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After 11 Years, Chicago Magazine’s Chief Dining Critic Departs

Jeff Ruby is the latest Chicago restaurant critic to exit

A white dining room with green plants
RPM Seafood was Jeff Ruby’s final review.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises/John Stoffer
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Another Chicago restaurant critic has walked away from their post. Jeff Ruby, a Chicago magazine fixture since 1997, last week announced his departure in a Twitter thread. The magazine published Ruby’s last review in March 2020 before the pandemic shut down restaurants and forced critics to reevaluate their approaches.

Ruby has served as the magazine’s chief dining critic since February 2010. He joins a parade of dining personalities who have left their jobs in recent months. The Tribune in January lost longtime dining critic Phil Vettel and dining editor Joe Gray. ABC 7 Chicago’s Hungry Hound, Steve Dolinsky, left the station in February. A few pieces have attempted to analyze what the exodus means.

For Ruby, writing about food had lost its luster, he says there are more important things in the world “than whether I liked the dry-aged duck.” He tells Eater Chicago that he’s been taking classes, via a University of Missouri tele-education program, to become a social worker. Regardless of how Chicago’s dining scene looks after COVID-19, Ruby says he just can’t imagine himself continuing to write reviews.

“Not to begrudge anyone else for writing about food, obviously,” Ruby says. “I think it’s a valuable thing to do — It’s just not what I want to do anymore.”

The Tribune hasn’t published reviews in the post-Vettel era, but management says reviews will eventually return to the newspaper. Meanwhile, the Chicago Reader’s Mike Sula remains on the beat spotlighting restaurants that don’t get attention from Instagram influencers. Time Out Chicago contributor Maggie Hennessy remains on call whenever reviews return to the magazine.

But food writers have felt pangs like Ruby’s before — Ruby points to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a historical moment where he examined the importance of his profession. Many journalists had similar thoughts after the November 2016 presidential election. Still, leaving isn’t easy. The media landscape in Chicago makes it hard to find employment, and there’s a prestige with being a critics that draws people back. Ruby notes a Facebook conversation with longtime writer John Kessler who writes he’s tried to quit the profession three times.

A smiling redheaded and bearded man.
Former Chicago critic Jeff Ruby.
Erielle Bakkum [Official Photo]

Ruby says his ambivalence about the job began prior to the pandemic. It’s been increasingly difficult to write traditional reviews. The light-hearted pieces with snark that have dominated the restaurant industry are no longer in fashion, Ruby says. As those types of pieces have lost favor, publications in other cities have taken a more holistic approach to restaurant reviews with fresh blood. They’re not just focusing on just what’s served on the plate.

While media companies have cut cultural reporting — including music, dining, and architectural criticism — to save money, Ruby says the decision to leave was his alone. His editors understood his rationale.

“I don’t know. I’m 49. I’m a white dude. The landscape is changing,” Ruby says. “You could look at Vettel leaving and Dolinsky leaving and me leaving as a sign of times, and it might be.”

Outside of Chicago, Ruby points at the work of critics like the Atlantic’s Corby Kummer as examples of how writers can weave restaurant criticism into larger pieces about culture. Ruby says he’s not sure what the future of criticism will look like, Kummer’s work could be a prototype. Still, Ruby is certain the profession needs one thing: “It sure as hell needs to be more diverse.”