Chicago’s food media will soon lose another lynchpin, as Steve Dolinsky’s 17 years at ABC 7 Chicago will end in February. The Hungry Hound, the station’s roving food personality whose autographed portraits hang in hundreds of restaurants across the city, is leaving WLS-Channel 7.
Dolinsky, speaking to Chicago media reporter Robert Feder, says this was a mutual decision by him and the channel’s management. However, Feder also speculates that COVID-19, which has repeatedly suspended indoor dining in Chicago, played a role in ABC’s decision not to renew the Hound’s contract.
The pandemic also hurt Dolinsky’s business, as he had started a culinary touring company taking people around town to his favorite pizzerias. This was an outgrowth of his Pizza City USA book that allowed him to flex as a Chicago pizza expert, making him an easy interview for national food writers compiling stories about the city’s scene (the book also generated some frustration from pizzeria owners who thought they were unfairly treated). The brand also featured a pizza stall at Revival Food Hall in the Loop with restaurants rotating in and out to showcase different styles including tavern and deep dish.
Food halls will continue to be in Dolinsky’s future, as according to a station memo circulated Thursday, he’ll develop a consultancy “to curate culinary talent for food halls and music festivals around the country.” He had been shifting away from traditional journalism in recent years, even bulking up his social media accounts through unorthodox means.
Dolinsky won 13 James Beard media awards and he also co-hosted a podcast with chef Rick Bayless. Dolinsky is known for food runs where he visits lesser known restaurants to bring them exposure. Now he says he’s working to expand his coverage beyond Chicago. In a Facebook post, Dolinsky — who has a second book releasing this year — writes that he remains committed to spotlighting Chicago restaurants, but also in expanding his reach.
“I am excited for the many possibilities — lending my name to projects and brands I’m passionate about, working with restaurants and chefs I admire, and curating the talent for real estate developers, food halls and music festivals around the country,” Dolinsky writes.
Still, this news may be disturbing to those already worried that the city doesn’t receive enough national spotlight. Earlier this month, Phil Vettel retired after 31 years as Tribune dining critic. Vettel’s reviews made it easy for national critics to keep their eyes on Chicago, giving the city (where culinary tourism helped pay the bills before the pandemic) much needed attention. That attention helps draw dollars to the city, encourages developers to build restaurants, and helps attract top chefs to work in Chicago.
After Vettel’s announcement, Fooditor’s Michael Gebert told Eater Chicago how, ideally, a city should be represented by multiple critics, as different voices and perspectives provide for a richer picture to inform locals. Gebert and Mike Sula remain the city’s longest-tenured food writers. Sula has been with the Reader since 1995. Even before she joined the Tribune in 2016, Louisa Chu has been covering the local scene. She served as Anthony Bourdain’s guide for his famous trip to Chicago for the 2008 No Reservations shoot, and was a correspondent for Gourmet. Chu would presumably be a candidate for Vettel’s old job if the Tribune elects to fill the position.
With Dolinsky’s departure from local airwaves, this only leaves Audarshia Townsend — who appears on WGN-TV — as the only local personality regularly covering Chicago’s food scene on TV news. TV shows like Check, Please! and Chicago’s Best fit into another category.
There seems to be a vacuum in Chicago for food writing. As media companies spend less, future opportunities may not exist with a major network or publication. But recent departures may pave the way for more diversity as Vettel and Dolinsky are both white men whose work dominated the city’s critical coverage. Platforms, like Substack, have shown journalists there’s life for independents. That’s a road Gebert has taken as he works on his own book.
Dolinsky’s last ABC Chicago story airs on February 20, according to his Facebook post.
And in other news...
— Red Hot Ranch, the fabulous late-night hot dog stand that last year moved its original Western Avenue location in Bucktown, made an appearance on the most recent episode of Chicago P.D. The show aired on Wednesday, but RHR owner Jeff Greenfield says TV crews were at his restaurant back in November. Greenfield tells Eater that the scene was originally written for a neighborhood bar, but the show’s location manager really liked Red Hot Ranch, so they’ve switched locales to bring exposure to the restaurant during the pandemic: “Hope it generates more business at a time it’s sorely needed,” Greenfield says.
— Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, a favored purveyor among famous Chicago chefs including Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill) and Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat), earned national recognition this month with two wins at the 2021 Good Food Awards. It’s a comeback story for the farm in downstate Champaign, which is among many that have struggled due to the pandemic and mass restaurant closures.
— Veteran chef and restaurateur John Manion (El Che) will take over the kitchen at iconic concert venue and bar FitzGerald’s in suburban Berwyn for a new spot called Babygold Barbecue, according to the Tribune. A resident of Berwyn himself, Manion promises barbecue favorites like pork shoulder, as well as Creole-inspired dishes and unusual options like a head of cauliflower that’s slowly smoked. FitzGerald’s has worked to keep spirits high during the pandemic with outdoor shows, frozen drinks, and a chef’s burger series. Ownership hasn’t announced an opening date but aims to launch this spring.