Fig & Olive:
Dear naysayers, kindly quiet down about New York City restaurants floundering in their attempts to establish themselves in Chicago. Not only is this pessimism unconducive to anything at all, it's detrimental to Chicago's restaurant scene at large with a closed-minded attitude that positions outsiders to fail. It's never been clearer that Chicago is one of the most influential and important food cities in the world, so it makes sense that restaurants from other cities would want to come here and put down new roots. Instead of predicting their demise, how about we either try and support them or at the very least not lambast them? While it's true many a New York import has come and gone, leaving skeletons in its wake — looking at you, Brasserie Ruhlmann, BLT American Brasserie, C-House — the tide is turning, as evidenced by a recent onslaught of incomers that continue to draw crowds and excite locals.
(FIG + OLIVE. Imagine this space packed and you get the idea.)
The opening of Eataly in Chicago, the second U.S. outpost of the Italian brand following New York City, has been a bit of a roller coaster to say the least. Opening week was met with so much fanfare that the 63,000 square foot space was depleted and forced to shutter due to lack of inventory. It's as if Chicagoans looted the restaurants and shelves. In the months to follow, those crowds inevitibly waned, sometimes to the point where portions of the space seemed empty. Every restaurant has those days, but this is especially amplified when said restaurant is as enormous as Eataly, putting itself under a magnefying glass in a whole new way. Over the past month, I have been periodically popping in to Eataly at various times and days, on rainy days and sunny days, warm ones and cold; all to gauge a sense of what Eataly is like in Chicago nowadays, several months after opening. It's for the best that the establishment is not flooded with patrons on the regular. Rather, the space seems to have found a happy medium that welcomes locals and tourists alike on a steady basis. People can visit restaurants and shop without having to endure heinous wait times, but they also don't feel like they're patronizing a barren wasteland. More often than not, Eataly is still crowded, filled with a consistent hum of customers throughout its varied nooks and crannies. Sure there have been some changes made, but that's true of many restaurants. For instance, Eataly moved its meat restaurant, La Carne, out from the corner space and more into the middle of the second floor. They've also re-designed their fine dining restaurant, Baffo, to make it feel homier and cozier. These all come with the territory of being a full-fledged, multi-tiered restaurant concept, which is essentially a living organism that continues to adjust and re-establish itself through the changing seasons and trends. Eataly is more than capable of rising to such an occasion.
Another flashy opening "That Really Rocks"of late that has handily exceeded expectations is FIG & OLIVE. Positioned on a street more associated with high-end retail than dining, the first Chicago outpost of this New York- and California-based restaurant re-defines what it means to be a foreign restaurant in a new city. By simultaneously retaining its Mediterranean/Riviera ethos with an emphasis on olive oil and adapting to Chicago through support of Midwestern purveyors and farm sources, FIG & OLIVE is ideally suited to both adhere to its origins while establishing new roots. And if the incessant crowds of well-clad customers is any indication whatsoever, there's a palpable market in the Gold Coast for a glistening restaurant such as this. Through two floors of pricey real estate, FIG & OLIVE continues to pack in diners.
Borrowing some of the negative soothsaying away from Eataly, Soho House was another massive international sensation that opened in Chicago to mixed emotions and feedback. A members' club with this much pomp and circumstance is bound to line itself up in front of the firing squad for negative comments, due to Chicago's alleged proclivity for laid back, community-oriented dining and drinking. Or whatever. The hotel/restaurants/club concept, which originated in London as an enclave for creative types and has since spread to New York, Miami, and other cities, is a huge deal for Chicago. It's the first establishment ardently devoted to celebrating people in creative industries, and believe what you will, but the property manages to be un-pretentious about it. Whodathunk! Operating like a slick machine, Soho House is thoroughly impressive for its welcoming hospitality, meticulous interior spaces, creative energy, and refined dining options. The two restaurants that anchor the property, both of which are open to the public, are as straightforward and simple as they come, with Chicken Shop garnering a sense of rotisserie-focused nostalgia and Pizza East a polished Italian dining experience.
(Magnolia Bakery's cupcakes, as popular as ever)
Further proof that the New York City "curse" is an antiquated notion? Magnolia Bakery is celebrating its third anniversary in Chicago in October (anyone also turning three that month receive a free cupcake), Shake Shack hasn't even opened its first Chicago location yet and they've already secured a second, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is set to roar into Chicago with a massive Lincoln Park location, Mercadito is ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary in Chicago (not to mention the restaurant group was so well received they supplanted their base of operations here, with several new concepts that followed), and hot on the heels of Umami Burger's Chicago debut, the popular restaurant is already planning several more local outposts.
- Matt Kirouac