Willis Tower’s New Anchor Restaurant Hopes to Ignite Downtown Excitement

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A strip steak sliced up with fries and ketchup to dip.
Kindling has the meats.
Chris Peters/Eater Chicago

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Kindling is an attempt to give a tourist trap a makeover

Chicagoans don’t consider the Willis Tower, the former headquarters of Sears with its famous Skydeck, a culinary destination. Long lines of tourists routinely gather and wait for the elevators to take them upstairs for those gorgeous views of the city.

The food situation was a roll of the dice with the smart money on eating at home or before arriving at the downtown skyscraper where finding parking is a fool’s errand. But with the arrival of Kindling, the tower’s owners — New York-based Blackstone — hope to ignite interest and attract more business to Downtown Chicago, an area that continues to recover from the pandemic. The restaurant opens Tuesday, January 24 for lunch, and dinner service should start in February.

Blackstone partnered with Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, the operators of restaurants including Roots Handmade Pizza and Utopian Tailgate. The group, born from their namesake bar in Wicker Park, has taken on larger projects of late including a partnership with Second City (they’re also handling food at the comedy club’s New York expansion) and they’ve dived into the world of cannabis.

Willis Tower had already gone through part of a $500 million transformation with the addition of several first-floor casual restaurants. A second-floor food court, from Urbanscape, has been delayed.

But Kindling is a big ticket for the skyscraper, a concept that has evolved since Fifty/50 took over the space. They considered a hibachi-style restaurant as the key element was some sort of live-fire cooking that gives diners a visual while injecting a little theatrics into the experience. Fifty/50 brought on Jonathon Sawyer, a chef who earned success in Cleveland with a James Beard Award before moving to Chicago. Sawyer injects credibility into the project, and perhaps that will draw some culinary tourists curious to check up on what the 2015 Beard winner for Best Chef: Great Lakes is doing. But will Sawyer and the restaurant’s kitchen — Sawyer described it as “13 and a ½ feet of live fire” transform local dining perceptions?

Sawyer draws inspiration from famous chef Francis Malmann, a master of cooking with flames, using fire in a variety of ways with different setups and contraptions. The menu is stacked with steak, raw seafood, pasta, and happy hour bites. While Malmann’s cooking had a more South American feel, the menu at Kindling’s more a mix of American. There’s even fresh pasta.

The space is divided into three zones. Seating around the kitchen is akin to a chef’s table. A zone on the second floor with shuffleboard and other games feels like Fifty/50’s Utopian Tailgate in Old Town. An outdoor terrace will debut after winter and whenever spring feels right.

Lunch service officially starts next week and dinner should start in February. Check out the space and food below.

Kindling Downtown Cookout and Cocktails, at the Willis Tower, 202 S. Franklin Street, lunch service starts on Tuesday, January 24 and dinner follows in February, reservations via OpenTable.

The seating around the live fire is akin to a tasting menu experience.

Confit wings are a chef’s specialty.
Lobster and spaghetti
The burger, made from a blend of brisket, can come with foie gras.
Classic bistro streak comes with a salsa verde.

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