Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises: Restaurant Group of the Year
Over the past several years, Chicago has become a city of restaurant group empires. From Hogsalt and One Off Hospitality to Land and Sea Dept., Boka Restaurant Group, and Gibsons, the city’s dining scene is dominated by these prominent collectives routinely churning out crowd-pleasing hot spots. Perhaps the earliest progenitor of this landscape is Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago’s homegrown dining domain that’s been in existence long before Girl & the Goat became impossible to get into, before Paul McGee dazzled drinkers with Lost Lake, and before Au Cheval commanded three-hour wait times for burgers. Lettuce Entertain You may be the O. G., but this year it’s also proven that the original is still the best, with some of best and most impressive openings hailing from this empire. It just goes to show that despite its enduring age, Lettuce never fails to amaze, and it’s just as red-hot as ever.
In the past year or so, Lettuce has spawned significant openings, ranging from Oyster Bah and il Porcellino to Naoki Sushi and of course Intro. They’ve expanded both Beatrix and Bub City to second locations (not to mention opened a Summer House Santa Monica at O'Hare), hired Stephen Gillanders as Intro’s first executive chef, planned a Mediterranean restaurant with new Chicago resident CJ Jacobson, and brought on Julian Cox as beverage director, a big get for the company considering he was one of the most renowned mixologists in Los Angeles prior to moving here.
Not only has Lettuce managed to open new endeavors smoothly and efficiently, but they do so boldly and by tackling fresh new territory that makes them exciting and novel. Even a restaurant like il Porcellino, a concept that dared do Italian cuisine in a city bursting at the seams with an excess of Italian food of late, proved to be an invigorating addition to the restaurant scene, delivering something fresh where far too many other Italian ventures have faltered. Naoki Sushi, which premiered earlier this year behind Intro’s kitchen, rapidly ascended to the top of Chicago’s sushi elite, thanks to a smart mix of traditional and contemporary sushi preparations, all with the overarching philosophy of pristine freshness and masterful technique. Surfing on the longstanding success of Shaw’s Crab House, the company made a splash with Oyster Bah in Lincoln Park, launching a spot that’s thematic without being gaudy, fun but serious at the same time, and thoroughly, enormously delicious.
In perpetually popular news, Do-Rite Donuts still draws lined out the door for its fryer-fresh confections, and Three Dots and a Dash continues to set the bar for tiki trends locally and nationally. Recent news of Cox coming on board and updating the menus at Three Dots bodes very well indeed. Across the street, Ramen-san paves fresh territory for a food that’s reached saturation point in Chicago as well, innovating with its mix of quirky-meets-traditional food and drink.
Considering the sheer mass of new openings and upcoming ventures from this powerhouse group, perhaps the most impressive fact is how seamlessly they manage to honor and uphold decades-old pioneers like Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! and R.J. Grunts. It’s one thing to churn out new concepts and replicate success like a machine; it’s another thing entirely to balance this with a respect for neighborhood stalwarts and enduring gems.
We look forward to seeing what else Lettuce Entertain You has up their sleeves. We’re entertained indeed.
- Matt Kirouac