There are several ways to enter Kindling Downtown Cookout & Cocktails, the new restaurant in the Willis Tower. One revolving door opens into its soaring main dining room. Another takes you to a vestibule where the seating staff — chic and businesslike with iPads and headsets — awaits. The best approach, though, is through the tower’s lobby: Upon entering the restaurant, you see the reason for its campfire smell: an 11-foot-long wood-fired grill.
In this vicinity you will also likely spy Kindling’s celebrity chef, Jonathon Sawyer. After a storied run in Cleveland, where he was named a best new chef by Food & Wine and won a James Beard Award for his work at Greenhouse Tavern, he returned to his hometown of Chicago to open Adorn in the Four Seasons Hotel in 2021. When his contract there was up, Sawyer joined the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (Roots Handmade Pizza, Berkshire Room) to undertake this ambitious project. If he’s not at the kitchen pass, he may be sitting with visitors at table 52, a booth with a front-row view of the action, or planted at the grill-front counter with his laptop cracked open. He doesn’t migrate far; this rig, which can reach a temperature of 900 degrees, is his baby. Get him talking and he’ll enthuse over the benefits of Michigan white oak and the engineering required to vent smoke from the base of a 1,450-foot skyscraper.
Much of Sawyer’s menu comes off this grill, from black-and-blue prime steaks to oysters bubbling in butter with hot sauce. It’s a robust list of dishes that befits this 260-seat dining behemoth, and while Kindling’s sheer scale and chutzpah thrill, hugeness has its problems. The kitchen goofs up, and the servers find themselves in the weeds too often for the prices charged. Over three visits, I’ve had to ask several times for silverware, water, and other amenities. As a guest, you may revel in the brash vitality of this place, or you may find yourself lost in the shuffle of an understaffed and undertrained crew.
My favorite bites have been among the appetizers and side dishes, where Sawyer’s perspective best shines. His signature confit chicken wings are spicy on the lips but silken to the teeth, a texture that makes you want to strip the bones clean. A Greek salad arrives as a compressed square of diced and dressed veggies to pile atop Little Gem lettuce leaves. The “schmaltzy” beans and greens, a brothy mixture of cranberry beans and Swiss chard, would be the most memorable side dish at any luxe steakhouse. I also enjoy the Julia Child–style fries cooked in beef suet, so named for her love of old-school McDonald’s fries. Once I can track down our server to bring the forgotten “gardinieraioli” and ketchup, the fries are almost worth the $11 price.
That poor server, though — we meet him on our first visit, after the host leads us through the dining room and up the stairs to a moody mezzanine, where a huge bar, high-top tables, and patchy spotlighting give off serious club-staurant vibes. This level, complete with game tables and big-screen TVs, bops during happy hour. On Saturday night it feels like Siberia, particularly if you end up at table 241, which offers an unobstructed view into the employee locker room and not much else. Our valiant server keeps his game face on as he juggles the demands of too many parties, including a complaining eight-top returning multiple dishes. Good sir, my heart goes out to you, but please take our drink order? Particularly since the cocktails from beverage director Julieta Campos pay homage to the creations of the best Logan Square barkeeps and are excellent.
At that meal the kitchen is having its problems as well. Both the grilled bread meant for sopping mussel broth and a $65 rib eye arrive covered in the black soot of a grill flare-up, not unlike the faces of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. It’s a shame because that beef — tender, flavorful, a pinpoint exact medium-rare — had been cooked and rested with real skill. Better is the filet Mrs. O’Leary, plated with red wine demi-glace and a cap of frizzly fried shallots. Would dessert bring the meal home? Eh. Kudos to the excess of an entire layer cake decorated to look like a stack of pancakes complete with a fondant butter pat, but boo to its artificial maple flavor.
While I might hesitate to return on a Saturday night, I’ll bookmark this restaurant as a good downtown lunch option in a city that has too few. The dining room sparkles in the natural light. Cheffed-up sandwiches, such as a thick, coarse-ground burger with a complex pink sauce and shredded iceberg, hit the right note. Mac and cheese gratin gushes with sharp, creamy cheddar sauce under a scattering of buttery breadcrumbs.
Alas, the kitchen accidentally doused our $26 wagyu Italian beef in that salty cheddar sauce instead of milder raclette, making it into a weirdo Philly cheesesteak. I confirmed the mistake when describing it to Sawyer in an interview that began to take on the tone of a postmortem. I could almost hear him silently cursing as I described my experiences.
Staffing a high-volume chef-driven restaurant is difficult in the best of times; these postpandemic and post–“great resignation” days feel brutal, especially for the front of the house. I thought about this on my last visit, when a friend and I waited for silverware to eat a $16 s’mores cake bar (fun if sticky). Eventually forks came, along with our (wrong) coffee drinks. Small details, to be sure, and maybe I should check my privilege and let overworked people do their jobs. Whatever the causes, this kind of clumsiness undercut every meal. Believe me: I don’t want to be listing persnickety gaffes. I’d so much rather just sit back, breathe in that appetizing campfire smell, and tell y’all about char-grilled steak.