Iliana Regan, the acclaimed chef and owner behind Elizabeth, has officially departed from her Lincoln Square restaurant. Regan, who opened Elizabeth in 2012, has sold the restaurant to Tim Lacey, a longtime collaborator who has operated it since Regan and wife Anna Hamlin moved to Michigan in 2019 where they own a bed and breakfast called Milkweed Inn that’s sold out through 2022.
Regan announced her departure via Elizabeth’s email newsletter on Friday afternoon, thus closing a chapter in Chicago food. Elizabeth allowed diners to enjoy Regan’s distinct forager-style of cooking, which mixed a love for the outdoors and Midwest sensibilities with the technique of a fine-dining chef; the combination would earn it a Michelin star.
Despite what Elizabeth’s newsletter called a “major announcement,” don’t expect major changes. Lacey reveals that he assumed sole ownership back in August 2020, but with pandemic-related closing mandates coming and going, they waited until the restaurant could stay open long enough to develop a rhythm.
“During COVID, while doing takeout, it didn’t make sense to announce it,” Lacey says. “It was time to get our balance, and now things are moving in a good direction.”
The decision shouldn’t a shock. For the past few years, Regan has pondered her future in Chicago. Back in 2020, before COVID-19, Regan told the New York Times that closing Elizabeth would provide relief from mounting financial pressures. When he read the Times interview, Lacey says he began thinking that it might be time to search for a new job. However, Regan approached Lacey a few weeks after that story published with the idea to take over.
Lacey and Regan met 15 years ago while the two worked a Trio, the Evanston restaurant where other stars like Gale Gand and Grant Achatz also got their starts. Lacey reunited with Regan in 2019 when her Japanese-influenced restaurant, Kitsune, closed in North Center.
Initially, former chef du cuisine Kristi Gonzalez handled the takeout operations in 2020. At year later, when Elizabeth reopened for on-premises dining in August, for the first time since the pandemic, Regan remained in Michigan, handing over the kitchen reigns to Ian Jones (Band of Bohemia, NoMI, Bavette’s). Regan said she trusted Jones with executing her vision. Jones’ menu is “hyper-seasonal” with gradual changes every day. To Lacey, that means diners will see full menu flips every six to eight weeks.
Jones is joined by pastry chef and chef de cusine George Kovach (Bearcat, Band of Bohemia, Acadia) and beverage director Ali Martin (Blackbird, Mother Hubbard’s). Martin spent seven years at Mother Hubbard’s, the infamous dive bar in River North. Now, after responding to a help wanted ad, she’s working at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Regan had grown tired of day-to-day restaurant work. She yearned to start a family in Michigan with Hamlin and concentrate on her writing. Her first book, the memoir Burn the Place, details some of those frustrations. It was a New York Times bestseller and was considered for a TV show. Regan is working on a second book while finishing her MFA in writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Even in absentia, day-to-day responsibilities of running a restaurant weighed on Regan. When the state had questions about operations, inspectors and bureaucrats wouldn’t deem Lacey’s responses adequate. Instead, they required Regan for answers. The sale renders that concern moot.
The restaurant is named for Regan’s late sister, and Lacey says he’s grateful to retain the Elizabeth moniker; the chef could have elected to take the name with her. Regan will still teach classes at the restaurant, Lacey says, but this is officially his show.
“The job is a little different but not significantly,” Lacey says. “I’m really happy with the food that Ian and George are turning out.”