Take-out trend

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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