It’s been an emotional few days for Chicago’s restaurant industry as news spread that Blackbird, a source of inspiration for many in the city’s culinary community, has closed.
The novel coronavirus promised to ravage the restaurant industry, and now it claims Blackbird, a Michelin-starred restaurant since 2011. The West Loop landmark lasted 23 years along Randolph Street and helped define a dining district that was previously the center of the city’s meatpacking industry. Blackbird is also where an upcoming-and-coming chef named Paul Kahan and partners Rick Diarmat, Donnie Madia, and Eduard Seitan sowed the seeds for what would become One Off Hospitality Group, one of the city’s biggest players in the restaurant scene.
Madia tells the Tribune that the restaurant’s tiny kitchen made it impossible to properly social distance. Likewise, Blackbird’s tight dining room — with small tables stacked next to each other — doesn’t make it an ideal venue to combat COVID-19. At its other restaurants, One Off has made safety a priority during the pandemic, with timers that go off every 20 minutes to remind staff to wash their hands.
Blackbird isn’t the only casualty revealed over the weekend. One Off — the company behind Publican, Big Star, and Avec — also closed Cafe Cancale, its French bistro at Wicker Park’s six-corner intersection. The space appears to be a revolving door for restaurants: Since taking over the property around the corner from Big Star, Violet Hour, and Dove’s Luncheonette in 2016, One Off has tried two restaurants in the space (Publican Anker, then Cafe Cancale) but neither took root. The pandemic did not help. Restaurant owners have warned the public of COVID-19’s threat to the industry, and various statistics have been thrown out estimating how many will permanently close. Workers at Cafe Cancale and Blackbird were notified of their specific closures over the weekend.
Blackbird has held a one-Michelin star rating since the tire guide arrived in Chicago in 2011. Locally, Blackbird won the 2017 Jean Banchet Restaurant of the Year Award in time for its 20th birthday. Passersby gravitated toward the restaurant’s futuristic white exterior for more than two decades, as well as its contemporary American cuisine with French influences. The restaurant provided a place where friends could meet regularly an expect solid service and food that was both recognizable yet cutting-edge (the signature wood-grilled sturgeon is an example). It’s also become a nostalgic spot, epitomizing many diners’ first meal at an upscale restaurant — a white tablecloth establishment without the pretension, having served guests including President Barack Obama and Michael Jordan.
Restaurants like Blackbird were pioneers in the late ‘90s; Chicago food writer Michael Nagrant describes the emerging philosophy at the time whereby chefs “cooked at the absolute high end but in lo-fi environments.” Paul Kahan was just one of many talented chefs who worked in the kitchen. The Tribune mentions a list of Blackbird’s alums including Christine Cikowski (Honey Butter Fried Chicken), Dana Salls Cree (Pretty Cool Ice Cream), Brian Huston (Boltwood), David Posey (Elske), Mike Sheerin (Taureaux Tavern), and Paul Virant (Gaijin, Vie). Jennifer Kim (Passerotto) also worked there. She’s a Korean-American chef, while the remainder of those chefs are white. With a new focus on equality and diversity permeating businesses as Black Lives Matter protests continue throughout the U.S., One Off has taken criticism for a lack of diversity in its ranks. Earlier in June, the company pledged to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to address concerns.
One Off owns Blackbird’s building, so they’ve found an immediate use for the restaurant even in its afterlife: using Blackbird’s patio to seat customers at neighboring Avec, as well as offering its restrooms to Avec customers. Ownership didn’t rule out opening another restaurant in the future in the same building.
As for a sampling of social media reactions to the closure, Kevin Boehm, co-founder of Boka Restaurant Group, shared these thoughts:
Alpana Singh, the Check, Please! host and owner of Terra & Vine in Evanston, shared how she and fellow sommelier Belinda Chang would regularly dine at Blackbird:
Art Jackson, owner of Pleasant House Pub in Pilsen, mourned the lost of one of his favorite restaurants:
Andrés Clavero, co-owner of Galit in Lincoln Park, used to work for One Off:
Felipe Ospina, a culinary consultant who also worked for One Off, shares his memories: