Yes, Art Smith’s new Navy Pier restaurant, opening Tuesday, July 19, will serve shrimp and grits, but other than that, the charismatic chef’s latest endeavor bears little resemblance to its predecessor.
Smith’s Reunion replaces Bubba Gump at Navy Pier’s main entrance, the same space where countless tourists attempted their best Tom Hanks impressions while dining at the Forest Gump-themed restaurant that lasted 24 years before its closure in 2020.
“It was very popular,” Smith says. “It was making quite a bit of money, but they just wanted something local.”
Smith announced Reunion back in October 2020. The celeb chef is often linked with Oprah Winfrey, as he was the former talk-show host’s personal chef. Smith now spends much of his time in Florida where he opened Homecomin’ in 2016 in Disney Springs. Smith considers Homecomin’ as Reunion’s older sibling, sharing the same southern menu, a menu that includes a Smith staple, one that’s been around Chicago since 2007 at Smith’s Gold Coast restaurant, now known as Blue Door Kitchen & Garden.
“I can make more than fried chicken,” Smith says. He adds: “It’s good fried chicken, it’s just fried chicken with a pedigree. It’s been made for everybody you think of, even the Dalai Lama. We made a vegan version of it.”
Reunion’s menu de-emphasizes red meat in favor of more vegetarian and vegan options. At Disney, the fried chicken sandwich, pounded thin like schnitzel, has become an Instagram darling. Smith’s hopeful diners in Chicago will feel the same.
Smith calls Navy Pier the “Disney of the Midwest,” and points out that Walt Disney was born in Chicago. Smith interned at Disney World when he was younger and takes pride that he’s the only former Disney cast member to return to the resort and open their own restaurant.
“I always thought about how I could bring a little bit of that magic to Navy Pier,” he says.
Reunion’s space is the first thing visitors will see entering the pier. There’s no missing the large patio. Smith, who says he’s in Chicago “indefinitely,” says the opening menu is only that. He wants to see how the crowd will react and make tweaks. For example, he envisions adding a drag brunch in the future. Walking around the pier over the weekend, he was happy to see diverse crowds and he wants to appeal to them, especially fellow members of the LGBTQ community.
Smith is collaborating with George and Manolis Alpogianis, who are best known for America’s Dog & Burger. The brothers formed TAG Restaurants.
Look for a tour inside the restaurant later this week and check out the menu below.