UPDATE: This story has been updated with quotes from Iliana Regan.
Iliana Regan, the acclaimed chef and owner behind Elizabeth, has officially departed from her Lincoln Square restaurant. Regan, who opened Elizabeth in 2012, has sold the restaurant to Tim Lacey, a longtime collaborator who has operated it since Regan and her wife Anna Hamlin moved to Michigan in 2019 where they own a bed and breakfast called Milkweed Inn that’s sold out through 2022.
Regan announced her departure via Elizabeth’s email newsletter on Friday afternoon, thus closing a chapter in Chicago food. Elizabeth allowed diners to enjoy Regan’s distinct forager-style of cooking, which mixed a love for the outdoors and Midwest sensibilities with the technique of a fine-dining chef; the combination would earn it a Michelin star.
Despite what Elizabeth’s newsletter called a “major announcement,” Regan had been discussing her departure with Lacey as far back as November or December 2019, she writes in an email. The pandemic slowed the transition a bit. “I told him if he didn’t want it I would continue to make a place for everyone to continue working until we knew more about what was happening but he still wanted it,” she writes. Lacey assumed sole ownership in August 2020, but with pandemic-related closing mandates coming and going, they waited until the restaurant could stay open long enough to develop a rhythm before making the news public.
“During COVID, while doing takeout, it didn’t make sense to announce it,” Lacey says. “It was time to get our balance, and now things are moving in a good direction.”
The decision shouldn’t come as a shock. For the past few years, Regan has pondered her future in Chicago, and back in 2020, before COVID-19, Regan told the New York Times that closing Elizabeth would provide relief from mounting financial pressures. “A big part of this was trying to narrow my focus,” she writes. “Of course I’m still busy as heck. I’ll probably always be like this, but not running a restaurant full time with a staff has been a relief. I was getting too burnt out.”
Even in absentia, the day-to-day responsibilities of running a restaurant had weighed on Regan. Even as Lacey ran the restaurant while Regan resided in Michigan, if the state had questions about operations or licensure, Regan says his answers to inspectors and bureaucrats weren’t adequate. City officials wanted Regan for answers. Now, the sale renders that concern moot.
The restaurant is named for Regan’s late sister, and Lacey says he’s grateful to retain the Elizabeth moniker; the chef could have elected to take the name with her.
Lacey and Regan met 15 years ago while the two worked a Trio, the Evanston restaurant where other stars like Gale Gand and Grant Achatz also worked. Lacey reunited with Regan in 2019 when her Japanese-influenced restaurant, Kitsune, closed in North Center.
Initially, former chef du cuisine Kristi Gonzalez handled the takeout operations in 2020. At year later, when Elizabeth reopened for on-premises dining in August, for the first time since the pandemic, Regan remained in Michigan, handing over the kitchen reigns to Ian Jones (Band of Bohemia, NoMI, Bavette’s). Regan said she trusted Jones with executing her vision. Jones’ menu is “hyper-seasonal” with gradual changes every day. To Lacey, that means diners will see full menu flips every six to eight weeks.
Jones is joined by pastry chef and chef de cusine George Kovach (Bearcat, Band of Bohemia, Acadia) and beverage director Ali Martin (Blackbird, Mother Hubbard’s). Martin spent seven years at Mother Hubbard’s, the infamous dive bar in River North. Now, after responding to a help wanted ad, she’s working at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
In Michigan, Regan is concentrating on running Milkweed and on writing. Her first book, the memoir Burn the Place, was a New York Times bestseller, and Annapurna Productions is still in the process of turning it into a TV show. Regan now at work a second memoir about being in the woods and foraging — it’s scheduled to be published in late 2022 — and is in the beginning stages of a novel; she also has a cookbook under contract. Meanwhile, she’s in school full-time at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she’s working toward an MFA in writing. “I wanted to get my MFAW because I think someday in the future I might like to teach,” she writes. “Also it was a goal I had for many years and wanted to accomplish it.”
Regan and Hamlin still return to Chicago every month or so to check on their house and visit family. In the future, Regan will continue teach classes at Elizabeth, Lacey says, but this is officially his show.
“The job is a little different but not significantly,” Lacey says. “I’m really happy with the food that Ian and George are turning out.”
Regan, meanwhile, is very happy with how things have turned out. She and Hamlin ate at the first staff tasting for the first meal after opening and says it was incredible. “I believe [Elizabeth] is in great hands with a great crew,” she writes.
Elizabeth’s Michelin-star status will be up for debate. Inspectors have a habit of stripping restaurants of its stars after a chef change. The tire guide did that this year at Kikko in West Loop following the departure of chef Mariya Russell.
“I have lots of faith they’ll do it justice and possibly be able to push even harder to get to new places,” Regan writes. “I’m rooting for them to get two Michelin stars, which was also a long time goal of mine I was never able to do, probably because I was always stretched so thin.”