Chef Curtis Duffy of Grace on Where to Eat in Chicago


Curtis Duffy [Photograph: Amber Gibson]

At Grace, chef Curtis Duffy makes food that's so pretty it could be an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Vibrant colors and abstract shapes come to life in dishes that beg to be posted on Instagram. Even though it's only been open less than a year, Grace picked up two Michelin stars in the 2014 guide, but that's just the beginning of the accolades. Duffy was named Chicago Tribune's Chef of the Year for 2014, and just last month the restaurant received a James Beard Award for best restaurant design.

Duffy prefers to eat lighter, healthier flavors and his tastes translate into the cooking at Grace, where little dairy is used. Intricately plated dishes with clean, crisp flavors are more his style. In fact, Grace offers a flora vegetarian tasting menu in addition to its fauna menu that includes meat.

But where does he eat when he's not in Grace's kitchen? Check out a few of his Chicago favorites.

Favorite New Restaurant: Ceres' Table. That restaurant is fantastic. I never went in there when it was Frog 'n Snail, and I've only heard it was really dark and didn't fit the neighborhood. I didn't expect for the restaurant to be as big as it was. It was deceiving how big the space is. The staff were very friendly and gracious and I felt immediately walking in that it was neighborhood people and a neighborhood restaurant. It felt like it's meant to be there and I think they'll be very successful. I had the swordfish crudo, which I enjoyed and the pastas were good. Arugula salad was the best part of the meal, with house-made ricotta.


Honey Cakes at Meli Café [Photograph: Daniel Zemans]

Awesome Pancakes: I do like Meli Café. Their pancakes and juices are good. The pancakes are cornmeal-based, so I like the grittiness and crunch. They have a few locations around town but I go to the one across from GT Fish & Oyster.

Chicago Pizza:I like Calo Ristorante, which is in my neighborhood. I also like D'Agostino's and Bricks—but only the first location, not the second. D'Agostino's is on the sweeter side with the sauce, and I like that with pepperoni. When I eat pizza I like just pizza and pepperoni. I think I like the convenience of Calo's since it's right down the street. With Bricks there's just something about just being in the basement. You know it's been there for a long time and the pizza's good.


Milanesa Torta at Xoco [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Excellent Mexican: I like Rick Bayless's Xoco. They have really good sandwiches. Even Tortas Frontera at O'Hare is pretty damn good, too. It's [their] consistency. You know what you're going to get. I always get the Cubana torta. The bread is thin from the griddle and the chipotle mustard good. It's a really well put together sandwich, sliced smoked pork loin, bacon, avocado, black beans, mustard and cilantro crema.


Milanesa Cemita at Cemitas Puebla[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Stunning Sandwiches: For me, in a sandwich, I don't like hard crusty bread because it hurts my mouth. Cemitas Puebla hands down has one of the best in the city. I always get the Milanesa. It's dangerous because they're opening up right [in the West Loop] beside Glazed & Infused. Second would be Ba Le's Vietnamese pork [bánh mì]. For me, I love the Vietnamese flavors—the pickled vegetables, cilantro and coriander, and the bread is actually good, too. It's a well-balanced sandwich.

Where to Shop: Mariano's. I like it because they have a nice produce selection and prices are fair. The new one that opened by my house on Lawrence Ave. is crazy. It's two stories and you could get lost in there. I've only gone in there maybe twice because it just opened.

Coffee: I used to love Intelligentsia Coffee, on Broadway but now it takes way too long to get a cup of coffee because everything's a pour over or made in their new machine. Most of the time I do a pour over at my house because it's convenient. I should say Sparrow Coffee because that's who we buy from [for Grace]. They're opening a storefront soon, but don't have one yet.

Fancy Night Out: Honestly, since Grace has opened I haven't been to any of them. Sixteen has been on my list of places to try for a while now though.


Togarashi Spiced Fries from Belly Shack[Photograph: Joe Roy]

Where to Take Out-of-Town Guests: Belly Shack. I love the togarashi fries. They're spicy and served with a curry mayo which is pretty awesome. The whole thing is pretty addicting. And usually any of the specials are really good. Anytime friends come into town I always take them there.

French: Les Nomades. That's pretty classic French food. Sometimes you crave those sauces that are so classically rooted, but [chef] Roland Liccioni is able to extract flavors like nobody else. His sauces are amazing. Maybe it's just his technique. They're clean. They're heavy and they're dark (those are dark flavors, in French food) but clean at the same time.

Vietnamese: Embeya. These are the flavors that I enjoy eating. They're really clean, bright and floral. It's something you could eat every day and feel like you walk away like you ate a good amount, but you still feel good. Especially for lunch. You feel like you could go back to work and still be productive. Their papaya salad is pretty awesome. They've sent that over a couple times for family meals here and it's so awesome.


A selection of fresh sushi at Juno. [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

Sushi: Juno, hands down. Even before Jason and I started training together, I would sit at the counter and he would feed us things omakase style. Basically they feed you until you stop and say, "I can't do anymore." The uni was really good. And last time I had a hot dish, the chawanmushi with trout roe, that was brilliant. [Editor's Note: Juno's owner, Jason Chan, gives Duffy private Shidokan lessons. Also, Juno closed a few months ago because of a fire, but it plans to reopen this month.]

Indian: Hema's Kitchen, but that's a food that I can only eat very rarely because it's so damn spicy. You can tell that food is made with a lot of depth. Even the vegetarian dishes have a lot of flavor to it. They're masters of [using] spices.


Quinoa Wrap at Protein Bar [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

After a Workout: I crave something really healthy and usually make something at home, but Protein Bar has good options. I like their quinoa salad in a wrap with chicken. I like the mindset of the place. There is some thought put into healthy food that's nutritious but also tasty.

Dessert: I love to take my daughters to Dairy Queen, which I know sounds awful. But I know they enjoy, it so that's why I like it. They like Forever Yogurt, because they see all that stuff that they can put on top of their frozen yogurt. It's pretty cool. Then they just bounce off the walls for an hour or two.