At long last, 2021 is on its way out. When the year began, Chicago diners and workers were shivering in outdoor dining structures, and now, well… at least there are vaccinations. Despite its many peaks and valleys, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic was a marked improvement from 2020. Last year, headlines were dominated by indoor dining shutdowns, permanent closures, and an industry in turmoil. This year, Chicagoans returned to dining rooms, and over time, news of openings began to outpace closings. Anticipation built for exciting new restaurants and fans paid tribute to shuttered institutions.
Over the course of the 12 months, Eater Chicago published hundreds of stories chronicling the city’s storied dining scene. Below, explore the top 10 stories, excluding maps, of 2021:
Diners this year became intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of third-party delivery companies like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates, all offering seemingly convenient services for getting restaurant food to people’s homes. The reality of their impact on hospitality businesses, however, is much more complex. Phil Foss, chef and owner of Michelin-starred El Ideas in 2011, shed light in January on the often opaque behind-the-scenes tensions between these delivery brands and restaurants, explaining in great detail that in his view, delivery apps are “destroying restaurants, from mom-and-pop places to chefs with Michelin stars.” Foss acknowledges there are no simple answers, but argues that consumers are the only ones who can choose to stop giving money to delivery giants.
In the midst of COVID-related chaos, there’s something almost nostalgic about a classic dress code controversy. Chicago-based steakhouse chain Steak 48 managed to provide a badly-needed distraction in May when it announced a new, exhaustive dress code with rules regarding baseball caps for women, sweatshirts with large logos, bustier tops, and more. Critics on social media seized on the policy, debating its possible racist implications in light of the industry’s long history of rules that exclude Black customers.
Just six days into 2021, Americans watched as rioters breached the U.S. Capitol in an effort to disrupt Joe Biden’s certification as president. In Chicago, the events in Washington D.C. quickly turned into a local story as social media posts surfaced showing the owners of Tank Noodle, one of the city’s best-known Vietnamese restaurants, on a plane to the capital with the intention of joining protests opposing Donald Trump’s Election Day defeat. As screenshots of the posts spread, users began flooding the restaurant’s online accounts with comments decrying their support for Trump. One Tank Noodle worker told Eater that she received a death threat amidst a flurry of angry phone calls. Months later, restaurant ownership was forced to pay out nearly $700,000 to employees after a federal wage theft investigation.
Long, long ago in the spring, Illinois was an optimistic place as officials began removing COVID-19 rules and the initial round of vaccinations rolled out. That sunny disposition primed locals for a March announcement that state’s first bar for on-site consumption of marijuana was on its way. The Luna Lounge in Sesser, about 300 miles south of Chicago, touted itself as BYO safe space for the 420-friendly crowd with its own off-site dispensary. It opened in July with events like live music and stand-up comedy.
Four months into Illinois’s second indoor dining shutdown, residents were eager for any sign that mitigations might loosen in the foreseeable future. Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave them something to hold on to when in early January he indicated that the state might lift some restrictions that same month.
A series of raids in October by the Internal Revenue Service special agents and Chicago police swept several local restaurants, including all three Parlor Pizza Bars on the city’s North Side and sister restaurants I-57 Smoke House and I-57 Rib House in the South Side neighborhood of Morgan Park. The state’s revenue department told reporters that agents were hunting for evidence to support alleged tax code violations.
Chicago has developed a reputation for housing some of the most immersive and creative pop-up bars in the country. Despite that local quirk, Dan Levy, co-creator and co-star on award-winning sitcom Schitt’s Creek, in February was not amused by an unlicensed “Schitt Happens” tribute event at Replay Lincoln Park. Levy wrote on social media at the time that while he appreciates fans’s enthusiasm for the show, the unsanctioned pop-up could put patrons at risk of contracting COVID-19 and that rumors of cast attendance were untrue. Replay owner Mark Kwiatkowski didn’t discuss the incident with Eater, but someone claiming to work for the bar wrote in a since-deleted tweet that ownership was working with show’s production company to find some kind of solution.
In April, Michelin Guide released its first updated ranking since the pandemic began, featuring three new additions to its list of 24 restaurants: Ever, chef Curtis Duffy’s expensive comeback coup in Fulton Market (two stars); the Bar and the Dining Room at Moody Tongue, a fine-dining venture from a Chicago brewery on the Near South Side (two stars); and Porto, an upscale Spanish and Galician seafood wonderland in West Town (one star).
9) Chicago Sues Grubhub and DoorDash for Allegedly Scamming Basically Everyone: Restaurants, Drivers, and Customers
It turns out that Phil Foss’s comments on big delivery brands spoke for a lot of Chicago restaurant owners, who nearly universally celebrated in August when the city of Chicago filed separate lawsuits against Grubhub and DoorDash over allegations of deceptive and predatory practices. Claims against the companies ran the gamut, including the creation of fake restaurant websites that redirect patrons to the delivery platform, the use of telephone routing numbers to charge commission on phone calls that didn’t result in orders, and the use of bait-and-switch tactics that misrepresent fees to customers. The lawsuit asked for $2,000 to $10,000 for every offense or party harmed.
Laughs have, for many, been in short supply this year, which could explain why Twitter users in February took such merriment in an error-ridden tweet from ABC 7 Chicago about Harold’s Chicken Shack, the local fried chicken chain with big cultural cache. Things started out well enough: “Harold’s Chicken just turned 70!” But, unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. “They specialize in hot sauce on the bird after frying. They have more than 40 locations, including other states.” To Chicago diners, the mistake was glaring. Harold’s (and other area chicken shacks) is known for mild sauce, a Windy City invention that’s usually composed of barbecue sauce, ketchup, and hot sauces. The tweet was later deleted, but had already accomplished the seemingly impossible task of uniting Twitter-using Chicagoans against condiment slander.
Bob Mariano may have sold his eponymous grocery chain years ago, but Chicago residents haven’t lost interest in his ventures. That name recognition may have spurred extra interest when in June he and co-owners launched Dom’s Kitchen & Market, an upscale grocer with on-site food stalls for dine-in customers. Operators are hopeful that locals will embrace the concept, aiming to open 25 locations in the Chicago area and beyond.
Celebrity-fronted restaurants, virtual and physical, have of late seen a mini boom throughout the country, with famous faces like Eminem and Danny Trejo hawking spaghetti, tacos, and more. The Chicago suburbs got their own special delivery in March, straight from the mayor of Flavortown himself — Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, opened three virtual outposts in Lombard, Wheeling, and Orland Park, touting a gastric carnival of a menu starring cheesesteak egg rolls, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, and fried pickles with ranch dressing.