Increasingly, diners are electing to eat out during Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, with fewer people passing judgement if revelers want to celebrate at a restaurant versus over a home-cooked meal. Restaurants are cracking the code, realizing many diners prefer classic dishes; they aren’t looking for anything revolutionary or cheffed-up.
That trend is shifting toward other holidays and other cultures. Diwali, a five-day South Asian festival of lights, takes place from November 2 through November 6 this year. A truncated description of the holiday is that it’s a celebration of good triumphing over evil, something that was once almost exclusively observed at home with rituals including lighting diyas, decorating with marigolds, eating traditional vegetarian meals, and — of course — nibbling sweets laced with sugar and ghee.
Those traditions are now going mainstream, and Chicago is seeing more public events and observances than ever with restaurants playing a key role. For example, chef Zubair Mohajir is opening his new restaurant, Aman, the day after Diwali with a special vegetarian 10-course holiday dinner in Wicker Park. In Lincoln Park, Tandoor Char House is ready for a busier-than-normal day, sending out emails to customers writing that the holiday is “a reminder of better times with our family and friends, and the sweet reminder that brighter beginnings are on the horizon.” For the second-straight year, pop-up chef Jasmine Sheth has launched her Tasting India Diwali sweet shop. Rooh in the West Loop is also offering a special menu, and its owners have a special menu at their new pub Bar Goa in River North and inside Time Out Market Chicago. Meanwhile, Art of Dosa, newly reopened after a pandemic hiatus in Revival Food Hall in the Loop, is hoping for a big delivery day with special rainbow dosas. Chiya Chai is giving away sweets in Logan Square and the Loop. Bhoomi, newly opened at Urbanspace food hall in the Loop, has a special catering menu. Vermillion in River North also has a special menu.
Thattu, a pop-up restaurant with a focus on Kerala cuisine, even broke out the (rarely used in America) South Indian spelling of the holiday in hosting a series of Deepavali dinners this week at Dorian’s in Wicker Park.
While restaurant owners look for any marketing opportunity to fill their dining rooms, South Asian restaurants are also forced to take the spotlight in Chicago, stepping up given the city’s lack of South Asian cultural centers and houses of worship. Downtown Chicago’s only Hindu temple, Shivalya Hindu Temple & Cultural Center in River North, quietly closed earlier this year. (Temple staff are searching for a new home and taking donations via Zelle; call the temple for info.)
Even Devon, the longtime center of South Asian restaurants in Chicago, is — again — eerily quiet. The pandemic hit the community hard, and the strip has vacancies which haven’t been filled.
But away from West Ridge, there’s another factor in the emergence of public celebrations: More people outside of the community want to celebrate. This makes restaurants closer to downtown, where people can gather more easily, more important.
Public events also offer new opportunities to celebrate. Azadi Brewery debuted around Diwali 2020 inside Pilot Project Brewing in Logan Square. Azadi cofounder Bhavik Modi is brewing a special beer to celebrate the one-year anniversary, a Belgian quad made with dates at 10.5 percent ABV. The flavor profile is reminiscent of Indian sweets. Dare it be mentioned, Azadi’s beer sounds like liquid mithai.
“That’s good, I may take that,” Modi says with a laugh.
There’s a taboo around beer within the South Asian community. Modi’s parents have never tried alcohol, yet he says they’ve been supportive of his business. Still, particularly with elders, alcohol consumption can be frowned upon throughout the year, not just holidays. But Modi says those attitudes are changing, as he cites trips to India and visits to cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad where he saw an eclectic craft beer scene, with breweries making use of ingredients deployed in Indian cuisine like dates, cardamom, and mango puree.
“I was just shocked to see how much energy there was, particularly how much entrepreneurial energy among Indians there was for this,” Modi says of his visits abroad.
Azadi is joined by More Brewing Company, owned by Sunny and Perry Patel. They’re the only two Chicago-area breweries with Indian ownership (although there is a panel featuring South Asians in beer during this weekend’s Beer Culture Summit). Azadi’s varieties include Kadak, a stout made with a Modi family chai recipe passed down for generations from Mumbai. The brewery’s birthday beer, which will be released on November 13 at Pilot Project, will be paired with a special menu from Wazwan. There’s even a planned performance by tabla player Arpit Pathak. Typically, Azadai’s fans are broken into three groups, Modi says: There’s the South Asians who crave representation in the beer world, craft beer drinkers who are curious about anything new, and non-beer drinkers who prefer wine or cocktails. The latter group see Azadi as a gateway toward beer.
One of Azadi’s beers, a chicory amber ale, is called Jaago. The beer cans feature “LEATHE,” a painting from local artist Jenny Vyas, who may be familiar to Chicago diners: She painted “Wings” outside of Federales in the West Loop, creating one of the city’s most-Instagrammed scenes. Pilsen Yards, a bar and restaurant that opened earlier this year, is also hosting an exhibition of her work titled Awaken.
Vyas also painted a mural inside contemporary Indian restaurant Rooh. Called “Christine,” it’s named after Christine DeSousa, director of sales and marketing at the Illinois Restaurant Association (she was instrumental in securing permits when Rooh opened in 2019). Vyas describes her painting as of a confident sari-wearing BIPOC woman, comfortable in her skin “celebrating her culture boldly.” Freely expressing yourself with fashion — wearing saris or salwar kumeez — is akin to the widely discussed “lunchbox moment,” when first-generation Americans or children of immigrants have experienced bullying or judgment for their “ethnic” lunches.
Such experiences can carry over from childhood to adulthood, particularly for restaurateurs balancing the desire to celebrate their heritage at their businesses while being cautious about judgment or targeting from the wider public. For South Asian restaurant owners, it’s another version of the trap of making food with too much heat for diners not accustomed to their cuisine.
“Some in our generation are finally starting to get over it,” Vyas says.
But she points to a history of public Diwali observances in the West Loop as further evidence of folks being more comfortable with wearing saris in public and sharing their culture. It’s a trendy Chicago dining district with restaurants from celebrity chef Stephanie Izard and destinations like Au Cheval and the Publican. The neighborhood’s only Indian restaurant, Rooh, hosted a public gathering in October. These opportunities provide a sense of feeling seen for Vyas.
Like Azadi’s Modi, Vyas says that Western culture’s influence — with seeing how other holidays are celebrated in America — is leading the change: “We’ve been celebrating in private for so long,” she says.
As Diwali goes mainstream, restaurants are feeling more comfortable mounting marketing campaigns around the holiday. It’s been three years since Ravi Nagubadi started Art of Dosa. The stall recently reopened at Revival Food Hall and this week, Nagubadi resumed delivery for the first time since summer 2020. Though the operation debuted in December 2018, this is the first time Art of Dosa has been open with their own space during the holiday.
“We’ve all had cabin fever these last couple of years,” Nagubadi says. “It’s time, I think, to get out there — and for our sake — to put ourselves out there and give people a place to celebrate.”
For Art of Dosa, that means the return of rainbow dosas, a colorful take on the griddled and fermented specialty. “And what better way to celebrate than with a rainbow dosa?” Nagubadi says.