Food & Drink

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Chicago’s Newest Restaurants

And how to support them.

When Leyla Khanahmad and Firat Ahmet Ergun opened Black & Caspian in early February, they purposefully decided against a storefront sign. “We wanted to be known for what we’re offering inside the restaurant -- for the food, wine, ambiance, and experiences we could create for our diners when they’re here.” 

For several weeks that worked well for the team -- but that all changed on March 15, when Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered the closure of all sit-down services in Illinois restaurants and bars. Originally, the orders were in effect through March 30, but when Pritzker announced an extension of those plans through April, Khanahmad and Ergun -- along with restaurants across the city -- knew something would have to give. 

“We started with six employees, but now it’s just us two,” said Khanahmad, who, with Ergun, are doing their best to take care of their staff in the meantime, providing them with meals, lodging, and a GoFundMe page for employee relief. Meanwhile, Khanahmad and Ergun have joined several other restaurants across the city in offering carry-out and delivery services and gift cards -- along with iChefNow, an initiative inviting at-home diners to purchase a basket of ingredients from their favorite restaurants, which the team will deliver to their doorstep with a recipe from that restaurant’s menu. It’s just one more way the team is striving to operate efficiently under unprecedented times -- which are felt especially by the city’s newest restaurants. 

Miki’s Park, a Korean-inspired venue that opened in River North on March 12, faces a similar situation -- with Pritzker’s announcement shuttering them for in-house dining after just three days of business.

“It’s been hard for our employees -- and for us, too, to continue to generate positive energy and momentum during this tough time while determining how to best sustain our business,” notes partner Orville Diaz.

Still, the team was quick to adapt, debuting a walk-up window within just days for carry-out orders of Korean fried chicken sandwiches, kimchi fries, and dumplings. 

“We feel that every little bit of exposure will hopefully help us when this thing passes -- if people have the chance to try our food now, then maybe they’ll be excited to visit us for the sit-down experience, when the time comes,” says Diaz.

It’s the same outlook held by Ballyhoo founder Ryan O’Donnell, who, with Glenn Keefer, was planning to open Sophia Steakhouse in Wilmette last month. “It’s been hard not having the chance to open,” he says. “We’ve been watching a beautiful restaurant get all dressed up that now has nowhere to go.” 

And while the team has been able to distribute its product across carry-out and delivery services for Ballyhoo’s other venues (Gemini, Old Pueblo Cantina, and Coda di Volpe), they’re leaning on the power of word of mouth to sustain momentum for Sophia.

“We still believe in ourselves and in the restaurant industry, and we’re looking forward to getting through this together,” notes O’Donnell.

It’s that kind of optimism -- and industry support -- that continues to drive restaurateurs across the city.

“If we can continue to come together as a community and get past this, we’re looking forward to sharing that with everyone,” says Diaz. “We’re all helping each other out. And that's a beautiful thing to be a part of.” 

Check out our list below of some of Chicago’s newest restaurants, along with details on how to best support them now.

March Openings

Sophia Steak
It was at Keefer’s Steakhouse that Glenn Keefer and Ryan O’Donnell first worked together, before O’Donnell went on to start Ballyhoo Hospitality. Now, the two meet again for this forthcoming steakhouse, where they plan to offer prime meats, seafood, and daily specials, from chicken pot pie Tuesdays to fried chicken Sundays.

Gene & Georgetti
River North
Serving as the original location of Gene & Georgetti, this restaurant was set to reopen this month (after months of renovation following a kitchen fire). While the team will wait a bit longer to serve diners in-house, they’re doing carry-out, curbside pick-up, and delivery in the meantime, with options like baked clams, filet mignon, and Chilean sea bass.

Miki’s Park
River North
Inside, guests can look forward to experiencing a taste of Seoul city life, complete with shochu cocktails, neon lights, and vibrant artwork. Until then, check out their carry-out window and delivery options -- all of which are offered at a 40% discount for friends of the industry.

GG’s Chicken Shop
The Loop
When the time comes, visit Revival Food Hall to check out this new restaurant, where chef Lee Wolen will serve a menu focused on rotisserie chicken, soups, salads, and sandwiches (including the fried chicken sandwich that won over so many of Wolen’s diners at Somerset).

February Openings

Black & Caspian
This restaurant was born out of a passion to marry modern Mediterranean food with wine -- an approach that comes naturally to owners Leyla Khanahmad and Firat Ahmet Ergun. “When people think of Mediterranean food, they don’t always associate it with wine -- and we wanted to change that,” notes Khanahmad. Find them on GrubHub for carry-out and delivery of some of their favorites (think beef tagine, lamb shank, and chicken verdura).

Chicago Board Game Café
Logan Square
At this Logan Square newcomer, chef Aaron McKay (Schwa, NoMI, Mercat a la Planxa) helms the menu -- a collection of global small plates like griddled corn masa with guajillo chile and arroz verde, bun ga nuong rice noodles with coconut and sesame, and lamb kebabs with sumac and lebne (now available online). And that’s not all: In honoring the restaurant’s true inspiration -- games -- the team has taken it upon themselves to make that a top priority, too, delivering a wide selection of adult- and kid-friendly board game options (and making themselves available for game guidance via video chat, too).

Hayden Hall
South Loop
DMK Restaurants is behind this design-focused food hall, and once they reopen, guests can expect to encounter a handful of their dining experiences here, from Bib Gourmand-winning Ada Street and County BBQ to Great Lake Meat Co. and Sophia Wine Bar. Beyond their own, the team called upon talent from ventures throughout the city, including Brown Bag Seafood Co., 10qChicken, Victory Italian, and Anaba Hand Rolls.

Welcome Back Lounge
Logan Square
At this Logan Square lounge, the team strives for one common goal: to help every patron feel like a regular. They plan to do just that when they reopen doors, complete with late 1970s vibes, crowd-pleasing bites (e.g. mini corndogs and Michelada wings), and playful drams like Jell-O shots and Orange Whips.

MingHin Cuisine
February’s Streeterville arrival marked the sixth outpost of this Chinese restaurant, which also has locations in Naperville, Rolling Meadows, Chinatown, and the South Loop. Like at its sister fixtures, authentic Cantonese cuisine is the specialty here, with daytime dim sum of shrimp dumplings, sticky rice, and curry cuttlefish, being the biggest draw. Experience it via online orders now via Grubhub or their website.

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Nicole Schnitzler is a Thrillist contributor. Follow her on Twitter at @write_to_eat and Instagram at @WriteToEat.
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