In this Sunday’s New York Times, Peter Meehan comes out swinging with a loud, joyous hurrah for what he calls “Chicago’s great culinary middle ground,” i.e. those restaurants located somewhere between the extremes of hot dogs and epic tasting menus. The standard-bearers of this middle set, per Meehan, are the restaurants brought forth by those Chicago chefs with a propensity for “revisiting, revising and approaching [everyday foods] with care and, often, a twist or two” — that’d be big-deal newcomers Big Star, Xoco, and Great Lake, as well as Kuma’s Corner, which relatively speaking is the elder statesman in Meehan’s high-low trendspotting. But do they really occupy the middle ground?
It’s certainly the case that these wildly disparate restaurants are a genre unto themselves, and kudos to Meehan for picking up on their subtle similarities (we’d add in Urban Belly and ur-elder statesman Hot Doug’s to truly round out the category). But the designation of “middle ground” is accurate only inasmuch as these restaurants all fall in the impossibly vast area between Al’s No. 1 and Alinea.
A clue to their own, as yet unnamed genre lies in what these restaurants all have in common. Besides Meehan’s acknowledgment that they’re all led by chefs who riff uninhibitedly on the classics, they all have hyper-casual atmospheres (with the possible exception of Kuma’s, none of these is a restaurant that bills itself as a dinner destination). And thanks to their meticulously prepped and prepared product, they also have serious cred among the fooderati, making them the culinary equivalent of a Toyota Prius: way less pricey than the full chef’s menu at L2O (or a Mercedes SLK), but just as much of a braggable status indicator. We’re going to go ahead and call it haute-low.
On the other hand, when we think about “middle ground,” our thoughts go more towards the weeknight dinner staple. And that, like the haute-low Priuses above, is also something fairly new on the scene. The old school of non-chain casual sit-down dining — led by folks like Lettuce Entertain You and Jerry Kleiner — while still holding strong, is looking pale in comparison to newcomers like Browntrout, Nightwood, and Taxim.
These spots, just as new and shiny as those Meehan calls out, are a different kind of welcome reinvigoration. It’s easy to swing by any of these for a top-notch, last-minute dinner, without dealing with reservations or getting dressed up or breaking the bank — or, for that matter, the haute-low hallmarks of spontaneity-killing super-long lines or meal-shortening intentionally uncomfortable seating. These restaurants are just as remarkable for their reinvigoration of dining in Chicago — and just as likely to get us out of the house as the promise of a Big Star taco or a Xoco torta. Maybe more so, depending on the line.