Chicago’s restaurant writers dish on their biggest surprises of 2021 as part of Eater’s ongoing tradition of polling the city’s experts for their year-end takes.
Titus Ruscitti, ChiBBQKing: Top-notch hoagies being served out of a West Town coffee shop at Standing Passengers.
Jay Westbrook, local craft beer professional: As I sit here eating their Loaded Doritos Supreme Tater Tot Hotdish(!!!), I can’t help but consider Funeral Potatoes’ rise to prominence the most fascinating culinary surprise of the year. Every Sunday, I’m locked onto their Instagram page at 2:59 p.m. for their 3 p.m. drop. The way Eve [Studnicka] and Alexis [Thomas] take quintessential Midwestern dishes and completely turn them on their heads is nothing short of remarkable. Not a lot of people have the fortitude to put a kimchi ranch mac and cheese on the menu, let alone do it as well as they do.
Sarah Spain, ESPN: Stella’s Diner! I threw a big “Do-Over Day” party re-celebrating all the holidays taken from us in 2020. An hour for each in different locations, and costumes for each holiday had to fit in your backpack. It was a blast. Stella’s Diner in Lakeview does turkey dinners year-round so I had them deliver a giant spread to Gallagher Way for our Thanksgiving re-do and everything was delicious!
Janice Scurio, Sports Illustrated and South Side Sox: Remember Yermin Mercedes and how he was the best hitter in all of baseball for the month of April after a historic 8-for-8 start and subsequently got a Dominican-style burger named after him? Sparkle and fade aside, it was a lovely burger made by Freddie’s, with an endorsement for the chimichurri sauce from Mercedes himself.
Brenda Storch, Eater Chicago contributor: The biggest surprise was the creativity showcased by restaurants to adapt to ever-changing conditions. From outdoor seating to pop-ups and to-go meals, food kept a sense of community.
Michael Nagrant, michaelnagrant.com: Prior to seeing the Anthony Bourdan documentary Road Runner across the street at the Landmark Century, I called an audible and ducked in to La Creperie for some pre-theatre grub. I hadn’t been to La Creperie since the days I thought eating at Flash Taco at 3 a.m. was a good idea, which is to say a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. La Creperie celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, and, well, it turns out they deserve to, as the beef bourguignon is suitably full of wine and the French onion soup crowned with a dripping gruyere boils and bubbles away any toil and trouble befalling you.
Also, since we’re talking about Bourdain and French food, let’s go with an additional shout out here to Dear Margaret, the Midwestern manifestation of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon-like excess and warming comfort food.
Lillian Stone, The Takeout: Walking out of the hospital in Bronzeville after my second vaccine dose — and right into the loving arms of the Hot Dog Box, home to the best hot dog I’ve ever had.
Amy Cavanaugh, Chicago magazine: I don’t think it’s a surprise, but I’m thrilled at how many pop-ups that started during the pandemic are thriving in year two. I feel like it bodes well for our dining scene that we can support such a variety of fun, delicious concepts.