A pandemic is a curious time to open a “bucket list” restaurant — a place where diners splurge to celebrate special occasions, the kind of venue that lures culinary tourists who book reservations months in advance. But as the world copes with the novel coronavirus, chef and co-owner Curtis Duffy and co-owner Michael Muser will don their black masks and welcome customers Tuesday night to Ever, their new $5 million restaurant in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood.
“This is a place you come to when you don’t want to question any of the ‘what ifs?’” Muser says. “Will we have a great dinner tonight? What will service be like tonight? Will we enjoy ourselves tonight? Will we be coveted and cared for? When we walk into that restaurant, will every single member of that team want to break their heads open to take of me tonight? The answer in this room is ‘fucking yes all day, dude.’”
Ever is the duo’s follow-up to Grace, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant along Randolph Street where Duffy turned into a culinary superstar. Grace’s sudden demise at the end of 2017 left Chicago’s restaurant industry in a daze: What would become of fine dining in city? How would the closure damage Chicago’s culinary reputation globally? Muser says there was never a doubt he and Duffy would return. He maintains Chicago deserves the caliber of restaurant he and Duffy aim to deliver with Ever.
“I want people in New York to talk about Chicago as a dining destination,” Muser says. “I want people in San Francisco to be jealous of Chicago as a dining institution.”
The landscape for restaurants has changed in two years, and COVID-19 has further transformed the industry and everything it surrounds. Ever was supposed to open in spring, but the pandemic pushed construction back. Materials for the buildout arrived slowly, some vendors stopped answering phones. As Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed indoor dining in mid-March, Ever’s construction was about 25-percent complete. Muser says they had little choice but to continue construction. They had bills to pay and needed the restaurant open. So Ever’s staff embraced social distancing and limited seating capacities. Ever has 14 tables and they’ve reduced the number of people per table. Workers submit health questionnaires and their temperatures are taken daily.
“I can’t imagine a safer layout for a dining room than what Amy and I created,” Muser says, referring to GM Amy Cordell.
Ever spent $6,000 on a 150-pound concrete table that sits near the host stand; the design matches the plaster hallways, reminiscent of a canyon. That’s where diners will find a porcelain tray with masks and an automatic hand sanitizer pump.
The timing for Duffy and Muser is even stranger as they’ve waited for two years for their non-compete agreement with their former boss (Grace’s owner Michael Olszewski) to expire. The pact prohibited them from opening a restaurant in the Chicago area.
That wait has only fed Duffy’s desire to outdo Grace. Duffy remains committed to ensuring Ever scores a full three-star rating from Michelin: “What else is there?” the Duffy asks. Duffy’s allegiance to the tire guide is further demonstrated by the three red Michelin stars tattooed under this right wrist.
Ever will open with only one, eight- to 10-course tasting menu. At Grace, he featured two menu with one devoted to vegetarians. Even omnivores raved about Grace’s meat-free “Flora” menu. At Ever, Duffy says focusing on one menu will make the restaurant safer; with less work, the kitchen can thrive with a smaller staff. There’s less risk for exposure, he reasons. Duffy is placing a lot of trust in chef de cuisine Justin Selk who followed Duffy from Grace. Reservations are prepaid using Tock. That limits customer and waiter interaction, compared to a traditional restaurant. That’s helpful during a pandemic.
Ever has room for outdoor dining, but Muser and Duffy will only utilize the space in an emergency fashion. There’s a rooftop, home of Ever’s garden where herbs and other plants grow. If COVID-19 cases continue to increase and Mayor Lori Lightfoot decides to close indoor dining, Ever would have a rooftop option.
“It’s something that I think about every day,” Muser admits.
Muser knows fine dining isn’t for everyone. He raves about how he loves Superdawg, the beloved Northwest Side hot dog drive-thru. The optics of opening a $285-per-person restaurant are difficult to explain to those who aren’t interested. At a time when people have lost their lives and jobs, it’s harder. The owners of Chicago’s only three-Michelin starred restaurant, Alinea, were caught under an avalanche of criticism for offering a coronavirus-inspired canapé at their rooftop pop-up. Some of that anger stemmed from critics who dislike the elitism often associated with fine dining.
“I know we’re an expensive restaurant,” Duffy says. “You pay for a lot of things that go into what we do what we do. It’s the ingredients, it’s the labor, it’s the love. All those things cost money.”
Muser — after noting that Ever’s price tag is lower than Alinea’s ($285 to $315) — says he often saw members of Chicago’s service industry dine at Grace, which had similar costs.
“Even at our level, young cooks and young chefs, people interested in wine and food at this level — whether you can afford it or not — they will find a way to make it here,” Duffy says. “A lot of young folks save a few months of pay just to come in and experience what we do.”
Beyond the multimillion-dollar restaurant design, and Duffy’s dishes — like Osetra caviar, crab, cucumber, citrus lace — Ever’s general manager Cordell says her staff wants to nail the little things. The way servers pour water, for example. Servers practice how to pour water at the right speed. The pace of pouring water — while seemingly trivial — makes a difference in the experience, Cordell says. Water poured too slow could leave customers in an anxious mood.
“There are a lot of details that we focus on that the guest would never know about,” she adds.
As Chicago restaurants adjust to whatever new normal that emerges, Muser says don’t expect Ever to morph into a general store or go casual. Over at Grace’s former space, Michelin-starred Yugen recently announced changes. Muser doesn’t see much flexibility for Ever.
“This can’t pivot — you know what I mean?” Muser says. “Probably could do to-go food. We’ll do whatever we have to do. But the future is unknown.”