March is Women’s History Month and by all means, be sure to laud the myriad achievements made by women, from Gertrude Stein and Marie Curie to Mae Jamison and Malala Yousafazai, from Althea Gibson and Shirley Chisholm to Serena Williams and Tammy Duckworth. Show your support for women-owned businesses, and support legislation that continues to move women’s causes forward.
Yes, it’s wonderful to have a month dedicated to “her-story,” but why stop there? Let’s face it: there is no history without women. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch. So yes, we should celebrate women and their accomplishments this month. But let’s also keep it going year-round — there’s a whole lot more to applaud.
Let’s get the ball rolling by supporting these women-owned restaurants and bakeries in the Chicago area. By no means an exhaustive list, here are some of our absolute favorites. Don’t go just because they’re owned by women; go because each one of these spots is fricking awesome. Look for Part 2 next week… there were too many to cram into one article!
When originally opened in 1992 by pastry chef extraordinaire Judy Contino, Bittersweet blazed a trail in Lincoln Park that opened doors for many women. Pastry chef-owner Mindy Gohr was one of them, taking over this beloved European-style bakery a few years ago without losing a step. Renowned for their macarons, wedding and other special occasion cakes, and staggering selection of treats, this remains on Chicago’s Best Bakeries List for good reason.
James Beard Award-winning executive chef/owner Carrie Nahabedian serves up gorgeous French-inspired fare, informed by seasonal and local produce and sustainably sourced proteins at the exquisite River North boîte she co-owns with her cousin Michael Nahabedian. They opened Kostali by NAHA in The Gwen on the Miracle Mile in late 2019, with a menu inspired by the coastal cuisine of the Mediterranean — think sunny seafood dishes, bright veggies, pastas, and more.
Founder Donna Lee saw a need for a fast-casual but environmentally responsible seafood restaurant in Chicago and started her own to claim the space. All seafood served is approved by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, the restaurants (eight in Chicago, two in Atlanta) are powered by wind energy, they work on a zero-waste model, and use fully biodegradable packaging. You can feel pretty virtuous about eating here.
Feel the love at pastry chef/owner Stephanie Hart’s South Side bakery, where her insanely tasty Caramel Cake rubs shoulders with Dark German Chocolate Cake and the Obama Cake (a proprietary blend of chocolate, red velvet and yellow cake layers topped with cream cheese frosting, dark chocolate, and pecans) in the pastry case. How good are these cakes? She was nominated for the 2019 James Beard Awards’ Best Baker in the U.S., which gives you a pretty solid idea.
Pastry chef/chocolatier/owner Uzma Sharif is eternally inspired by the example of her grandfather — a well-known pastry chef in Pakistan — to create delicious, handcrafted truffles, bonbons, cakes and cookies featuring the spices and flavors of Eastern Asia and the Middle East. Head down to Pilsen and you’ll find cardamom, ginger, chilis, black sea salt, coriander, coconut, mint, and tea in innovative combinations to make your tastebuds explode with happiness. And yes, she makes and sells hot chocolate bombs that are out-of-this-world amazing.
If you’ve eaten dinner before a show downtown, chances are you’ve dined here with the sisters Amy and Clodagh Lawless. The Dearborn has a vibrant, urban feel, and the sisters’ dedication to hospitality is evident at every turn. Their Fish & Chips, made with tempura-battered cod and served with remoulade and charred lemon fries, are a menu highlight.
To my mind, this is the best Ethiopian restaurant in the city. Owner Tigist Reda, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, brought over much-loved family recipes to start her Uptown spot. All meals are served family-style, centered around the pleasantly sour and spongy injera bread that is characteristic of the cuisine, and the perfect foil for the savory spiced stews and legumes served here in abundance.
Pastry chef/co-owner Jennifer Jones Enyart met her husband and business partner, chef Brian Enyart, when they both worked at Topolobampo years ago. They branched out on their own in 2015 and opened their Logan Square Mexican restaurant to much acclaim (including Chicago Tribune 2017 Pastry Chef of the Year). New to the mix is Dos Farmstand & Pantry, which brings local, sustainably harvested produce, dairy, meats, etc. direct from partnering farms to you!
I could wax rhapsodic about chef/owner Sandra Holl’s life-changing quiche (the short and tender crust, the creamy interior… sigh), the wheat-free Buckwheat Scone, and the superior Canelés at length, but suffice to say that pretty much everything served in this charming Lincoln Park bakery/café is simply scrumptious. Holl was awarded the honor of Pastry Chef of the Year at the 2015 Jean Banchet Awards.
These two Evanston restaurants are a partnership between two exceptional women: owner Amy Morton and James Beard Award-winning chef Debbie Gold. The Barn, “a modern steakhouse,” and Found, a small-plates spot with a big heart, are showcases for Morton’s vision and Gold’s skill and versatility with farm-fresh ingredients. Worth a special stop.
It’s been 34 years since Deann Groen Bayless and her husband Rick Bayless first opened Frontera Grill on a then-dicey Clark Street in River North. A lot has changed since then! Their empire has expanded to include four-star fine-dining Topolobampo, fast-casual torta and soup at XOCO, tequila bar Bar Sótano, and more, not to mention a line of salsas, chips, cooking sauces and frozen foods carried by the likes of Whole Food, Jewel, Mariano’s, and, well, pretty much everywhere. Amazingly, every meal at the Bayless restaurants is still a gem — and much of their staff has been with them for decades, which speaks volumes.
The Goat Restaurants: Girl & the Goat, Little Goat Diner, Duck Duck Goat, Cabra, and Sugargoat
If you live in the Chicago area, chances are you’ve frequented at least one of Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s Goat restaurants in the West Loop/Fulton Market. Whether it’s the inventive, eclectic cuisine of Girl & the Goat, the retro fun and enormous plates at Little Goat Diner, the ersatz Chinese offerings at Duck Duck Goat, the Peruvian-inspired Cabra atop the Hoxton Hotel, or the sweet insanity of Sugargoat, Izard has a singular, brilliant vision and a signature style that is irresistible.
The dining scene in Pilsen hit the jackpot when Danielle Dang and her husband, chef Thai Dang, brought their exciting take on Vietnamese dining to the neighborhood, where the whole fried fish is a thing of beauty, and the Papaya Salad is a do-not-miss iteration of the classic dish. Danielle’s inspired cocktails complement the food to perfection. Cà Phê Dá, their casual little spot next door, serves killer Vietnamese coffee, waffles, fries, and insanely good wings for pickup.
This beautiful bakery, owned by partners Ellen King and Julie Matthei, brought new life to the North Shore food scene when it opened in Evanston nearly a decade ago. Now nationally known, King’s “hand-hewn,” artisanal sourdough breads always stood out as something truly special. King has also been a strong champion of the heritage grain movement, and all of the breads are hand-shaped and naturally fermented, with zero additives or preservatives. Grains are stone-milled, and many are for sale in their new, larger Central Street location, along with other local products.
It was a genius moment when chef/owner Christine Cikowski and her business partner/chef Josh Kulp first thought to “put the butter on the bird,” dragging a crisp piece of fried chicken through a mound of soft honey butter that was intended for cornbread. Now, that honey-sweetened butter is trademarked, their Avondale fast-casual spot is booming, and I can’t imagine eating fried chicken any other way. To further gild the lily and cement a space in our hearts, Cikowski and Kulp have been at the Chicago forefront of fair compensation, subsidized health benefits, and paid time off (including both maternity and paternity leave) for their staff.
When pastry chef Genie Kwon left her position at Oriole to open this modern Filipino restaurant and bakery with partner Timothy Flores and opened this East Ukrainian Village spot amidst the pandemic, it seemed like a risk. But their culinary talents have carried them through, and they often sell out of product as people clamor for a taste of Ube and Huckleberry Basque Cake, Boston Crème Brioche, Lumpia Shanghai, and Adobo dishes.
Sandy Chen didn’t “stay in her lane,” and we’re all the better for it! After running Koi — her much-loved Chinese restaurant in Evanston, still going strong — for a couple decades, she decided to branch out and explore her love of Mediterranean food, specifically the South of France. She opened Le Sud a few years ago in Roscoe Village, and it quickly became a go-to not only for the neighborhood, but for all Chicagoans who yearne for a taste of classic bistro dishes done right.
Regular bar service might currently be on hold, but cocktail queen/creative director Julia Momose is still doing her jewel-like drinks and Japanese whisky for pickup and delivery. Named one of America’s top mixologists by no less than Food & Wine Magazine, Momose and her team offer out-of-the-ordinary cocktails and Japanese bar snacks for pickup and delivery, at least until the weather warms a bit and they can reopen the garden space for on-site dining and drinking.
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Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.