The 2021 Eater Awards for Chicago are a chance to celebrate the city’s culinary victories over the last 18 months. After skipping 2020 — as indoor dining remained banned in Chicago during the pandemic — the awards return nationwide with Eater’s local editorial staff members selecting winners in categories that vary by each city. Instead of limiting winners to restaurants that opened in 2021, this year’s awards also include places that opened in 2020.
These winners represent a wide swath of the city’s unique dining culture. Each of the winners below will receive an iconic Eater tomato can.
Best New Restaurant
Kasama took Chicago and the country by storm in 2020 when Genie Kwon and Timothy Flores opened a cafe serving Kwon’s French pastries in the morning and Flores’s Filipino favorites for lunch and early evening. Kwon’s croissants feature fun fillings, and her eclair-shaped Danishes stole the show with unique toppings like foie gras, jamón Iberico, and the fixings of a Chicago-style hot dog. Flores delivered tasty longaniza, tocino, and other lunch plates. The combo was exactly what the city needed during the pandemic: comfort food delivered with fine dining precision.
In a change of plans, the couple recently started dinner service with a tasting menu. Flores and Kwon say offering a pricy dining experience will help the restaurant survive the pandemic. Thus, Chicago’s only fine dining restaurant for Filipino food began. The approach has gained the attention of various publications, including the New York Times. Kasama’s friendly vibes and outstanding food earned it a place on Eater National’s Best New Restaurants in America.
Comeback of the Year
Curtis Duffy, Ever
Every restaurant faced its share of adversity over the last few months, but Curtis Duffy’s comeback story is unique. Duffy soared to superstar chef status at Grace, the West Loop restaurant where he partnered with his friend, the sommelier Michael Muser, to give Randolph Restaurant Row a luxurious dining experience that diners from all over the world savored. But the restaurant suddenly closed in December 2017, the result of a frayed relationship with owner Michael Olszewski. The restaurant Olszewski replaced Grace with, Yugen, earned its own Michelin star. But the restaurant has already closed due to another broken relationship between Olszewski and a chef. Yet another replacement, Aikana, is on its way in January. Meanwhile, Duffy and Muser have garnered acclaim with their new restaurant, Ever.
Ever opened in July 2020, a $5 million stage for Duffy to reintroduce himself to diners. It has a gorgeous kitchen and a dining room that feels sleek without being sterile. Through the pandemic’s challenges, Duffy began offering takeout and would also start a fast-food spot, Reve Burger, to keep money flowing while the pandemic interrupted business. Now that indoor dining has returned, so have Duffy’s pristine tasting menus. Each dish is artfully presented and well thought out. There are ribbons made out of freeze-dried hamachi and maitake chawanmushi with pearl onions and radish.
Before opening, Muser said Chicago “deserved” a restaurant like Ever. And while comfort food sales increased due to ease of carryout and delivery during the pandemic, Chicago cleans up nice and its residents needed a place to celebrate, and also one that pushes boundaries. Ever is a reminder that the city can’t survive on pizza alone. In a year that saw hospitality workers demand more from their employers, Duffy — who walked away disgruntled from Grace — showed that those issues are industry-wide.
Pizzerias opened during the pandemic at a breakneck pace. New ones appeared and restaurant owners converted existing operations to increase profitability. Delivery and carryout-friendly operations were well positioned for success. Those factors has little to do with Crust Fund Pizza’s origin story. Food writer and Revolution Brewing marketing rep John Carruthers saw an opportunity to help local nonprofits. An avid home cook, Carruthers spent the early months of the pandemic perfecting his recipe for Chicago-style thin crust pizza. He made so many pizzas, he decided to start giving them away.
Here’s how it works: Periodically, Carruthers will announce on Instagram that the pizzas are available. Customers order via direct messaging, and they pick them up in the alley behind Carruthers’s home. Instead of paying Carruthers, they make a donation to the charity of the week. The pies are of impeccable quality, safely in the same category as some of Chicago’s most beloved restaurants. Crust Fund Pizza is a fundraiser with a heart, something the city’s didn’t know it needed.
Best New Baked Good Empire
Aya Fukai’s West Town bakery was already a hit before the pandemic. Fukai had won the hearts of many Chicagoans with treats like a doughnut that looks and tastes like a Girl Scout cookie — the beloved Samoas. But during the pandemic, the supply chain dried up and that hit somewhere unexpected: coffeeshops. Cafes were already hurting due to a lack of indoor service. The laptop crowd was no longer allowed to linger. That also meant many cafes with their own baking teams could no longer afford to make pastries. Fukai solved that problem by offering a selection of pastries to cafes across the city from Passion House to Gaslight Coffee Roasters. Meanwhile, she added a drive-thru service to her West Town location so customers could pickup breakfast sandwiches and more without exiting their cars. Aya is now at the top of Chicago’s artisan baked good world, and Fukai is partnering with other pastry chefs, including Sugoi Sweets, giving them exposure and sharing the sweet rewards.
Best New Taco Stand
The owner of one of Chicago’s most loved French restaurants made a bold move in 2020. Oliver Poilevey learned to cook classic French dishes from his father, and during the pandemic, he’s maintained high standards at Le Bouchon, the 28-year-old bistro in Bucktown. But he also decided to expand his operations and give an opportunity to two of his family’s long-time workers, Sotero Gallegos and Marcos Ascensio. Together, they opened Taqueria Chingón and quickly created one of the city’s best taco stands. The creations are unique, from a trompo stacked with octopus for the pulpo al pastor to picture-perfect carne asada tacos. Some may scoff at the price of the tacos — they’re more expensive than those at other nearby taquerias. But the reality is, it’s time to place a higher value the labor it takes to make tacos and other international items. This way, workers can be paid more to make higher quality foods.
Best New Fusion Restaurant
Bagels aren’t the focus at Rye, a restaurant that opened in November 2020 inside the Crowne Plaza Hotel hotel in West Loop. Chef Billy Caruso took cues from traditional Jewish delis with stellar smoked pastrami and smoked fish. But Rye tweaks the formula by throwing matzo balls into a tortilla soup broth that will make both bubbes and abuelitas smile (once they stop their initial protests on messing with tradition). This is an international approach to deli fare, not too far from how Virtue chef Erick Williams approaches Southern cuisine with his Hyde Park restaurant. Appropriation continues to be a hot — and misunderstood — topic within the food world. Rye offers a glimpse of how appropriation doesn’t have to be harmful when thought out with a little bit of respect. Rye still relies on counter service, but the restaurant has bigger plans to introduce more ambitious menu items in 2022.