A Look Inside Three of the Hottest New Chicago Restaurants Run by Married Couples

chicago restaurants run by married couples
John and Karen at Smyth + The Loyalist | Sarah Freeman/Thrillist
John and Karen at Smyth + The Loyalist | Sarah Freeman/Thrillist

Only fools open restaurants. Long hours, small margins, and demanding customers are just a few of the downsides that come with this line of work. And maintaining a stable romantic relationship, too? Good luck.

But finding love and running a top restaurant is possible, and we have proof. In the past year, three Chicago couples not only took the leap to open three of the city’s most ambitious new restaurants, but also have garnered more accolades than Michael Jordan has championship rings. Collectively, they've earned three stars from Michelin and 11 from The Chicago Tribune. In addition to their eclectic menus and initial success, these restaurants have two things in common: They're located in the city's edible epicenter, the West Loop, but even more important, they're owned and operated by married couples. Here's a look at the love behind Elske, Oriole, and Smyth, the great spots that represent the next generation of unpretentious fine dining.

"They call us mom and dad," Karen Urie Shields says about the kitchen staff at Smyth, where she's sitting in the dining room. In the pastry kitchen to her right, her team two is baking bread and pouring brownie batter into sheet pans that will later be served downstairs at the more casual Loyalist. The larger savory kitchen is where her husband John's army of tweezer-yielding cooks is filleting fish and hovering over pots of stocks. Smyth opened in August, the combined vision of the husband-and-wife team who met a decade earlier at Charlie Trotter's. From there, they moved to Virginia to cook at Town House and Riverstead Inn as well as connect with the farm-fresh produce that inspired their cooking philosophies. This six-month-old restaurant is their triumphant return to Chicago.

Smyth might be the Shields' most ambitious project yet. Their pedigree and commitment to sourcing produce almost exclusively from a nearby farm means highly conceptual dishes that are born out of seasonal products. Right now, in the dead of winter, that means sunchokes and crispy potato skins over dried scallop bullion and caramelized yeast butter, or the signature egg yolk soaked in salted licorice and served over frozen yogurt meringue. The latter was inspired by the runny eggs and maple syrup often served in the Shields' home on Sunday mornings. "I like to think that we inspire one another," Karen says of the couple's creative process. Sometimes their ideas for future menu items can be found scribbled on napkins or tucked into pages of cookbooks. A warm sunflower anglaise Karen made for a dessert ended up spooned over potatoes John prepared from the farm, and a savory dessert was born. "Thank God we have one another. We could not do this without one another. We each bring a huge piece to the puzzle."

Another piece of the puzzle is Karen and John's two daughters, Lilly and Sicily. As a result of parental duties, Karen's presence in the restaurant is mostly limited to the daytime, so she's taken on more of Smyth's business aspects. John, meanwhile, occasionally slips away during the evening service to have dinner with the girls or put them to bed. "Our little one is 2 and a half, and told me yesterday she wants to be a chef -- a donut chef," Karen says. "They're learning some good work ethic early on, [seeing] that mom and dad work hard and are passionate. They're passionate, strong-willed girls and they will find the positive in this."

sarah and david elske
Sarah Freeman/Thrillist

"I do put it in line with having a baby," says Anna Posey about the 55-seat bundle of Nordic joy she recently delivered to Randolph St with husband David. "This is our main focus right now and until it gets a little bit older, we're still trying to figure out the balance." It's a lot to handle -- they're in the first year of first-time restaurant ownership during the second year of their marriage. Like at Smyth, the roles at Elske are divided, with David running savory operations and Anna overseeing sweet. "A huge plus to being married is that naturally our menu is very seamless," Anna says. "David has a tart dusted with parsley and I have fennel dusted with mint."

The Poseys are also like the Shields in that their relationship started in the kitchen. David was the chef de cuisine at Blackbird when Anna started working as a pastry intern. He found increasingly more excuses to visit her in the upstairs kitchen until one day, outside work, he asked her out for tacos at Big Star. Anna said no, before zooming off on her scooter. A persistent David would not give up; she finally agreed to a date, and they were married four years later. Throughout their relationship they've had to adjust to the struggles brought on by opposite work schedules. "There have been times when I'd open and he'd close and we wouldn't see each other for weeks," Anna says. But now, since Elske's December debut, they're spending every day in the same building. "Working together is a lot easier on a relationship than never seeing each other."

In the first two months of Elske, which means "love" in Danish, the restaurant has earned praise for embodying hygge, a Scandinavian concept for coziness. It’s not so much the food that screams Nordic, but rather the feeling of being embraced in an edible hug. "I think that's what we're trying to do -- simple food in new ways," David says. Everything from the roaring fire that greets guests outside to Anna's whimsical drawings on the staff uniforms sets the tone, and the choices of stone for the bartop and cheese to pair with the leeks are made with care. These little decisions that might get brushed off by others truly matter to the Poseys.

anna and david oriole
Sarah Freeman/Thrillist

Whereas Anna and David's relationship started in the kitchen, Noah and Cara Sandoval's began out in the real world, when they were 14 years old. The executive chef and general manager of Oriole got engaged when Noah took a spontaneous trip to see her in Austin seven years ago. She moved to Chicago, where he was opening Senza in Lakeview, and a sudden managerial vacancy took her away from her bank job and into the world of fine dining. From that moment on, the line between their personal and professional lives disappeared. "We don't balance anything. There's not work and then home. Everything is one thing, one way of looking at stuff," Noah says. "For us not to work together, it would be ridiculous. I don't trust many people and everybody I do trust essentially works here. The epitome of that is trusting Cara to do what she does."

A meal at Oriole has the chill factor of Elske mixed with the cerebral qualities of Smyth. Guests enter through a back-alley freight elevator into a room that looks more like your cool friend's bachelor pad -- exposed brick walls, a timber ceiling, a black-and-white photograph of a bunny, and a glass divider offering a peek into the white-tiled kitchen -- than the stage for a 16-course dining experience. As the front of the house, Cara makes sure guests feel special but not overly doted upon. Napkins are often refolded mid-meal and crumbs are swept off tablecloths, but the small team of servers doesn't hover as guests scoop out the last bits of uni emulsion, and couldn't care less if you mispronounce Bourgogne Blanc. The combination earned the 10-month-old restaurant not one, but two Michelin stars. "We're doing cool shit, says somebody who knows about cool shit," explains Noah.

The delicate act of thriving in both matrimony and the stressful, demanding world of running a high-end restaurant is perfectly exemplified during a Wednesday night service at Oriole. One couple is anxiously waiting for the final course to arrive so they can book it to Hamilton, while another stares doe-eyed at Noah as he shaves black truffles over their pasta. In the kitchen, the team of six chefs is simultaneously sautéing scallops, slicing fresh sourdough, and searing Japanese A5 wagyu with military synchronicity. Noah gives a final glance at the last round of Beausoleil oyster and Mangalica ham as Cara arrives to monitor the timing of the next course. She takes hold of his hand and looks over his shoulder at the dishes, which are crafted with more integrity, talent, and yes, love, than stars can measure.

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Sarah Freeman is a Chicago-based food and drink writer. The most romantic thing she's ever done is overcook fish for her now-ex-boyfriend. She is very single. Follow her quest @sarahischi and Sarah-Freeman.com.