Local Experts Chime in on Chicago’s Changing Restaurant Scene

At more than 7,300 restaurants, and as the third largest city in the United States with nearly 3 million people, Chicago’s food scene is deeper than the deep-dish pizza it’s famous for.

The restaurant scene is in constant evolution. Ethnic pockets of flavor, like Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, and culinary influences like Pakistani, Indian, Polish, and Mexican, spice up its streets. Chicago is making its name with its exploration in molecular gastronomy, craft brewing, and distilled spirits, as well.

With a culture this diverse and dynamic, it’s no surprise Chicago is home to the NRA Show and Foodable’s newest event and food-focused film festival, Foodable.io.  

But where is Chicago heading? We’re bringing you answers from the experts who hail from Chicago itself — and who happen to be speaking at Foodable.io, too.

Check out why they think the Windy City blows the industry away with more than just hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches.

On Food

Steve Hofferth, Vice President and Partner of Lettuce Entertain You | Years of Experience: 25 (20 in Chicago)

Foodable: What makes Chicago a great culinary destination?

Steve Hofferth: It is super exciting to see the growth of the scene over the last five to 10 years. Young chefs and restaurateurs are flocking here. There is a new concept opening seemingly every day. My “Restaurants to Hit” list is growling like crazy! The Chicago palate is getting more and more adventurous as well.

Foodable: How would you say Chicago has transformed over the years?

SH: I think the Chicago scene was always pretty safe. The Midwest palate wasn’t ready for anything super “out there” or different. We had to go to the East or West Coasts to see anything really exciting and get ideas. Now, I believe that Chicago is becoming a go-to place for exciting new concepts and food trends. We are not as apprehensive to try new things. The scene is going to get nothing but better!

Foodable: What trends are you seeing on the rise?

SH: I am very excited about fast casual, self-serve market concepts. I believe that giving the guest fresh, great-tasting food coupled with the ultimate control over portion and price is a win-win scenario. I also love Mediterranean food with sharing and small plates.

Foodable: What does it take to be a “disruptor”?

SH: Being a disruptor means to get people to think about things or see things differently. Disruptors try new things, they take risks. They are real entrepreneurs.

Foodable: Describe Chicago in three words — and go!

SH: Growing! Eclectic! Exciting!

On Beverage

Tremaine Atkinson, Co-Founder and Head Distiller of CH Distillery | Years of Experience: 4 (4 in Chicago)

Foodable: If you could describe the local bar scene in three words, what would they be?

Tremaine Atkinson: Fun, local, drinkable.

Foodable: And what makes Chicago fun, local, and drinkable?

TA: What makes Chicago a great beverage destination is that you can get drinks that are as sophisticated as anywhere in the world, but without the attitude — we have fun drinking! You can find just about any spirit or beer you would ever want, made to a very high level of quality by local Chicago producers. Chicago is leading the world in creative but drinkable cocktails. We have more bartenders doing more interesting things, but they make ‘em taste good!

Foodable: How has the art of the cocktail progressed over the last few years?

TA: Chicago has become the leading city in the nation in handcrafted, great-tasting cocktails in just 10 years. We see that leadership continuing for years to come as consumers turn away from overly complicated drinks and food to simpler but delicious drinks and food that celebrate the best, fresh, and locally produced ingredients.

Foodable: Is there a current trend you want to explore?

TA: The trend of using locally produced drinks and ingredients continues to rise as the quality of locally produced ingredients continues to rise. There is also a trend away from cocktails with eight or more ingredients to simpler but delicious cocktails with three to four ingredients.

Foodable: How have you become  a “disruptor” in your city?

TA: CH Distillery is a disruptor in the craft spirits scene. We are changing the equation by offering actually handmade, not just a slogan on a bottle, great-tasting spirits made from Illinois-grown ingredients and selling them at low prices. Unlike most craft producers, we don’t believe a great small-batch spirit should cost more.

On Concepts and Labor

Christine Cikowski and Joshua Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken | Years of Experience: 11 (11 in Chicago)

Foodable: What does the future of Chicago’s culinary scene look like?

Christine and Josh: Chefs are opening more casual, accessible spots. Fine dining isn’t going away, but we’ve seen an uptick in food businesses that have lower price points and [relaxed] dining rooms, without compromising the high-quality nature of the food.

Foodable: What changes are you seeing in foodservice?

Christine and Josh: Higher wages and elimination of tipping, benefits for workers. Employers are starting to see the multitude of benefits for treating staff well and caring for them, workers appreciating the efforts of the employers and committing to the success of the business, and consumers starting to support and patronize businesses that are treating workers well.

Foodable: Do you consider this trend a large part of your business focus as well?

Christine and Josh: We fully support this trend, consider ourselves to be part of the leaders of the movement, and hope it becomes mainstream.