt a restaurant.

“However, when you're trying to build your dream sometimes it's easy to overlook potential legal snags,” Kokonas wrote. “I've seen it many times with many restaurants.”

Grace’s space was posh and luxurious.
Marc Much

Those interviewed all look forward to Duffy and Muser’s next restaurant, with Kokonas hoping that the talents stay in Chicago. Despite Chicago having fewer posh and luxurious dining experiences, Gebert said there’s still a market.

“Maybe somebody throws a ton of money at that soon, it's not any more improbable than opening Charlie Trotter's in Lincoln Park in the 1980s was, but it's just as likely that Alinea stays on a lonely pinnacle for years to come,” he wrote.


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