Since opening in 2012, Grace restaurant was a juggernaut of fine dining in Chicago’s West Loop. Five years later, in December 2017, its patron saints, chef Curtis Duffy and partner, general manager, and sommelier Michael Muser abruptly left their jobs due to a difference of vision with the main investor and principal owner, Michael Olszewski. The next day, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant closed.
The closure shocked Chicago’s restaurant industry, media, and dining public. At the time, chef Ryan McCaskey of Michelin-starred Acadia called Grace’s closure “bad for the city of Chicago.” Fooditor’s Michael Gebert wrote Grace was “the last [restaurant] that was trying to equal [Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea], rather than be an alternative to them.” And Chicago critic Jeff Ruby succinctly wrote, “Not Grace. This one hurts.”
After this life-shattering chain of events, Duffy and Muser went into relative hiding to focus on their personal lives while dealing with the legal issues that followed the restaurant’s highly publicized demise. Duffy got married. Muser became a father. Meanwhile, the pair abided by the non-compete provision in their contract with their main investor Michael Olszewski, which temporarily prevented them from investing in or working in another restaurant in Chicago or its surrounding counties. They asked Cook County circuit court to void the provision, but the noncompete expired before the court could send the matter to arbitration. Today Duffy and Muser say there are no more active court cases involving Grace. A search through Cook County circuit court record backs that up.
Now Duffy and Muser are finally emerging to open Ever, their new restaurant which they hope to debut this spring. With this long awaited follow-up restaurant, their hopes are high. Duffy and Muser are not shy about their aspirations to rise to the top echelon of Chicago fine dining again — and eventually be among the best restaurants in the world.
When Ever opens, diners can expect to have the option to pick between a vegetarian or meat-and-seafood-filled tasting menu. Each will include between 12 and 15 courses. Prior to sitting down to eat in the dining room, diners will walk through a hallway where they’ll pluck elaborate snacks from the ceiling. When it comes to prices, Muser has said Ever will be competitive with Chicago’s other elite fine dining restaurants. Checks at Ever should range between $300 to $500 per person. On the high end, it would be Chicago’s most expensive restaurant.
Duffy says the overall gist of the menu will be “light, green, herbaceous, fun, whimsical, but still respectable with the ingredients.” In other words, “It’s still the same style of food — it’s my food,” he says.
Duffy says he’s starting to conceptualize some dishes but that his opening menus won’t crystalize until he’s able to work in the restaurant’s finished kitchen. He’s known for turning the best seasonal ingredients Chicago and the world has to offer into head-spinning works of culinary art. For example, while his dishes change seasonally, one of his most famous ones at Grace was a “sashimi” course where a thin ginger ice column encapsulated a raw fish of the day draped with trout roe and coconut. Diners would tap the ice with a spoon to distribute its temperature, flavor, and texture over the fish.
“Once you get into the kitchen and have the ingredients in hand, that’s when things really start to take shape and you start to take that idea from paper and bring it to life,” he says.
And as far as the interior design vision goes, Muser summarizes it as “if the Starship Enterprise had an awesome restaurant in it, this would be it.” That is to say, it takes a lot of imagination to envision what the restaurant will look and feel like when it’s finished. Muser goes on to describe a dark, cave-like entry hallway with narrow canyon-esque textured walls, front windows that will only allow passersby to see silhouettes inside, and the aforementioned pit stop where diners can pluck bites hanging from the ceiling. That initial experience will lead into a dining-room entrance that he says will feel like “walking into one of those sound-deafening headphones.”
The restaurant occupies a 6,000-square-foot ground-floor corner space within a large, new building it shares with tenants including a large Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea. The restaurant pushes to the western side of Fulton Market as developers snatch up property along the ever-expanding business district. There’s still plenty of unfinished drywall inside the restaurant as crews continue to work. Dutch designers built Grace’s chairs, one of the defining features of its dining room. German company Rolf Benz is building Ever’s chairs. And as their custom-built French stove travels across the Atlantic, the pair work on all the other little things needed to make their dream a reality. They are debating envelopes, menu paper, whether to hang artwork on the restaurant’s currently bare walls, and are talking to possible hires.
Back in late 2017, one of the first tasks at hand was to deal with and move past the fallout and feelings that came with Grace’s demise. The two freely admit the enormous difficulty and deep emotion that came with the decision to leave their restaurant and its subsequent closure. In hindsight, they say it was a necessary step allowing them to find new silent partners who they feel will better help them accomplish their lofty goals.
“Saying goodbye to something like [Grace] is dramatic and painful for sure, so that took a minute,” Muser says. “And from that minute, we started focusing, and buried ourselves like laser beams on to what we were going to do. And that required a long process of obtaining the money, and an even longer process of obtaining partners and making sure that all got done correctly.”
“Leaving that, it was fucking heartbreaking, you know? It’s like putting down a dog or having to say goodbye to a child,” adds Duffy, who has “Grace” tattoo on his arm. “It was hard to walk away, but we knew it was the best decision to do. We had enormous goals for that restaurant which now will transcend into this restaurant.”
Duffy and Muser say one of these goals is a shared dream of opening multiple restaurants in order to provide more opportunities to staff. When Grace was open, the restaurant lost a lot of talent who left to pursue growth opportunities. Many went on to great success, including former pastry chef Bobby Schaffer, who opened acclaimed bakery and restaurant Lost Larson; former sous chef and 2013 Eater Young Gun Mitch Lienhard who left for San Francisco to work at then-two-Michelin-starred Saison and later at three-Michelin-starred Manresa, earning the title of S. Pellegrino’s Young Chef 2016; and opening staffer Kelly Coughlin who became general manager and beverage director at two-Michelin-starred Smyth.
Duffy and Muser reflect on this point with some regret, stating that they want to start a new restaurant group as a place where great talent can remain within the family as they grow. With more restaurants in a larger group, they’ll have the ability to offer growth opportunities amongst their concepts. But owning and operating multiple restaurants begins with one.
And then there’s the name. “We’re calling it Ever, because all [Curtis] kept saying was, ‘It’s going to be the best ever,’” Muser says. “It just kept happening, and kept happening, and it became painfully obvious that this [restaurant] is the box where he’s just going to stick all of his evers. These are all Curtis’s evers, all his best evers, all the top evers, all those rock star moments that we’ve had and shared — we packed them into the design of this thing.”
And they’re embracing all the expectation that comes with this name.
“Of course, the pressure is enormous,” Duffy says. “I think we both have the confidence that we can do it again. We have unfinished business.”
“You’re definitely going to have to buy the ticket to take the ride,” Muser says. “You’ll see it when you sit down. You’ll see it when the stuff starts coming to the table. That we’ve gone above, and we pulled no punches on this thing.”
Ever, 1330 W. Fulton Market, slated to open in spring.