Chicago’s restaurant writers dish on their biggest surprises of 2020 as part of Eater’s ongoing tradition of polling the city’s experts for their year-end takes.
Michael Nagrant, michaelnagrant.com: I loved chowing down on gooey quesabirria garnered from Flo’s Kitchen food truck parked just off an Avondale alley in a residential backyard. The Italian cold cuts sandwich from Pizza Friendly Pizza also rocked my world. Meg Galus’s oatmeal cream pie from GG’s chicken. One bite, and I knew Meg pwned Lil’ Debbie. Pat Bertoletti blew my mind with dehydrated blue cheese powder-dusted fried El Milagro tortilla chips from Taco in a Bag. El Che’s parrillada platter at home. Blood sausage and sweetbreads and bone marrow straight from my grill to my gullet.
Mike Sula, Chicago Reader: An obscure but infectious high-protein concept that went viral and lay waste to all the competition.
Morgan Olsen, Time Out Chicago: Bruce Finkelman is behind two of the biggest dining surprises of 2020. In July, he teamed up with fine-dining chef Noah Sandoval (Oriole) to flip Bite Cafe into Pizza Friendly Pizza, everyone’s favorite new Sicilian slice shop. Then, within a matter of months, he enlisted Jonathan Zaragoza (Birrieria Zaragoza) to convert the Promontory into El Oso, a red-hot collab that deals in flame-kissed Mexican eats. Genius.
Dennis Lee, the Takeout, Food is Stupid: I’d have to say that finding out Alinea was doing takeout was the biggest surprise for me. We never had Alinea’s takeout kits, but a dear friend brought us a meal from Next to celebrate something, and it was really good.
Titus Ruscitti, ChiBBQKing: Entrepreneurs who took matters into their own hands be it selling food on the street or through social media. Often times with more interesting offerings than the restaurants that were forced to pivot.
Michael Gebert, Fooditor: The biggest surprise, I think, was how vulnerable restaurants were, not to lockdown and not being able to seat people inside — that was obvious — but to an anonymous campaign by a few servers on social media. You could have a Michelin star with a hundred years of tradition behind it, but let a few millennial ex-employees toss stories around on Instagram and poof, your restaurant was dead. It could not survive that, a power that Yelp, for all people bitch about the reviews there, never had.
Now, there’s no question bad things were done in restaurants, and there are things to be said for workers finally having a way to redress the power imbalance with owners and chefs. But the imbalance tipped the other way so hard that no one could straighten it out again, even when the charges that were thrown at restaurants were preposterous — I remember one charge against Fat Rice was that someone had plated something a certain way and [chef and co-owner Abe Conlon] didn’t like how it looked. Which was basically identity politics in the kitchen — how dare the white guy who merely owns the place and has his name on the menu say something, when a person of color, whose food it is, has settled the issue? We were in a new world where studying the food and being a creative artist with it didn’t matter at all — only your genetics, which determined what you were allowed to cook. (Never mind that in reality, Mexicans cook everything.) This was horrifying to me, especially coming from restaurants, which were one of the categories that had helped break down racial barriers, gender barriers, sexual orientation barriers in my growing-up years.
But for a time this summer, at least, the industry cowered under the yoke of the social media mob, and media mostly did the same — the number of writers who dared stand up against the mob for traditional liberal values of free expression and proper due process in could be counted on the fingers of a hand that had been through a bad kitchen accident.
As 2020 threw the world a curveball, Eater Chicago this year has expanded its end-of-year panel to include other members of the city’s media.
Chicago Party Aunt, @ChiPartyAunt: My dumbass husband Kurt finally fried a turkey without burning down the garage.
Natalie Moore, WBEZ: The South Side lacks sit-down restaurants but in a pandemic this has been to their advantage. I don’t want to downplay struggles restaurants have had but I think South Side ones have not been hit as hard because they specialize in takeout. I ordered from some of my downtown or downtown-adjacent fancy restaurants. The food is meant to be plated and served in a restaurant. Their takeout is not as good.
Sarah Spain, ESPN: Farmer’s Fridge delivery was a game changer for me!
Exavier Pope, Forbes, the Athletic, Al Jazeera English: Mooby’s, the fictional restaurant in Kevin Smith’s cult classic Clerks II coming to life and doing a pop up at St. Lou’s Assembly in Fulton River District and eating an amazing vegan egg, cheese, and sausage English muffin sandwich with tater tots.