Fat Rice, a Macanese restaurant on Chicago’s northwest side, opened in 2012 and became one of the city’s most beloved restaurants for its delicious food (especially its peri-peri chicken and namesake dish arroz gordo), laid-back atmosphere, and comparably affordable prices. It expanded into neighboring storefronts and added a cocktail bar and bakery (and, most significantly, Portuguese egg tarts); its chef, Abe Conlon, won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes region, and later published a cookbook in the form of a graphic novel. Some predicted it was on its way to earning a Michelin star or two.
Now Fat Rice is closed. And Conlon and his business partner Adrienne Lo have announced that it’s never opening again, even after Illinois lifts its social distancing restrictions. They are among the many restaurant owners who believe that dining out, as we knew it before COVID-19, is over. This week Super Fat Rice Mart will open in its place, selling Asian and Portuguese pantry items, wine and beer, and meal kits with ingredients and recipes so that customers can make their own Fat Rice dishes at home. Instead of 70 employees (who were laid off and sent home with food packages when Illinois instituted its stay at home order in mid-March), it will have just eight.
“The restaurant for the foreseeable future is dead,” said Conlon told The New York Times. “We need to face the reality that we can’t exist in the future as it looks now. People are not going to feel comfortable being in close quarters or being in a cramped dining room.” He added that the original concept of Fat Rice was based in home cooking, so providing food and recipes for customers to cook in their own homes makes a certain kind of sense. The website promises that the food kits, which sell for $99.99, will feed two hungry adults for two days, with leftovers.
During the shutdown, lots of restaurants have converted themselves temporary to grocery stores. It will be interesting to see how many decide to make the shift permanently. If the owners of a restaurant as beloved and successful as Fat Rice don’t feel like they can make it the old way anymore, what about the others who weren’t so lucky? And even if they do open again, what will restaurants look like six months from now?