Ever since Michelin deigned to start reviewing Chicago restaurants back in 2010, its name has been the one most associated with print guides to local establishments, for better or worse. Last year Mike Gebert, editor of the Web publication Fooditor (and videographer for the Reader‘s Key Ingredient series), entered the fray with the Fooditor 99, subtitled “Where to eat (and what to eat there) in Chicago—right now! From the acclaimed local food site.” He just released an updated version for 2018 that’s about half new content, he says, between updated listings and the 30 or so restaurants that are new to the book this year.
Meanwhile, in September, local writer Matt Kirouac’s Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago was published as part of the national Unique Eats series, which also includes guides to other cities. Like the Fooditor 99, it’s a roundup of just under a hundred Chicago restaurants that aims to tell their stories while venturing off the beaten path a little (though there are plenty of popular, well-known places in addition to hole-in-the-wall joints). Struck by the similar approach the two authors took, I asked them a few questions about their respective guides and the process of creating them. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
What made you want to write a restaurant guide to Chicago?
Kirouac: There’s a strong sense of community among Chicago’s restaurants, owners, chefs, bakers, pastry chefs, and brewers, and I wanted to celebrate that aspect of the industry more. Nowadays, so much of food journalism is tied up in clickbait-y headlines, buzzy news, splashy openings, and breaking stories, and this was a refreshing opportunity to dive more into the unique backstories of the myriad places throughout the city that make Chicago’s dining scene so wonderful.
Gebert: When I first moved here there were several guides that I used to help discover the city—not just food but the city, period. In time, of course, that all moved to the Internet, and in many ways that was an improvement. And yet there’s something to be said for a book as a format. It fits in your glove compartment, and there’s something nice about a defined list that cuts down the world into an achievable chunk. Yelp has every place on earth in it—that’s unmanageable. I have 99 choices I’ll stand by for what they are.
Of course, the fact that most of the other guidebooks went away meant that there was only one dinosaur left standing—Michelin. But it’s really not for you in your own city—it just approaches your town with a totally different tourist’s viewpoint. So I thought there needed to be some book out there that was the counterbalance for Chicagoans, about discovering the neighborhoods and, frankly, being more willing to take a chance than someone from out of town is.
How did you decide what places to include?
Kirouac: I was mainly looking to create a wide mix of places in a variety of ways: geographic diversity throughout the city’s neighborhoods, different price points, and different cuisines and concepts. Narrowing it down to roughly 90 venues was the most challenging part. Adhering to best-of type lists wasn’t really a factor at all. There are certainly places I picked that are fixtures on these kinds of roundups, but if I didn’t personally enjoy that restaurant, especially in comparison to more under-the-radar spots, then I would just omit it. A lot of those places are written to death already anyway.
Gebert: I approached it from the point of view of, what would I recommend if you asked me in person? What am I excited about right now? And I left out a number of places that are very well-known, highly acclaimed, and don’t need my minimal help. You already know to go to Michelin favorites like Alinea or Grace, to Girl & the Goat or Big Star or Honey Butter Fried Chicken, bless ’em all. It just wasn’t interesting to me to have to kick out two paragraphs saying basically what everyone says about all the places everyone knows, when I could use that space to point to things that aren’t as well known—like the tasting menus at Arbor or Cellar Door Provisions, say.
If you had negative experiences or not-so-great dishes at a restaurant you liked overall, how did you approach it?
Kirouac: I didn’t include anything negative in the book. Of course, there are places in the book where I’ve sometimes had gruff service, or other places can be aggravatingly crowded or difficult to get into, but I mainly just focused on the backstory behind these places, how they came to be, the chefs’ inspirations and the parts of the restaurant that make it destination-worthy, be it a few standout dishes, a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, over-the-top service, or all of the above.
Gebert: That is tough because every time I write something negative, I can see the chef or owner being hurt (and there were definitely a couple of cases of that from the first edition). Part of the point of keeping it to 99 recommendations was to be able to only write positive reviews—if I don’t like it, it doesn’t make the list. But I don’t think it’s bad for anyone, customer or owner, if I’m steering people to your strengths. I love Daisies, the farm-to-table pasta place in Logan Square, but I didn’t love their chicken last summer, and I say so. There is no possible bad outcome from people ordering more pasta at Daisies—I just went back there and it’s wonderful as ever.
What information did you think was most important to include? Food, ambience, service, specialties (or all of the above)?
Kirouac: Specialties most importantly, honing in on dishes and aspects that are unique to the individual restaurants, like the various smoked fish at Calumet Fisheries, the “culinary beer” at Band of Bohemia, or the apple pie at Hoosier Mama. In my mind, specialties aren’t necessarily always food though; they can be a form of service, a design scheme or transportive ambience. Like the starlit-night design at Italian Village, making the upstairs dining room feel like an Italian streetscape. Or the coal-fired oven at Coalfire, another example.
Gebert: Food, absolutely first and foremost. They should all be places where you get something that’s noticeably above the other places offering something similar. Monteverde and Osteria Langhe have the best Italian food, comfortably, in the city. A Place by Damao has the best Chinese noodles and dumplings. But ambience is definitely part of it—hopefully there’s a fitting match between, say, Chengdu street food and the atmosphere of Chinese people, heads down, slurping up spicy hot noodles. Service, I have to admit, I tend to only notice when it’s bad, but almost every place in here is midwest-friendly. And in terms of specialties, well, I certainly want to point you to interesting things you can’t get at the Denny’s on the interstate. If somebody wants to offer something unique, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to want to do it pretty well.
Both books are available through Amazon; Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago can also be found at Barnes & Noble.