Paul Virant didn’t plan to open his first restaurant in Western Springs. Like most aspiring Chicago chefs, he wanted to open his first place in the city, but his wife’s job kept him anchored in the suburbs.
Fifteen years of fortunate coincidences later — not least of which was Western Springs lifting its ban on alcohol sales — Vie is well-established as one of Chicagoland’s most acclaimed restaurants. Virant was fresh out of Blackbird’s kitchen when he decided he wanted to branch out on his own, and around the same time, he and his wife were searching the burbs for a home. All the while, Western Springs was calling to them, quite literally.
“The village had done a survey, and residents wanted a restaurant where you could have a nice dinner and drink,” he remembers. He was introduced to a landlord, and the rest is Chicago culinary history.
Since the beginning, Vie has been deeply associated with the local food movement. This isn’t a buys-one-carrot-from-a-farmer’s-market-and-brags-about-it sort of place: Practically everything on Vie’s menu comes from local farms, as it has since 2004.
“When we first opened, it was a real effort; the farmers didn’t have the infrastructure, they weren’t delivering anything,” Virant says. “If you wanted something from Klug or Nichols, you had to go get it. As a restaurant, that’s a challenge.”
In the years since, it’s become easier to source ingredients, but Vie’s chef de cuisine Dan Compton still spends a lot of his time building the supply chain, especially for more exotic items.
“The farmers have really upped their game. I can get ginger grown in Illinois; I can get artichokes,” Compton says. “It’s allowed us to expand our palate, because of what people can grow.”
Vie was pretty much a hit from day one, though it wasn’t ever exactly what Virant expected. He planned to open a more casual restaurant, but over time, Vie’s tasting menus became more and more popular. In what Virant calls an “ahead-of-its-time” moment, the original Vie had a cocktail lounge. No one seemed to want the casual drinking space 15 years ago, so it was converted to dining space. Now, it’s been reverted to a lounge for casual drinks and appetizers.
For its anniversary, Vie is running a special $60, four-course menu until Saturday, August 17. It includes classic Vie favorites like semolina gnocchi, pan-roasted Great Lakes whitefish, and a wood-grilled strip beef loin paired with beef cheek sauerbraten. Compton has become somewhat of a sausage master over the years, so naturally, there’s a sausage dish on the commemorative menu: cotechino sausage with bacon-braised fresh beans and a ramp vinaigrette.
Despite the milestone, Virant isn’t resting on his laurels. In addition to Vistro, his second restaurant in Hinsdale, he’s working on a new Japanese restaurant set to open in October, this time in the city proper. Gaijin will focus on two dishes: okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake, and kakigōri, a sweet shaved ice dish. But it all ties back to the same concept.
“The Japanese treat food a lot a like we do at Vie,” Virant explains. “[It’s] the whole idea of seasonality, of ingredient-driven, simple, not too complicated food. That kind of religion we preach in the restaurant continues.”