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A masked worker takes phone orders.
Yaz Vargas takes orders at Casa Yari.
Brian Rich/Chicago Sun-Times

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Chicagoans Continue to Explore New Restaurants Despite COVID-19’s Challenges

The pandemic doesn’t mean Chicagoans can’t explore other neighborhoods

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Before the pandemic, the Vargas family spent their free time taking summer trips outside of the city, exploring their favorite Chicago restaurants, attending festivals, or catching a movie. Now, all of that has been scrapped, and Yari Vargas barely has time to sit down after a long workday and play board games. Vargas, the chef and owner of Latin American restaurant Casa Yari in Logan Square, is still adapting to business during the public health crisis.

She’s always thinking about the next menu, when she’ll make the next grocery run, and whether she has enough personal protective equipment for her staff.

“It’s hard to be a businesswoman and, on top of that, to be a mom,” says Vargas, who has two teenage daughters. “Not only did I have to figure out my business, but I had to figure out their education as well.”

While Casa Yari sorts out its future, Chicagoans are also learning how to explore the city during the pandemic and to experience the city’s rich culture. Many have turned to virtual means, leaving neighborhoods more isolated and the city divided.

This isn’t new for Chicago, which is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. Its history of segregation can be traced to the 1915 Great Migration, which saw 500,000 African Americans move to Chicago from the South in search of better employment and housing opportunities. But racist policies known as redlining, the systematic denial of federal resources to own property and invest, combined with white people moving up north or to the city’s suburbs, resulted in economic decline and divested South and West side neighborhoods, which still face disproportionate access to resources compared to wealthier parts of the city.

Casa Yari in Logan Square.

Chicago is now the home of the James Beard Foundation Awards and one of the top cities for food and drink in the world. The city has seen nearly 5,000 restaurants, retail, and fitness businesses close since the start of the pandemic, according to a Local Economic Impact Report by Yelp released June 25. The survey also found that 53 percent of restaurants nationwide that have temporarily closed since March 1 have closed permanently.

Vargas is working hard to make sure her restaurant is not another statistic. At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, she says she had to run the kitchen by herself while her 19-year-old daughter, Yaz, and her business partner helped run the food and take orders.

“I come up with the new menu almost every day because I cook to order, so I only buy a certain amount of things because I don’t like waste,” she says. “Especially in the middle of the pandemic, we should not be wasteful at all, we should be very mindful — and restaurants are known to be very wasteful.”

The added expenses of PPE and to-go packaging, and a spike in prices affecting high-demand ingredients, caused Vargas to pull money from her savings. The money was intended for her second restaurant, in Humboldt Park, a cafe she had planned to take over and reopen in June. But when the stay-at-home order began, she decided to pull out of the contract and wait until the end of the year to see if opening is still a possibility. On the bright side, Vargas rehired all of her employees and added two more thanks to the steady flow of online and in-person customers.

One of her unofficial employees is Yami, her 16-year-old daughter, who sometimes helps bake in the kitchen so they can spend time together. It’s part of the new normal of managing her busy life, which also involves caring for her elderly divorced parents, so safety at the restaurant and in her family is paramount to avoid catching COVID-19.

Three women sitting on a patio.
Chef Yari Vargas (center) with oldest daughter (left) Yaz Vargas and younger daughter Yami Vargas (right).

“I wish there were more than 24 hours in a day, and there’s not,” she says. “I have had to learn to sacrifice certain things to be able to [be] with my daughters.”

Casa Yari, which opened in 2013 and is open for indoor and patio dining, mostly attracts Humboldt Park and Logan Square residents, but the chef says that once the restaurant started promoting delivery and pickup, first-time neighborhood residents flocked in to try the flan, jibaritos, and mofongo. She says the restaurant doesn’t use third-party apps because of their high fees, but takeout is what’s keeping the restaurant busy.

In Roscoe Village, music venue and restaurant Beat Kitchen and downtown sister restaurant Beat Kitchen on the Riverwalk have been a lifeline for owner Robert Gomez. He says the riverwalk location has benefitted from Navy Pier and Chicago beach closures.

Gomez, who also owns Wicker Park music venue Subterranean, is the co-founder of the Chicago Independent Venue League, a coalition advocating for 34 independently owned venues around the city. Since May 2020, he has mobilized nearly 2 million letters, calls and emails to legislators urging support for the RESTART, Save Our Stages, and ENCORES Acts, which would give necessary funding to struggling small music venues around the country.

“How do I drive more revenue at the riverwalk location and be so thankful it exists to give me some income, and, at the same time, how do I beg for mercy from the government for Subterranean’s behalf and push to receive justifiable grants for venues shuttered by [COVID-19]?” Gomez says.

That’s the million-dollar question for entertainment venue owners, who haven’t been able to host concerts since March. For Subterranean, which has served the music community for 26 years, its closure is depressing, Gomez says, as is the slowed traffic in Wicker Park, an area known for its eclectic restaurants, shops, and bustling nightlife. He says this directly shows how important music is to neighborhood exploration.

“When you and I go to a show, we are going to eat, drink somewhere, go to the neighborhood a little earlier, maybe do some shopping,” he says. “If you go to a restaurant, you could just Uber there and back and not really explore the neighborhood, but a music venue feeds the neighborhood.”

According to the National Independent Venue Association, for every $1 spent on a concert ticket, local economies receive an average $12 economic boost generated through spending in restaurants, hotels, taxis, and retail. Chicago’s Loop Alliance, a business member organization that promotes investment, cultural experiences, and revitalization efforts for the downtown area, noted in its 2019 Arts In The Loop Economic Impact study that concerts, live music, arts, and culture activities located within the Loop’s 1.5 square-mile footprint generate $2.25 billion, or $187 million per city block annually through direct and related spending. The pandemic has burned a large economic hole in these businesses, though cultural institutions are reopening for socially distanced exhibits and activities.

WBEZ health reporter Monica Eng, who is also the co-host of Chewing, a podcast about food, helped create the first-ever Curious City Scavenger Hunt: Chicago Eats Edition, which ran from August 14 to September 13. The hunt led Chicagoans with a strong appetite to leave their quarantine bubble and explore new neighborhoods and restaurants. More than 1,000 people and 407 teams participated in the event, which spanned 74 neighborhoods, Eng says.

Participants were given extra points for visiting restaurants farther from the Loop, which Eng says was meant to highlight the gems on the South and West sides and push people out of their comfort zones.

“Watching the news, you can assume that all of these neighborhoods with disinvestments are war zones and nothing normal happens, but by going there and enjoying food, you can see this is a place where people live and eat,” Eng says. “This is a great city, an enjoyable city — if you watch the 10 o’clock news, you can forget that.”

While outdoor exploration by walking, bike riding, or driving has boomed during the pandemic, CTA ridership and ride-hailing service use has decreased since March. A CTA spokesperson tells Eater Chicago that the rail system is seeing ridership down by roughly 70 percent systemwide. The CTA saw rail ridership decrease by over 85 percent on the North Side portion of the Red, Brown, and Loop lines, whereas the South and West side branches of the Green, Pink, and Blue lines saw a decrease between 67 and 79 percent, according to the system’s June report.

This decrease means people are exploring less via public transportation, exacerbating the long-standing city divide: For the South and West sides of the city, which have a higher population of essential workers, the pandemic has hit the hardest, particularly in Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities.

Coronavirus Essential Workers
A CTA car servicer mops the floor of a Red Line train car at the 95th Street station.
John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Dan Cooper, director of research at the Metropolitan Planning Council and co-author of The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City, sees pandemic stress in disinvested neighborhoods manifested in the uptick in violence.

“I think violence is the consequence of this — this pent-up stress, financial stress, health stress,” Cooper says. “It’s alarming as a Chicago resident, and heartbreaking, to see violence up, but it’s the compounding of all these factors of segregation. Hopefully, we get that and people start queueing in that we need to do something different policy-wise to invest in our West and South sides.”

Cooper says it’s too early to tell what the lasting impacts of the pandemic on these neighborhoods will be, but with more folks working remotely, there could be a shift away from downtown neighborhoods that have seen recent development and investment booms. He hopes to see more funding in community-based organizations uplifting each other with food deliveries, volunteering opportunities, and financial assistance during the pandemic.

That community energy and support is what has kept chef Vargas going into work with a smile on her face. She says customers send her encouraging emails and help bring new business via social media. And with the dedication of her tight-knit staff, which feels like a family, she has hope the restaurant can survive the pandemic and be an exploration destination.

“I didn’t realize how much Casa Yari meant to a lot of people until the pandemic,” Vargas says. “I feel fortunate that we are still here and hope and pray we continue servicing the community, given that a lot of restaurants have closed their doors forever.”

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