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The Chipotle Effect is Ruining Chicago Restaurants

Where is the chef? Where is the bartender? Where is the damned kitchen?

Illustration: Federica del Proposto

I recently tried one of those red-hot peri-peri chicken joints: Fogo’s Peri Peri in Skokie. “Easy as 1, 2, 3,” says the menu. Really? Ordering one spicy chicken dinner is more complicated than finding decent health insurance. The friendly counter guy explained the five flavors, the six chicken preps, and the six sauce options. I popped two Advil and settled on a half chicken with medium sauce and garlic dip, but the thrill was gone. Same at Blaze Pizza in Streeterville. I walked the cafeteria-style bar to “build my own” from 40 different ingredients: meats, veggies, sauces, cheeses, and spices. I left stressed but had only myself to blame.

DIY fever has a chokehold on fast food, from falafel at Naf Naf Grill to rice bowls at Dak to gyros at the Simple Greek to burritos at the DIY granddaddy of them all, Chipotle. I am not a fan—even for the fast-casual sector.

Worse yet, the self-customization craze has caught on at full-service restaurants and bars. Five-month-old all-American AMK Kitchen in Bucktown recently launched a Toddy Time DIY menu. You choose between five fancy tea flavors, a spirit (your server will guide you, thank God), and six silly sweeteners to design your crapshoot of a toddy. No thank you. And budget-busting steakhouses have succumbed to ever more expansive choices with pride: Do you want your dry-aged prime steak finished with Cajun spice or truffle salt (Chicago Cut Steakhouse), topped with maple-glazed bacon or blue cheese (Benny’s Chop House), dipped in béarnaise sauce or anchovy butter (Swift & Sons)?

I go out to dinner to decompress, not ramp up. These days, I prefer to head home, shake up a classic Cosmo, broil a strip steak to a crusty char (no matter what the World Health Organization says), and eat in my pajamas.

I call on Chicago restaurateurs, chefs, and mixologists to stop this pernicious plague from spreading. I want you—the experts—to tell me what goes best with what. Come on, talented people: Please get back to work. (For much more encouraging developments, see “Logan Square’s Arbor Is All About Pleasing You” and “Two Restaurants to Renew Your Faith in Chefs.”)

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