By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star
CHICAGO— Once every year, around the third week in May, over 58,000 restaurateurs and chefs descend on Chicago for the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show and convention. The show fills much of the 2,670,000 square feet of the McCormick Place convention center on the shores of Lake Michigan just a few blocks from Soldier Field. For a restaurateur or chef, it’s Disneyland.
I’ve been attending the NRA Show since the late 1980s. For the months leading up to the show I manage a checklist of items and purveyors I want to see at the show, and as soon as I hit the doors of McCormick Place I begin to scan the aisles for ideas and products to bring back to our restaurants.
Another of the benefits of making the annual trek to Chicago is for research and development outside of the halls of the convention center. Actually, that’s where the useful exploration happens. The convention offers future possibilities and theoretical opportunities. Visiting restaurants, in the flesh, is the practical real-life solution.
The most important list is not the NRA Show’s to-do list, but the Chicago restaurant/bar visit list. Purple Parrot general manager, Dusty Frierson, and I hit the streets hard as soon as we leave the show. Last year we squeezed six meals and restaurant visits into one evening. Last night we only made it to five— I’m obviously slipping in my advanced years.
This year’s restaurant/bar to-do list includes some new concepts and a few standbys that warrant a return visit every time we are in town: Barrelhouse Flat, Charcoal Bar, Little Goat, Billy Sunday, Fat Rice, Maude's, Scofflaw, The Whistler, Gilt Bar, Doughnut Vault, The Bristol, Night Wood, High Noon Saloon, Untitled, Publican, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, Big Star, Au Cheval, Trenchermen, Barrelhouse Flat, Purple Pig, The Violet Hour, and a few others that will crop up during our the three-day personal food-a-thon.
It’s a bit of a challenge hopping from restaurant to restaurant. It takes good planning, a good pair of shoes, and a highly trained stomach. We are covered in all three areas.
Last year’s highlights— Girl & the Goat and Longman & Eagle are on the list too.
The list is heavy on restaurants owned by Stephanie Izard, Paul Kahan, and Brendan Sodikoff. Those three operators own this town.
Izard, a “Top Chef” winner a few years back, recently opened Little Goat— a 21st century diner with legitimate comfort food— reimagined— in a fun, funky environment that is 100% legit. The menu is filled with items one imagines she prepares for herself at home. Good stuff.
Kahan, just off of his recent crowning as Best Chef America by the James Beard Foundation, is the David Bowie of the Chicago restaurant scene— every project is vastly different from the previous outing, and every project is cutting-edge excellent. I’ve been a fan of Kahan since he opened Blackbird 15 years ago, basically changing the Chicago restaurant scene as soon as the doors opened.
Sodikoff might be the guy with which I am most impressed these days. Whereas his concepts don’t differ from project to project as much as Kahan’s, he has his finger on the cool/hip button and it doesn’t appear that he’s taking it off any time soon.
Sodikoff, a veteran of Thomas Keller’s creative kitchen and Rich Melman’s highly successful concept factory, has already— in his mid 30s— opened more creative restaurant/bar concepts than most of us could imagine in a lifetime. We visited all of them, though we kept returning to Au Cheval.
Chicago’s West Loop is home to the country’s newest and best restaurant row. Kahan serendipitously established it in in 1997, Izard and Sodikoff have put the exclamation point on it in the past two years. The newest star, Au Cheval is— to my tastes— perfect. The place is small, dark, and cramped with a bar and cookline all in one. The music is loud (and good), the service is efficient and informative, and the energy level so high that it would be hard not to have a blast no matter what your mood. It is also home to the best burger on the planet. Period. End of discussion.
So, after a quick visit to Sodikoff’s doughnut Vault, it’s off to the airport— another Chicago sojurn in the books— bringing to an end a visit where I was inspired, but also humbled, and in the most positive way imaginable.