It's arguable which restaurant has been the city's most influential over the past 25 years—Trotter's, Alinea, Frontera, Blackbird—but there's no doubt what restaurant has been most important for the suburbs for the past decade: Vie in Western Springs.
One of only two suburban restaurants to ever get a Michelin star, when Vie opened in August 2004 it introduced all the things that were happening in the city to a particularly quiet and contented suburb. Vie not only created an audience for whole-animal cooking, in-house charcuterie, preservation canning, and farmers' market goods called out by name on the menu, but chef Paul Virant's spot made it possible for others to do that kind of food in the suburbs too—and feel decently confident that people might actually eat it and come back.
This isn't meant to be city snobbery and it's not a claim that suburban dining was a wasteland when Vie started ten years ago next week. Le Francais in Wheeling was arguably the best restaurant in the city, maybe even (according to Esquire in the late 70s) the best in the country, for much of its three-decade run. There were and are a number of very fine restaurants, and a lot of comfy steak and seafood places, but that was all dining that came out of past traditions—like Restaurant Michael, seen recently in Key Ingredient, whose chef Michael Lachowicz unabashedly calls himself one of the last of the classical French chefs.
But something else was cooking in the city, and you can trace its lineage pretty clearly. Rick Bayless and Erwin Drechsler (Erwin, Metropolis) shopped at farmers markets for their food. Paul Kahan worked for both of them before opening Blackbird. Kahan's father had been in the wholesale business near Kahan's own restaurants today, and Blackbird helped introduce Chicagoans to a style of cooking rooted both in what you get from farmers, and in buying and butchering whole animals. And working alongside Kahan from the beginning, cutting big bloody carcasses into pretty plates for that chic white room, was a kid from Saint Louis named Paul Virant.
One time I interviewed Virant and made an offhand reference to him learning his stuff under Kahan. He gently reminded me (Virant is the nicest, most midwestern guy; the Jimmy Stewart of chefs) that it wasn't so much a matter of Kahan being his master—they were both kids then, learning as they went. Virant had had a little experience in New York at Wayne Nish's March, which he described to me in that interview for Grub Street: "I grew up in St. Louis, I probably didn't have Chinese food until I was 16, and I'd be doing the Chinatown shopping for March—I lived in Brooklyn, so I'd come in on the train and hit Chinatown on my way to work and find all this amazing stuff." He also worked for Jean Joho at Everest, which is the most classically French high-end restaurant in town, but also reflects a lot of rustic Alsatian traditions like pickling sauerkraut.
So at Blackbird they worked hand in hand creating a cuisine which bought fresh stuff at the farmers' markets, but also reflected the area's old Jewish wholesalers, who offered bold, acidic, meaty flavors and, like Kahan and Virant, weren't afraid of funky cuts. You got everything cheaper that way, and if you could make a popular dish out of something that was almost throwaway meat, like pork belly, you improved your margins dramatically. Since there were two Pauls in the kitchen, one of them needed a nickname, and so Virant became known as "V." Which, homophonically, means "life" in French—hence, Vie.
As a suburbanite on LTHForum observed shortly after Vie's opening, at first it was a bit like watching the local high school kids put on "the Blackbird play." But Vie improved quickly and became known for Virant's devotion to in-house pickling (you can see his closet full of preserved stuff toward the end of the first mulefoot pig video Mike Sula and I did in 2008), which inspired a city full of chefs to pickle and can everything they could lay their hands on. The first time I ate there the restaurant was still feeling its way, as were its customers, but just a couple of years later, I was amazed to walk through a room full of silver-haired, obviously well-off suburbanites and see them tearing into oddball cuts and offal meats like they were hipsters on Fulton Market. I loved the smell of roasted pork in the dining room; it smelled like Vie was for Victory.
Vie, which descended from Erwin and Blackbird, now has its own descendants. Virant has Perennial Virant (note the initials) with the Boka Group and an upcoming casual spot in Hinsdale called Vistro. But there's also two of my favorite high-quality casual restaurants in my own north-side area, both opened by people who worked for Virant and who, to my mind, carry on his philosophy—rustic but refined, meaty yet balanced. The Radler was started by Nathan Sears, Virant's number two and king of charcuterie for many years, while Scott Manley, who worked for him and later at Blackbird, is the chef at Table, Donkey and Stick. I was dining at the latter last week and I mentioned to Manley how much I liked the place, that it was great to have "my own little neighborhood Vie." He was sort of taken aback for a second, looked at me, and said, "Wow. That means a lot." Then he walked away, lost in thought, as if I had just given him a challenge to live up to.
Vie will be celebrating its anniversary all next week with a special $80 five-course menu that features "greatest hits" including customer favorites, staff picks, and items from the opening menu. Western Springs is quite a drive from the city, for sure, but note that Metra stops a couple of blocks away; if your idea of a romantic getaway might involve taking the train to a quaint suburb for dinner and back, you can make reservations on Open Table or by calling 708-246-2082.