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‘Tribune’ Editorial Warns Against Abusive Restaurant Service Fees

Plus, Vajra moves to Wicker Park and Legal Sea Foods preps a new Chicago restaurant.

A person scanning a QR code with mobile phone
When will the empathy end?
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.

The Tribune’s editorial board fired a warning shot to Chicago’s restaurants on Tuesday morning with a piece declaring that the pandemic was officially over and that owners should no longer expect the extra empathy the general public — customers, politicians, journalists — have extended since March 2020.

The board targeted pandemic-era changes like digital menus that use QR codes instead of paper menus and warned about a soulless future where robotic servers replace humans. The National Restaurant Association’s show was in town the week before, showing off new tech prototypes like a robotic sushi chef. Folks have the right to be skeptical about tech. Part of the reasons TV and film writers are on strike is studios’ reluctance to place guidelines on how to best use AI tools like ChatGPT. The Trib still played up the drama, calling for restaurants to ditch smartphone menus and return to the world of paper. This comes as the Tribune finalizes plans to buy a publishing facility in suburban Schaumburg from The Daily Herald. What a coincidence.

While there’s no conspiracy here with the Trib entering the menu printing business, paying by phone and smartphone menus are here to stay, and the best restaurants offer both. Some restaurants even offer reading glasses for customers with blurred eyes. There’s no need for a choice, have all the options and let the customers decide.

Beyond the fear of technology, the Trib did spotlight an issue that’s gaining more attention in Chicago: the use of service fees tacked on at the end of a check (restaurants may do this instead of instituting higher prices across the board, something that’s already happening due to inflation). While some restaurants are clear on how they use the money — health care costs and higher wages for some — some restaurants aren’t transparent with explanations, and that’s ruining it for well-intentioned restaurant owners. In turn, that’s agitated customers who don’t know where their money is going and who are paying more than they’re used to. This practice gained more steam during the pandemic, with large companies like Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises adopting the tactic. However, there’s still plenty of paranoia about these fees, and the companies aren’t being clear with customers. The common retort is they’ll say the charges are optional — if customers talk with their server they’ll lift the fee from the check. If customers are willing to wait for them to do that. Meanwhile, some other cities across the U.S. are limiting the use of these fees.

Vajra Moves to Wicker Park

One of the restaurants part of a surge of modern South Asian restaurants opening across Chicago has moved from West Town into a prime location in Wicker Park. “Prime” is in the eye of the beholder (the space has sat vacant for extended periods of the last five years near Wicker Park’s six-corner intersection). Vajra has moved into the space once occupied by Trencherman and Spring at 2039 W. North Avenue. Most recently, there were signs that a North Side location of soul food spot Oooh Wee It Is would debut, but those plans never materialized.

Vajra’s new home is the latest chapter for the Nepalese and Indian restaurant, heralded for a different approach to South Asian cuisine that Chicago isn’t accustomed to — sure, diners could find tandoori chicken, samosas, and other staples, but tandoori goat and other items made the menu atypical in America. The restaurant was also known for its cocktail program. But ever since March 2020, Vajra switched to delivery only, and co-owner Dipsesh Kakshapaty said they were looking to leave West Town, possibly created a new restaurant with a new name, or just close. It was a confusing web of possibilities. Now it seems they’ve committed to Wicker Park and will reestablish a dining room. Chef Min Thapa remains with the restaurant and is closer to this old workspace, Cumin, an Indian and Nepali restaurant a few blocks away on Milwaukee Avenue. For now, the restaurant is takeout-only.

Legal Sea Foods to Replace Dick’s Last Resort

In 2021, Legal Sea Foods — the Cambridge, Massachusetts chain of casual restaurants — opened a virtual restaurant in Chicago for delivery and takeout. Now, the restaurant which has served its famous clam chowder during presidential inaugurations at the White House, is looking like it’s opening a full-service restaurant at 315 N. Dearborn at the former Dick’s Last Resort. Legal has filed for a liquor license, but its marketing team has yet to return a request for comment. Stay tuned.