This Friday, one of the best underdog stories in Chicago food enters its next chapter. After many ups and downs, and twists and turns, Claudia, the pop-up-series-turned-restaurant, finally opens the doors to its permanent location.
I’ve been moderately obsessed with Claudia since I first dined at Chef Trevor Teich’s pop-up back in 2016. At the time, I called it the most exciting pop-up dinner series in Chicago, and having tasted many since, I still stand by that assessment. Despite the limited resources and informal surroundings, Teich was turning out some of the most interesting, complicated food in town. What’s more, I wasn’t the only person who thought so – Phil Vettel gave Claudia a full review in the Tribune and loved it, and Teich was nominated for a Jean Banchet award for the series.
Teich started doing pop-ups in 2013. He had been a cook at restaurants like LM, NoMi, and Acadia, but wanted to work for himself.
“I wanted to take a break from working for someone else and explore my creativity,” he says.
Starting with a pop-up in Evanston (“I did eight courses for like $65, and it made no money”), he learned what worked and what didn’t. Eventually, he was selling out two to three dinners a month, but the stress of being a one-man operation was too much for him to live with.
“I was doing it for five years, as the only employee, and sometimes it was 5 a.m. and I wasn’t sleeping wondering how I would pay my rent this month,” he remembers.
After a search for investors that proved fruitless, Teich ended up moving to Las Vegas for a time. But he came back, did a Kickstarter, found investors, and is finally opening his own place.
The restaurant is at 540 W. Madison, on the second floor of a building housing mostly financial industry tenants. Teich likens the space to the former GreenRiver (now WoodWind) location, as it has no street visibility at all; unlike those restaurants, Claudia is a ticketed experience, so diners will be more inclined to seek it out. Claudia only has eight tables and does a single menu of 10 courses, with two seatings per night.
Some menu items are holdovers from Claudia’s pop-up days, though they’ve been refined. Teich specializes in a sort of culinary tableau — plated art pieces that are entirely edible and tell a story. One of them, Snails in the Woods, carries over from the previous menu, and features snails (obviously), along with truffle, pine, and many other ingredients. Like many menu items, Snails in the Woods is inspired by a childhood story.
”It’s a memory of me going out into the woods in my backyard with my brother, and my brother terrorizing my mom with the snails he’d find,” Teich says. “Directly after that course comes a side dish of a beet Good Humor bar, which is like coming inside after playing outside and sneaking popsicles.”
The thing Teich is most excited about is having an actual, permanent staff.
“Now we can focus on the service, rather than hoping the food is good enough to speak for itself and that the service just works,” he explains.
The restaurant is BYOB, but has a sommelier on staff and offers extensive suggestions about what to bring and how to pair it with the menu. Eventually, the plan is to offer their own wine program, but Claudia will always offer a BYOB option as an homage to their roots.
The menu is a bit more playful than its peers in the city. An amuse bouche inspired by the Oyster Bar at Harrods combines oysters, Champagne, and unflavored pop rocks, and Teich will be adding an intermezzo course, Fizzy Lifting Drinks, during which the entire dining room will be filled with bubbles. Teich is also designing custom Little Golden Books to accompany courses with childhood memories and stories.
Tickers for Claudia are available via Tock and cost $185 a person. Claudia will be open Thursday to Saturday, with a goal of eventually adding more nights. And even though the restaurant has a brick-and-mortar location, that independent underdog spirit is still going strong.
”We’re still very grassroots, and we don’t have a multimillion dollar marketing team,” Teich says. “It’s still just me.”