Chicago’s restaurant workers continue to take pride in showing the rest of the country what they already know: This is one of the best dining cities in America. And, despite the normal set of challenges of running a restaurant combined with the havoc of the pandemic, many restaurants and bars found success and even broke new ground in terms of innovative menus, beautifully designed dining rooms, and top-notch service.
This past year saw the debuts of Chinatown’s first cocktail bar, a unique French American restaurant serving escargot alongside foie gras tacos, a mother-daughter team that found healing through cooking, a group of humanitarian chefs helping people across the globe, and a chef who reopened her beloved community cornerstone after an extended closure.
Eater Chicago’s editorial staff, in an effort to celebrate the city’s superb food and dining scene, proudly present the 2022 Eater Awards.
Best New Restaurant
At one point, pre-pandemic, a few observers started to throw a pity party for the city’s French restaurants as other global tastes began receiving some attention. Obelix, which opened in May in River North, proves that any au revoirs were premature. Obelix’s menu injects excitement into the bistro genre (foie gras tacos are a must-try) in creating a restaurant that feels equal amounts French and Chicagoan. To lump Obelix with other modern French restaurants across the country would be a mistake. Any worry that the dining world wouldn’t make a pandemic recovery dissolves after dining at brothers Nicolas and Oliver Poilevey’s sleek, yet welcoming, restaurant.
Also, of note, is the staff. The chef, Nathan Kim, is Korean American. The pastry chef, Antonio Incadella, is Mexican American. The melting pot metaphor, which describes a Pollyanna blending of cultures in America, might be cliche, but for Obelix, it appears the comparison works with the end result being a restaurant experience like no other.
Chefs of the Year
Sarom Sieng and Mona Sang, Khmai Fine Dining
Midwesterners like to point to Chicago as the region’s most diverse city, but groups without heavy representation tend to be politely forgotten. Chicago lacks a large Cambodian population, which is part of what makes Mona Sang and her restaurant so special. Sang, and her mother Sarom Sieng, own Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining on the city’s far North Side, across the street from Evanston in Rogers Park. Sang, who worked at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, has taken the responsibility of introducing traditional Cambodian dishes to a Chicago customer base that, for the most part, has little understanding of her native country’s offerings. Sieng’s egg rolls provide a trap, a tasty morsel that’s familiar. Once customers are ensnared, Khmai can go for the jugular. The dips share much in common with Midwestern relish plates, like the tuk kreong made with catfish. Kaw ko is a beef stew perfect for a cold Chicago day; the weather differs from Cambodia where December temperatures can reach 80 degrees.
The cultural exchange is more poignant knowing the evils mother and daughter encountered in Cambodia. They are refugees who escaped Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. Sang discovered cooking as a way to communicate with her mother who risked her life to find a home for her family in Chicago. Khmai isn’t the only refugee story in Chicago’s restaurants, but it’s also important to recognize Sang and Sieng’s story as they find much-deserved success.
Bar of the Year
Immigrant enclaves come and go with new populations moving in and old ones moving out. There’s a legitimate fear that Chicago’s Chinatown would fall victim, with parents retiring and children not sharing the dream of taking over the family business. Nine Bar is an example of creative thinking in preserving a classic Chinatown restaurant, Moon Palace Express. The Prodigal Daughter, Lily Wang, returned to her family’s restaurant, having worked at bars like Estereo, a popular cocktail lounge in Logan Square. Wang and partner Joe Briglio took over the back of Moon Palace Express to open Chinatown’s first cocktail bar. That’s not to say Chinatown was a dry neighborhood. For decades, restaurants like Won Kow served tiki drinks as Westerners liked that alcohol pairing with Cantonese food.
Nine Bar serves a mai tai, but the cocktail experience differs. The bar is a destination with a unique drink list (green tea high ball, the Good Fortune features Japanese barley, Medjool dates, and “umami” bitters) and it’s also a place that members of the Asian diaspora can call home. Wang has found a way to help save her local Chinatown. And by the looks of the crowds, it looks like it’s working.
Pop-Up of the Year
Chicago Chefs Cook
The restaurant industry found hope as drug companies released COVID vaccines that helped make indoor dining safer. Still, the industry, an industry that routinely gets asked to donate meals and time to various charitable causes, was battered. The pressures of dealing with unruly customers, devoid of empathy and common sense to abide by COVID measures — among other challenges — mounted. Restaurants closed. Workers left the industry for other jobs.
Which makes what happened in spring 2022 that much more remarkable. A group of Chicago chefs, united by involvement in the Green City Market, started a movement. It began with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with chefs wanting to send aid to Ukraine. And so, Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine was born with an event in Navy Pier featuring a who’s who of local culinary talent. Other chefs wondered if they could duplicate the effort for causes important to them. On a Zoom call before the Ukrainian event, Piccolo Sogno’s Tony Priolo proclaimed, “We’re not done, we’ve just started.” The philosophy was no chef, no cause would be left behind. And so they organized other events. One, benefitting victims of the Ethiopian War, was notable as American news headlines often ignore conflicts where dark-skinned people are victims. A third event helped victims of the Puerto Rican hurricane. Altogether, the effort has raised more than $850,000. More are planned. The consortium of chefs includes Priolo, Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe, and Tigist Rega of Demera.
With staffing challenges, much of the restaurant industry, especially independent operators, are running on fumes. Yet despite every reason to rest, this group of chefs has found an outlet to support communities around the world.
Comeback of the Year
Bo Fowler, Owen & Engine and Bixi Beer
Bo Folwer sometimes feels she’s made of Teflon. The chef behind Owen & Engine has earned a reputation as a hard worker who does not know when to turn in. Sliced fingers? Not a problem. Not enough staff at both her restaurants? She’ll just bounce between both and work 90-hour weeks.
The latter would catch up with her as O&E remained closed for much of the pandemic with Fowler’s efforts focused on Bixi Beer. But then the time came when doctors forced her to take time off. She suffered a heart attack in April 2020 and surgeons performed a quintuple bypass. Those 90-hour weeks? Gone.
As she healed — not away from the restaurants, she would still come in, call this an active recovery with a reduced workload — Fowler contemplated the future of Owen & Engine, a British pub that serves anything from British Indian korma, bangers, and a first-class burger. O&E reopened in January 2022. Fowler isn’t at the restaurant all the time. She’s slowing down. But she’s back. And Chicago’s culinary scene is better for it.