CHICAGO— I first came to this city over 30 years ago. I fell in love with Chicago instantly. There was something about a big city, combined with a Midwestern sensibility, that appealed to me on several levels. It didn’t hurt that, at the time, the city was becoming a major player in the national restaurant scene.
In the 1980s, Richard Melman owned the creative Chicago restaurant landscape. He pumped out inspired concept after inspired concept and I was in awe of his ability to create and tap into a seemingly boundless imagination when it came to restaurants and bars. Melman was a mentor in absentia in those days. I read every interview and followed every restaurant opening of his Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group.
In the late 1980s, I started attending the National Restaurant Association’s trade show and convention. It was a restaurant wonderland for me, with everything I love about this industry under one roof. Actually, under several roofs at McCormick Place on Lake Michigan. For a guy who spent all his spare time in college in the library reading restaurant trade magazines and staying up until 3:00 AM designing menus and restaurant concepts, the restaurant show was information overload in the best way.
Anything that has to do with the restaurant or bar business is at that show. Equipment, food, supplies, furniture, design elements, and anything that has to do with supporting a restaurant or bar is there. For a guy whose hobby is restaurants, it is heaven on earth.
The bonus is every year when I come to the show in Chicago is that I get to hop from restaurant to restaurant in what I believe is one of the top three restaurants cities in America. To me, Chicago has always been like a more-accessible New York. I have loved watching the neighborhoods in this city blossom over the years as new concepts have popped up in River North, Logan Square, Lincoln Park, West Loop, Wicker Park, and all the others.
The top restaurateur working in Chicago today— maybe the top restaurateur working in America today— is Kevin Boehm. Kevin and I got to know each other as we were co-founders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition which was formed in March of 2020 to help save restaurants from the devastating business effects of the global pandemic. Kevin and I, and a couple of dozen others from across the country, were there at the start. We met twice a day, every day, for the first several months and then once a day via Zoom for another month or so, and eventually, after six months, the meetings dropped to three times a week. But we have stayed in close contact since.
It’s amazing how much you can learn about a person even on a video conference call if you spend hours and hours with them each week. I came to admire and appreciate all my co-founding members. But Boehm and I share slightly similar beginnings.
We both traveled down to the Florida Panhandle in our early 20s. He from Central Illinois, and I from South Mississippi. We both worked for Charles Morgan at Harbor Docks. We both opened our first restaurant in our 20s. Though I’m afraid that’s where the similarity stops. Even though he has around 19 restaurants open at present and I have less than that. He has movie-star good looks that make a guy like me look like Streetcar-era Karl Malden standing next to Brando. He also has another zero or two at the end of his financial statement.
Boehm may have movie-star looks, but he’s a rock star when it comes to restaurants. When one meets Kevin Boehm there’s no mistaking why he is a success in this brutal business. He has a boundless passion for what he does, seemingly endless energy, laser focus on all the most important components of the business, natural charisma, a keen financial acumen, and bounteous restaurant smarts.
His Boka Restaurant Group has done amazing things in Chicago, and now Los Angeles and New York. When he learned that I was coming to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association trade show he offered to set up a progressive dinner tour in a few of his restaurants. It was an amazing night.
As soon as New South Restaurant Group COO, Jarred Patterson and I hit the ground in Chicago, we checked our bags in the Hoxton Hotel (where Boehm’s Boka has three concepts) and walked immediately to the Boka stalwart diner, Little Goat, a breakfast place I never miss while staying in Chicago. That night we ate dinner with Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill. I believe Bayless is the best Mexican-cuisine chef in America. I also believe that when Bayless visits Mexico, he automatically becomes the best Mexican-cuisine chef in Mexico as soon as he steps off the airplane.
The next day’s breakfast started at Boehm’s Cira in the Hoxton. It was perfect. The rest of the day was spent at a One Off Hospitality Group trifecta visiting Donnie Madia’s Dove’s Luncheonette for a late breakfast, Big Star for an early lunch, and The Publican for an early dinner after the restaurant show. We ended the evening at a longtime favorite, Longman & Eagle for a second dinner.
The rest of the trip was all Boka. Well, except for the Tuesday morning bakery R&D run where Patterson, pastry chef/baker Martha Foose, and I hit 11 bakeries, sampling over 50 pastries in a four-hour period. More on that journey next week.
We wisely skipped lunch after the bakery bacchanal and prepped our constitutions for the Boka Restaurant Group progressive dinner Boehm had so graciously arranged. Boehm’s corporate office had arranged three Boka restaurants for us— Alla Vita (the new Italian concept), Momotaro (sushi), and Swift & Son’s (the high-volume producer in the group, and my new favorite Chicago steakhouse). I wanted to squeeze in Boka’s Chinese concept, Duck Duck Goat (another Boka-Stephanie Izard concept) so we started there. I didn’t notify the home office so they wouldn’t pick up the tab at the added stop.
All meals were stellar. From the greeting at the host stand to the salutation as we left each concept. Stellar. I don’t know if I have ever encountered a group of restaurants— especially restaurants performing at that high of a level, and with that much volume— that are moving in the same forward direction, at the same time, as flawlessly and as in-sync as the Boka Restaurant Group in Chicago. Service, food quality, and the attitude of the staff. Every service point was nailed, at every concept, at every turn.
The highlights were the potstickers and ribs at Duck Duck Goat, the ricotta dumplings, roasted octopus, and wood-fired table bread at Alla Vita. A very fatty— in all the best ways— salmon belly and a spicy fried rice dish were the table favorites at Momotaro, and the Baby Beet Salad and ribeye were hits at Swift & Sons.
Though the greatest treat of the night was having Boehm take an Uber directly from the airport after a long travel day to sit and visit with us at the last dinner. He was gracious with his time and very open with information and advice on all aspects of the restaurant business. It was a master class in restaurant operations that none of us will soon forget.
A late-night visit to Lazy Bird, the Boka jazz club/cocktail lounge in the Hoxton ended a whirlwind of a long day, but again, in all the best ways.
This week’s recipe: Apricot Tarts