Chefs are just like the rest of us. Sure, they’re more culinarily inclined; but when they’re off the clock, they too have a hankering for a fast-food fix, long for a frosty cocktail or beer, and sure as hell don’t want to wait in line at a trendy, white-tablecloth restaurant.
Of course their schedules are a far cry from the typical 9-to-5. They might be leaving work at midnight after a 12-hour shift, when most food joints have closed up shop. So, where do they go to satisfy late-night cravings?
Do most prefer a dive bar to sip on a brew in solitude, or a riotous spot with live music to cut loose after a tiresome day?
We asked top chefs around the country to describe what they’re usually craving after their shift ends and where they go to get it. You might be surprised to find the hottest seat in town is in the front seat of a Subaru, you can find solace in a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, and sometimes the preferred way to double-fist is with a toddler and a Neapolitan pizza.
1. Chef Grae Nonas
Executive Chef, Carpenters Hall, Austin, TX
Chef Grae Nonas has already made quite the splash in his career, and he’s only 33. He’s been a James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef finalist, was voted Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2015, and made headlines in 2016 for leaving his award-winning southern restaurant, Olamaie, to open the Nordic-inspired Tullibee in Minneapolis. Now, he’s returned to Texas to helm Carpenters Hall. Located in a grove of pecan trees at the edge of Zilker Park in Austin, Carpenters Hall is a modern neighborhood gem with an in-house bakery and pasta program.
After leaving the restaurant for the night, he craves “a double patty griddle cheeseburger with tons of onions and pickles from the late-night menu,” Nonas says. “I get it to-go and eat it in my Subaru in the parking lot in four bites,” he adds. “I need to stop doing this, seriously.” Their late-night menu also offers oddly satisfying munchies like a milk-bread turkey club and an omelet with fries.
Upon inhaling the burger—literally, he says it takes about a minute and a half—he’ll head to Nickel City, a “Detroit-themed dive bar” for an Original Detroit Style Coney Dog and a cold beer. Other times, he’ll mosey over to places like Donn’s Depot, a piano bar that offers live music, or the Aristocrat Lounge. “If I’m being honest, I like places where I won’t run into other chefs,” he admits. “Both [of these] are cheap, open late, and no bullshit. Also, parts of Dazed and Confused were filmed there [at Arisocrat Lounge].” Pop in and shoot some pool for a dose of nostalgia.
2. Chef Nico Russell
Executive Chef, Oxalis, Brooklyn, NY
Before his solo career, Chef Nico Russell worked at New York City’s highly regarded Daniel, and the three-Michelin-starred Mirazur in the South of France. When Russell returned to New York, he began Oxalis as a series of pop-ups before opening its permanent location in Prospect Heights at the end of 2018. His produce-lead restaurant offers a five-course carte blanche menu, but you can also order à la carte in the barroom.
“I love Thai or Vietnamese food after a long shift, and usually try and find someplace open nearby so I can order a salad or crunchy snack,” Russell says. “I’m usually craving something light, bright, and kind of spicy.”
Lately though, Russell’s been frequenting Hunky Dory—an all-day café and bar located just around the corner from Oxalis, where he says they have a great fried-chicken sandwich and quality side salads (one cheekily named A Very Good Side Salad features pomelo, coconut, chicories, and crispy shallots with a fish sauce and lime vinaigrette).
After that, it’s time to drink. Russell says he usually reaches for a bottle of wine—“something refreshing and juicy.” But if he’s not drinking vino or cider? “Mezcal margarita.” ¡Salud!
3. Chef Kevin Tien
Executive Chef, Himitsu & Hot Lolas, Washington, DC
Growing up in Louisiana, Chef Kevin Tien studied business administration and finance at the University of Louisiana and Louisiana State University, working as an analyst for Geico before deciding to uproot his career and enter the restaurant business. Since, Tien has worked for José Andrés at Oyamel Cocina Mexicana and as the sous chef at Momofuku CCDC—both in Washington, D.C.— before opening his own successful Japanese restaurant, Himitsu, in the Petworth neighborhood of D.C.
When Tien leaves the restaurant for the night, he mostly just looks forward to taking a hot shower. “Normally I go to McDonald’s or I go home,” he says. “Growing up, I remember my grandpa would go out and come back with a crap-ton of burgers. Obviously hamburgers are the most American thing you can eat. It’s what you needed to do to feel American.” Sure, there’s a level of convenience and easy, greasy satisfaction implicit in fast food, but in this case there’s a fair amount of sentimentality.
“If I’m feeling extra adventurous, I’ll go all the way out to Falls Church, VA, either for late-night dim sum at Hong Kong Pearl Seafood Restaurant or great barbecue in Annandale, VA. Most of the time it’s great barbecue.” If he’s having drinks, he says the city’s industry go-to is Lucky Buns, a casual burger joint in Adams Morgan, D.C., where they have awesome cocktails and late-night food.
4. Zoe Kanan
Texas-born baker Zoe Kanan grew up with a dream that would have taken her far away from the world of brioche and croissants: Olympic figure skating. After an injury prevented her from competing, she pivoted and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City, going on to work for pastry powerhouse Christina Tosi at Milk Bar, as well as Melissa Weller at vintage-style bakery and eatery Sadelle’s, and French restaurant Vaucluse, among others. She’s now the head baker at the popular Freehand hotel where she crafts everything from chocolate morning buns to seaweed bread.
As a baker, Kanan’s frenzied schedule starts at 4 a.m. and typically ends at 5 or 6 p.m. “Because I’m around bread and sweet things all the time, I typically crave fresh vegetables and fruit after work,” she says. “Give me handfuls of cilantro.”
She’s a regular at Uncle Boon’s Sister, “the more casual spin-off of Uncle Boon’s,” she says, where they pack their Thai dishes with big, spicy, herbal flavors. Her regular order is a som tum papaya salad with avocado, but if she’s really craving something crispy she goes for a kwa kwa bao at TKK Fried Chicken—fried chicken skin stuffed with mushroom sticky rice—or what she calls the “ultimate craveable snack.”
If you’re in the market for a non-pretentious dive bar, she recommends Blue & Gold in the East Village for cheap beers, heavy pours, a pool table, and a jukebox—“a rare and magical combination in Manhattan,” says Kanan. For a boozy night cap, she opts for a late evening at Lois, also in the East Village, a women-owned and operated neighborhood bar with wine on tap. Only a few blocks from her apartment, drinking at Lois feels like home.
5. Chef Johnny Spero
Executive Chef, Reverie, Washington, DC
Chef Johnny Spero got his first job as a busboy—a condition his parents placed on him and his siblings before they were able to apply for a driver’s license. It didn’t take long for him to get swept up in the restaurant business. After moving to D.C., Spero gained his sea legs at Johnny Monis’ Kinship, after which he completed a two-month stage at the internationally acclaimed Noma in Denmark. He made his way back to D.C., working as executive sous chef at celebrity chef José Andrés’ Minibar. And now, Spero serves as both the owner of Reverie, a contemporary American restaurant in Georgetown, and as culinary director at the award-winning Columbia Room—named Best American Cocktail Bar at the 2017 Spirited Awards.
“Honestly, I usually want a Chick-Fil-A sandwich with waffle fries and honey mustard,” Spero says of his post-shift craving. “I typically just head home to have some snacks with my wife on the couch. As a chef, you’re not home much, and when you have a wife and baby that’s where you want to go.” His ideal combination? Quality time with his family and a pizza from 2Amys.
But when Spero and his team want to treat themselves, they’ll stay right where they are and enjoy some Reverie burgers—a highlight on the restaurant’s menu. After that, it’s off to All Souls or Room 11 for a night cap. “They’re low key and pretty centrally located—your typical neighborhood watering holes,” he says.