Back to the office? While mass telecommuting or working remotely makes sense right now, for many companies I really don’t believe it’s sustainable beyond COVID. So companies will still need office space, but their needs will be smaller. And the suburban Chicago market may be pleasantly surprised by companies looking for options outside of the city: wanting a Chicago-area presence but without the challenges that big buildings present. Pressure points and pivots Hospitality and retail can expect challenges in 2021. Travel restrictions and infection fears have reduced year-over-year hotel occupancies by roughly 70 percent, and restaurants have been equally hard hit with seating and capacity restrictions. Here at CityGate Centre (Hotel Arista, Che Figata, and CityGate Grille), our operations have gone far beyond maintaining service standards and operating margins—hospitality now is about enhancing safety and taking care of employees and patrons.
Better days ahead The western suburbs have done a great job in developing a commercial real estate market that has reached global prominence, with cities such as Oak Brook and Naperville referenced immediately behind the city of Chicago. I hope that the various governmental entities within DuPage County and Naperville and other municipalities continue to attract opportunities that will complement current developments and businesses, and help maintain local property values everywhere. The worst of times can bring out the best in people. We all have the opportunity to let this moment be something that defines the best of our community.
It’s well beyond cliché at this point to refer to the past year as an “unprecedented” time in our collective human existence. For desperate restaurateurs, however, that hackneyed description not only constitutes a lack of editorial imagination but, more maddeningly, a laughably inadequate representation of their ongoing struggle. From the push and pull of supply orders and staffing schedules to the on-again, off-again requirements of local health mandates, even the nimblest of eateries have found it nearly impossible to successfully navigate the constantly shifting landscape of the pandemic to keep the doors open and the kitchens humming. The degree of effort and sense of improvisation put forth in the face of such daunting challenges has been truly impressive, whether in the form of socially distanced dining rooms, laboratory-level sanitizing regimens, quick pivots to full-time carryout service or innovative (and expensive) all-weather outdoor spaces (igloo, anyone?).
Given the nightmarish scenario that has challenged the restaurant industry over the preceding year, the latest addition to the list of pandemic-fueled dining trends takes its inspiration from cooperative arrangements. Popping up in spots across Chicagoland over the past several months, ghost kitchens have proven to be a rare creative win and revenue-positive bright spot during an otherwise dark time, providing an uptick in dining options with relatively little uptick in fixed costs.
Like their spectral namesakes, these ghost kitchens are by nature meant to be ephemeral. But while they’re here, they just might help their backers avoid fiscal collapse—and give carryout-weary clientele some new flavor options in the months ahead.
CBK Ramen Bar Staring down a cold, uncertain winter, Bill Kim’s timing couldn’t have been better in launching his ramen-centric ghost kitchen at the Table at Crate in Oak Brook in October. Best known for his original Chicago ramen hot spot Urbanbelly, his Korean BBQ outlet BellyQ, and, yes, the Table at Crate, the renowned chef and Cornerstone Restaurant Group owner is dishing out a tight selection of his signature steaming bowls and dumplings for delivery through DoorDash. Ramen choices include chicken, al pastor, and Korean barbecue mushroom, while the limited menu also includes several flavors of dumplings and—for the sweet tooth—treats like chocolate chip and double fudge cookies. 35 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, 630.590.9444, cbkramenbar.com
Famous Dave’s BBQ Naperville diners have no shortage of solid options to satisfy their barbecue fix. From Sharko’s to Gemato’s to Q-BBQ and beyond, the smoked-meat trade is in good hands here. But those who miss the flavors of this national chain from its years on Ogden Avenue can now relive those glory days of ribs, brisket, barbecue pork, and more via pickup or delivery from a new ghost kitchen operating out of Granite City Food and Brewery—which shares a corporate parent with the barbecue brand. 1828 Abriter Ct., Naperville, 630.544.3700, famousdaves.com/naperville
Niño’s Fresh Mexican Kitchen While Catch 35 has been a fresh seafood fixture on the downtown Naperville dining scene for years, it certainly has never been seen as a go-to spot for Mexican favorites. But this strange interlude in our history has reaffirmed necessity as the mother of invention, and for Catch 35 that has meant swimming in an entirely new lane—starting back in October—with this south-of-the-border curbside-and-delivery concept. Now patrons can come for the crab cakes or sea bass and pick up an order of the enchiladas verdes, shrimp fajitas, or carne asada on the same stop. 35 S. Washington St., Naperville, 630.717.3500, catch35.com
Virtual Bites From happy hours and work meetings to school lessons and band practices, the pandemic has offered a crash course (with the emphasis, occasionally and unfortunately, on “crash”) in moving normally physical and in-person happenings to the online realm. Likewise, this ghostly concept from Plainfield resident Tyrell Brown aims to take the mall staple of the food court into cyberspace, assembling a stable of restaurant brands under one virtual umbrella for home delivery or curbside pickup at the mall. The wide-ranging options include Brown’s own Pee Bee & Jays Café, along with Yea! Bagel, Burrito Bro, Frushi Sushi, Grannies Nashville Hot Chicken, Dog on Burger, Fitdish, and Delish Sweet Tea. Fox Valley Center, Aurora, 630.423.3232, eatvirtualbites.com
Photos courtesy Cornerstone Restaurant Group, Famous Dave’s BBQ, Catch 35
With an empty auditorium amid what should have been a celebratory 10th Broadway series season, the Paramount Theatre artistic director looks hopefully to the future
A decade in Aurora Before I came to the Paramount, I had never experienced from an audience what I did in Aurora—the realization of just how much what we were doing here meant to them. There was just so much community support and affection, and it was such a life-affirming feeling for me. By 2018, we were the second-largest subscription-based audience in the country, and suddenly businesses were moving in and restaurants were opening downtown—all thanks to the Paramount crowds that were coming in.
Pandemic pause Even though the doors are closed, it’s been amazing what we’ve been able to achieve virtually—from our staff meetings to the classes at the Paramount School of the Arts, we’ve found ways to adjust. I keep referring to the light in the darkness, and that’s our people. In many ways, I think we’ve gotten even closer during this time, because we’ve all gone out of our way to reach out and find ways to stay connected to each other while we can’t be physically together. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Better days ahead Kinky Boots was ready to go when we shut down, so our plan is to slowly bring our creative teams back in the spring and hopefully open that show as soon as it’s safe to do so. Until then, we’ll just continue to try and keep things active. Being surrounded by people with the kind of passion we have here is very gratifying for an old guy like me—that fire hasn’t been doused.
The restaurant consultant and longtime McDonald’s executive chef and VP of culinary innovation has sone ideas on where the industry is headed–and what it needs to get there.
Lessons learned under the Golden Arches. Most chefs tend to think they can singlehandedly take over the world, but the more you learn, the more you realize how important it is to work with other people to make things better. I learned the philosophy of working as a team a long time ago, but it was solidified at McDonald’s because it was a such a large, complex organization. Getting people to buy into the path you want to take and inspiring people to get there is probably both the hardest and the most rewarding thing.
Building a better restaurant. Can I help a company develop recipes? Sure. But at Coudreaut & Associates our sweet spot is really helping culinary teams become more flexible and more open to new ideas in order to get the most out of their teams. When I work with clients, the idea going in is that yes, we’re going to help make their food better, but we’re also going to help make their team more effective.
The post-pandemic restaurant industry. Food is a common human connection. We don’t all have to listen to music, we don’t all have to read, but we all have to eat—we all experience that. So even though the industry is very fragile right now, I think people are starting to realize how important restaurants are to their lives. As we come out of this, maybe people will have a new appreciation for restaurants—and what it takes to pull off the seemingly simple task of putting a meal on the table for a family.
Does a road trip really count if it only happens in one’s mind (and stomach)? It’s a question worth asking these days. Because although physically traveling to visit, say, Southern environs has largely been a no-go since early last year, experiencing a comforting taste of the South has emerged as something of a delicious alternative for diners in the western suburbs thanks to Pete Susca, the restaurateur behind It’s a Southern Thing (1727 Freedom Dr., Naperville, 331.457.5336, getsouthernfood.com).
After originating in Durham, North Carolina, the latest addition to Naperville’s Freedom Drive culinary corridor has—for only its second location—moved lock, stock, and cracker barrel into the space previously occupied by World of Beer. And while it’s somewhat ironic that a restaurant centered on Southern cooking has set up shop at the northernmost point in the city, this is not at all some cheesy iteration of the South (although those looking for cheesy would do well to try the cheddar grits). Susca may be a Jersey boy by birth, but the devotion to the foods and traditions of the South he developed over the past two decades in Durham couldn’t be more genuine.
“Our mission is to take care of folks and make them feel like family from the moment they come in,” he says. “We love the Southern hospitality and the food from all over the South.”
The South Rises
An August 2020 opening turned out to be a less-than-ideal introduction to the Naperville market, but Susca and his team have managed to roll with the pandemic punches and pivots to build a following over the past six months. While the restaurant’s true atmosphere of slow Southern dining may not hit its fully relaxed stride until some semblance of normal (and/or the outdoor patio) returns later this year, even amid a COVID-restricted experience or in a humble carryout order, it’s easy to see what chef Michael Felcher and his crew are up to with their innovative twists on traditional Southern favorites.
Evidence of this philosophy is available right off the bat in the cocktail program, where twisted takes on traditional pours like the namesake It’s a Southern Thing—a clear bourbon-milk punch that requires a five-hour filtration process and is served over a large ice cube with an orange peel—share the spotlight with a straightforward slate of craft beers, wines, and whiskeys. But the drinks are just the beginning of this Southern trip.
Comfort + Joy
While Susca tabbed the smoked wings among his favorite starters on the menu (vegetarian FYI: the fried cauliflower can be tossed in the same sauces) and Felcher gave a nod to the fried green tomatoes, it was the low country crab dip that garnered the highest marks at our home table—a dense, creamy, not-too-fishy concoction served with soft pita wedges for dipping.
Another winner that appears on both the lunch and dinner menus (and another recommendation from Chef Mike) is the jalapeño-brined Southern fried chicken sandwich. Even as we live through the seemingly unending fast-food chicken sandwich wars, few can aspire to the heights of this lovingly crafted version—a deep-fried dream, drizzled with roasted garlic ranch dressing, studded with housemade sweet pickles, and tucked into a fluffy brioche bun.
Those in search of a more Carolina-specific spread would do well to sample the Eastern NC pulled pork platter, which of course replaces the sweet or spicy barbecue sauces of the middle U.S. with the tangy vinegar-based style native to the Tar Heel State. The juicy meat is served alongside garlicky collard greens and a swappable side. There’s really no wrong choice here, but both the mac and cheese and the avocado and chorizo hash are standouts.
Among the three desserts on offer (or “puddins,” as they’re dubbed), the creamy banana pudding is first in flight, with the rich pecan pie coming in closely behind.
It seems a relatively sure thing that It’s a Southern Thing stands to become a very popular northern thing as more and more Naperville diners seek out its regional charms. And even as actual road trips eventually come back into vogue, those looking for the comfort and authenticity of a trip down South won’t feel cheated by a quick jaunt over to Freedom Drive.
It may be harder than ever these days to find someone of a certain age who can claim a personal recollection of the dearly departed automat—the “futuristic” self-serve restaurant concept consisting of a roomful of coin-operated, food-dispensing vending machines that thrived among urban curiosity seekers until the mid-’90s. But almost everyone heading into the third decade of the 2000s can identify with the concept of self-service. From the growing proliferation of cashierless checkout lanes at the grocery store to the near-universal expectation of self-service gas pumps, the DIY model is well baked into the modern retail firmament. Any gas station employee tapping on a driver’s window to ask “Regular or premium?” these days would likely be met with a panicked response, rather than a smile and a cash gratuity.
Given this general societal acceptance of self-service, then, the notion behind a place like Tapville Social should come as no surprise. A rebrand of the former Red Arrow Tap Room that occupied the same downtown Naperville location for the past few years, Tapville Social (216 S. Washington, Naperville, 630.536.8739, tapvillesocial.com) not only embraces, but doubles down on the concept of self-serve craft libations—adding wine, cider, and whiskey options to an already robust beer selection among its 48 self-pour taps, all while adding a more ambitious slate of food offerings to the mix. From bites and shareables to greens and sweets, classic menu items are approachable.
“Tapville Social is about spending time with friends and family without the distractions of a contemporary restaurant,” says CEO Joseph Tota, who continues to run a Red Arrow outlet in Elmhurst and has recently expanded the Tapville brand to a number of franchise outlets across the country. “Tapville provides a one-of-a-kind guest experience. We see it as the model of the future.”
BYOB (Be Your Own Bartender) That model will seem fairly straightforward to anyone who has spent time in a modern arcade or the slot room of a casino. Rather than placing an order with a waiter or waitress, Tapville patrons can help themselves to anything from a wee nip to a full glass of their favorite craft beverage, including local beer options from the likes of Solemn Oath, Metal Monkey, and Pollyanna, among others—or even build their own flight of samples—by swiping their prepaid “pour card” at one of the self-serve taps that line the room. When it comes time to eat, everything from shareable appetizers to full entrées can be ordered from the comfort of one’s table using a similar self-select system or mobile app. (Table service is available upon request.)
While such a setup tends to cut down on the human interaction with the staff at Tapville, Tota says the restaurant lives up to the “social” in its name by not only allowing families and friends to spend more time focusing on and interacting with one another, but also by hosting more programmed communal events such as special wine and beer dinners and trivia nights.
Don’t Forget to Eat From the name to the rows of taps, the spotlight at Tapville may shine largely on the patron-curated beverage program, but there’s more than a little to be said for executive chef Jacob Smith’s kitchen as well. We started with an order of the garlic-herb cheese curds, here served with a roasted tomato-butter sauce in lieu of the traditional ranch dip. For the entrée course, we traded bites of the well-prepared pork chop, which came topped with a wonderful apple compote and accompanied by two cheddar-scallion grit cakes and a generous helping of Brussels sprouts (a side order of the roasted potatoes proved a worthy complement). On Tota’s recommendation, we also sampled the fried chicken sandwich, served with honey butter and green goddess slaw on a fluffy brioche bun (still emblazoned with the old Red Arrow logo). The bread pudding with apple bourbon sauce, meanwhile, was the smarter play from the short dessert list, far outshining the better-in-concept-than-execution cookie dough egg rolls. Can the Tapville Social concept last longer than the automat did? Well, the year 2020 has certainly forced many of us to become more self-sufficient. But compared with having to teach the kids in the living room or hazard a bathroom-mirror haircut, pouring oneself a beer doesn’t sound like the worst self-serve idea in the world.
Keeping the tradition alive We’ve been coming to the area for so many years—people really look forward to it, and I look forward to it. There’s nothing like getting together to celebrate the holidays, even if this year it has to be virtual.
A little light in a dark year To me it’s about making uplifting music. Especially this year, I think the tone of what I’m going to do has a very happy spirit. Of course, Christmas is a very emotional time as well, but for me the happiness and the cheer and the joy of Christmas is a very important message to bring this year.
A new perspective I think this is a really clever way to still be able to see the audience and have them see me, because we’re doing some Zoom performances as part of this whole experience. So I’ll actually be able to see people in their homes, which gives me a window into their holiday decorations and what they’re wearing and how they’re spending their Christmas. A lot of times on a concert tour I just see darkness when I look out into the audience. There’s a close-up aspect to these performances—you get to see my hands on the piano and we get to interact a little bit. It’s just a very different kind of feeling that I hope is going to be really special and memorable for everybody.
Comfort & Joy at Home benefiting North Central College Fine & Performing Arts December 4 at 7 p.m. | Virtual Tickets: $40–$125 | jimbrickman.com/naperville
What, exactly, is the story with Mora on the River in downtown Aurora? The first thing one notices about Jason Morales’s latest project—aside from the prime location just across the Fox River from the Paramount Theatre—is that it is very much a work in progress. The vintage riverfront building was clearly more framework than finished product upon our late September visit, with Morales’s team spending the summer and fall working alfresco for guests dining on the adjacent outdoor patio while construction continued inside (a conveniently smart play considering the pandemic-related restrictions in effect).
“This is really an ideal location,” Morales says. “Downtown Aurora has a lot of positive momentum right now, and the Paramount is going to help make winter a busy season for us, which is not what restaurants normally experience. And during the nicer weather, the courtyard is perfect for outdoor dining and street parties—that social aspect is huge for us.”
The second and somewhat more confusing aspect arises upon a perusal of the menu at Mora on the River (43 E. Galena, 630.660.3519, moraontheriver .com). Not only is the “Asian” designation from Morales’s Oak Park, Plainfield, and Bolingbrook Mora Asian Fusion outlets absent from the restaurant’s name, but the slate is something of a hodgepodge, with a handful of sushi rolls sharing space with a few pasta dishes, a flank steak, a hamburger, and a smattering of Asian-inspired hot plates.
Again, what’s the story?
The Long Game It turns out Morales isn’t being indecisive with this crazy quilt of a menu. Rather, he’s simply getting out ahead of his long-term plan to build out this Aurora location as a multilayered flagship of his Mora empire. Eventually, he says, each story of the restaurant will be a distinct culinary experience, with the main floor offering the kind of signature Asian fusion dishes that diners have come to love at his other Mora sites, a speakeasy-style steakhouse in the basement, an Italian eatery on the second floor, and a rooftop deck that will feature great views, cocktails and small-plate selections from the other levels.
Morales hopes to have the main floor ready for guests by early 2021, with the other levels opening one at a time every four to five months—and the rooftop welcoming its first revelers by May. In the meantime, his team spent the summer and fall test-driving a few selections on the patio that will eventually show up on each of those menus, kind of a “greatest hits” of things to come. At press time the patio was closed for the season.
Chapter One While the river actually runs by the other side of the building, its flow can nevertheless be heard from Mora’s charming and cozy outdoor space, which the restaurant intends to keep open as deep into autumn as the weather (and some strategically placed heating) allows. Our Sunday evening visit precluded us from taking advantage of that morning’s brunch offerings or the popular Wednesday-night ramen bowls, but the wide-ranging regular menu offered plenty of terrific tastes of things to come.
We decided to share a collection of hot and cold plates, including a straightforward California roll from the sushi menu, some spicy crispy tofu, a well-prepared flank steak, and—on Morales’s recommendation—both the adobo fried rice (a Filipino fusion favorite that he says is one of his most popular items) and the crunchy Brussels and kale salad. This this last dish proved to be the knockout of the night (and this coming from someone who has never been even mildly impressed by kale).
Downtown Aurora is quiet right now: The Paramount marquee is dark, and Mora on the River is still very much at the beginning of a bigger story yet to be told. But based on this prologue, at least, it’s certainly going to be one worth reading in full when the time comes.
All in the Family My grandfather, the Honorable Win Knoch, would say that “any community worth living in is worth doing for,” and his love for DuPage County was something that all of his grandchildren were well aware of. His legacy of philanthropy in Naperville and DuPage County is something most people wouldn’t necessarily know about, but we’ve all experienced it. Communities throughout the county have been the beneficiaries of so many selfless individuals and organizations, but there are still needs that are unmet here. That’s where my work with the DuPage Foundation has become my mission in life.
A Hidden Gem I think the DuPage Foundation is the best-kept secret in DuPage County, but it’s a resource that everyone should know about and anyone can support. It’s like the United Nations of philanthropy—we have donors and volunteers that lift up worthwhile causes like food pantries, animal welfare organizations, affordable health care organizations, environmental causes, cultural outlets, and so much more. It’s amazing to see what can come from combining resources to match the needs of a community, and the DuPage Foundation has that in spades.
Making Good Better My primary goal is to raise awareness about the work that is being done by the DuPage Foundation to support nonprofits and their mission to improve the quality of life for everyone in DuPage County. Combining resources while serving as a catalyst for coordinated impact is the highest and best use of everyone’s charitable giving, and that’s the DuPage Foundation in a nutshell. Every gift matters. Every gift makes a difference. And together, we can change our world for the better.
Conjuring scares in an already scary world We like to focus on things that are very escapist—ghosts and monsters and things like that—as opposed to some kind of apocalyptic or viral story. We don’t need to use reality to scare people right now—it’s scary enough.
Reading the room Even though some of our shows are G-rated while others are PG-13 for older kids, we still get some smaller kids at the later shows. But the nice thing about even some of the more intense stories is that at the end, our storyteller always gives a sly little smile so the audience knows that the tale has concluded, the twist has been sprung, and everything is fine.
A theatrical lifeline The rest of the Summer Place world has been upended and canceled entirely for the time being. But storytelling really lends itself well to spacing people out and being outside and keeping everything really safe. So we’re looking forward to providing people with a little bit of relief and a creative outlet for getting away from their day-to-day pandemic concerns.