Restaurateur Paul Kahan on the best Chicago eats and drinks

Paul Kahan of avec, Blackbird, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Nico Osteria, Big Star, and Dove's Luncheonette in Chicago, Illinois. Photo credit: Derek Richmond.
Paul Kahan of avec, Blackbird, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Nico Osteria, Big Star, and Dove's Luncheonette in Chicago, Illinois. Photo credit: Derek Richmond.

Hometown: Chicago, IL
Occupation: Executive Chef and Owner, avec, Blackbird, The Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Nico Osteria, Big Star, Dove’s Luncheonette
Years worked as a chef: 30
Years lived in Chicago: 51
Awards/Accolades: James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef (2013)
James Beard Award for Best Chef of the Midwest (2004)
1 Michelin star for Blackbird
Named on “Best New Chefs” list, Food and Wine (1999)

Go to Chef Kahan’s shortlist

What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?

At this point, I like that there are a lot of small restaurateurs that are doing unique and interesting food without the glam and glitz.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, what’s your favorite childhood memory involving food?

Going to my dad’s smokehouse and taking a fresh smoked chub off the rack in the smoker. My dad would peel the skin back and shovel the warm, fresh smoked fish in his mouth, and I’d do the same. We’d also have it on bagels with cream cheese and red onion; to this day, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten.

Madai snapper crudo from Nico
Madai snapper crudo from Nico

Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Chicago should try. 

Hot dog and fries at Gene & Jude’s. It’s a 7:1 Vienna beef hot dog in a steamed bun with mustard, relish and onions, nestled in fresh-cut French fries and wrapped in wax paper. It is hands down the best hot dog in Chicago.

The skin tasting at Yusho.

Crudo at Nico Osteria, or The Publican for the best-sourced and freshest fish in the city.

What food places do you like to frequent?

Chicago Kalbi: the best, true hospitality maybe on earth, and delicious Japanese-influenced Korean cuisine.

Logan Square Farmers Market: my favorite collection of local farmers and artisans grouped together in one place at one time.

Describe your perfect dining out day in Chicago.

The day would start with a perfectly pulled shot of espresso at home. Then on to Wrigley Field; I would go to the stand that sells the Hebrew National hot dogs, throw back a few beers, then go home and go to sleep.

If you had to name one personal favorite dish from your restaurants, which would it be and why? 

The wood oven paella with confit chicken, snail boudin sausage, clams and tangerine aioli at avec is my favorite dish at our restaurants right now.

The menus at your restaurants and your early chef stints run the gamut in terms of cuisines. But what’s your personal favorite cuisine to eat when dining out, and where do you go to get it?

I love Gene Kato’s Sumi Robata Bar because the cuisine is simple. My favorite cuisine is simple honest food.

What’s one dish in Chicago that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?

Jason Hammel at Lula Cafe interpreted a famous beet dish by Alain Passard. It is one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve ever tasted.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to eat in?

Albany Park because that’s where my house is. I have a really nice garden and a great kitchen, so I spend a lot of time dining at home.

We have to ask: what’s your favorite Chicago deep dish?

None.

Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?

I’m biased, but our restaurant Nico Osteria is located at the Thompson Chicago and is definitely worth visiting.

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it? 

I don’t go there much anymore, but a double cheeseburger with crispy hash browns at Diner Grill somewhere between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. The griddle makes it so good.

Do you have any favorite watering holes?

Rainbo Club, Sportsman’s Club and Big Star.

Are there any foods native to Chicago that you particularly like?

Chicago-style hot dogs.

Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago? 

Go to The Modern Wing of The Art Institute.

Chef Kahan’s Shortlist:

avec, 615 W. Randolph Street (River West); Mediterranean, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph Street (River West); Midwestern/American, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.

The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); new American, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

Publican Quality Meats, 825 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); butcher shop/café/bakery, lunch daily.

Nico Osteria, 1015 N. Rush Street (Gold Coast); Italian seafood, breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

Big Star, 1531 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); bar and Mexican, open daily.

Dove’s Luncheonette, 1545 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); Mexican, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Gene & Jude’s, 2720 River Road, River Grove, IL; Chicago-style hot dogs, lunch, dinner and late night daily.

Yusho, 2853 N. Kedzie Avenue (Logan Square); Japanese, dinner Wednesday-Monday, lunch Sunday, closed Tuesday.

Chicago Kalbi, 3752 W. Lawrence Avenue (Albany Park); Korean and Japanese, dinner only Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.

Logan Square Farmers Market, 2755 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Logan Square); open every Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Sumi Robata Bar by Chef Gene Kato, 702 N. Wells Street (River North); Japanese, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie Boulevard (Logan Square); new American, breakfast, brunch, dinner and late night Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.

Diner Grill, 1635 W. Irving Park Road (Graceland West); American, open 24/7.

Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen Avenue (Ukrainian Village); bar, open daily.

Sportsman’s Club, 948 N. Western Avenue (Ukrainian Village); bar, open daily.

The Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Avenue (The Loop); open daily.


About the Chef: Ask a Chicago local for a dining recommendation, and you can bet that one of Chef Paul Kahan’s acclaimed restaurants will be named. As owner and executive chef of more than half a dozen eateries and bars in the city, this James Beard Award-winning chef has become synonymous with Chicago’s dining scene. A lifelong Chicagoan, Kahan has seen how the dining scene there has evolved over the years, but in the end, he calls it a town where chefs “are really about pure honest food.”

“THERE IS A TON OF DIVERSITY IN CHICAGO’S FARMERS’ MARKETS … I THINK THAT DIVERSITY HAS REALLY INFLUENCED HOW CHEFS COOK IN THE CITY. FIVE OR SIX YEARS AGO, I WALKED THROUGH THE MARKET WITH ALICE WATERS, AND SHE SAID IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST DIVERSE MARKETS IN THE COUNTRY. ”

Though his menus explore everything from Mediterranean, to new American, to Mexican cuisines, Kahan adheres to the “honest food” philosophy by injecting a Midwestern flair at his restaurants. As someone who literally grew up around food (he worked at his dad’s deli and smokehouse early on), it’s no surprise that he tries to stay true to his roots when cooking for his beloved hometown crowd.

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