With Lettuce Entertain You's Acclaimed Tru Closing, What Is The Future Of Fine Dining At LEY?
By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 6, 2017 3:00PM
The most recent incarnation of Tru's caviar service. Photo via Facebook.
Late Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson for Lettuce Entertain You informed me that Tru, the acclaimed and Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant in Streeterville, was closing after an 18-year run. While this might seem like just another restaurant closing in a summer full of them, it also signals something larger: one of Chicago's largest restaurant group's turn away from fine dining.
Tru was a big deal. Opened by Chef Rick Tramonto, it became one of the most popular fancy food spots in Chicago. Its caviar staircase, along with the fishbowl with a real fish in it that also housed tartare, were some of the iconic images in the food press of the 2000s. As a baby fine dining nerd, when I couldn't afford to eat out, pictures from Tru were my profile pictures on MySpace. When I finally visited in 2012, Chef Anthony Martin had taken over and was experimenting with living tableaus at the table and levitating food. He would eventually steer the restaurant to two Michelin stars.
18 years is a long run for any restaurant, and there's no shade to be cast at Tru, at least not from this writer. But it seems to be part of a larger trend away from fine dining and towards very expensive mid-range dining, at least on the part of Lettuce Entertain You. Why should we care? Because the value proposition is different for the consumer, and the experience of excellent fine dining service is being lost.
At one point, LEY was ... well, perhaps not on the leading edge of fine dining radicalism, but at least near the front of the line. Tru was one of the most acclaimed restaurants in town, Everest sat atop the city turning out fancy French food and, for a moment, L20 was one of the most awarded spots in the city, tied with Alinea at the top of the Michelin rankings. But then things changed. L20 gave way to Intro, which was my favorite fine dining (or at least near fine dining) spot in town for a time. Intro has now closed and been replaced with . . . nothing. An event space. Tru has no announced successor, and I'm hoping the same fate doesn't hit that awesome space. The only restaurant in the Chicago Lettuce pantheon that comes even close to this level is Everest, and it is kept in motion by the sheer force of will of Chef Jean Joho.
Why make this change? A Lettuce rep didn't respond to my request for comment, but I have some theories. A meal at RPM Steak is almost as expensive as a meal at Tru (and more expensive than a meal at Intro was) and doesn't require the number of servers, the technical perfection in the kitchen or the exotic ingredients that a Tru or an L20 requires. If a restaurant group can convince diners to spend 3-star prices on a meal at a "scene" restaurant that costs less to produce, why go the extra mile?
At the same time, the genius of Lettuce has always been its ability to cater to the 75th percentile of dining, to open comfy french bistros, tapas spots, salad bars and oyster bars, none of which are particularly challenging but that appeal to those (myself included, at times) who want comfortable reliability. As the restaurant scene moves away from tasting menus, that population of diners likely wasn't going to Tru, and it certainly wasn't going to Intro, to judge from the perennially empty dining room. People want caviar in a raucous caviar bar, not a white tablecloth, art-filled temple.
However, there is a loss here. The fine dining group at Lettuce was absolute perfection at one thing: service. Some of the best service of my dining life came at L20, Tru and Intro, and the managers and captains that ran those rooms created comfortable perfection. This isn't to suggest that Beatrix or RPM Italian don't have good service, but they really aren't any different than anywhere else in town. In an era where good food is increasingly everywhere, but good service seems to be disappearing, Tru is a real loss.
Tru's last day is Oct. 7.