With its 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, Chicago often tops lists of the best food cities in the country. Acclaimed Chicago restaurants include heavy hitters like Esmé and Alinea, which — with its three Michelin stars — was named the 15th-best restaurant in the world in 2016. The city also continues to dominate the James Beard Award category for Best Chef: Great Lakes. And quickly joining the ranks of the city’s best restaurants is French-Canadian newcomer, Dear Margaret.
The New York Times chose to include Dear Margaret on its list of the 50 best restaurants in the U.S. in 2022. When imagining French-Canadian cuisine, people without a lot of familiarity with the area might think of poutine (a dish where fries are coated in gravy and topped with cheese curds, for the unfamiliar). But the region’s cooking is driven by a certain “spirit,” not specific dishes, chef Ryan Brosseau told Tasting Table — and there is no poutine to be found on his menu.
“At the end of the day, it’s about being well-fed,” Brosseau stated. “Rustic French cuisine period isn’t about what’s on the plate. It’s about the atmosphere of the place, the intention, and the sourcing.”
Serving up more than just poutine
If you picture a cozy Canadian grandmother’s cabin, you’re probably pretty close to the vibe of Dear Margaret, which was named after chef Ryan Brosseau’s grandma (per Michelin Guide). The hot spot’s quaint blue exterior welcomes diners into a warm, inviting space with homey food to match.
Expect to find a menu that embraces midwestern seasonal ingredients with a French-Canadian influence. Brosseau was raised in a small farming town in Ontario and aims to mirror the experience he had eating around his grandparents’ table as a child while simultaneously celebrating the bounty of the Chicago area, owner Lacey Irby explained to Tasting Table.
Classic French dishes like pommes frites and duck liver mousse are married with regional stalwarts like fried smelt sourced from Lake Ontario (via Chicago Magazine). While the extensive charcuterie and cheese list — served with homemade bread, naturally — provides the perfect comfort for long Chicago winters, the restaurant’s summer menu (and patio space to match) includes lighter fare like a crab and corn salad and gigante beans paired with tomato beurre blanc (via Dear Margaret).
As far as poutine goes, Irby says that the restaurant is often asked if it serves the dish, which is essentially Canadian fast food. “[It] would be like saying Chicago is a world-class dining city and automatically assuming every nice restaurant has a Chicago hot dog on the menu,” Irby told Tasting Table. In fact, Dear Margaret has only served poutine once, as part of its first-year anniversary menu. The “decidedly Canadian” celebration also featured Labatt’s and shots of Canadian Club — and Brousseau was very particular about his poutine preparation.”We very well may never do it again,” Irby said.
A pandemic success story
Dear Margaret represents a pandemic success story at a time many restaurants across the country were forced to shutter. Owner Lacey Irby initially found a space for the restaurant just before the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt in Chicago (via New York Times). This caused Irby and her team to pause and reevaluate their plans.
When Dear Margaret finally opened in early 2021 in a different, cheaper location, it was after Irby worked with chef Ryan Brosseau to design a concept that initially focused more on takeout and delivery. The gamble paid off: While the restaurant no longer offers takeout, its dining room is full most nights.
The eatery aims to be a neighborhood staple, Irby told Tasting Table, and already welcomes a crew of regulars that includes neighbors and even some homesick Canadians. So while the menu may not feature poutine, as many only passingly familiar with French-Canadian food would expect, Dear Margaret has found a way to combine its inspiration with local ingredients in a way that captures the ethos of the region.
Source: Tasting Table