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Virtue chef Erick Williams and a mentee serve food at a Black and brown unity rally in Little Village.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

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Chicago’s Top Restaurant News of 2020

Looking back at Eater Chicago’s most read stories including executive orders, social media meltdowns, and more

The novel coronavirus dominated 2020 in every aspect of life, including this year’s headlines at Eater Chicago. As Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s offices made regular announcements, restaurant owners, workers, and customers wanted to know the latest developments. Beyond the actions of elected officials — like it or not — social media continues to play a large role in the news. Facebook and Instagram posts captured the actions of a few notable restaurant owners and provided a forum for customers to react. Check out 2020’s top posts below, excluding roundups, maps, and guides. Take a look at 2019’s top stories over here.

1) Chicagoans discover a new phrase: “shelter in place”

After thousands shamelessly crowded bars to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Chicago prepared for the inevitability of only leaving their homes for essential services. Behind the scenes, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office considered when to issue a shelter-in-place order, frustrating restaurant and bar owners who wanted to know the future of their businesses. The eventual order would not come from the city, but the state.

Mayor says Chicago reopening on the horizon but warns against ignoring stay-at-home order
Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

2) Illinois restaurants see June as the light at the end of the tunnel

Both indoor and outdoor dining was shutdown in March, and restaurant owners were itching to back to work. On May 5, the state began laying out the groundwork for that to happen as the governor announced a plan called Restore Illinois. The number of hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases would determine when that could happen, but the math determined the earliest restaurants could reopen would be June 26.

3) Restaurants prepare to the state’s first shut down

On March 20, Gov. Pritzker announced the state’s first stay-at-home order which excluded grocery and liquor stores but shut down on-premise dining and bars. The initial order, which would be extended, was originally supposed to end on April 7.

Juneteenth Celebrated In Cities Across America
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth march at a Juneteenth rally.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

4) Fat Rice closes after employee uproar on social media

As Black Lives Matter rallies took place across the country, Chicago’s service industry — frustrated by job loss, poor treatment, and ignited by a new spirit of activism — began airing their grievances on social media. While not all of these allegations were vetted, where there’s smoke there can be fire. Ex-workers at Fat Rice, an award-winning Logan Square Pan Asian restaurant run by Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo, shut down after allegations of racism, mistreatment, and anger about how dishes were culturally appropriated and presented without context. This was one of the biggest closures of 2020, and it had little to do with COVID-19 conditions.

5) Richard’s Bar ignores COVID-19 safety rules

Richard’s Bar, a River West dive known for its late-night license, possible mob and police connections, and allowing customers to smoke indoors, was ticketed in March for serving people indoors. The bar, which had been in the news following a murder outside the tavern in early 2020, in December posted a sign explaining why owners would continue to ignore safety precautions. After news coverage, Richard’s quickly took down those signs.

6) Gov. J.B. Pritzker tells Meet the Press that he may close restaurants

On the morning of Sunday, March 15, Gov. Pritzker told Meet the Press that if the spread of COVID-19 continued, he would have to close restaurants. While this was rumored earlier in the week (especially as bar owners encouraged St. Patrick’s Day crowds and angered the governor) the governor’s interview finally gave the state a reality check: COVID-19 was serious. Later that day, Pritzker followed through and delivered his executive order.

Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo on the red carpet of the 2020 James Beard Awards in Chicago.
Fat Rice’s Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo on the red carpet of the 2020 James Beard Awards in Chicago.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

7) The owner of Nini’s Deli goes on a racist and homophobic rant

Nini’s Deli was a popular Cuban-American restaurant that sold empanadas and more. Its owner, Juan Riesco, had a large social media presence, and styled himself a business tycoon having sown up a deal with Nike. That all came crashing down after social media posts caught Riesco and his brother making anti-Black and homophobic comments. Riesco cited his church teachings as reason for his bigotry. Nini’s would close, but has tried repeatedly to come back. It’s a story worth watching in 2021.

8) Mayor Lori Lightfoot releases reopening guidelines

Opening a restaurant is hard, but reopening during a pandemic is harder. Chicago’s restaurant community eagerly awaited Mayor Lightfoot’s rules so they could operate safely. The rules covered table placement, ensuring windows were open, and that workers needed to wear masks.

Nini’s Deli is closed.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

9) State announces that it will shutdown suburban Cook County restaurants

As summer ended, outdoor dining diminished and people turned to indoor private parties, according to elected officials. That led to the spread of COVID-19, and state health experts said it was time to shut down indoor dining. Previously, the government was allowing a 25 percent capacity indoors.

10) Stephanie Izard apologizes for carelessly appropriating a Korean dish

The youngest story on this list involves celebrity chef Stephanie Izard, the Top Chef champion who made an Instagram post that she wishes she had back. This was sponsored content made in conjunction with New Zealand Beef & Lamb featuring a recipe originally described as “bibimbap,” a beloved Korean dish. Izard’s dish, garnished with green herbs looked more like a Japanese beef bowl. Korean-American chef Won Kim (Kimski) took issue, as he recalls how white people shamed him and others for cooking what they grew up with. Cuisine is a point of pride and it hurt seeing a famous chef incorrectly telling the story of that food to an eager audience without context.

Kim wrote a beautiful, nuanced essay noting that he doesn’t want to bar anyone from cooking anything, but found Izard’s recipe problematic because it wasn’t accurately. If Izard labeled it was “Korean inspired” or “Pan Asian” he says wouldn’t have had concerns. He never used the word “appropriation,” which is constantly misconstrued. But many appropriation conversations go, many were triggered and attacked Kim for supposedly infringing on their liberties. Izard quickly apologized for her part, which seemed to sate Kim, despite the insults hurled at him after the story published.

Fat Rice

2957 West Diversey Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 661-9170 Visit Website

Kimski

954-960 West 31st Street, , IL 60608 (773) 823-7336 Visit Website
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