Chicago food critics retire, leaving the city’s dining scene without a key ingredient

“The Tribune review was a huge deal,” a gauge to see “how you compared to the greats and where things aligned,” says Flamm, 35, a “Top Chef” champion who is poised to open his maiden restaurant April 20. Named after his grandmothers and more than two years in the making, Rose Mary will showcase Croatian and Italian dishes in Fulton Market.

“I would have loved to get a Phil Vettel review under my belt,” says the chef, imagining a splash on the front page of the Tribune’s Dining section.

“It’s sad to see Phil and Steve go,” says Sarah Grueneberg, the James Beard award-winning chef at Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in the West Loop. “They were such great champions of our food scene, and people have been following them for decades.”

To Karrie Leung, founder of PR and marketing agency KLPR, the loss of local reviews has an outsize impact: From a national perspective, it “removes Chicago from that playing field,” she says. “When you lose critics, people you know and trust, that’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Who raves or rants about restaurants in town might seem like small potatoes amid an ongoing pandemic. Yet as diners continue to look to restaurants for comfort and the city is opening up, in-depth reviewing feels paramount. Vettel, a former president of the restaurant awards committee of the James Beard Foundation, goes so far as to say that without a strong voice and sufficient resources to bring its dining scene attention, Chicago risks “becoming a flyover city.”

Grueneberg laughs when she says “our hobbies are sports, food and alcohol,” but a serious case could be made for Chicago as a top-tier place to eat, drink and be merry — and for why the nation’s third-largest city needs passionate chroniclers of the dining scene who know what they’re talking about and have the resources to offer their educated opinion, free of outside influence.

The opposite of that, says Dolinsky, also a regional academy chair for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants: “the same six or seven recommendations from Instagrammers looking at well-known restaurant groups” that can afford to offer comped meals or other perks. Both Dolinsky and Vettel had budgets to dine out and declined freebies.

Count me a fan of Chicago. In search of the country’s best food cities in 2015 — a year-long project that examined creativity, community, ingredients, shopping, service and tradition in each market — I ranked Chicago seventh out of 10 destinations. The city offered top-notch everyman food (my weakness was hot dogs “dragged through the garden”) as well as fine dining on par with the country’s best.

While it’s had some detractors, the Windy City is second only to New York for the recognition it has received from the James Beard Foundation, more than 80 culinary awards. Save for the pause created by the pandemic, Chicago has hosted the foundation’s glitzy annual gala since 2014, and will continue to do so through 2027.

Given a chance to brag, chefs say the region’s open arms contribute to the scene’s allure. “I’ve eaten around the country. Midwestern hospitality is the best,” says Erick Williams, the owner of the Southern-accented Virtue in Hyde Park. The chef says he overhears visitors praise the city when he encounters them on elevators and in airports.

Local praise inevitably leads to national recognition, says chef Beverly Kim, who co-owns the Korean-American Parachute, currently under renovation, and Wherewithall, serving community meals by day and Parachute’s takeout by night. Parachute, for instance, “depended on 70 percent national business: D.C., San Francisco, New York.” Kim says, “I stayed in the city for a reason. Sure, the winters are cold, but there’s room for growth in Chicago.”

In an essay for Chicago Eater rooting for critical coverage of restaurants, former Chicago Sun-Times and RedEye critic Michael Nagrant wrote about the trickle-down effect from visitors chasing elite restaurants based on glowing reviews: Patrons “eat at other restaurants, influenced when the chef or general manager tells a table, ‘You gotta check out the Isaan sausage at Spoon Thai and the chapli kebab at Khan BBQ!’ A rising tide lifts all ships, not just the luxury yachts in Monaco.”

There are plenty of places for food-loving locals to get the scoop on area restaurants: Chicago Eater, Chicago Magazine, Infatuation, Resy and Yelp. (Jeff Ruby, the veteran critic for Chicago Magazine, last filed a column in March 2020. Headlined “The Last Supper,” it looked at RPM Seafood.) The Tribune has four reporters assigned to the dining beat, and recently tapped Ariel Cheung, previously the publication’s real estate editor, as Dining editor.

But for thoughtful and balanced critiques, based on multiple visits, “the Chicago Tribune is the standard of approval,” Kim says. She and her peers are concerned by social media influencers replacing “trained voices” — writers with the expertise, including historical knowledge, and the budget and time to do the job right.

For much of his run, Vettel, who says he “tried to write about a restaurant’s story, why it mattered and why now, “dined out for work an average of five nights a week. “I was supposed to tell people the best things in Chicago.” That included Ever, the 10-course, $285 tasting menu concept from chef Curtis Duffy and Vettel’s last star-rated review. (Ever got four.) Did I mention restaurant criticism can be expensive?

Williams, who says he uses criticism in reviews as “a training tool” in his restaurants, dismisses “amateur voices built around sensationalism.” Such output “doesn’t offer the clearest perspective or a level of integrity.”

The chef applies what he calls “the sink analogy” to people who think an appetite and a camera qualify them to review: “I have unclogged a sink. I’ve changed a few washers and even routed a sink or two during [restaurant] service. But that doesn’t qualify me to be a plumber.”

Dolinsky, who now brands himself as a content producer and consultant and retains a presence on YouTube, was known for covering the city’s nooks and crannies. He says his employer told him to cover Chicago however he wanted to, which meant recommending a rainbow of paletas at Razpachos and Polish cooking at Smakosz. (His segment, which played in taxi cabs, “introduced travelers to the city’s riches,” Flamm says.)

“I had an ample dining budget and wasn’t obligated to do a story,” says Dolinsky, also the author of “Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town.” “If it was on the air, it was highly recommended.”

Restaurants featured on his show received a photo of Dolinsky and a certificate, which subjects frequently displayed as a seal of approval from a professional diner. “It validates a business,” says Eddie Nero, the owner of Big Ed’s BBQ in the suburb of Waukegan.

A rave can also save a restaurant. The original Big Ed’s, opened in 2008 in North Chicago, was struggling until it got featured on “Hungry Hound,” Nero says. Immediately after the segment aired, the phone started ringing and cars showed up. “We weren’t prepared,” says Nero, who ran out of food hours before closing time. “Business tripled overnight.”

ABC 7 didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, but Dolinsky, who produced, reported, shot and edited his own work, said, “I’d be very surprised if ABC replaced me.”

At the Tribune, managers haven’t had to think about who would be eating for its readers as chief critic since George H.W. Bush was president. Vettel’s departure — and a totally changed media and social landscape since he started dining out for work — handed the company an opportunity to rethink coverage.

“Restaurant criticism isn’t going anywhere,” says Amy Carr, director of content/life and culture at the Tribune. But it is likely to look different. She and Cheung, the new Dining editor, have a bench of talent on staff (“it’s important for us to develop personalities,” says Carr) but are open to the possibility of involving the community in future reviews. Neighbors sharing stories would “give it a different perspective,” Carr says.

As they strategize, inclusion and diversity are at the top of their wish list, every bit as important as a passion for food. Cheung says she’s looking for “stories that reflect a complete view of the city.” Good groundwork has been laid by Vettel and Dining colleagues, she says. “I’ll be making sure that that work gets amplified.” The editors hope to finalize their strategy this month.

Vettel’s news-making departure coincided with that of the Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, Blair Kamin, whose position has not been filled. “If they replace me, it will probably be from within,” Vettel says.

Elsewhere in the country, fresh eyes have been recruited to reimagine or bolster restaurant coverage. In 2018, Soleil Ho replaced longtime critic Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle, and Tejal Rao became the New York Times’ first California restaurant reviewer. The same year, Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega replaced the late Jonathan Gold as co-critics at the Los Angeles Times. (Escárcega recently left the publication following a pay-equity dispute.)

In Chicago, the impact of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements is made clear when the subjects of restaurant reviews are asked what they’d like to see in any future critics.

As with the industry, says Kim, “let’s bring back the best things and fix the worst.” Grateful as she says she is for Dolinsky and Vettel, “they’re still men.”

Nero is hoping for someone with food knowledge and a sense of humor. The chef, who is Black, says he would also like to see “someone who looks like me. That would mean a lot.”

Williams expects “someone who cut their teeth already. What are you comparing this to? Why should we care?” The chef says, “I would like to see a woman,” possibly a minority. Either or both would bring “a different sensibility” to the table.

Might more be more? Leung, the publicist, advances the idea of co-critics, “not just one person,” but “a panel.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently gave the green light to bars and restaurants by allowing them to increase indoor capacity to 50 percent and remain open until 1 a.m. Their owners are hungry to return to some kind of normal, restaurant critics included.

Referencing the famous chef behind Chicago’s trailblazing Alinea, Vettel asks, “When the next Grant Achatz comes up, who’s going to tell people? … Is it going to be Yelp?”