The Evolution of Fine Dining in Chicago

When Spiaggia opened on Michigan Avenue in 1984, it was a game-changer in the fine-dining field — an upscale Italian in a category dominated by stuffy French restaurants. But 30 years later, it too was in need of an upgrade. Owner Tony Mantuano says, “We knew we had to make some changes in order to keep up with the times.” So last year, he removed the white tablecloths and abandoned its jacket-required policy. This was not a radical act, but rather a submission to a change that was happening across the fine-dining landscape.

That change was clear in our new Chicago Restaurants Survey, where the relatively accessible Avec beat out the likes of Alinea (pictured) on our Top 50 for Food. It was also apparent in the closure of L2O, the luxe crown jewel of Lettuce Entertain You’s empire. “In New York, there’s room for seven or eight big players — Per SeDanielEleven Madison ParkLe Bernardin,” says Grant Achatz, Alinea’s world-famous chef and a pioneer of the new fine-dining model. “Here in Chicago, we have two.” So how are high-end restaurateurs competing in the post-recession culinary scene? They’re evolving with the times, remaking the look and feel of their spaces and diversifying their menus.

The old guard of fine-dining established by Charlie Trotter’s, EverestLes Nomades and Truhas been challenged as progenies of these establishments — Matthias Merges, Thomas Lents and Jake Bickelhaupt — and other chefs pave their own way by cooking high-caliber food in more casual settings.

The forefather of this rogue fine-dining movement was Schwa, Michael Carlson’s intimate restaurant on Ashland offering the likes of quail-egg ravioli among punk-rock music and shots of Jameson. He ushered in others like El IdeasElizabeth and 42 Grams (where Bickelhauptis chef). All attribute some of their success to off-the-beaten-path locations, dining rooms that seat less than 30 guests and a “chef-driven” approach to food.

After reading a Harvard study that linked people watching their food being prepared to greater enjoyment of it, El Ideas chef-owner Phillip Foss built his restaurant so that it literally broke down the barrier between the kitchen and dining room. Meals start in the kitchen, where diners gather around the counter to consume a Big Lebowksi-inspired shot, and then continue through seated courses of equally playful fare. In Lincoln Park, Elizabeth Regan’s 24-seat Elizabeth also captures the shift from classic French to more unique culinary genres. Her “New Gather” cuisine highlights ingredients foraged from the Midwest — think fermented grains and beef heart.

The small size isn't just an aesthetic choice for El Ideas and Elizabeth — it’s a utilitarian one. Intimate dining rooms allow the owners to keep the restaurant open even when tables aren’t full. Compare this to 60-seat Grace, which faces thinner margins due to rising food costs and a looming minimum-wage hike for its large staff. “All I see is the bottom line, and we barely fly above it,” says general manager and partner Michael Muser. He jokes that both he and chef Curtis Duffy live in small apartments and “don’t have nice things,” but it’s no laughing matter that Grace likely won’t see profits for years.

Similarly, L2O neither lost nor gained money during its six years in business, according to Lettuce Entertain You’s Rich Melman. It will be reborn as an innovative concept called Intro, which hopes to draw in customers with a rotating roster of up-and-coming chefs from around the country. Each will take total control of the restaurant — from food to music in the dining room — for three months. Los Angeles’ CJ Jacobson's iteration debuts next month, but only time will tell if it succeeds where L2O did not.

To keep up with this new breed of restaurant, Mantuano not only revamped Spiaggia’s decor and ended its jacket-required policy, he also added a new lounge and a second open kitchen, and moved the wine to the front of the space in temperature-controlled cabinets. And while diners can still revel in the $235 degustation menu, they now have the option of ordering à la carte or dining on charcuterie and cocktails in the bar. "You have to be casual enough, you have to be modern enough and you have to have something that's different,” he explains. “Without a doubt, the No. 1 thing that makes a restaurant successful, whether it’s fine dining or not, is how the people feel and how great the service is."

Meanwhile, at Sixteen, chef Lents is bringing a more casual approach to the menu itself. It’s playfully presented on a stack of Jenga blocks, which can be removed to reveal engravings of certain courses. It includes several tableside presentations meant to mirror the idea of a chef’s table that eliminates the wall between the guest and the kitchen. He explains the appeal of the approach is “not necessarily the silver and the most expensive china that we can get, but [rather] our ability to spend time with the guests.” The current menu — entitled “Dining in Progress” — features courses that follow the changes in the world of fine-dining, concluding with dishes influenced by street food, the nose-to-tail movement and vegetable-forward menus.

Even pioneering Alinea will get a new look for its 10th anniversary in May. The restaurant recently announced a six-week closure that, when complete, will change the dining format from a single seated dinner to one that starts in a downstairs salon — reminiscent of a living room — and progresses through multiple spaces in the restaurant. And Achatz’s next project, Roister, will offer “rustic-refined” cuisine à la carte in a “loud and boisterous” setting.

Does this mean the starched linen and butter-laden French cuisine of the past are dead? Perhaps. But maybe that’s a good thing, as diners turn toward restaurants that are inventive and exotic — vibrant spaces that offer lively atmospheres and distinctive menus. “Sure, with closures, it begs the question — is fine dining dead?” Grace’s Muser says. “But if I got six kids from Ottawa driving into Chicago to have dinner at my restaurant, no, it ain’t dead.”