From new restaurants, bars, and shops to mini-tours of the neighborhoods most worth an afternoon—or a day—of your visit, here is T+L's insider guide to the greatest places in the Windy City in 2005
BEST NEW RESTAURANTS
Le Lan 749 N. Clark St.; 312/280-9100; dinner for two $95. This French-Vietnamese joint venture between revered local chefs Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat at first struck some people in Chicago as almost more good fortune than we deserve. Le Lan is now drawing crowds with delectable dishes such as curried halibut with vellum-like pommes maxim.
Moto 945 W. Fulton Market; 312/491-0058; dinner for two $130. Unlike at some restaurants of its kind, Moto's hypercreative small plates—the "baked potato" is a dab of intensely flavored purée; pear-fennel salad arrives with "aromatic utensils" (thyme laced through flatware handles)—transcend their own cleverness. Every bite is a revelation.
Avenues 108 E. Superior St.; 312/573-6754; dinner for two $136. After chef Graham Elliot Bowles arrived last September, the Peninsula hotel's dining room (with one of the prettiest views in town) kicked into high gear. Settle in and savor sturgeon with smoked fingerling potatoes, and don't be surprised if the amuse-bouche is accompanied by a tiny glass of cucumber soda—top pop.
HotChocolate 1747 N. Damen Ave.; 773/489-1747; dinner for two $75. Mindy Segal's perfectly crafted pastries at MK made her the sweetheart of downtown diners; she left last year to open HotChocolate, and Bucktown/Wicker Park couldn't be happier. Her savories (green-curried mussels, rabbit rillettes with baby carrots) are excellent, but dessert is what you really come for: linger over rhubarb pot pie or one of Segal's terrific hot chocolates.
Vermilion 10 W. Hubbard St.; 312/527-4060; dinner for two $120. Chef Maneet Chauhan makes Indian-Latin fusion seem like an obvious (and brilliant) idea. Dishes like mint paneer fritters with chipotle mole are a delight, and there are fabulous desserts, too—don't miss the frozen cajeta (goat's milk) mousse.
Thyme Café 1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773/227-1400; dinner for two $55. Fans of John Bubala's terrific Thyme (464 N. Halsted St.; 312/226-4300) greeted this Wicker Park offshoot with cheers. The place is much more grown-up than you might expect on such a raucous street. Try the artichoke fritters with tarragon sauce or the pepper steak with spinach.
16001800 NORTH HALSTED STREET How much excellence can one block support?First there was Boka (1729 N. Halsted St.; 312/337-6070; dinner for two $90), a lively spot convenient to Steppenwolf that won over theatergoers with what co-owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz call "progressive American" food: squash bisque with toasted pepitas; grilled wild salmon with corn, tomatoes, and littleneck clams. At press time, high-flying chef Grant Achatz, formerly of Trio in suburban Evanston, had just opened 2005's most anticipated restaurant, Alinea, at No. 1723 (312/867-0110; dinner for two $150), while Boehm and Katz were aiming to follow up Boka in late June with a 10,000-square-foot late-night restaurant-bar, Landmark, at No. 1633.
RANDOLPH STREET The buzziest place on this stretch off the Loop—known for big, jumpin' restaurants such as the French Marché (833 W. Randolph St.; 312/226-8399; dinner for two $100) and the Pan-Asian Red Light (820 W. Randolph St.; 312/733-8880; dinner for two $100)—is small, jumpin' Avec (615 W. Randolph St.; 312/377-2002; dinner for two $64), next door to its sleek sibling, Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708; dinner for two $84). Although Avec doesn't take reservations, and its austere interior is more beautiful than comfortable, the house-cured salumi, artisanal cheeses, and small bites like paillard of swordfish with beets are all stellar.
BEST NEW BARS AND LOUNGES
Japonais 600 W. Chicago Ave.; 312/822-9600. Some of the city's most popular new hangouts are Asian-inspired. This one, set in lavish quarters in an old Montgomery Ward warehouse, serves very good modern Japanese cuisine (try the lobster spring rolls), but the cushy lounge areas on the lower level are where it's really at. In warm weather, the scene spills to an outdoor space overlooking the river.
SushiSamba Rio 504 N. Wells St.; 312/595-2300. The formula that went down so well in New York and Miami—Japanese-Brazilian fusion restaurants that are as much about having fun as dining—is a hit in Chicago. Delicious eccentricities, such as fried empanadas stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, are on the menu; the room is high-energy; and the crowd is well dressed and up for anything.
Tsuki 1441 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773/883-8722. Cooler in mood and more purebred Japanese than Japonais, Tsuki is a lovely (and excellent) restaurant with a large, comfy lounge attached. There's a wide selection of sakes and sushi, all right on the money and gracefully presented.