How Chicago became the best restaurant city in the U.S. – USA TODAY

Home to the iconic Restaurant Row and more than 5,000 restaurants (22 of which are Michelin-starred), Chicago is one of the hottest food cities on the planet right now. Others have been quick to take notice — Conde Nast Traveler dubbed it America’s Best Restaurant City, and just a few months later, Bon Appetit called it the 2017 Restaurant City of the Year.
The fact that the James Beard Foundation decided to relocate their Awards Gala from New York City to Chicago? It was icing on the cake — and a natural decision for the celebrated hospitality house. “Chicago is one of the winningest cities in James Beard Foundation Awards history, so it was a natural partnership,” says vice president Kristopher Moon. “We believe that the Foundation’s presence in Chicago plays a real part in showcasing the city as a culinary destination.”
Jody Williams, who is up for Best Chef: New York City this year for her work at Buvette, was excited to see the change of venue. “Chicago already had serious credentials, but the Beards are a hot spotlight on the places and people that may not already be on the radar for out-of-towners,” she says.
Kevin Boehm of Boka Restaurant Group, which is responsible for 18 of the city’s top restaurants (including Boka, Bellemore, and Girl and the Goat), agrees. “Any time you have the food world descend on your city for four days is a good thing,” he says. “When Chicago originally heard of the opportunity, everybody was like, ‘OK — let’s do something big and show the world what we’ve got.’”
And it’s exactly what they’re doing with James Beard Eats Week, a weeklong celebration of events, panels, and parties, including the 20th anniversary fete for the team at Blackbird, who will be hosting approximately 800 of their closest friends. “It’s a lot of work, but we love to entertain,” says Paul Kahan, co-founder of One Off Hospitality (The Publican, Big Star, Nico Osteria), who credits Chicago’s Midwestern hospitality for much of the city’s success in the food world.
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 “Midwesterners experience deep, hard winters and all four seasons, and it produces people who are passionate about what they do and not afraid to try new things,” he says. Boehm agrees. There’s a distinct Midwest work ethic that you find in Chicago — if you look at everybody from Grant Achatz to Stephanie Izard to Paul Kahan, these are folks who are in their kitchens every single night, and Chicago is a city that rewards that.”
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But in a city that is already so saturated with restaurants and bars, can the success continue? Kahan thinks so. “With retail dying at an unbelievable rate because of online options, the only things to thrive are nail shops, gyms, tattoo parlors, and restaurants,” he says. “There are so many talented people here that will continue to open up restaurants — and my guess is that they’ll also have a lot of tattoos.”
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