After 31 years as the Tribune dining critic, Phil Vettel has announced his last day at the newspaper will be Friday. His decision to accept a buyout means Chicago will no longer have a full-time food critic — a position that brings a certain civic cache, coupled with cultural significance for the city. It’s a blow inflicted by souring relations with Alden Capital, the paper’s largest investor and a hedge fund with a pattern of gutting newspapers across the country, like the Denver Post.
Last week, the Tribune offered buyouts to eligible staff, and big names including architecture critic Blair Kamin and Chicago Cubs beat writer Mark Gonzalez have already announced their departures. Earlier on Monday, the Tribune announced the paper will be moving from its downtown offices at the Prudential Center to its publishing facility — the Freedom Center — in River West.
As the sun sets on Vettel’s four decades at the Tribune, a career that started in 1979, when he joined the Suburban Tribune after graduating from Eastern Illinois University, it’s doubtful that the paper will replace Vettel. This leaves America’s third-largest city — one that prominently touts culinary tourism in its marketing materials — without a full-time food critic.
“I think he was lucky that he got to spent the big bucks at Ever,” veteran Chicago food writer Mike Gebert says of Vettel. “That’s the easiest thing if you’re Alden Capital — the easiest thing is to stop buying $500 meals.”
Though he says he always knew he wanted to be a writer, Vettel didn’t know that restaurant critics even existed until he was 20. He’s already preparing a farewell column, he wrote on Facebook, and he has “no idea of what comes next.” Vettel has witnessed the evolution of Chicago’s dining scene, covering the rise of superstars like Charlie Trotter, Grant Achatz, and Stephanie Izard, a phenomenon he calls the “Golden Age of Chicago Dining.”
“I never forgot to appreciate that privilege, and I tried to execute my reviews faithfully and honestly,” he writes.
While locals looked to Vettel for his recommendations, the critic worked behind the scenes as a sort of city evangelist, ensuring critics in other cities kept Chicago on their minds. It’s the type of work that helped the city’s dining scene stay relevant on the national level, and one of the reasons Chicago is now home to the James Beard Awards. This endeared him to chefs and restaurant owners, who were eager to impress.
“Phil Vettel loved restaurants and championed them through his wonderful writing,” Boka Restaurants cofounder Kevin Boehm writes in a statement sent to Eater Chicago. “Even though it would send panic through a dining room on a night when he arrived, there was comfort in the fact that he was meticulous about always getting it right. He fact checked every review with the chefs personally in great detail, and I hope he knows how much that was appreciated. He stole the show in a speech recently that let us know that his ringside seat at the restaurants caught many hysterical details from his watchful eye. While we were freaking out, he was taking it all in, but still always rooting for us. Thank you Phil, you will be missed.”
Tribune staffers were taken by surprise by the announcement, which became public Monday night. Food critics have long engaged in the art of anonymity while reviewing restaurants, but Vettel had been around so long that his identity was compromised. In 2018, he announced that he would drop the mask, marking a new direction for his work. But during the pandemic, restaurant reviews — even for takeout or patio dining — were not a priority for the Tribune. Vettel’s weekly reviews haven’t appeared in the paper since spring 2020. At his apex, he was visiting 12 to 16 restaurants a week.
Before the pandemic, Time Out Chicago ran reviews from freelancer (and Eater Chicago contributor) Maggie Hennessy. Mike Sula continues to cover the dining scene for the Chicago Reader, but Sula’s job has also evolved toward spotlighting little-known restaurants that deserve more attention, not just those armed with public relations firms. The Sun-Times has given up on in-house food coverage. In December, the Tribune’s dining section saw the departure of Grace Wong. Reporters Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger remain, with beer writer Josh Noel chipping in with business reporter Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz.
Former Tribune dining staff member Joseph Hernandez tweeted his thoughts on Tuesday morning, joining other colleagues past and present who praised Vettel for his calm presence in a newsroom full of egos. Hernandez also challenged the paper’s strategy, hoping the Trib would make a bold splash with their future hires, perhaps like the one made in 2018 when the San Francisco Chronicle hired Soleil Ho. No one is holding their breath.
“I hope to all hopes that this position (and all the other critic positions the Trib hemorrhaged this week) are filled by young, electric talent,” Hernandez writes. “Cultural criticism is important and helps a city define itself. Will the Trib staunch its decline?”
While restaurant news — the openings of new restaurants, bad actors within the industry, and real estate developments that include restaurants — will continue to be covered, restaurant reviews — once considered part of a newspaper’s foundation — could disappear. The importance of professional restaurant reviews can be debated in an age saturated with digital platforms such as Yelp, Instagram, and local food message board LTHForum, which Gebert mentions. Few people have the money to pay for multiple visits and meals that a restaurant critic like Vettel has. And few have the knowledge and chops to write about food with the depth Vettel has during his career.
“If Elske opened now, where would you hear about it?” Gebert says, continuing: “It’s going to be a real loss for that kind of coverage in general — who wants to pay for that?”
Gebert suggests that the Tribune will replace Vettel with a new type of criticism: lists that feature multiple restaurants from writers such as Kindelsperger. When Vettel dropped his anonymity, he promised more inside looks at restaurants using his connections, and he quickly delivered. Gebert points to a behind-the-scenes piece on celebrity chef Rick Bayless’s first tavern, Bar Sotano. However, that story was a standalone and while reviews and new restaurants stories appears, none followed the same promising template as the Bayless piece.
Other newspapers across the country are reckoning with the future of restaurant criticism within its pages. The Chicago Tribune Guild, the paper’s union, which has bargained with Alden to avoid deep budget cuts, tweeted about on Vettel’s decision, thanking him for his “loyal service to our readers.”
We’re sad to lose @philvettel after 41 years at the Tribune. Phil’s incisive, entertaining restaurant reviews and dining coverage have illustrated how journalism can serve as a practical guide to living and enjoying life. Thanks for your loyal service to our readers.
— Chicago Tribune Guild (@CTGuild) January 12, 2021
No one forecasted the end would arrive like this. In his end-of-the-year column, Vettel wrote about the pandemic, reflecting on how he never got the chance to publish reviews of restaurants he visited before COVID-19 forced the halt of indoor dining. The pressure is now on the Tribune to usher in a new era of restaurant coverage, an essential part of the city’s fabric. Time will tell if ownership is willing to accept that challenge.