Restaurants in Chicago close seemingly every day, but some resonate more than others. High real estate prices, bad food or service, poor customer-perceived value, monetary problems, landlord disputes, out-of-the-way locations, increased competition, and personal or even unspecified reasons are often the reasons for closures. The restaurant industry is notoriously difficult and fickle, causing many businesses to sadly fall by the wayside at alarming rates.
2019 saw many closures, and the 10 below are among the most notable. Inclusions aren’t based on one specific reason — it’s a combination of newsworthiness, customer sadness, surprise, and talk among the industry and dining public. They’re listed in no particular order.
Rockit Bar & Grill
River North’s Hubbard Street strip is an epicenter of Chicago nightlife, but it wasn’t that way as recently as 15 years ago. That’s when burgeoning nightclub impresario Billy Dec and his partners opened this restaurant, bar, and late-night magnet, setting off a chain reaction that resulted in a nighttime business boom in the area as well as spawning a powerhouse hospitality group, Rockit Ranch.
But in the last couple of years the group splintered: multiple spots closed, Dec split for Nashville and focused on a movie career and other endeavors, and the original Rockit became the sole property of partner Brad Young, who after a second renovation, reopened it with a focus on what made it popular to begin with. Alas the reborn Rockit Bar & Grill didn’t work out, as the River North revolutionary closed for good in July after 15 years, and less than one year after reopening from its final revamp.
Kitsune/Bunny the Micro Bakery
Iliana Regan is one of Chicago’s most acclaimed chefs. Her flagship “new gatherer” fine-dining restaurant Elizabeth has earned Michelin stars for multiple years in a row, her memoir is a prestigious book award winner, and her farm and inn in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sold out its 2019 bookings in less than 48 hours. But unfortunately, not everything she has done in recent years has stayed around for the long term.
Regan, who had previously opened and closed the popular bakery Bunny in East Lakeview, turned her attention to opening a new casual Japanese restaurant with Midwestern touches in North Center, unveiling Kitsune in January 2017. The eatery gained near-universal appraise from critics, garnering glowing review after glowing review — including swiftly picking up a nod as one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in America — and Regan was a finalist for Eater Chicago’s chef of the year in late 2017 and a James Beard Award nominee this year. The chef even added an amended version of Bunny to the space this May, before she abruptly pulled the plug on both the bakery and Kitsune by July. The reason for the closures are still a mystery, but at least fans can still eat at Elizabeth, read her book, and visit her farm and inn in Michigan — if they can snag a reservation.
Nellcote/RM Champagne Salon/Leghorn Chicken
Element Collective had been one of Chicago’s hottest restaurant groups for many years — operating popular spots in Old Town, Randolph Restaurant Row, River North, and a chicken sandwich mini-chain with ambitions for many more locations — but after its success started slowing, the entire group came to a screeching halt in 2019. Element Collective’s shutters began when its River North seafood restaurant Kinmont closed in early 2017 amidst employees’s allegations of bounced paychecks, followed by the closures of its Leghorn Chicken in River North and its nine-year-old mainstay Old Town Social the following year.
Heading into 2019 the group still operated the glitzy Randolph Row favorite Nellcote, sister spot RM Champagne Salon next door, and the original Leghorn Chicken — the first of what ownership hoped would be a prominent Chicago chain — in West Town. But those all shuttered in rapid succession within a week of each other amidst more worker allegations of money woes, signifying the end of a prominent group and prompting diners to wonder what happened.
La Sirena Clandestina
The Fulton Market corridor has been transforming into a playground for corporations and chains in recent years, turning a beloved independent restaurant into a victim in 2019. Chef John Manion’s love letter to Brazilian cuisine — the longtime Eater 38 member La Sirena Clandestina — will serve its last customers on New Year’s Eve.
After seven years in business, predating the neighborhood-changing Google building that went up across the street, the restaurant’s lease is up and prominent real estate needs to be maximized. It’s a sign of the times in today’s Fulton Market where fewer and fewer independent businesses are able to survive. At least diners can still eat Manion’s food at his nearby restaurant El Che Steakhouse & Bar, and at his stall inside the new Time Out Market just down the street.
One could describe 2019 in Chicago’s food scene as the year of the food hall. Many of them — including Aster Hall, One Eleven Food Hall, Wells Street Market, and the aforementioned Time Out Market Chicago — debuted since mid-2018, and many more announced their impending openings in 2019. Which makes the quick shutter of Fulton Galley even more surprising — or not — depending on one’s point of view.
If food halls are so trendy how did one fail so quickly? Is Chicago’s dining scene finally becoming oversaturated with food halls? How many food halls can survive in the city and how many do diners really want to visit? These are fair questions after Fulton Galley’s ownership threw in the towel after just five months in business — and less than one week before the much larger Time Out Market would debut with many famous chefs just down the street.
The Barrelhouse Flat
Over the last dozen years or so Chicago’s cocktail culture has risen to become among the country’s best. But one of the city’s most influential cocktail bars — nearly reaching icon status despite its location in a neighborhood that’s more known for sports bars — sadly called it quits in 2019.
The Barrelhouse Flat in Lincoln Park served some of the city’s best cocktails in a sophisticated environment and spawned many of Chicago’s top drink-makers, who would go on to open or work at other hotspots around the city and spread the bar’s influence. Its closure after more than seven years remains a mystery.
Chicago is a hotbed of Mexican cuisine — from the city’s breadth of casual neighborhood taquerias to its wealth of creative upscale options — and Quiote was both, as well as a popular cocktail bar. But with one Instagram post in August the multi-prong Logan Square operation suddenly went dark.
Management of the day-night dynamo cited personal reasons to announce its ending, although a subsequent report said it was evicted. Whatever the reason, the business was a unique and ambitious one. At least its former chef plans to open another restaurant in 2020.
Pork & Mindy’s
The original location in Bucktown was supposed to be just the beginning of global expansion. Barbecue sandwich-focused Pork & Mindy’s, which combined partner and Food Network star Jeff Mauro’s big-time name recognition with an army of deep-pocketed investors, had ambitious plans to populate the globe with fast-casual restaurants. But after opening a few locations in the city and in Mariano’s grocery stores, plus announcing a few others would open soon, the bottom fell out.
First, after delaying the openings of some coming-soon locations, many diners wondered if they would happen at all. Then warning bells sounded when the original location closed in August, although the company announced plans to turn it into a private event space and training center. Finally, less than three months later the death knell arrived in the form of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Sometimes fame and money don’t lead to successful restaurant chains.
The ramen boom was just percolating in Chicago when Takashi Yagihashi, a chef who has earned a James Beard Award, Michelin stars, and gained national fame while appearing on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters, opened this casual Japanese restaurant in River North in 2011. Slurping Turtle was at the forefront of a huge culinary trend in town, packing in diners for more than seven years for ramen, cocktails, and more.
Yagihashi, who was also involved with a pair of restaurants in Michigan, left Slurping Turtle about a year before it closed. And although it’s been gone since May, its influence lives on at the many casual Japanese restaurants around the city.
Chicago’s largest restaurant group closing a business inside the former home of the city’s most famous restaurant is a very rare shutter double whammy. But that’s what happened when Lettuce Entertain You closed Booth One in June inside the former home of the legendary Pump Room.
The decision to close the Gold Coast restaurant after less than two and a half years was mutual, according to a press release, but nonetheless surprising. The Ambassador Hotel, which houses the space, replaced it with a generic bar and dining.