While the coronavirus continues to sweep across the globe, few industries have been as bluntly affected as the restaurant industry, and it breaks my heart. As someone who got his professional start as a food writer in Chicago, I have an acute familiarity with the passionate people here who dedicate their lives to hospitality and the grueling work that goes into it on a daily basis. Every rung of the wheel, from hosts, servers, and chefs to dishwashers, purveyors, brewers, and mixologists, is taking a direct and immediate hit as the virus wreaks havoc.
In order to survive, restaurants and their swaths of laid-off employees need our help now more than ever, and the best way to do so is by making donations directly to these businesses. In addition to purchasing gift cards, merchandise, takeout, and delivery, donations are a quick way to inject some much-needed funds into eateries that have always been there to comfort us, as havens of socialization, warm memories, and meals that are way too complicated and impressive for me to attempt at home—and I say that as someone who graduated from culinary school.
Across the city, restaurants, bars, and cafés have organized GoFundMe campaigns to help with financial aid. While I wish I could aggregate all of them here, I’m going to stick to places that hold special meaning to me. These are businesses that have always made me feel at home, run by heartfelt people dedicated to the soulful art of hospitality. I love these folks as much as I love their food and their cocktails. Please support them any way you can. Even the tiniest bit can make a huge difference, especially in these dire times.
Photo courtesy of Dark Matter Coffee
Dark Matter Coffee
If there's one single place I frequent more than any other business in Chicago—restaurant or otherwise—it's Dark Matter Coffee. Specifically, its flagship café, Star Lounge. This place is very near and dear to me, not only because the coffee is incredible, but the sense of community is palpable. I always see the same locals inside, chatting with baristas and one another. It's the kind of place where staffers remember my order, even though I'm sure I'm just one in 1,000. Also, the doughnuts and bagels are perfect. Dark Matter employs lots of talented and passionate folks through its roasting business and at its various cafés across the city, from Star Lounge to other equally lovely spots in neighborhoods like Avondale, West Loop, and Lakeview. Its GoFundMe can be found here.
This is probably my husband's favorite restaurant in Chicago…or anywhere. He loves it so much that I actively need to remind him that other restaurants exist, even though I'm obsessed with Hash myself. It's just a wonderful little corner spot specializing in breakfast dishes (especially hashes), with excellent coffee, friendly service, and a fun, retro-inspired vibe. It has started a GoFundMe to support its small staff during this difficult time.
Photo by Tim Musho/Courtesy of Honey Butter Fried Chicken
Honey Butter Fried Chicken
I can't fathom a world without this Avondale gem of a restaurant. Thanks to the mindful guidance of its chefs-owners, Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, Honey Butter Fried Chicken has long been at the forefront when it comes to workers' rights, benefits, paid sick leave, and every other heartwarming thing you can imagine a small business doing, and they've done it amazingly. Now that the eatery has pulled the plug on takeout and delivery in order to keep its staff as safe as possible, it has launched a GoFundMe, which is an excellent way to give back to this restaurant that's given us so much.
Sweet Mandy B’s
Here's one of my favorite little guilty (but not really guilty at all) pleasures: When I have an afternoon free and it's not too freezing, I love walking to this nostalgic, pastel-hued Lincoln Park bakery for a cookie. Or a cupcake. Or a pudding parfait. Or a slice of cake. It fills me with joy, and it's been a longtime pastime of mine since moving to Chicago. Sadly, the bakery had to lay off its entire staff, and it has launched a GoFundMe that you should totally donate to, because the workers here are as sweet as the buttercream frosting.
Photo courtesy of El Che Bar & Steakhouse
El Che Bar & Steakhouse
To me, John and Nicole Manion personify the hospitality business. Not only are they fiercely talented, but their passion shines through with every dish, every drink, and any seat in the house (I feel comforted merely thinking of the wood-fired food at El Che). Since the restaurant is closed during the COVID-19 crisis, they’re stepping in like the heroes they are, amassing funds via GoFundMe for their loyal staff.
Bonhomme Hospitality Group
The good folks behind beloved Chicago spots like Celeste and Beatnik have launched a fundraiser for their nearly 400 employees, whom they adorably dub Bonhommies. It's called the Miss Your Face campaign (again, adorable), and 100 percent of proceeds go to furloughed workers. Additionally, the group is preparing family staff meals during the pandemic at Beatnik in West Town, and all employees and affiliates, like DJs and entertainers, are welcome to pick up meals to take home to their families.
I miss our old neighborhood in Chicago, in large part because of spirited institutions like this one. CMJ, I’ve always felt, is the quintessential local restaurant that every neighborhood dreams of. It’s always been there for me, whether I’m craving a perfectly made omelet for brunch, a cone of golden frites, a bracing cocktail, a candlelit date night, or a burly sandwich. I love it sooo much. Support its GoFundMe, which provides funds for its staff of about 50 people.
Photo by Victoria Kent/Courtesy of Cafe Marie-Jeanne
This is another beloved go-to from our old neighborhood, and I miss it (and the people behind it, Michelle and Zoe) dearly. I miss moseying up to the bar for cocktails and fried chicken. I miss randomly running into neighbors and feeling that small-town charm in the big city. It’s a testament to the wonderful warmth of this place, and you better believe that any time I'm back in the old hood, I'm holing up here. Also, the vegan fried chicken strips are a revelation. Donate here.
Heaven on Seven
This place means a lot to me, as it does to a lot of Chicagoans, who have been flocking to this Loop legend for more than 30 years. The reason? Not only is the Cajun cooking the best outside of New Orleans, but it’s a genuine family affair, presided over by chef-owner Jimmy Bannos, who is legitimately one of the kindest, most affable people I’ve ever met. He and his committed team need support now to endure this crisis while the restaurant has had no choice but to temporarily shutter. Donate here.
Photo by Tuan Huyhn/Courtesy of Heaven on Seven
Floriole Cafe & Bakery
This wonderful Lincoln Park café is one of the most beautiful, delicious, and endlessly exciting dining spaces in the city—and in the entire country. After getting its start at Green City Market, the owners put down roots with their own two-level bakery and eatery, featuring seasonal, locally sourced items that run the gamut from almond croissants and grilled cheese to buckwheat scones, chocolate pots dè creme, and the best brownies maybe ever. The staff of 30-plus has been furloughed while the café is closed for the foreseeable future, so please consider assisting this wonderful institution by donating here.
In a city like Chicago, which has so many new restaurants opening on a seemingly weekly basis, it’s hard to get attached to a particular place or become a regular somewhere. But when Funkenhausen opened in West Town, conveniently close to my old condo, I was instantly hooked. It’s fun, it’s vibrant, it’s quirky, it’s inviting, and unsurprisingly, it’s enormously delicious, with wholly original recipes created by chef-owner Mark Steuer. He is someone I’ve met several times in various Chicago kitchens, and he’s the type of motivated, mindful chef whom you know is going to go on to do amazing things, surrounded by amazing people. Funkenhausen is that vision, and those dedicated people need your help. Donate here.
Photo by Megan Sontag/Courtesy of Funkenhausen
Hoosier Mama Pie Co.
The first time I tried pie from Hoosier Mama, it was on my 24th birthday (I won’t divulge my age, but it was several years ago). I was with my dad, who was in town to see me, and in lieu of a cake, I wanted to get a pie. We ordered an orange cream pie, which was so delicious that I remember eating three slices in one sitting—to the point that my teeth were aching from the sweet tang. It was a beautiful thing, and my love for Hoosier Mama stuck with me over the years. It’s easily one of the most essential bakeshops in the city, thanks to its combination of homey recipes and high-quality ingredients, dished out in a comfy dining space that feels like my nana’s kitchen. It’s a testament, too, to the guidance and thoughtfulness of its owner–lead pie-oneer, Paula Haney, someone who has always been an icon and an inspiration for me. Chicago needs Hoosier Mama as much as I personally need Hoosier Mama. Donate here.
This is a lofty statement, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Oriole is one of the single most memorable dining experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I celebrated my anniversary with my husband here, and it was the most special meal, curated by a team of welcoming and warm professionals who have an amazing knack for removing the stuffy stigma of fine dining, while balancing the sentiments of professionalism and casual comforts. It’s a fine line that’s hard to toe, but Noah and Cara Sandoval absolutely nail it, and I’m honored to know them. Now while the restaurant is closed, they need your help to continue to support their staff. Donate here.