Ricardo Blake of St. Bess Jerk Credit: Matt Schwerin for Chicago Reader

When anyone asks me what my favorite new restaurant of 2021 was, I full-on embrace my bias and say Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly guest chef pop-up at the Kedzie Inn in Irving Park.

I’ve hosted these pop-ups nearly every Monday since late August, for which we invite many of the nimble, underground virtual restaurants I’ve covered since the dawn of the pandemic. And I haven’t really shut up about them since then. Chefs get to flex novel ideas and realize their wildest inspirations, cooking to order in an actual dining room with living guests—and they keep all the money from the food they sell. There’s no split with the bar, which benefits from its own booze sales on nights when otherwise it would be closed.

For me, I get to indulge in the fantasy of opening a new restaurant every week with none of the financial risk or hard work. I do “work” the Foodballs, though. If you’ve come through I probably greeted you at the door, or served your food, or wiped up your dribbles after you left. I’m not quitting my day job (nor my radical fungi farm), but it’s fun. And it’s given me a few enlightening firsthand glimpses of what workers in the trenches of the restaurant industry have to deal with day-to-day.

One-off pop-ups are in some ways like opening nights at brick-and-mortar restaurants. If you’re a seasoned diner, you go in with adjusted expectations. You’re among the first to try something new and exciting, but you also know the chef is working in a new kitchen, and sometimes there are hiccups. Only amateurs get mad at this. But shout-out anyway to the hangry old dude in October, tired of waiting for his chicken sandwich, who went out of his way to tell me he’d be tipping the kitchen—but not me.

Here’s a tip: it’s probably not your server’s fault.

Another: I’m not in it for the tips. If you tip me anything, I’m just going to give it to the kitchen. Just tip the kitchen!

Anyhow, MNF has only cemented my belief that the traditional hospitality industry structure needs to continue to evolve; to be more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and open to change. In 2021 I tried to focus as much as I could on subjects that embodied that, whether it was Mona Sang, the city’s first and only Cambodian caterer, or Pablo Soto, our first and only Chilean empanadero, or Nemanja Milunovic, whose Kiosk Balkan Street Food ghost kitchen was in the running for my second-favorite restaurant of the year.

Kiosk, by the way, was the sad, sole example of a restaurant I wrote about that did not survive its first year (there’s usually a few). Shortly after I wrote about him in October, Milunovic closed down after the sudden passing of his mother. But let me be the first to tell you we haven’t seen the last of him. More on that next year.

Meantime, there were plenty of edible thrills to be had outside the brick-and-mortars in 2021, from the wild ferments of Vargo Brother and Overgrown Orchard, to the ephemeral beauty of Maa Maa Dei’s seasonal pastries, to Ăn Vặt Cô Béo’s lawless universe of Vietnamese snacks. I can’t wait to buy fresh pasta from Gemma Foods whenever I want. It was a thrill to watch people like these adapt and thrive amid the lingering pandemic.

Natalie Vu of Ăn Vặt Cô Béo Credit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Despite all that, there was plenty of good brick-and-mortar news, or in one case, steel shipping container news, when Bobby and Brooklyn Morelli of Bronzeville’s Hot Dog Box served up the feel-good, father-daughter sausage story of the year.

I almost bookended the year with reviews of two new Malaysian restaurants: Kapitan and HD Cuisine, which underscore an ongoing boomlet in the food of the larger Malay Archipelago. To that you can add Joe Fontelera’s Pinoy Boonie Foods in the reascendant Revival Food Hall, Forest Park’s Thai sweet shop Habrae, and Waroeng, the midwest’s one-stop shop for Indonesian groceries.

I may be trying to subconsciously manifest a Trinidadian drift after last week’s Foodball with Trini Zaddy, and earlier this summer with the return of Darryl Hicks and his Cafe Trinidad ghost kitchen. I’d love to see Hicks do for roti what Ricardo Blake is doing with St. Bess Jerk.

What’s a year in review without regrets? I regret all the places I loved but failed to write about until now. Among them: the French-Canadian pleasures of Dear Margaret; Big Jones’s New Year’s Day fried chicken brunch; the paradigm-shifting brisket at Soul & Smoke; chicken parm at the Moonwalker; and the fried bologna sandwich at Big Kids.

There was lots more, for sure, in a year that turned out not to be the roaring restaurant comeback we’d all hoped for. With Omicron closing restaurants again, it’s only the latest stark reminder that we’re not out of this yet.

A better way to look at it is we’re still coming back. Best yet, my favorite restaurant is coming back too. There are lots of amazing chefs lining up for the next season of Monday Night Foodball. I’ll announce them after the new year right here at the Reader