Chicago restaurants pivot from elegant menus to BBQ to survive pandemic

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The pandemic has forced every chef and restaurateur in Chicago to make changes. These pivots can be found in how menus are written, and what items are cooked and served. For some, what's currently on the menu has absolutely nothing to do with the original business plan. But a pair of chef are hoping barbecue gets them through the first half of the year.

The past few months have been tough on restaurants like Smyth and the Loyalist in the West Loop. Smyth is known for elegant tasting menus designed by husband-and-wife chefs John and Karen Shields. But these days, they're focusing on barbecue.

"We've done a huge pivot, actually," said John Shields.

"We outfitted our own hearth with a rolling rack that we took the wheels off and created little slots and trays and we're able to smoke that way. So we just kind of made it happen. Our Sous Chef - Brian Barker - is from North Carolina. He's the one with all the experience; sort of inspired the whole scenario.

Barker smokes whole briskets, racks of baby back ribs and chicken, creating a glorious mahogany exterior, as black as charcoal.

"A brining, then a slow cook and then we glaze with our initial glaze which is more of a sugary lacquer on the outside and then in from there it's more of a classic barbecue that we lightly paint as it's smoking through the day," he said.

RELATED: Lexington Betty Smokehouse offers southern-style barbecue with Chicago touch

Outstanding sides like potato salad, not-too-creamy coleslaw and even cornbread are all worth adding to your order, as well as a stellar banana puddin'.

"We fell in love over barbecue," said Akiko Moorman.

In Little Village, Moorman and her husband, Chef Phillip Foss, have had to re-think El Ideas, the tasting menu-driven, intimate little dining room, and re-imagine it as Boxcar Barbecue.

"So El Ideas is this Michelin-starred chef tasting menu whereas Boxcar is very straightforward barbecue," she said. "The biggest thing is we don't have outdoor space or a bar. So in terms of pivoting we were pretty limited when it came to options."

At least he's got a Southern Pride smoker, which he's filling with chicken, for starters.

"We have a chicken that is really, really moist and barbecued, which is something that is a little hard to find," said Moorman.

He's also smoking huge racks of pork ribs, as well as a unicorn in local barbecue circles: an entire beef rib. Seen primarily in Texas, this big boy is doused in black pepper, smoked until tender.

"We're also offering a shredded beef, we're calling the Messy Jesse in honor of Foss' sister. You know at this point we need something sustainable to survive. We haven't had any relief. Part of it is out of passion but I won't deny it the other part is really out of necessity," said Moorman.

A lot of businesses that have pivoted during the pandemic will eventually go back to doing things the way they were before, like Smyth - they will have a tasting menu at some point. Same here at El Ideas, however, with uncertainty in the future, they plan to keep Boxcar Barbecue going all year long.

Smyth (Johnny Good Times Smoked Meats)
177 N. Ada St.


El Ideas/Boxcar BBQ
2419 W. 14th St.

Some of Steve's other favorite BBQ:

Smoque BBQ
3800 N. Pulaski Rd.

Lillie's Q
417 N. Ashland Ave.

La Grange
Oak Park
Schererville, IN

Uncle John's BBQ
17947 S. Halsted St., Homewood

Honey 1 BBQ
746 E. 43rd St.
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