A tiny restaurant named Lazy Daze Café is to blame. Which is to say, after saving all his money working as a server, that’s the first restaurant Boka restaurant group co-counder Kevin Boehm, a University of Illinois dropout, opened in Seaside, Florida. “Lazy Daze Cafe was six tables. It was a two person operation: myself and my girlfriend at the time, Theresa. Small menu, small wine list, centered around fresh fish from the gulf, a few pastas, sandwiches & salads at lunch. I’ve always thought of it us my bachelors & masters education in restaurants, as every responsibility rested on both our shoulders,” said Boehm.
He went on to open other spots including Indigo in Springfield, Illinois before meeting Rob Katz, a Vancouver-native, who moved to Chicago to work in the trading pits. Plan A was soon ditched, and Katz became a nightlife impresario opening up places like Chicago’s The Elbo room. Katz wanted to get out of the nightclub business and Boehm wanted to get in to the Chicago restaurant market – the two met through mutual friends and formed a partnership in 2002. “We sat for coffee at Nookies, and the meeting was supposed to be 15 minutes. We sat for 4 hours. We just clicked instantly, felt the same way about hospitality and food, and were both big believers that design was a huge part of the puzzle. We basically shrugged our shoulders and said, let’s do one, what’s the worst that could happen?” said Boehm.
Boehm and Katz are very much like the super-GM of their beloved Cubs, Theo Epstein. Their success comes in identifying unknown or undervalued talent and building around that. Their art is in curating a community of artists, chefs like Stephanie Izard, Lee Wolen and Meg Galus, designers like Karen Herold and Adam Farmerie of Avroko, and numerous unknown mixologists, servers, and front of house staff. Boehm and Katz create a business framework and smart constraints, but they give a lot of rope to these artists to follow their creative visions.
Through this formula, they have built one of the great restaurant empires earning a spot amongst the best American restaurateurs, guys like Danny Meyer, Rich Melman, Drew Nieporent, and Stephen Starr. They have projects on the drawing board for 2019 that include a Girl & the Goat in Los Angeles. Here’s a definitive ranking of their Chicago spots.
Chicago’s food scene has been missing the next clear breakout talent, a nationally recognized wave like Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot and Stephanie Izard. My current bets to take the throne are on Oriole’s Noah Sandoval, Dave Park (when the new Hanbun follow-up launches), and Bellemore’s Jimmy Papadopoulos. Thinking of Papadopoulos’ 21-day dry aged duck and its cracklin’ burnt honey crust embedded with orange zest, or molasses butter-glaze and streusel-coated sweetbreads, I am currently humming “Oh, Jimmy, you’re so fine, you’re so fine, you blow my mind. Hey, Jimmy!” to the tune of Tony Basil’s “Mickey”.
And then there’s the room designed by Studio K featuring murals of crazy “Exorcist”-like twisted-neck owls, and a flock of high-plumed birds prancing on golden bars that are delightfully quirky. There’s also the stripper-chic tasseled curtains and lush banquettes which make you feel posh in a glam old Hollywood kinda way. People will protest that this can’t possibly be Boka group’s best restaurant because it doesn’t have a Michelin star. Michelin fucked up.
Deciding which of Boka’s stellar lineup of chefs is the greatest, is kind of like asking which Olympic performance was Usain Bolt’s best. They’re almost identical and impossible to separate. However, if someone put a Global cleaver to my jugular and made me pick, I’m probably picking Lee Wolen. Wolen is a student of culinary history, a veteran of Eleven Madison Park, currently the best restaurant in America (according to a certain notorious list). Though he runs a three-star restaurant in Boka, many of his plates are four-star pre-fixe level studies in impeccable technique. Speaking of four-star, Boka’s executive pastry chef Meg Galus is the best sweets cook working in Chicago right now. While Boka’s food and service is tight and the room is good, Bellemore’s taxidermy and painting budget probably cost almost as much as the refesh of Boka.
3)GIRL & THE GOAT
Pairing up with a Top Chef champion/Iron Chef/badass like Steph Izard would make McDonald’s a first-tier restaurant. Adding in Boehm and Katz’s business and service acumen and Karen Herold’s creative interiors (also Bellemore’s designer) people will look back at this opening as phase II of Boka’s rise in Chicago, and maybe, to global restaurant domination. The smoky wood-fired oven, which churns out first class bread you don’t actually mind being charged for, and the flame-charred walls make you feel like you’re eating inside a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrel. I’ve been to Girl & the Goat many times and it seems like I wait months or years between visits. Every time I return to a platter of wood oven roasted pig face glistening with red wine and maple syrup, gooey with the remains of a breached sunny side egg, I wonder why I waited so long?
I remember running over as fast as I could when GT Prime’s namesake Giuseppe Tentori took over the kitchen at Boka after he left as chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotter’s. Tentori had spent nine years working for Trotter which based on its exacting standards is like spending 100 years in most other kitchens. Few, except maybe Matthias Merges had put in that much time at Trotter’s and lived to tell the story with a great second act. But, Tentori dusted off his shoulder and rode his bicycle/pasta maker, aka “The Black Stallion” to glory at Boka and then at GT Fish & Oyster. Prime, which has even better taxidermy than Bellemore (the oryx and sable antelope mounted in the front vestibule are nicknamed Chuck and Tenderloin) is his masterpiece. At Prime, Tentori took the steakhouse beyond expense account folks who buy Louis Vuitton trunks by the busload. By curating small cuts of prime A5 Miyazaki Wagyu and prime strip loin and mixing them in with silky tagliatelle swaddling black truffles or an inspired take on elotes spiked with parmesan, shishito peppers, and paprika, Tentori made meat emporiums safe for real food enthusiasts again.
After you’re assaulted by pomp and circumstance of a well-designed restaurant, the luster often wears off. Stick around a while and you start inspecting a dining room, notice the smoke alarms, the exit signs, and the cheap gold paint. You start to feel like you’re in a fake set-piece.
Thanks to Avroko, Momotaro, is more than a restaurant. It’s a story. It’s not reality per se. Certainly never in history has a Japanese salaryman’s office/sushi bar/airport lounge as frequented by Don Draper ever existed. And yet, the attention to detail, the pen stroke graffiti in the bathrooms, vintage airlines departures/arrivals style bar menu, and a check which arrives in a Japanese-character-stamped interdepartmental-mail envelope makes up a world so unique that it feels real.
On my first visits, the hot food was the thing, but on subsequent visits, the sushi execution finally caught up with the vision. Silky lithe scrims of toro blanket plump toothsome grains of rice. Outside of the omakase stylings of BK Park at Juno and the burgeoning work of Kyoten’s Otto Phan, there may be no finer place for raw fish in the city. Girl and the Goat may have made the empire, but Momotaro is the spot that made me consider Boehm and Katz on par with the true mega-restauranteurs.
6)DUCK DUCK GOAT
It was neck and neck, or maybe that’s beak to beak, between Duck Duck and GT Fish, but this is MY list, and my love for Stephanie Izard’s mash up of authentic and American Chinese is like Donald Trump’s love of porn stars and bankruptcy protection, which is to say, deep and endless. And thus, the Sichuan peppercorn-spiked goat gets the nod. Were this a roundup of my subjective personal favorite Boka group restaurants, it would be number one. As a critic, I’m looking for a superior mix of food quality, interior design, innovation, influence and service. As a diner, I just wanna have fun. DDG’s setpiece decor makes me feel like I’m Short Round dropped in to Spielberg’s Shanghai in Indiana Jones. (No time for love Dr. Jones!) Whether it’s getting a chili high from the Chonquing chicken or coming down with the cooling sensation of octopus and peanut spiked cucumber, Izard’s menu eschews the complexity of tweezer cuisine and smashes your pleasure and pain sensors with a baseball bat assault of salt, sugar, carbs, and chili.
7)GT FISH & OYSTER
In 2011, the city didn’t even have a Red Lobster. And while you still have to go to the suburbs to score a Cheddar Bay biscuit, you can probably trace the emergence of the ubiquitous seafood towers on so many current menus to the inspiration of GT Fish & Oyster. Chicago’s seafood options beyond GT are still mostly bland chain-type affairs like Joe’s Stone Crab or McCormick & Schmick’s. GT stands out for its high-end nuanced approach to seafood. Opening dishes like foie gras and shrimp terrine, something you’d expect to find at Charlie Trotters rather than a three-star fish spot have been replaced more recently with modern lighter offerings like watermelon and shishito salad bejeweled with trout roe, or a bowl of soupy flavor fireworks that’s basically a mashup of bouillabaisse and tom yum. One classic has always remained, the thick clam chowder, made with hunks of Nueske’s bacon, rich cream, and briny tender clam strips.
This is basically Boka for people with a whole lot of Ralph Lauren in their wardrobes. It’s chops and cocktails, cheeseburgers and chicken, served amidst so much brass, wainscoting, and tufted leather that only people who summer in Martha’s Vineyard could truly love it. Tommy Hilfiger, if he hasn’t already, could model a summer collection on the beige and blue color scheme. In its favor Boka executive chef Lee Wolen and his pastry partner extraordinaire Meg Galus are also in charge at Somerset, so there are some fantastic surprises like smoked beet tartare and a soulful sunchoke and hazelnut soup. But, the menu feels a lot more constrained and simplified relative to the Michelin-starred inspirational fare of sister spot Boka.
9)SWIFT & SONS
This might be the best designed of all the Boka restaurants. While I love the story of the Japanese salaryman told through Momotaro, I am foremost a Chicagoan, a faithful denizen of this former hogbutcher to the world. Da Bears!, and all that. Which is to say, my belly is often full of pork and my mind is truly raptured by the stories of the all-time local greats like Algren, Burnham, Sullivan, Wright, Palmer, Coach Q’s Mustache, and Gustavus Swift. The vestibule of this place looks like the abandoned offices of the great meatpacking magnate, and the interior simultaneously conjures the elegance of the Titanic ballroom and the corporate Art Deco aesthetic of the Cohen Brother’s “The Hudsucker Proxy”. There’s an overt masculinity about the place, like you can almost smell the aftershave of George Clooney dripping off the leather bench seating. Though it is the most “steakhouse” of all the Boka restaurants, Chef Chris Pandel doesn’t just give you a simple baked potato bigger than a T-rex egg. He devils it, stuffs it with bacon and flavors it with smoked paprika and dill. There is creamed spinach on offer, but also Calabrian chile sofrito-spiked Chinese broccoli. Which is to say, just like GT Prime, this is not Gibsons: Part Deux.
If you want a metaphor for the reality of the food scene in Chicago, it’s that Boka group has tucked a really good seafood spot behind its super steakhouse in the dungeon area of an old cold storage facility. Which is to say in a city with too many steakhouses, Boka would have been wise to reverse the ratio, and make Cold Storage the main attraction and place Swift & Son’s as a boutique meat counter behind the main seafood stage. Then again, this is why I’m a food writer and Boehm and Katz are successful restaurateurs. Despite the fact that we are no longer a meat and potatoes town, it turns out we really are still a meat and potatoes town. Chicago Cut minted a goldmine in bone-in-ribeye, but, failed miserably with bone-in-swordfish at Ocean Cut. If Cold Storage were grander in scope, it would likely rank ahead of Swift in this list. The food surely does. Chris Pandel’s “tinned” seafood program, these are not your grandma’s old anchovies, features cured goodies like mussels with escabeche in cool metal cans. The marble half-moon bar counter at Cold Storage invokes the ancient oyster counter at Boston’s legendary Union Oyster house.
11)THE IZAKAYA AT MOMOTARO
Izakaya has that hidden speakeasy vibe. Even though it’s not invite-only like Aviary’s The Office, or hidden behind a graffiti wall, like The Violet Hour, like both, Izakaya is a windowless lair where time seems to stand still. You can drink and drink and drink with friends, and even better sop up some guilt, and the liquor, with salty snacks like golden fried chicken karaage with shishito mustard or a hefty bowl of king crab ramen. The design magic of Avroko is in full force as the space feels like Tokyo in the time of “Bladerunner” or the kind of place John Wick might stop by to plot his next assassination over shots of sake.
In full disclosure, it’s hard for me to objectively evaluate Little Goat, because, every time I go there I almost always order the pork belly pancake with hoisin, bok choy and maple ginger dressing, the parathas burrito, the okonomiyaki, or the “This Little Piggy Went to China”, a sesame cheddar egg biscuit sandwich stuffed with Sichuan pork sausage. Which is to say I’ve spent most of my time chasing the rewards of sweet and salty Asian-inspired stuff and I have no idea how any of the standard diner fare, pancakes, patty melts, and grits are. It’s Steph Izard and since I’ve never had a bad meal in any corner of her empire, I’m sure they’re amazing. Amidst the goat iconography and the international-fare you’ll find chrome-rimmed tables, leather-clad tulip counter seats, and Herman Miller-style white shell chairs. It’s a Hopper-esque diner ideal as seen through the eyes of Charles and Ray Eames. If you can’t score a reservation to Girl & the Goat, but you’re an out of town disciple of Izard, there’s no shame in playing this game instead, especially if you hit up the rooftop deck in summer.
13)DUTCH AND DOCS
Unless you’re Bill Clinton, hero to bubbas and the first so-called “black” president, you can’t be all things to all people. Even then, we know the saxophonist-in-chief had 99 problems and Ken Starr and his investigation was one. Which is to say when you try to make everyone happy, say serving chicken wings, quinoa, Asian-inspired pork, burgers, house-made pasta, and avocado toast on a single menu, you’re only a riblet-width away from being Applebee’s. It doesn’t help that the interior design channels a fancy version of a high school cafeteria circa 1987. In all fairness this might be the best restaurant in Wrigleyville, but that’s like a cyclops being king of the land of the blind.
Bro, they have a pool. Like, you can gym, tan and laundry all in one spot at the Viceroy hotel. Actually, you might have to get a concierge to get someone to do your laundry for you, but my point is Devereaux is a one stop show for all the finer things your beefcake club kid heart desires including cheeseburgers, $12 hummus, and Ketel One. This might be the only rooftop lounge named after a “Golden Girls” character, the southern firecracker Blanche Devereaux (this is probably not true) which makes it immediately better than The J. Parker.
15)THE J. PARKER
Everest being the local exception, there’s usually an inverse relationship between the height of a restaurant and the quality of the food. It’s a good bet that if a restaurant requires (multiple) elevators to reach it or offers panoramic vistas, and/or, god forbid, rotates, you’re usually eating well done filet mignon or overpriced Caprese salad. At The J. Parker you at least get above average plates like buffalo cauliflower and butternut squash stuffed empanadas. Still you’re here not for the food, but mostly to break the spring thaw over azure vistas of Lake Michigan while throwing down a few island-inspired cocktails. Even if it is a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s body guard John Parker, the name of this place sounds like a marketing firm’s brainstorm for a new franchise of Victorian-inspired cocktail lounges, an early harbinger of the slight corporatization we’re now seeing in spots like Dutch and Docs
16)ELAINE’S COFFEE CALL
Outside of tourists staying at the Lincoln Hotel, or Ranch Triangle rich ladies capping off their morning run with a lavender vanilla latte, does anyone even know this place exists, or that it’s run by Boka group? Which isn’t to say that it isn’t good. If you’re looking for solid barista craft, freshly ground La Colombe coffee beans infused with cutesy milk heart art near Lincoln Park, Elaine’s works.
Bellemore: 564 W. Randolph, Chicago, (312) 667-0104, bellemorechicago.com
Boka: 1729 N. Halsted, Chicago, (312) 337-6070, bokachicago.com
Girl & the Goat: 809 W. Randolph, Chicago, (312) 492-6262, girlandthegoat.com
GT Prime: 707 N. Wells, Chicago, (312) 600-6305, gtprimerestaurant.com
Momotaro: 820 W. Lake, Chicago, (312) 733-4818, momotarochicago.com
Duck Duck Goat: 857 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, (312) 902-3825, duckduckgoatchicago.com
GT Fish & Oyster: 531 N. Wells, Chicago, (312) 929-3501, gtoyster.com
Somerset: 1112 N. State, Chicago, (312) 586-2150, somersetchicago.com
Swift & Sons: 1000 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, (312) 733-9420, swiftandsonschicago.com
Cold Storage: 1000 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, (312) 733-9420, coldstoragechicago.com
The Izakaya at Momotaro: 820 W. Lake, Chicago, (312) 733-4818, bokagrp.com/izakaya.php
Little Goat: 820 W. Randolph, Chicago, (312) 888-3455, littlegoatchicago.com
Dutch and Doc’s: 3600 N. Clark, Chicago, (773) 360-0207, dutchanddocs.com
Devereaux: 1112 N. State, 18th Floor, Chicago, (312) 586-2160, devereauxchicago.com
The J. Parker: 1816 N. Clark, Chicago, (312) 254-4747, jparkerchicago.com
Elaine’s Coffee call: 1816 N. Clark, Chicago, (312) 254-4665, bokagrp.com/elaines.php