On the Enduring Legacy of Frontera Grill, 30 Years Later

How superstar Rick Bayless continues to leave his mark

By Michael Nolledo

On the Enduring Legacy of Frontera Grill, 30 Years Later
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27 March 2017

Some restaurants close faster than they open. Most of the time, they survive.

But rarely does a restaurant become an institution.  

Chef Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill is one of those.

The culinary juggernaut is celebrating 30 years of game-changing Mexican cuisine this year, and Bayless is celebrating the only way he knows how: a culinary bash flush with the city’s leading chefs.

Tickets are on sale right now, and you’ll wanna grab your seat, pronto.


Frontera Grill/Galdones Photography

Going down April 30 at the Modern Wing at the Art Institute, festivities kick off with a panel discussion on the future of food, followed by a “culinary all-star food court” featuring a tour de force of chefs from Abe Conlon (Fat Rice) to Stephanie Izard (Duck Duck Goat) and more.

All proceeds — tickets are $500 a pop — benefit FamilyFarmed and the Frontera Farmer Foundation, two nonprofits near and dear to Bayless that promote family farming and sustainable food systems. More details right here.

It’s worth mentioning that these two organizations, which aim to improve local sustainable food systems and support the farmers who oversee them, is what makes Rick Bayless, well, Rick Bayless. They’re also what propel his restaurants — from the first, Frontera Grill, to his latest, Lena Brava and Cruz Blanca — to greatness, and the reason why Bayless is still as relevant today as he was when Frontera's doors first swung open in 1987.

Here three more reasons we love the man.

His accolades don’t lie.
If it’s not clear from three decades of delicious slow-simmered mole (more on that later), Bayless has never stopped moving. Dude’s got a critically acclaimed TV show. An award-winning podcast. Cookbooks on cookbooks. He's received countless honors, most recently the Julia Child Award. And Frontera Grill was awarded Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2007. That’s what we call pedigree.


The Bayless Gardens

Bayless was — and still is — a crusader of farm-to-table dining.
These days we want local, and we’re willing to pay. When Bayless opened Frontera Grill in March of ‘87, he championed sustainability before diners even knew the difference. That’s to simply say Bayless made conscious decisions. In 1993, he helped founded the Chef’s Collaborative, which to this day promotes environmentally friendly practices in restaurants around the country.

Today, Bayless’ restaurants are diverting an astonishing 95 percent of its waste out of landfills and into composting and recycling programs each month. The man opened the infamous rooftop garden above XOCO in 2010, but not before starting up his own backyard garden and greenhouse in 2005 that provides greens, edible flowers and herbs to all of his restaurants. You can tour that garden. And you should.

In a word: Mole.
However, when it’s all said and done, it’s all about the food, and if there’s one thing Frontera Grill is widely accredited for, it’s showcasing the many wonders of regional Mexican food through regular menu changes, with dishes highlighting certain regions such as Veracruz or Yucatán. The Chicago Tribune called it one of “best Mexican restaurants around” in its 1987 review, and that certainly hasn’t changed.

Throughout the years, Frontera has featured the seven Oaxacan moles (and many other variations) on its menus. The most complex being the mole negor — which took a Bayless a decade to perfect before putting it on the menu. At Frontera, it’s served as part of the Friday special: Suadero Ahumado, aka a 20-hour-smoked beef brisket, queso añejo mashed potatoes and local seasonal vegetables. It’s reason alone to come and celebrate.

Main Photo: Galdones Photography

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