Fine dining goes lowbrow without losing its luster

November 12, 2014, 7:55 PM UTC
Photograph by Huge Galdones—Galdones Photography

There are 7,000 licensed medallion taxis in Chicago, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one trolling for fares near EL Ideas, a fine dining restaurant in the city’s industrial and gritty Douglas Park neighborhood. Then again, a cab driver might have a hard time finding the place since it’s hidden along a dark, dead-end residential street more akin to an alley, and there’s no outdoor signage.

The differences between EL Ideas and other fine dining establishments both in Chicago and throughout the country don’t stop at the restaurant’s unusual location.

Once guests enter the restaurant, they can hear music blaring and see the staff working away in the kitchen. The only partition between the 24 seats and the kitchen is a four-foot-tall divider. The place is BYOB. The first course might have customers licking their plate because silverware isn’t provided intentionally.

This is not your father’s fine dining experience.

“When I originally conceived this idea, I had no idea it would become what it has,” says EL Ideas chef and owner Phillip Foss. “The only way to reach the bathroom would be through the kitchen, so we decided to make the kitchen part of the experience. What translated from that was redefining the fine dining environment. Removing the walls, removing the pretention, removing the corpse-and-rigor-mortis kind of feel of sitting in your chair.

Guests are welcome to, and encouraged, to walk into the kitchen and chat with the chef and his team as they’re preparing the evening’s dozen or so dishes. They’ll see how each green sprig is chosen with careful detail using tweezers, learn how a dish is prepared or ask what inspired an ingredient to be used. While the atmosphere may be laid back, Foss makes it very clear that the food is serious. The restaurant scored a coveted Michelin star in 2014 for the first time, and earned it again in the 2015 Guide.

Across town, in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, is 42 grams, winner of two Michelin stars in the Michelin Guide Chicago 2015 edition. The restaurant’s name refers to the belief the human soul weighs 21 grams immediately following death. 42 grams, according to chef and owner Jake Bickelhaupt, is the total of both what he and his wife Alexa Welsh give to their guests who dine with them each evening.

The counter at 42 grams restaurant in Chicago.Photo: Drew Kent Wittler
Photo: Drew Kent Wittler

The establishment is not located near the city’s Magnificent Mile or Restaurant Row. It faces gritty elevated train tracks. Location hasn’t deterred 42 grams’ guests from securing coveted reservations since there are only two seatings per night: the chef’s counter seats eight, and a communal table in the center seats 10.

As with many dinner parties, the action centers around the kitchen, which is completely open to the dining room, allowing guests to interact with Bickelhaupt throughout the course of their meal.

Just don’t call the restaurant’s style casual.

“We don’t call the atmosphere casual, because there is nothing casual about my approach to the food or the sincerity with which my wife attends to our guests,” notes Bickelhaupt. “A lot of our guests tell us that dinner, the space and the experience feel very comfortable and like home, which is rewarding because it’s what we strive for.”

Foss craves interaction with people and delights in surprising them. Prior to opening up EL Ideas three and a half years ago, the classically trained chef (Le Cirque, Lockwood) rolled out Meatyballs Mobile, a food truck that served shweddy meatballs to hungry professionals in Chicago’s Loop.

Today’s menu at EL Ideas might include fries and a frosty—except the dish is made with potato, leeks and vanilla. Dessert might be prepared with liquid nitrogen ice and called “milk and cookies,” and that’s exactly how it tastes. Make no mistake, Foss and his team might not take themselves seriously, the atmosphere might be laid back, and the playlist might include the Beastie Boys, but the food is the star.

“We’re always very reflective of our food,” he says. “I want it to be perfect. We got one Michelin star, we want two.”

While Foss’s dining clientele’s age runs the gamut, he notices the younger generation is looking for something new and different than the traditional fine dining experience and he, as a chef, wants that connection with his guests, too. He cites a study published in the November 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review in which guests seem to enjoy their food more when they can actually see the person who is cooking it.

Foss and Bickelhaupt might be onto something. Lyrad Vass Gal, 36, from Franklin, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, visited The Catbird Seat last month. She knew before making reservations that the guests at the Nashville restaurant were seated around the chefs preparing the food and she particularly enjoyed the interaction with Chef Trevor Moran and the other four chefs working under him.

“We had a great view of all that was happening,” says Vass Gal. “When one of the chefs placed a course in front of [us], they told us not only the ingredients, but how it was prepared.”

Vass Gal not only felt a connection with the chefs, she says, but another reason she feels made the experience unique was that she felt they truly were interested in learning about her and her husband as they were about sharing their own stories with the diners.

“Not only did we discuss the dishes, I learned where the chefs were from, their backgrounds, why and how they got into the culinary arts,” she says. “They asked about us and our backgrounds. We discussed what we liked about living in Nashville, our music tastes, and so on.”

“I also think the millennial generation is looking for approachability, accessibility and personalized experiences,” adds Bickelhaupt, noting that some hotels now personalize customers’ entire stays. “The same goes for restaurants. People want to enjoy the best food out there, but want to do so in a comfortable setting. That isn’t to say that the Sixteens and the French Laundries of the world will be going anywhere, anytime soon; or, that people don’t also want to experience outstanding meals in more formal settings. I just think we’re going to see a shift toward what had for so long been considered an oxymoron: laid-back fine-dining.”

Just be prepared: the chef may ask you to lick your plate.