Of all the times to launch a restaurant, one of the very worst must be during a pandemic, when people are sheltering at home, avoiding others, and postponing dinner plans until sometime in 2021. Many Chicago-area restaurants have closed permanently, but some were already gearing up to open when the pandemic hit, redesigning their strategies for doing business — and staying afloat — during these unprecedented times. Though many of these new business models were necessitated by Covid-19, some will likely stay in place even after the pandemic becomes just a bad memory.
Here are some of the local restaurants that have launched into the uncertainty of the current environment, with safeguards in place to ensure the safety of their customers.
4229 N. Lincoln Park Avenue, Chicago
French restaurants conjure images of diners enjoying a wonderful meal and then lounging while they finish the cheese course with whatever is left of the wine. In these plague times, such leisurely scenes seem no longer possible, but recently opened Robert et Fils in Lincoln Park offers similar experiences at home, with a family-style takeout menu — rare for French restaurants — that will make you feel like you’re sitting in a Parisian bistro.
Chef Robert Shaner spent his youthful years in The City of Light, and he wanted to open “a restaurant that captured the unique experience of a bygone era of dining in France.” That remembrance of things past comes home to you in dishes such as chicken liver mousse with fennel salad and roasted chicken with olives and preserved lemon. And, of course, there are magnificent baked goods from Pastry Chef Cati Molnar, who is currently offering a wondrous fig gateau of almond/rye cake, fermented plum sabayon and figs from Seedling Farm. As you might expect, the wine menu is thoughtfully curated, though if your preferences lean toward cocktails, Robert et Fils has several provocative ready-to-go cocktails for you to enjoy… at home.
675 N. Wells, Chicago
For people cloistered at home and closed out of their workplaces, River North’s Edie’s All-Day Café & Bar is a “third place,” a comforting and safe space for breakfast/lunch/dinner somewhere between home and the office. Owner Arturo Gomez has said he’s aiming to create a “high energy, positive” environment, with lots of light, greenery, and excellent food and drink, all designed to bring a little happiness into what could very well be a downbeat winter season. Breakfast offers cold-pressed juices and cold brew smoothies, as well as creative first meal favorites like lox toast and French toast casserole. Lunch tends toward lighter dishes, with salads and sandwiches, and then around 3pm, Edie’s All-Day Café & Bar downshifts into wine bar mode with flatbreads and charcuterie and, of course, many inventive cocktails and over a dozen wines by the glass, carafe or bottle (depending upon how your day has been going).
3220 Grand Avenue, Chicago
From a nondescript industrial kitchen, Cat-Su Sando is serving simple and beautifully crafted sandwiches inspired by the kind of food you might find in a Japanese convenience store (we know that doesn’t sound awesome, but it is). Cat-Su Sando’s menu is prepared in a “cloud kitchen” headed up by veteran chefs Shawn Clendening (Oriole, Blackbird) and Will Schlaeger (Next, Blackbird). Their business model allows for pick-up but is primarily designed to serve people who order online for delivery. The eponymous Cat-Su Sando is a fried pork cutlet with fermented jalapeno, cabbage and cat-su sauce on Japanese milk bread, providing a full-bodied bite of rich meat balanced by crunchy cabbage and chili heat playing against mildly sweet sauce.
1001 N. Winchester, Chicago
Kasama is a modern Filipino restaurant with a big difference: an onsite bakery turning out fresh-baked goods you’re unlikely to find at any other Filipino restaurant in Chicago. The Philippines were colonized by Spain, and the Kasama bakery carries on the European baking tradition with such creations as the Ube and Huckleberry Basque Cake and Kouign-amann (described in The New York Times as “the fattiest pastry in all of Europe” — and we’re sure they mean that in a good way). There are, of course, more familiar favorites like adobo (meat simmered in spicy vinegar broth) and lumpia (Filipino eggrolls; please order these as your starter).
Spanish influence is evident in wine offerings like the Caves Naveran Brut 2017 and an Alvaro Castro Tinto 2017, an intense red that feels right with adobo. Following the pandemic-motivated trend among restaurants offering groceries to customers, Kasama provides a selection of take-away items like eggs, ice cream, and rolls of Kasama’s justly famous chocolate cookie dough. Of course, there is pickup and delivery, the better to minimize contact.
615 Green Bay Road, Wilmette
Building on the success of their first location in Arlington Heights, the new location of Carlos & Carlos in Wilmette is riding on the culinary reputation of a restaurant that has been proud to serve people like Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, and Robert DeNiro. Opened in the summer of 2020, the Wilmette restaurant features outdoor dining, making it more comfortable to dine among others during Covid-19. Though Carlos & Carlos leads with Italian American favorites like house-made minestrone and steaming platters of sausage and escarole, there are white tablecloth specialties like luscious lobster-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli as well as a large, juicy veal chop in rosemary sauce. There are also, of course, many pasta dishes some of us may never have experienced before, like checca (angel hair pasta with roasted garlic, virgin olive oil, fresh basil, diced tomatoes and white wine, just right for vegetarian diners) and Rigatoni a la Nona (braised beef neck in tomato-vegetable sauce with red wine). Open for lunch or dinner, Carlos & Carlos has a good selection of wines by the glass, all in the $10-14 range.
7240 Nile Center Road, Skokie
Like its West Loop location, Crave Kabob’s new Skokie outpost deals primarily in pickup and delivery, the two main ways restaurants have served the public during this pandemic. And in a time when many of us are more concerned about our health than ever before, Crave Kabob lays out a number of options which, though far from drab “health food,” are nonetheless natural and healthful feel-good foods that enhance psychological and physical well-being (we could all use more of both, right?).
Heavily plant-based, this Mediterranean menu includes many well-known favorites, like hummus and baba ghanoush, as well lesser-known but no less healthful and locally beloved Crave Bowls (very veg-forward dishes of two salads, two spreads, and protein, with optional rice) and Shawafel (a combination of shawarma and felafel — the perfect “let’s share!” option for a vegetarian-carnivore couple). After a meal of whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, you’ll push back from a Crave Kabob meal feeling well-prepared to go forth and stay healthy in a challenging environment.
1340 W. Fulton, Chicago
When Grace, then one of Chicago’s only two Michelin three-star restaurants, closed about three years ago, Chef Curtis Duffy and General Manager Michael Muser made their plans clear: they would reinvent themselves at a new restaurant, their own restaurant, that would be even better than what they created at Grace. After years of planning the restaurant of their dreams, Ever was set to open last spring. Then came Covid-19. It may all have worked out for the best because opening in the weeks after the pandemic hit Chicago gave Duffy and Muser the chance to rethink their restaurant just a little before opening day to prepare for distanced and safety-conscious dining.
Within this new environment, Duffy’s kitchen has been sending out signature culinary creations in 8- to 10-course tasting menus that just might redefine what is meant by “dining out.” And, of course, healthcare considerations are in place: Everyone wears a mask and employees get a daily temperature check and complete a health questionnaire — and Muser has requested that, outside the restaurant, employees avoid unnecessary interaction with others. It’s a tough time to open a place like Ever, but so far, so good, and Duffy’s kitchen seems to be doing better than ever.
1212 N. Dearborn, Chicago
We can argue about this until tomorrow, but in the opinion of most, the best bagels in the United States are to be found in New York City, where they’re made the traditional way, served fresh, firm yet almost fluffy, with a pleasant chewiness that comes from the timeless technique of boiling bagels before baking. That same classic technique for producing bagels beloved by people who know bagels is employed at Old Town’s Gotham Bagels. You won’t find any blueberry or chocolate chip bagels; what you will find are the time-honored sesame, poppy seed, salt, and “everything” bagels you’ve been enjoying for years (especially if you’ve spent any time in Brooklyn).
The sandwiches can be classic, like lox and cream cheese, but there are cheeky selections like all-vegan The V and the somewhat edgier OMFG with fried egg, aged cheddar, spicy aioli, thick bacon, a Gotham’s Finest pickle and (you’ll never guess), Nashville fried chicken. In a bow to pandemic restrictions, Gotham Bagels is now accepting online ordering only, but be assured that all their bagels and sandwiches travel very well to wherever people know a good bagel when they bite into one.
1954 W. Armitage, Chicago
Leave your sportscoat and tie in the closet when you head out to chill and chow down at Bucktown’s Savannah Luncheonette, a place designed to get you relaxed and happy with beautiful cocktails (or a beer) and comfort food, which seems never to have been so needed. Familiar and friendly rather than challenging, the food served up by Chef Marc Wuenschel of Hutch American Concepts — who has opened several restaurants during the pandemic — includes superbly executed versions of country fried steak with pepper gravy and cheesy casserole, crisp chicken on a brioche bun, a burger or just a stack of buttermilk pancakes.
There are many exclusive cocktails, but if you’re planning to stick with the comfortable (and we get that, we totally do), there are classics like Bee’s Knees and the Cosmo. Daily from 4-6pm, and weekends from 9-10 pm, there’s a social hour with deals on drinks, including $3 specials for Champagne or Miller High Life, which says a lot about the high-low vibe at Savannah Luncheonette.
1757 N. Kimball, Chicago
In Humboldt Park, new Scandinavian-inspired Ørkenoy is hedging bets with a takeout window, delivery, and indoor dining. Indeed, surviving in this troubled time may require restaurants to give diners as many options as possible to enjoy a restaurant’s food. In the hearty tradition of the northern countries, Ørkenoy’s food focus is on smørrebrød, beautifully and carefully composed sandwiches, though the term “sandwiches” hardly does justice to these sometimes stunning creations.
Even the humble chicken salad sandwich is elevated with unexpected flavors of charred scallion, poblano chilies, fried chicken skin, and garam masala pickles, and like all sandwiches here, it’s composed like a work of art. Snacks like anchovy popcorn and citrus Sichuan pickles pair well with house beers, all of which are named after favorite pets, like the herb- and gooseberry-infused Belle Aldine, a canine companion described as “the friendliest and most noble inhabitant of the park.” Open now in the dynamic and colorful Kimball Arts Center, it’s seems Ørkenoy in its current incarnation is a test run with bigger things perhaps to follow post-pandemic.
More from Better:
- Nick’s Wilmette Has Closed — How to Help Save Other Local Restaurants
- View from the Team: Our Fall 2020 Issue
- ‘Notorious RBG’: A Love Letter to Ruth Bader Ginsburg Arrives in Chicago
David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.