Chicagoans stepped out in droves over the weekend as the city’s restaurants fully reopened, filling bars and dining rooms with clinking glasses, clanking forks, and exuberant laughter. For many diners, it was a glimpse back in time to a world before COVID-19 — one where big groups could gather for dinner or beers without concerns over party size or social distancing.
But amidst the revelry, pandemic wounds to the industry remain fresh: signs invoking mask requirements are still posted on many restaurant doors. An ongoing labor shortage means that wait times are longer than usual, and high food prices are hitting menus and thus, bills. On Friday, a meager handful of servers at Greek hotspot Taxim in Wicker Park raced to serve its packed rooftop patio, shaking cocktails and running food to boisterous tables all while juggling their other tasks. In Avondale, chef Geno Bahena at Mis Moles served as a host while seating diners and handing out menus himself.
While some diners understand the challenges facing food businesses, others were less patient. Some groused loudly about the more than 30-minute wait at a Birria TaTaTacos pop-up on Sunday at Logan Square patio bar Easy Does It. Three operators worked non-stop over white-hot grills to turn out juicy quesatacos de birria, but were occasionally interrupted by cranky patrons who didn’t want to wait their turn.
Restaurateurs know that these logistical challenges will extend beyond the pandemic. Among these is celebrity chef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo), who last week penned a letter to the Tribune in support of a “long overdue” change in economic models for independent restaurants — the elimination of tipping in favor of a 20 percent service charge. Bayless says these changes are “long overdue” and they create “a better, sustainable livelihood for our staff.”
Despite fears in the industry that diners will rebel against wrapped-in service charges, Bayless says he’s found the opposite: customers are supportive of his efforts to create stability for his staff. His observations closely align with operators who have lead the call in Chicago to end tipping, including Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp (Honey Butter Fried Chicken) and Paul Fehribach (Big Jones).
In other news...
— Earlier this month, Chicago native Lamar Moore (Swill Inn, Currency Exchange Cafe, the Smoke Daddy) announced his return to restaurants. He’s now the chef at Eleven Eleven in West Loop where he’s launched a new menu that leans toward Southern cooking. In April 2020, Moore won Food Network’s Vegas Chef Prizefight, and that earned him the executive chef’s position at Bugsy & Meyer’s Steakhouse inside the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. He always planned to return home to Chicago and left Vegas in November. This is a rare instance of a Black chef teaming up with Black ownership on a Chicago restaurant.
— Fallout continues in the craft beer industry following a new wave of allegations of harassment and sexism a range of well-known breweries: more than 75 employees at Scotland-based BrewDog, whose beer is produced in Ohio and distributed in Chicago, published an open letter last week that includes allegations around a “culture of fear” at the company. Eater London has more on this story.