“Foodie” culture has fashioned a new generation of diners possessing not only an unprecedented interest in gastronomy, but—in the case of a privileged class of millennials—the wherewithal to consistently indulge in a manner of fine dining that rivals the very decadence of the Ancien Régime. While the nature of this process and its consequences for the future of the American food system are yet unknown, parsing the expanding patronage of high-end restaurants demands a knowledge of their history and the circumstances that allowed for such an uncommon expenditure on foodstuffs to take root. Over the course of this essay—by weaving together a range of sources into one coherent narrative—you will present a comprehensive, contextualized history of Chicago fine dining.
While we remain America’s “meat and potatoes” city par excellence, Chicago has catered to gastronomes from its very beginning.[i] Thus, rather than being a story of how one city “came of age” culinarily, this history is one of how fine dining reached the masses. At times, the Second City has belatedly followed national dining trends; other times, it has defined those very trends or even proudly bucked them. Through this process, Chicago has distinguished itself, fashioning a geographic and demographic identity distinct from the gastronomic capitals on the coasts. The fine dining scene that stands proudly today—while it has grown out of nearly two centuries of European cookery practiced here—celebrates a Midwestern “prairie” cuisine that has persisted from the very beginning and only just has come into its own. Such a cuisine combines the best of the city’s many ethnic influences with the best of the local bounty, and it does so expertly but irreverently. Chicago fine dining, today, excels not in offering a rarefied taste of some other culture, but something rooted to the city and its mix of people—something “authentic,” that is, the lynchpin of the new “experience economy.”[ii]
The City of Chicago, as it is known today, was conceived as “a frontier town on the edge of a white settlement.”[iii] As early as 1673, explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet dreamt of a canal connecting the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds via the portage of the Des Plaines and Chicago Rivers. The Federal Government of the United States felt much the same way, demanding Native Americans cede the mouth of the latter river in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville before taking an additional ten miles strip on each side in an 1816 treaty following the War of 1812. After its founding in 1818, the State of Illinois quickly coveted the primely positioned federal holdings, securing them through a grant and ultimately completing the ninety-six mile Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 after twelve years of construction. While the project was “almost an immediate success”—driving trade in maize, wheat, sugar, and molasses—Chicago’s restaurant history begins some two decades before the Canal’s completion with the opening of the Wolf Point Tavern in 1828.[iv]
Established by James Kinzie on the west bank of the junction where the Chicago River’s north and south branches meet, the Wolf Point Tavern was the first of a “confluence of taverns” that developed at the river-fork. This included the Eagle Exchange Tavern (opened in 1829) and the Sauganash Hotel (opened in 1831), which hosted the very vote to incorporate the town of Chicago in 1833.[v] These three establishments fit into what David S. Shields terms the “First Era” of American fine dining between 1790 and 1835. This period was characterized by British American “restorators” (the forerunner to the restaurateur) who touted the healthfulness of their fare—typically game and spirits—served to lodgers or boarders as part of the table d’hôte (prix fixe) included in their stay.[vi]
In these taverns, local foods were predominantly boiled, roasted, or fried and followed by ample drinking or even a fiddle performance by the proprietor.[vii] The fare at the Sauganash Hotel’s tavern was described as “substantial…although indifferently cooked” by one guest in 1833. Another visitor in 1835 lamented the low quality of the butter and lack of milk but found “the coffee…was excellent, the pork steaks tolerable, and the bread, both corn and wheat, was good” along with the pot of rabbit stew at the center of the table.[viii] In the “rough-and-tumble” setting of early Chicago, mere abundance went a long way towards making customers happy, with one patron finding the taverns’ fare so plentiful “that it rendered…[him] oblivious to chipped dishes, flies buzzing, tangled in the butter, creeping beetles and the music of mosquito bands.”[ix] Surely, anything resembling luxury seemed eons away.
Nonetheless, a hotel opened in 1835 “that put Chicago on the fine dining map early in its history.”[x] The first building of its kind in the city built with brick, the Lake House overlooked the lakeshore from its position at the north end of the current Michigan Avenue bridge. Described by James Silk Buckingham in 1840 as “equal to that of any house we had met with since leaving Baltimore,” Chicago’s first grand hotel is credited with introducing printed menus and napkins to the city. The Lake House also claimed to be the first to source and serve live oysters to Chicagoans in 1838, transported from New Haven on sleighs.[xi] The everyday menu included seafood, cold relishes, mallard duck, rabbit, beef, pork, and a selection of organ meat (including liver, heart, brains, and sweetbreads).[xii] Decidedly and intentionally upscale, the establishment was emblematic of Shields’s “Second Era” of American fine dining from 1835 to 1865. During this era, “in the competition for the epicurean high roller, hotels exerted themselves to secure rare ingredients, wines, and liquors to distinguish themselves from competitors.”[xiii] Thus, while the Lake House immediately became a political and social center for Chicago’s upper crust, it did not find itself without imitators.
Built in 1837 by future Mayor Francis C. Sherman, the Sherman Hotel opened the College Inn eatery in 1844.[xiv] Regarded by Chicagoans as the city’s “most interesting and unique restaurant,”[xv] the Inn’s food was “fancy and expensive for the time”[xvi] and included chicken shortcake, Lobster Newburg, and creamed finnan haddie. It would stay open for nearly 130 years, later becoming an entertainment destination with live music and dancing.[xvii] In 1855, John B. Drake hosted his first annual game dinner at Chicago’s Tremont House. By 1860, the dinners “became the most famous culinary events in the United States,” attracting “luminaries from the worlds of politics, the arts, and industry” with over 50 varieties of game including black bear ham, buffalo tongue, ragout of squirrel, and blackbird pie. The spread would be served to more than 500 guests (with thousands of petitions for a spot at the table collected each year).[xviii]
During this second era of American fine dining in Chicago, establishments like the Lake House, College Inn, and Tremont House underlined “an increasingly successful effort to bring East Coast luxuries and food to Chicago”[xix] and pair them with “foods sourced from, or at least representing, the Western frontier.”[xx] However, that the city only boasted a total of nine free-standing restaurants in 1846 for a population of 17,000 (that would grow to 30,000 by 1850) indicates that “eating at them was still somewhat rare for most Chicagoans.”[xxi] Rather, the hotel (of which Chicago counted twenty-five in 1847) became the “center of urban hospitality and luxury” across all segments of society. While those at the low end enjoyed “boardinghouse fare,” middle-range hotels could indeed offer fine cuisine. The most famous hotels, however, needed to offer “superb” cuisine to attract “a cosmopolitan patronage,” and, in competition with each other, prompted “greater effort and more creative management of hospitality.” To wit, it was during this era that the hotel kitchen became “the locus of technological innovation” and the brigade system became “a hallmark of managerial excellence,” clearly defining staff roles, responsibilities, and behavior.[xxii] Still, it is right to say that these upscale hotels did more to reflect “the rise of an upper-class community and its visitors” than a “thorough evolution in tastes that ran throughout the population.”[xxiii] Fine dining was for “well-off locals,”[xxiv] who—even if they sequestered themselves from “the muddy and unpleasant town of Chicago as a whole”[xxv]—endeavored to keep pace with the gourmet food appearing on the East Coast.
By the time America entered what Shields terms its “Third Era” (1865-1885) of fine dining—and despite the fact that Chicago’s hotels remained the focus of gastronomes—the city had become one of restaurants catering to locals and travelers alike. In fact, by the late 1870s, Chicagoans ate out at “twice the daily per-capita rate” of their counterparts in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Boston.[xxvi] Perhaps the most famous establishment offering special-occasion dinners to middle-class city-dwellers was Henrici’s, founded in 1868 as a pastry shop by Austrian immigrant Philip Henrici. Following the Chicago Fire, the restaurant reopened in the style of an elegant Viennese dining hall, with white tablecloths and room for five hundred guests who sampled English mutton chops, broiled shad roe, creamed chipped beef, lamb pot pie, and pickled lamb’s tongue washed down with sauerkraut juice or Horlick’s Malted Milk.[xxvii] Of course, there was also a more typical variety of steaks, sausages, and fish along with an “extensive” cake and pastry menu that included flaming Austrian pancakes filled with apples or blueberries. The “formal, storied” restaurant “introduced many Chicagoans to European dishes”[xxviii] before being torn down in 1962 as part of the construction of the Daley Civic Center.[xxix]
At the same time Henrici’s tantalized the middle class, The Palmer House—opened in 1871 and rebuilt in 1873—set a new standard for fine fare in Chicago unseen since the early days of the Lake House. Under the stewardship of Prussian-born chef Joseph Seyl for nearly half a century, the hotel ranked among the nation’s finest and would host the “Greatest Banquet in American History” in 1879. There, guests like General William Sherman and Mark Twain enjoyed a menu of smoked beef, roast beef, tenderloin beef steak, lamb chops, poached eggs on toast, and French fried potatoes with hot corn cakes and coffee for dessert.[xxx] Labelled “Chicago’s best-known hotel of all time,”[xxxi] The Palmer House—bedecked with crystal chandeliers—“helped dispel Chicago’s image as a rough-and-tumble frontier town” in the same way the Lake House once did.[xxxii] Chef Seyl, over his long tenure, would witness the transition from coal to gas ranges, the introduction of electricity to the kitchen, and the delocalization of Chicago’s food system by the railroads. However, he remained successful by ignoring “the culinary fashions that roiled Paris and New York,” instead preferring the kind of savory, hearty fare (served family style) that perhaps marks an American high cuisine free from French influence.[xxxiii]
To that point, Seyl shone as one of a “cadre of German chefs” that controlled Chicago’s major kitchens during this era while French chefs (of which there were four prominent ones) “held relatively minor posts.”[xxxiv] This was atypical, given that Shields terms this third era of American fine dining “The French Hegemony and the Nationalist Reaction.” Driven by the European revolutions of 1848, French (and French-trained) chefs flocked to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans. They reached such a critical mass that, by 1865, the cuisiniers created the Société Culinarie Philanthropique in New York to “serve the interests of the professional community.” These chefs—when not employed by the grand hotels—manned the kitchens of men’s clubs where menus written in “Franglish” offered French food with a few token American specialties (often fruit pries). Such clubs were recognized as offering better cuisine than many cities’ restaurants, driving “an association of French cuisine with quality” that made “menu French” ubiquitous among “quality” restaurants in the decades following the Civil War.[xxxv] As early as 1874, however, the shadow cast by French cuisine over American fine dining prompted a “pushback” from within the profession. Prompted by the remarks of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia during his tour of the United States—“there were no American dishes” and American chefs “were all French”—James W. Parkinson published American Dishes at the Centennial. In it, the Philadelphia native decries the “deeply rooted” sentiment among the public that “Paris is the great fountain-head of all art and all taste.” So extreme is this influence, Parkinson claims, that any American cook who invents something in his craft “feels that to secure its sale and to establish its popularity, he must give it a French name.”[xxxvi]
In this context, Seyl’s stewardship of the Palmer House—not to mention his celebratory American banquet—seems to have been a shining light of distinction amidst a sea of Gallic gastronomy. However, as it so happened, the French chefs in Chicago were simply a bit late to the party. Opened in 1883, Rector’s Oyster House was a “high-priced lobster palace” that charged “top dollar” serving caviar, lobster, venison, and champagne to a clientele of “traveling men, nouveau riche couples, turfmen, and bachelors about town.” Charles E. Rector purveyed a “more unbuttoned, less ostentatious version of the high life” than that offered on the East Coast; however, his “own sense of culinary excellence was French,” believing American food to have no distinctive character outside the far south.[xxxvii] Sending his son to apprentice in Paris, Rector’s menu of eleven different oyster preparations, lobster (in croquettes with sauce à l’anchois, among many other styles), crab, filet mignon, grouse, and ice cream “became one of the premier dining places in the country.”[xxxviii]
Around the same time Rector regaled Chicago’s well-heeled, Urban Sobra served as opening chef the Hotel Richelieu in 1885. Sobra was not simply considered “the most accomplished French chef in Chicago,” but some counted him “the greatest cook in the United States” receiving “a salary that a congressman would jump at.” The chef found a willing partner in proprietor H. V. Bemis, who made a fortune from brewing and stocked his hotel with “the largest and finest assortment of choice wines to be found in America.” While contemporaries questioned opening such a luxurious hotel in the city, Bemis aimed to prove Chicagoans could dine as well as anyone in New York. Sobra’s cooking—filet de turbot farcie au vin blanc, pommes persillades concombre, aloyan de boeuf a la chiron—“became nationally famous,” and rumor had it the Frenchman was tapped to be President Harrison’s White House cook before the chef succumbed to illness in 1894.[xxxix] It should also be noted, before closing out this third era of fine dining, that 1872 saw the appearance of the first grocer providing “upscale food” to Chicago’s elite. Tebbets and Garland (later renamed Stop and Shop) sold “everyday and unusual foods, including hippopotamus meat and shark’s fin soup” to the city’s wealth at 18th St. and Wabash.[xl]
The fourth and final era of the first age of American fine dining, according to Shields, lasted from 1885 until 1919. Titled “the Gilded Age,” the time period was marked by increasing disparities of wealth across the United States and a wider divide between “the home cooking of the common people” and “the dining of the privileged orders.” The enjoyment of beverages was particularly stratified: “restaurants celebrated with wine; hotels, spirits; and urban taverns, beers.”[xli] In Chicago, restaurant menus became simpler as city authorities enforced greater regulations on food and production problems curtailed the oyster’s status as the “number one appetizer” at most establishments.[xlii] Restaurants like Henrici’s, the Palmer House, and Rector’s maintained their popularity while a smattering of others set up shop—divorced from the “French hegemony” of the former era. The Tip Top Inn opened in 1893, gracing the ninth floor of the Pullman Building at the corner of Adams Street and Michigan Avenue. Boasting five dining rooms (with themes like “colonial,” and “kindergarten”) the eatery offered some 108 original creations—like stuffed whitefish with crabmeat and chicken fried “Arkansas-style”—“in a distinctively proper style” to guests like Babe Ruth, J.P. Morgan, and Thomas Edison.[xliii]
Six years later, at the turn of the century, the de Jonghe brothers of Belgium spun off their successful café at the World’s Columbian Exposition into the De Jonghe Hotel and Restaurant at 12 E. Monroe St..[xliv] Little is known about the kind of “gourmet food” chef Emil Zehr prepared for “the city’s elite” (including Edith Rockefeller McCormick and Potter Palmer)[xlv] over the course of two decades; however, Zehr’s Shrimp de Jonghe—lightly cooked then baked with garlic, butter, sherry, and breadcrumbs—survives as one of Chicago’s “oldest iconic dishes.”[xlvi] Marshall Field’s stood, similarly, as one of the city’s institutions, becoming the world’s first department store offering an on-premise restaurant in 1890. Their Walnut Room, opened in 1907, would prove to be a signature venue. The 17,000 square-foot, wood-paneled space hosted the store’s famous Christmas tree and served standbys like Mrs. Hering’s pot pie, corned beef hash, and potato flour muffins—labeled “an epicurean thrill of the highest order” by James Drury in his 1931 dining guide.[xlvii] By 1908, Shields describes Chicago’s culinary scene as “boasting several star chefs,” yet, apart from Joseph Seyl and Charles E. Rector (whose careers were still running strong), it is unclear just whom. Likewise, it would be wise here to distinguish that restaurants like De Jonghe’s, the Walnut Room, and perhaps even the Tip Top Inn (given the breadth of its offerings)—despite their notable clientele—did not aspire to be a “house of epicures” or to offer “cosmopolitan brilliance, but aimed for wholesomeness and good taste.”[xlviii]
Chicago’s only distinctly luxurious opening during “the Gilded Age” has to be the Edgewater Beach Hotel’s Marine Dining Room, opened in 1916. Described as “the jewel of the North Shore,”[xlix] the hotel was actually a multi-building resort with a “nine-hole putting golf course” and “seaplane service to downtown.” The Marine Dining Room, the finest of the property’s restaurants, served “expensive but exquisite” food like beluga caviar, soft-shell crab, prime rib, and caramel-nut layer cake alongside live orchestra music and dancing.[l] By 1919, the party was over: the “younger, racier, and more unbuttoned style of fine dining” pioneered by places like Rector’s having stoked the culture war that culminated in the Volstead Act’s passage.[li] Following Prohibition, “the great temples of cuisine in the metropolitan areas shuttered,” leaving “only the great hotels” to champion fine dining through the 1920s and ‘30s until what Shields terms “the second age of fine dining” following the end of World War II.[lii]
Surprisingly, despite “the prospects of gourmet dining in America” reaching “their nadir,”[liii] 1926 saw the opening of one of Chicago’s most deliberately fine dining destinations in decades. “Why go to Paris when you have L’Aiglon?” critic John Drury asked. The restaurant, located at 22 East Ontario Street, occupied two brownstone mansions that were joined together, making it “as full of private dining rooms, supper rooms, reception rooms and dancing rooms as a castle on the Rhine.” Beyond attracting “the fashionables of the Gold Coast, sleek well-dressed business men from the Loop, as well as celebrities from the stage,” L’Aiglon had fresh sole shipped in daily from France.[liv] It joined specialties like moules marinières, poulet belle meunière, and pompano en papillote, as well as various Creole dishes from the owner’s time in Louisiana.[lv] L’Aiglon provided a marked contrast from Julien’s, “Chicago’s oldest French restaurant” known for its homey atmosphere and frog legs cooked by “Ma Julien.”[lvi] It also proved a perfect foil for establishments like Chez Paree—opened in 1932—that epitomized the “phony French” category where steaks and ribs were served to a crowd “typically more interested in entertainment and celebrity sightings than in food.”[lvii]
By the time Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933, Chicago—and American society as a whole—was primed for a deeper appreciation of gastronomy. During the 1920s, a “record number” of Americans followed the writers and artists of the Lost Generation by traveling to Europe, “dramatically” improving the “long-run prospects for gourmet dining.” At the same time, the country witnessed “the emergence of an upper-middle class, whose members were…college educated and pursuing lucrative professional careers.” More than simply having money to spend, this class “sought to express individual taste preferences” by way of “the values of intelligence, cosmopolitanism, and self-actualization that the universities and the example of upper-class practices helped to foster.” They found inspiration from the introduction of food columns to luxury lifestyle magazines following the legalization of alcohol, which advocated for a “gourmet, as opposed to nutritionist, approach to dining” that took for granted that wine was a central feature of the “dining experience.”[lviii] Nonetheless, at the same time, the “vast majority” of Americans “moved in the opposite direction” of fine dining thanks to the increasing standardization of the national diet and aforementioned focus on nutritionism. Not only was the practice “priced beyond the means of the average American,” but it ran contrary to “the majority values” of the mid-1930s, which found such “sensual experiences” to be a “threat” to virtuous behavior. Thus, this new upper-middle class would only work to supplement “the small and isolated upper-class practitioners of fine dining” as the gap between them and the rest of the country “widened.” However, over time, they would form a “critical mass” that would one day bring gourmet dining to the attention of the larger public.[lix]
Hot off the heels of Repeal Day, Chicago saw the dawn of a new age of fine dining. Opened the day after Prohibition’s end, the Drake Hotel’s Cape Cod Room “outdid all of Chicago’s other seafood restaurants” with a décor resembling a luxurious yacht where celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio enjoyed Bookbinder soup, Lobster Thermidor, and sole meuniere.[lx] Starting in 1936, Café Bohemia began its fifty-year run as “the most famous game restaurant in Chicago history,” though little of the fare was sourced from nearby. Crisp duck with wild rice was their “most popular dish,” joining exotic offerings like bison, bear, antelope, lion, jaguar, and Bengal tiger.[lxi] Two years later, the Pump Room—in the Gold Coast’s Ambassador East Hotel—became “one of Chicago’s first post-Depression upscale restaurants” though, like many of the city’s fancy midcentury restaurants, “it was always at least as much about show as about fine cuisine.”[lxii] Costumed waitstaff (in red swallow-tailed coats and white satin turbans) served stars like Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra chunks of lamb off of flaming rapiers. Indonesian rijsttafel, chicken portola (curried in a coconut shell), and steak Diane (prepared tableside) rounded out an eclectic menu served to guests hoping to spot their favorite celebrity in the Pump Room’s coveted “Booth One.”[lxiii] French fare also remained popular, with the “elegant gourmet restaurant” Café de Paris opening in 1941 under chef Henri Charpentir, who claimed to have invented Crêpes Suzette in 1895 at the Monte Carlo location.[lxiv]
Following in the footsteps of places like the Tip Top Inn, Fritzel’s advertised “more than one hundred” menu items available at any time of day upon first welcoming guests in 1947. “A jacket-and-tie kind of place at a time when dress codes were important,”[lxv] the restaurant was “somewhat of an upscale Jewish-style diner” (though “nowhere near kosher”) famous for its onion bread and iteration of the classic Shrimp de Jonghe. So endeared was the restaurant to the city’s political, business, and sporting elite that it was “taboo for policemen to write tickets for autos parked illegally in front of Fritzel’s restaurant.”[lxvi] The 1950s saw little by way of new eateries in Chicago, with places like the Pump Room, Palmer House, Cape Cod Room, and Fritzel’s still featuring most prominently among the city’s jet set. The newly-minted upper-middle class continued to sharpen their appreciation for gastronomy through gourmet clubs like the Wine and Food Society. However, while the Chicago WFS branch resolved (rather uniquely) to open membership to “local epicures of both sexes,” the promise was not kept save for one annual “ladies’ night” dinner each year.[lxvii] Still, the gourmet movement “spread from organizations created by…professionals to grassroots groups often energized by Gourmet magazine,” where women nonetheless “read about the pleasures of the table” and “learned to enjoy French meals at home and abroad.”[lxviii] While French and American cuisine “dominated the upscale restaurant scene,” comparably “average” urban diners saw their options broadened by modest ethnic restaurants serving Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Japanese food.[lxix]
This was all to change with the publication of Simone “Simca” Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, which not only made gourmet dining “increasingly a home-based activity” led by women, but “dramatically” changed the American restaurant scene via “the opening of a series of sophisticated restaurants, mostly in large American cities, by highly trained and talented professional chefs.”[lxx] By the time Child made it onto television two years later, Americans “would now find it difficult to even imagine a world without celebrity chefs.”[lxxi] On cue, 1963 saw the opening of three fine dining restaurants in Chicago. Café La Tour offered unobstructed views of the Chicago Water Tower through its two-story picture windows. Despite being “extremely expensive,” the restaurant was “extremely popular” with excellent service one Tribune critic described as “attentive without being intrusive, helpful without being condescending and professional without being aloof.”[lxxii] Maxim’s de Paris, located in the basement of the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Astor Tower building, was opened by Goldberg’s wife Nancy as an homage to the original Parisian location on Rue Royale. The restaurant ranked as “one of Chicago’s first nationally recognized fine-dining restaurants,” earning “5 Mobil stars” with a staff imported from France serving Daube de Boeuf Provençal, Sole Albert, and smoked eel paired with an extensive wine list featuring first growth Bordeaux.[lxxiii]
“Almost the absolute opposite” of these esteemed French establishments, Hungarian-born chef Louis Szathmary’s The Bakery—located in the middle-class Lincoln Park neighborhood—is most credited with the “revival” of Chicago’s fine dining scene. Also opened in 1963, the restaurant had “more than two hundred articles” written about it in its first year, including “rave reviews” from national restaurant critics. Szathmary described his cuisine as Continental “with American undertones” and served signatures such as grated celery root salad, paprikás csirke (paprika chicken), pork and sausage goulash, and Beef Wellington with foie gras instead of the usual duxelles. The cuisine transcended Chicago’s “standard” fine dining fare at that time—“shrimp cocktail, iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, prime rib of beef, asparagus with hollandaise, and baked Alaska”—while avoiding the “imposing” elements of the French restaurants. In fact, The Bakery’s “comfortable and creative atmosphere,” including no written menu, a BYOB policy, mismatched plates, and secondhand silverware, can be seen as the forerunner to many of Chicago’s most creative establishments today. Though the restaurant closed in 1989 (the same year the city saw a similarly legendary establishment open), Szathmary is honored as “essential in American cookery” for raising the profile of the executive chef as a “professional” and a celebrity with television shows and a frozen food line.[lxxiv]
Built on the foundation Julia Child provided—along with French restaurants like Café La Tour and Maxim’s that followed in the wake of her popularity—“a new generation of chefs created restaurants of a different kind beginning in the late 1960s.”[lxxv] Though 1971 spelled the end of Chicago’s status as “Meatpacker to the World,” 1973 saw two openings that set the bar of fine dining even higher than Szathmary. Le Perroquet, located on Walton Street, was “long considered one of Chicago’s top dining spots” and one of the “most influential fine-dining restaurants from the last few decades.” Designed “for formality,” with menus written in French, “impeccable” service, and the city’s first espresso machine, the restaurant served a combination of classic and nouvelle dishes like mussels in calvados cream, duck with tarragon-cognac sauce, and soufflé.[lxxvi] Though Le Perroquet was not known for its friendliness (and some newly-minted fine diners felt uncomfortable with its formality), customers flocked to the expensive fare.[lxxvii]
During this same year, Jean Banchet left Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club to open his own restaurant in suburban Wheeling—not having found a suitable location downtown. By 1980, Bon Appetit had declared Le Français “the best restaurant in America” and Banchet was credited with making Chicago “a global restaurant destination,”[lxxviii] as well as inspiring the opening of more than a half dozen more French restaurants in the area. The restaurant was more traditional than Le Perroquet but notable for its use of fresh and new ingredients from all over the world like lobster, wild bass, sea urchin, truffles, Scottish pheasant, and Canadian duck served in an “elaborate and ceremonious” style.[lxxix] 1976 saw the beginning of River North’s transformation into an “entertainment center,” sparked by the opening of Gordon in between a currency exchange and an adult bookstore at 512 North Clark Street. Owner Gordon Sinclair, despite having no prior restaurant experience, helped to define New American cuisine with dishes like fried artichokes, monkfish “osso bucco,” barley risotto with port wine syrup, and flourless chocolate cake—becoming Chicago’s “top revenue-producing restaurant” for a time.[lxxx]
By the time the 1980s came around, “living was high” in Chicago and “diners enjoyed more dining out than ever before.”[lxxxi] Ambria, opened in 1980, followed in the wake of the previous decade’s French establishments—which occupied five of seven spots on a 1979 Chicago Magazine reader survey on the city’s best restaurants. In contrast to Le Perroquet and Le Français, chef Gabino Sotelino served “unusually inventive,” “often surprising,” “always delicious,” and “well presented” food that was “luxurious but not ostentatious, polished but not pompous.”[lxxxii] Carlos’ Restaurant, opened in 1981, followed suit with “superb service, formal atmosphere, extensive wine list, and modern French dishes” under the ownership of Mexico City native Carlos Nieto (who had worked as a waiter at Le Français).[lxxxiii] Though Italian restaurants have had a long history in Chicago since at least as early as 1875,[lxxxiv] they tended between two sorts: the inexpensive “spaghetti and sauce cookshop” and the “regional houses” offering “the favored dishes of a distinct region.”[lxxxv] Spiaggia, opened in 1983 (and, sadly, having closed in 2021), aimed distinctively higher with its “grand space” overlooking the Magnificent Mile and hallmarks like 15 handcrafted pastas made every day and the first wood-burning oven ever permitted in one of the city’s highrises. The “undisputedly most upscale” Italian restaurant in Chicago has earned national awards from the James Beard Foundation and maintained one star from Michelin since the city’s inaugural guide.[lxxxvi] Not long after, in 1985, Arun Sampanthavivat set up shop on Chicago’s Northwest Side and would help define the “high-end ethnic cuisines” finding a home in the city, his restaurant Arun’s being called “the best Thai restaurant in the country” by both Zagat and the Wall Street Journal.[lxxxvii]
In the 1990s and 2000s, “restaurants boomed in the city” as chefs embraced “local ingredients and seasonal cooking,” adopting all sorts of buzzwords like “artisan,” “charcuterie,” “nose-to-tail,” and “in-house butchering” that were “not very different ingredients from nineteenth century cookery.”[lxxxviii] Inspired upon seeing “the dramatic persona of the impeccably toqued…Louis Szathmary,” Charlie Trotter put aside his political science degree and began a culinary career with no formal experience. Apprenticing in Lake Forest before training in Florida, San Francisco, and France, Trotter opened his eponymous Lincoln Park restaurant in 1989 with the philosophy “if it isn’t broken, then break it.” The “elegant, wood-paneled” dining room featured menus that changed daily—never repeating a dish—and combined French, Asian, and other international influences while relying on stocks, purees, and oils instead of cream and butter. Trotter was also an early proponent of organic grains and vegetables, free-range meat, and line-caught fish—paving the way for other iconoclastic chefs by winning “almost every major culinary award” doing things in his own, distinct style.[lxxxix] 1989 also saw the opening of Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo, perhaps the first consciously fine dining Mexican restaurant in the city. Though not without controversy, it has maintained one Michelin star since the Chicago guide’s beginning and earned the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant Award (given to establishments open at least twenty years) in 2017.[xc]
“While many high-end Chicago restaurants originally attempted to be fairly true to traditional French cooking,” the 1990s would witness the refinement of the city’s distinct dining “style.” Evanston’s Trio (opened in 1994) and Blackbird (opened by Paul Kahan in 1998 and still running strong) would work to define American cuisine via “seasonal, local dishes with creative flair” aimed at “foodies who want to experience culinary mastery, but can’t afford to empty a month’s pay into one evening.”[xci] In this manner, Continental and French menus began to cede ground to a “new American” style that borrowed from a wide range of international techniques without being anchored to an ancient conception of luxury. These restaurants found a well of support from “new gourmets” interested in “pushing limits and combining tastes as well as capitalizing on the agricultural bounty of the Midwest,” an “ironic reemergence of a seemingly nouveau ‘local’ cuisine that, unknowingly to most diners, has origins in the pre-European food landscapes of the surrounding Great Lakes region.”[xcii] Boka’s opening in 2003 and Alinea’s in 2005—though approaching “American” cuisine in an altogether different manner—would build on Szathmary, Trotter, and Kahan’s legacies to create “one of the fine-dining capitals of the world by the early 2000s.”[xciii] The timing could not be better, as the oldest members of the millennial generation were about to exit college and enter a mature, distinguished dining scene.
Stepping away from this whirlwind tour of the Windy City’s fine dining history, one major thread is most apparent. From the very beginning, grand hotels served as incubators for luxurious, often European-inflected gastronomy that would be legible to any well-heeled visitor to the “frontier town.” Curiously enough, this early fare was not particularly French, but rather seemed Continental in its focus on simple preparations of seafood, meat, and offal. Establishments like the College Inn, nonetheless, presented distinctly American dishes like chicken shortcake and Lobster Newburg (alongside the curiously Scottish finnan haddie). In the same way, Drake’s game dinners—while they might not have sourced all their delights from the region—nonetheless demonstrated Chicago’s connection to the Western “terroir.” Likewise, Joseph Seyl’s stewardship of the Palmer House demonstrated a certain pride in savory, hearty, family style fare that still resonates with the city’s masses. Indeed, his menus featuring beef tenderloin and French fried potatoes would not seem out of place nearly 150 years later (though perhaps not what we would consider at the top of the fine dining pyramid today).
French cuisine only came to Chicago by way of men like Charles Rector and H.V. Bemis, who felt the city suffered for lack of the Gallic gastronomy New York City served. That Rector’s Oyster House and the Hotel Richelieu were such national hits shows the city did have “taste,” as the men defined it. However, perhaps the diners and chefs in Chicago to that point simply did not share the sense of inferiority and cynicism that drove Rector and Bemis to emulate another city’s cuisine rather than foster the growth of a distinct style. Of course, we should consider that the predominantly upper class gastronomes of the era were probably all too happy to take their cue from more “renowned” dining scenes. Nonetheless, the prominence of dishes like Shrimp de Jonghe and the popularity of the Marine Dining Room (with its menu of soft-shell crab, prime rib, and layer cake) in the first decades of the 1900s shows that chefs were not cowed by the entrance of French fare. Rather, while only the rich practiced an appreciation of Gallic gastronomy, plenty of other Chicagoans spent ample money to enjoy the same kind of “hearty” fare Seyl served and would no doubt be the forerunner to the modern steakhouse.
But can such food be considered “fine dining” or “gastronomy”? It is a question whose answer has necessarily been delayed to best capture the breadth and depth of Chicago’s dining history. Here, you would defer to Strauss, who defines gastronomy by the “opportunity for diners to engage in a quest to discover exotic flavors introduced by skilled chefs…who turn out new dishes and wines at a pace that resembles the production of fashion designers in the clothing industry.” This form of appreciation, beyond pleasing the senses, “offers an opportunity for consumers to demonstrate a kind of connoisseurship that can be translated into social advancement.”[xciv] Certainly, the same old prime rib—no matter what a special occasion meal it might be—offers little chance at cultivating connoisseurship. Yet, would Drake’s endless assortment of game dishes not teach the most seasoned gastronome a thing or two? Seyl was certainly an artist who merely chose to please guests with heartier fare—he would always include a signature “home dish” on the menu for visiting groups, like “Oysters and Biscuits from Home” served to the Maryland Society in 1898.[xcv]
Moving into the 1930s, restaurants like the Cape Cod Room and the Pump Room excelled in luring celebrities, yet they did so without any prominent head chef in the role of the “artist.” The latter, of course, served quite eclectic fare; however, the restaurant seemed more about the “occasion” than the edification of fine cuisine. Likewise, it is tempting to associate Café Bohemia’s game-focused menu with Drake’s legendary dinners. The restaurant certainly comes closer to gastronomy than its contemporaries by privileging such exotic fare; however, that crispy duck was the most popular dish points to a certain novelty value afforded the bear, lion, jaguar, and tiger on the menu. In that respect, the experience is distinct from Drake’s banquet-style occasions that demanded guests enjoy the whole range of the wilderness in a solitary meal. Thus, as we head towards Julia Child and the golden age of French dining in the 1960s, it would seem Chicago did indeed lack any real presence of the “chef as artist.” L’Aiglon, opened in 1926, was a rare exception (and, of course, Gallic in its offerings) that might have appealed to the emergent upper-middle class that sought to define itself through gastronomy. Otherwise, the city certainly had not seen chefs of any stature since Seyl’s time at the Palmer House and Sobra’s at the Hotel Richelieu. In that sense, though Chicago had seen some early definition of a distinct “prairie cuisine,” it succumbed to the popularity of the steakhouse lacking any prominent professional to take up its banner and assert its gastronomic value.
You are inclined to agree with Strauss’s argument that Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The French Chef endeared the professional chef to a wider American audience and inducted diners (who might otherwise spend their money on the Pump Room or Fritzel’s) into seeking out a chef’s artistic creations rather than the spectacle of a celebrity magnet dining room whirling with flaming rapiers. It is notable that a place like Fritzel’s (for all its popularity) is remembered by the names of its proprietors (and the movers and shakers they catered to) but not by any chef. The fact that Shrimp de Jonghe remained their most popular dish among hundreds of offerings would certainly put a damper on any professional’s creativity. Instead, we know 1941’s Café de Paris by chef Henri Charpentir’s name (of course, he claimed to have invented crepes suzette) and Maxim’s de Paris (in 1963) by chef Pierre Orsi’s stewardship. If we acknowledge that there was indeed a French hegemony over the role of the “fine dining chef” (who, by his artistry, creates gastronomy) during these decades, the opening of The Bakery in 1963 takes on increasing importance. Louis Szathmary clearly occupied the role of the “artist” (so much so he inspired Charlie Trotter!) but introduced the kind of irreverence that survives in Chicago fine dining today. Drawing on his own Hungarian background, he served a “Continental” cuisine that would have made chefs like Seyl proud in striking a balance between authenticity and appeal to American customers. In this way, Szathmary appealed to a clientele who might have no reason to care for French cuisine but would come, at the very least, to appreciate some finer sort of dining.
Le Perroquet and Le Français, then, would represent a sort of high-water mark for the famous French chef in Chicago. In the vein of H.V. Bemis, they proved the city could throw their support behind the very highest expression of gastronomy and such restaurants could survive for decades despite their extremely expensive and formal fare. Once some swath of the wider dining public—inspired by Julia Child—was convinced that a special occasion meal could entail an artistic experience (rather than merely stuffing one’s face at a steakhouse), it would not be difficult for fine dining chefs to stray from the French hegemony. Indeed, Louis Szathmary had already shown them the way, and restaurants like Spiaggia, Arun’s, and Topolobampo took their respective ethnic cuisines to the tasting menu level little more than a decade after Jean Banchet began drawing praise at Le Français. While experiencing distinct Italian, Thai, or Mexican gastronomy certainly draws diners with a sense of “adventure,” these restaurants could tout a greater connection to Chicago’s ethnic communities (and local products) than the hired French guns who heralded the many exotic locales from which they sourced ingredients.
Charlie Trotter, in a way, really represented the mastery of French cooking by an “American.” One who, for all his talent, had the resolve to apply his own vision to Gallic gastronomy and raise local products and good practices to the level once occupied only by imported chefs. Charlie Trotter’s role as a mentor to Grant Achatz of Alinea and Curtis Duffy of Grace (Chicago’s only two three Michelin star restaurants, along with L2O, ever) should not be discounted, given the two have both succeeded with a style that could in no way be called French. Molecular gastronomy, thus, represents an altogether abandonment of the strict Gallic form that customers once only felt comfortable spending so much money on. While these restaurants have defined the highest end of Chicago’s dining scene, others like Blackbird (1998), Boka (2003), and Smyth (2016) possess one or multiple Michelin stars and have earned them by reclaiming the “prairie cuisine” that once seemed lost—caught between French chefs and steakhouses. These restaurants, in the words of The New York Times, meld “well-grounded Midwestern values with highflying global ingredients to produced consistently smart food that is both daring and coherent.”[xcvi] They serve game (though not lion or tiger) and draw on local produce whenever possible. In the case of Smyth, the bulk of the fare comes sourced from a single farm located just an hour south of the city in Bourbonnais.
These chefs stand on the shoulders of Julia Child, Jean Banchet, Louis Szathmary, and Charlie Trotter, yet they possess a confidence in Midwestern cookery (and Chicago’s place in the world of gastronomy) that you think would make Joseph Seyl proud. As Chicago’s Millennials have been inspired by shows like Netflix’s Chef’s Table and come to see—just as in the era of The French Chef—the professional chef as an artist, they have entered a dining scene ripe with authenticity. The restaurants might run the gamut of the city’s ethnic influences, but they—more than ever (and in comparison to New York and San Francisco)—do not seek to preserve French or Japanese tradition. Rather, they embrace Chicago’s surrounding bounty and a swirl of influences that need not be jealous of any other city’s cuisine. Surely, this phenomenon is happening throughout the country. However, as Chicago’s fine dining chefs—unrestrained by any European hegemony—increasingly embrace their own individual identities, they better reflect the city’s diversity and enrich the practice of gastronomy. If fine dining connoisseurship has indeed become a market of identity in the “experience economy,” the level of distinction seen in Chicago’s dining scene today offers ample room for self-definition. For, even if most of Chicago’s gastronomic destinations adopt the murky term “New American cuisine” for their fare, they are nonetheless involved in the very same kind of identity-shaping (at the level of art and a distinct Midwestern or even national “style”) that their patrons are (via consumption and consumer choice from an ever-expanding list of fine restaurants).
[i] Daniel R. Block and Howard B. Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015), 196.
[ii] James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), 1.
[iii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, xii.
[iv] Ibid., 2-3, 159.
[vi] David S. Shields, The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining, (University of Chicago Press, 2017), 12-13.
[vii] Carol Haddix, Bruce Kraig, and Colleen Taylor Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, (University of Illinois Press, 2017), 7.
[viii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 162.
[ix] Greg Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, (The History Press, 2018), 34.
[x] Ibid., 48.
[xi] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 163.
[xii] Ibid., 171.
[xiii] Shields, The Culinarians, 14-15.
[xiv] Neal Samors and Eric Bronsky, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants: Past, Present & Future, 36.
[xv] David Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child: Gourmet Dining in America, 1934-1961, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 61.
[xvi] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 163.
[xviii] Shields, The Culinarians, 224-225.
[xix] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 167.
[xx] Ibid., 171
[xxi] Ibid., 168
[xxii] Shields, The Culinarians, 13-14.
[xxiii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 167.
[xxiv] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 7.
[xxv] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 113.
[xxvi] Ibid., 168.
[xxvii] Samors and Bronsky, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants, 30.
[xxviii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 44, 54.
[xxix] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 196.
[xxx] Shields, The Culinarians, 356-357.
[xxxi] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 51.
[xxxii] Samors and Bronsky, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants, 38.
[xxxiii] Shields, The Culinarians, 358.
[xxxv] Ibid., 16.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 17.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 375.
[xxxviii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 208.
[xxxix] Shields, The Culinarians, 416-418.
[xl] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 113.
[xli] Shields, The Culinarians, 18.
[xlii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 9.
[xliii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 57-58.
[xliv] Ibid., 49.
[xlv] Paul A. Camp and JeanMarie Brownson, ““The Heavenly Recipe that Helped Make Henri de Jonghe Immortal,” The Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1985.
[xlvi] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 227.
[xlvii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 89, 170-171.
[xlviii] Shields, The Culinarians, 429.
[xlix] Samors and Bronsky, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants, 23.
[l] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 53.
[li] Shields, The Culinarians, 19.
[lii] Ibid., 1.
[liii] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 11.
[liv] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 96.
[lv] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 61.
[lvii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 108.
[lviii] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 43-46.
[lix] Ibid., 67-69.
[lx] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 63.
[lxi] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 172.
[lxii] Ibid., 169.
[lxiii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 206.
[lxiv] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 98.
[lxv] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 121.
[lxvi] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 169-170.
[lxvii] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 107.
[lxviii] Ibid., 131, 246.
[lxix] Ibid., 250.
[lxx] Ibid., 249.
[lxxi] David Kamp, The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 3.
[lxxii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 99.
[lxxiii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 169.
[lxxiv] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 200.
[lxxv] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 249.
[lxxvi] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 159, 211.
[lxxvii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 104.
[lxxviii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, 201.
[lxxix] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 158.
[lxxx] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 73.
[lxxxi] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 18.
[lxxxii] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 106.
[lxxxiii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 62.
[lxxxiv] Borzo, Lost Restaurants of Chicago, 126.
[lxxxv] Shields, The Culinarians, 19.
[lxxxvi] Samors and Bronsky, Chicago’s Classic Restaurants, 138.
[lxxxvii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 212.
[lxxxviii] Ibid., 18.
[lxxxix] Ibid., 260.
[xc] Ibid., 42.
[xci] Ibid., 51.
[xcii] Block and Rosing, Chicago: A Food Biography, x, 196.
[xciii] Haddix, Kraig, and Sen, The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, 17.
[xciv] Strauss, Setting the Table for Julia Child, 254.
[xcv] Shields, The Culinarians, 357.
[xcvi] Regina Schrambling, “In American Cooking, Chicago’s the Kitchen,” The New York Times, 8 August 2001.