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Without Grace, Chicago’s Restaurant Scene Is Forever Changed

To take away such a rare place is a massive blow to the city, akin to losing the queen in a chess match.

Chef Curtis Duffy   Photo: Jeff Marini

Not Grace. This one hurts.

When 42 Grams closed in June, I was surprised but not especially sad. When Tru followed in October, I was sad but not surprised. The former never entirely stirred my heart, and the latter was a massively expensive 20-year-old restaurant whose days had long been numbered.

But Grace? Grace was special in a different way.

Perhaps that was because most of us knew chef Curtis Duffy’s story personally, immortalized on film in For Grace, Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski’s heartbreaking 2015 documentary. A small-town kid from Ohio, Duffy overcame his father’s murder of his mother, and his father’s subsequent suicide, when he (Curtis) was 19 years old. He escaped through cooking, exhibiting unusual talent and drive while working his way to the top of Chicago’s food chain at Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea, and Avenues.

At Grace, Duffy and veteran general manager Michael Muser painstakingly engineered every detail to showcase their skills. The stemware and flatware were impeccable; the angled white leather chairs were the most comfortable in Chicago. No one seemed terribly interested in who was funding all this: a big-time real estate agent named Michael Olszewski.

From the beginning, it was a great restaurant. I was there on opening night and it already felt like a classic. You could feel the stress of Duffy’s and Muser’s ambitions, but also the pride, and periodically, the joy. And night after night, for five years, the staff in the kitchen and the dining room edged ever closer to perfection. It was only a matter of time before it landed three Michelin stars—one of only 14 restaurants in America with the honor. In 2014, it did.

During a 2016 visit, I found that much of the stress had smoothed out, leaving only joy. Funny, cordial servers brought dish after stunning dish—things like shredded pig tail meat that had been roasted and reconstituted into a sphere, then deep-fried with rice on the outside and served with cauliflower purée, endive, and oxalis. The meal was one of those rarest of moments: when you’re promised the world, and promptly delivered it. Afterward, Muser escorted my party down a flight of stairs, past color photos of Thomas Keller and other kitchen legends, to the staff lounge. It looked like a lucky twentysomething’s apartment: nice couch, big flatscreen, XBox, washing machine, and, of course, a wine cellar. I remember a mellow dog lying on the floor. “We want the staff to stay out of trouble and hang out here when they’re not working,” said Muser, who was happy to report that they did.

The news that Duffy and Muser had left Grace broke in the New York Times yesterday afternoon. Then we got word that the rest of the staff promptly followed—leaving Olszewski little choice but to shutter 652 West Randolph Street, and the rest of us little choice but to speculate and moan. The main players, citing legal issues, haven’t said much beyond crafted statements. But it was no secret that Duffy and Muser were at odds with Olszewski, financially, creatively, and pretty much every other way, for much of the past five years. They attempted to buy out Olszewski’s interest in the business, but couldn’t strike a deal. Read into that what you will.

For me, this bombshell stings because Grace represented so many things. It was a glimpse into the mechanisms of a pure hospitality that in 2017 simply does not exist much anymore; it was the ultimate redemption and triumph for Duffy; and a much-needed feather in Chicago’s hat. To take away such a rare place is a massive blow to the city, akin to losing the queen in a chess match. (Alinea, of course, is still the king.)

Murmurs about the sea change in the restaurant world continue to grow; on December 18, Peter Frost penned a smart and well-reasoned article about the scary possibility of a restaurant recession. In this iffy context, the Grace news feels terribly ominous.

Duffy and Muser reportedly have a non-compete clause that will prevent them from opening another restaurant in the near future. “We plan to spend quality time with our families as we develop our next project,” reads their statement. The fact that it’s signed with both names is meaningful. And promising. I do not expect them to rest for long. It’s hard to imagine they can outdo what they did at Grace, but while we’re all waiting for this sting to fade, they’ll be plotting their next move. That’s what great restaurateurs do.

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