Before moving to Chicago, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh began their culinary careers in New York as a way to support themselves while they looked for work as actors. It wasn’t their acting that brought the duo to stardom, however. Against odds of 10,000 to 1, they sent a tape into the Food Network and, to their surprise, became the first-ever winners of the Next Food Network Star contest, landing their own show on the cable channel. That success enabled them to grow their catering business’s small café into a full-fledged restaurant serving up brunch, lunch, and dinner.
"Our focus is on what we love, which is mid-century food and the American culture of dining, and that kind of collective memory we have . . . taking those recipes and updating them for a modern palate," Steve says. For example, they top sweet potatoes with black-thyme-pepper marshmallows and create corn dogs with rabbit sausage in red-velvet butter. Steve says that they love creating conversation at their tables, especially as guests reminisce about memories evoked by dishes such as tuna noodle casserole and their Hearty mac ‘n’ cheese. "For Dan and I, that's a major part of the dining experience," he says. "If we can get their heads moving as well as their mouths, we feel pretty successful." Their efforts have paid off. "The duo is making magic by keeping it simple," said Phil Vettel in a review on WGN. "There's at least one wow ingredient on every plate. A simple burger is brightened with triple-cream cambozola cheese, sugar-cured bacon, and garlic aioli. Bacon-wrapped shrimp arrives on a pile of wonderful white cheddar grits . . . It's fun and delicious."
Dan heads the kitchen, while Steve forges many of the signature cocktails, aiming to discourage the intimidation that often surrounds craft cocktails. He and Dan even authored a book whose 200+ drink recipes include every cocktail made at Hearty, proving that everyone can make the drinks at home. Steve's even been known to chat up tables in hopes of introducing them to a new drink. "It's amazing, the amount of people who don't think they drink gin—so I have to force them," Steve says. "Once you have a gin that is different than that gin that you drank in the 1980s that was so harsh and juniper-heavy, once you're having one of these new American gins along with just simple fresh citrus and the other spirits… you understand what the fuss is about." He's also curated an exclusively American wine list with bottles from unexpected sources—including Dr. Frank's Salmon Run rkatsiteli from the Finger Lakes in New York, which he calls "floral and highly acidic . . . Everybody loves it."
The family running Bounce U Up understands how important playtime is to a child's development, both mentally and physically. Because of this, they have created a space where children can not only expand their imaginations while scaling a plush wall and crawling through air-filled obstacle courses complete with tunnels and slides, but also burn off excess energy and hone motor skills. The center also accommodates groups looking to celebrate birthdays. Additionally, the center offers private Nerf War Parties—held after hours—where kids bring their own Nerf guns and roam the bounce center freely settling disputes over rights to the jungle gym.
Snapping professional shots since the early 90s, the photographers of Photo Video Image Productions specialize in bridal and lifestyle portraiture. Whether on-site or in-studio, portrait sessions yield natural-looking photos of kids, couples, and families. The studio also documents wedding days in motion with videography services, which burn precious memories, such as walking down the aisle or sprinting down the aisle, onto film.
At Beautiful Life Photography, clients pose for artfully framed shots taken by a second-generation photographer who specializes in maternity and family portraits. Photographees can smile for expressive senior photos and fun group shots taken either in the studio or with natural lighting outdoors.
The photographers at Za’s FotoXpress are equipped with more than precision-engineered cameras: they also bring familiarity with a variety of cultures and traditions. They carry their understanding to birthday parties, weddings, and other milestone events, where they zero in on the spontaneous moments and details that make each gathering unique. Once the last flashbulb has popped, they transform shots into fully edited digital images and slideshows, and can also integrate pictures into websites.
Each week, just four or five dishes make it onto the chalkboard inside the dining room of Bento Box, a 16-seat pan-Asian eatery with high ceilings, spartan décor, and a BYOB policy. Chef Rick Spiros curates that jotted menu and also brings it to life in the kitchen, conjuring the rich flavors of Singaporean, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisine. Favorites include jidori chicken with creamy lime leaf curry and anise-laced pho with short ribs, a dish named on the Chicago Reader’s "100 best things we ate (and drank) in 2011" list. On frigid Chicago nights, diners can warm up with a Korean specialty that affirmed one Time Out Chicago writer's longtime admiration of Spiros' cooking: "A bento box of bulgogi—juicy, flavorful Korean-style marinated beef—housemade kimchi and a dot of potato salad was all it took to affirm that I hadn’t been stalking Spiros for years for nothing," they wrote.