Warlord in Avondale is creating the type of restaurant buzz the city hasn’t seen since before the pandemic.
There were no extravagant preview parties. No public relations reps unfurling a barrage of pitches. But on Friday night, a line flowed out of the door and around the corner at Warlord, producing a two-hour wait — the type of restaurant excitement the city hasn’t seen since before the pandemic.
Warlord was no secret. Chefs Emily Kraszyk (Farmhouse), John Lupton (Kasama), and Trevor Fleming (Rootstock) left enough social media breadcrumbs to lead interested parties to the corner of Milwaukee and Belmont. The restaurant has a website and Instagram account. But since opening in April at 3198 N. Milwaukee Avenue, the team from this no-reservation restaurant has ignored media requests. It’s not quite what Lupton’s former employers did at Kasama, which still builds long lines of customers every Saturday and Sunday morning. Kasama received plenty of attention — and its chefs a James Beard Award — despite no public relations firm extolling its virtues.
The chef trio has kept their story out of the limelight, offering only a simple and terse description on the restaurant’s website: “Focused on preservation and live fire; from the foundations of family and friendship.”
But the lines at Kasama form while the sun is out, and the same thing would happen at Hot Doug’s or other bakeries. A nocturnal queue is unheard of, especially as finding workers of any kind — especially those willing to work late nights — become harder to find as the city recovers from the pandemic’s impact.
And that makes what Warlord accomplishes, serving high-caliber food until 1 a.m., that much more remarkable. Bless Red Hot Ranch, but folks don’t always want a late-night burrito or hot dog and they want to splurge a little. At Warlord they serve delights like a perfectly charred steak, dry-aged onsite and paired with garlic scapes that are treated like Chinese long beans, cooked over high heat to achieve a remarkable tenderness.
Warlord’s trio manages to sidestep the labor issue by opening four days a week with a tiny staff. They met at Art Smith’s shuttered Gold Coast restaurant Table 52 and have worked toward Warlord’s opening for five years. Smith has fond memories of the three: “Chef John, chef Trevor, and chef Emily are like a beautiful cooking orchestra,” Smith says, adding that Joe Flamm of Rose Mary was also part of the group who cooked for stars like Presidents Bush and Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Lady Gaga: “I taught them all how to make a proper biscuit and cake, just ask them,” Smith adds.
There’s plenty of work to be done with a small staff. Kraszyk pitches in and brings out a dish. Fleming breaks down a whole king salmon that once hung in a dry-aging fridge. The team slices it thin and serves it raw with XO sauce and a few fried shallot bits for texture. The menu changes constantly, so tomorrow’s favorites, say a monkfish chop or scallops, are today’s memories.
The space is also a labor of love with a dark and narrow dining room. Much of the light comes from rising flames from the open kitchen’s hearth. Grab a seat at the counter to see the staff cook, or walk to the back bar. Folks will find familiar faces like Huettenbar bartender Lorien Rasmussen mixing up drinks and recommending wine to complement the funkiness of the dry-aged beef and seafood. Visitors will discover rough exposed brick with plump, polished banquettes, purple chairs, and a wood floor dyed a brilliant hue of verdant green. The energy is high, buoyed by a soundtrack of deep, funky cuts on vinyl and a brief cocktail list.
A regular sitting at the bar twirls his angel hair pasta. He calls Warlord “a treat for Chicago.” This type of late-night neighborhood restaurant is a rarity, he adds.
Throughout two and a half months, the restaurant has loyal customers such as the gentleman at the bar and a few restaurant industry members who have frequented the venue. But last week, the media began chiming in. First, veteran critic Michael Nagrant, who worked on the Alinea cookbook, delivered a rousing endorsement via his Substack newsletter. He likened its team to the White Stripes’ Meg and Jack White. Nagrant, in an emailed exchange with Eater, lauded Warlord for taking the marketing road less traveled. Rather than hosting previews and inviting select media, Warlord “gently let people know” they were open.
Nagrant notes that Chicago’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant doesn’t utilize traditional marketing: “Chef Achatz created his own buzz directly on the Internet with his actual high value and creative work.”
“Even if Warlord had the dollars to pay for these services,” Nagrant questions, why would they pay for a “press release written by a recent English major” full of cliches, or host Instagram influencers only concerned with their own revenue generation?
“They are a business,” Nagrant said of influencers. “So if you put up a gate, they’ll walk by that one until they find another open house without an alarm system to rob.”
Obviously, not all influencers or journalists have the same agendas or goals. On Friday night, Tribune critic Nick Kindelsperger and Takeout writer Dennis Lee visited. The restaurant, and its burger, managed to charm Lee, who goes by “Dickhole Dennis” on social media: “In short, everything was beautiful,” Lee wrote.
Warlord, 3198 N. Milwaukee Avenue, open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday through Monday; kitchen open until 1 a.m.