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Chicago's Absolute Best Restaurants

Slam Dunk!
The first things people will tell you about One Sixty Blue (160 N. Loomis St.; 312/850-0303; dinner for two $120) are that Michael Jordan is a silent partner, which is pretty much true, and that it sits on a deserted block a free throw or two from the place where he used to show up for work. The dining room, designed by Adam Tihany, has the look of a basketball arena: superhigh ceilings with bright but diffuse light, stout posts jutting out of the floor, and glass cutouts at each end of the court-size room that look like abstracted backboards. The tables, chairs, and aisles are actually scaled to basketball players' bodies, which means that anybody under six foot four is probably going to feel a little small. And while I'm pretty sure that the crowd isn't made up exclusively of sports agents and ad execs, it does seem that way sometimes.

One Sixty Blue, however, is no sports bar: like a championship basketball team, Patrick Robertson's cooking is muscular, complicated, and tall. Crisp peekytoe crab "sandwiches" may actually be an original take on the crab cake—the meat is enmeshed in a thin net of grated potato before it's fried, eliminating the need for gooey batters and preserving the delicate vanilla taste of the crab. Vividly fresh minarets of beets and goat cheese seem more like sculpture than salad; meltingly soft roulades of slow-roasted salmon practically vibrate with the flavor of lemon verbena. This may be the single best new restaurant to have opened in America last year.

Grape Expectations
The Hudson Club (504 N. Wells St.; 312/467-1947; dinner for two $60), a streamlined new place designed to recall the swoosh of a thirties automobile, draws a huge after-work crowd for its impeccable cocktails and a credible lobster-mashed potato "martini" appetizer served in a cocktail glass.

But the restaurant's reason for being is what may be the grooviest wine program in America. A vast machine, as long as a stretch limo, keeps some 100 different bottles fresh. Wines are served in flights—sets of four two-ounce tastes of vintages arranged by grape, by region, or by whimsy. For $9 or so you can sample, say, Syrahs from four countries, or four different producers of Pouilly-Fuisseacute; or champagne—all cleverly designed to make discussions of Australian terroir or malolactic fermentation flow as easily as arguments about movies.

Mexican Haute Dance
At Topolobampo (445 N. Clark St.; 312/661-1434; dinner for two $75), owners Rick and Deann Bayless sometimes seem more concerned about your taking their scholarly brand of Mexican cooking seriously than they are about your having a really good time. The waiters push Tempranillo instead of margaritas, huitlacoche crêpes instead of enchiladas—and you won't find melted cheese on anything. But as much as Chicagoans love the Baylesses' more casual Frontera Grill (445 N. Clark St.; 312/661-1434; dinner for two $70) next door, Topolobampo is generally considered the most serious Mexican restaurant in the United States. And there is a great deal of pleasure in its haute-Mexican roast veal with chipotle peppers and wild mushrooms; grilled elk; and vibrant, soothing soup of puréed Mexican green quelites. If it's on the menu, don't pass up the coconut pie, a simple crust filled with dense, sweet, labor-intensive slivers of fresh coconut.

Ribbit
The broad-shouldered Chicago of the old WPA posters—the massive factories, belching smokestacks, sweat-drenched union men, and lumbering nearness of big rail—exists most visibly just south of the city, in the chemical plants and steel mills of northern Indiana. Set amid heavy industry, Phil Smidt's (1205 N. Calumet Ave., Hammond, Ind.; 773/768-6686; dinner for two $50) is a 75-year-old restaurant near the lakefront, just a stone's throw from the end of the Chicago Skyway.

Sunday dinner here is a Chicago tradition. The menu is simple—frog's legs, lake perch, and nutty-tasting smelt, all simply fried and (except for the perfect frog) drizzled in butter—but everything is exactly what it should be, from crisply uniformed waitresses to the sparkling kidney-bean salad with shaved celery. Even the cottage cheese is somehow special, a notch or two fresher than you've ever tasted. Gooseberry pie is everything a dessert should be, tart and sweet and just rich enough. And if you sit by the window, you can watch the trains rumble by all night.

But of Course . . .
About a zillion miles out of town, smack on a suburban highway in the middle of Wheeling's cheap-seafood district, Le Français (269 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling; 847/541-7470; dinner for two $140) could easily be mistaken for a chain restaurant, circa 1972: an oversize Norman cottage with vinyl wallpaper, faux coffered ceilings, and copper pots hanging on the walls. (The person most responsible for this décor, former chef/proprietor Jean Banchet, has been threatening a re-takeover when the restaurant's lease expires this fall.)

The waiters—tuxedoed, hand-wringing old-world types—look and act exactly like the ones who served Charles Boyer in the old movies. The average male customer on a Sunday seems to have endured at least one triple bypass. The wine list, while huge, is even more overpriced than the wine lists in Vegas. Not only is sorbet still served before the main course—a custom abandoned by fancy Parisian restaurants 20 years ago—but it comes in a glistening crystal orchid.

If you do a lot of eating at places like Charlie Trotter's, say, or Jean Georges in New York, Le Français may feel more like a theme park Gourmetland than it does a serious restaurant. But that's only until the food comes: chef Roland Liccione is the real goods. A cupful of foamy mushroom "cappuccino"—stick your spoon straight down and scoop up a bit of molten foie gras at its heart—is nearly as spectacular as the Jol Robuchon dish that inspired it. Sliced rare duck breast, glazed with persimmon and Armagnac, is as soft as butter. Chocolate soufflés are airy as a sigh.

It's almost a Chicago institution, the multicourse, candlelit, three-hour ritual I refer to as the Hundred-Dollar Dinner—see Ambria, Tallgrass, Carlos', Everest, Les Nomades—but of them all, perhaps only the one at Le Français is really worth the dough.

Leader of the Flock
When the dust begins to settle on late-nineties style, the predominant theme, I predict, will turn out to be the passionate recycling of lowbrow mid-century design, which is to say, that of the moment when postmodernism began to explicitly embrace the modern, as in the Wallpaper, Eames-worship thing. And the buzzy Chicago restaurant Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.; 312/715-0708; dinner for two $60), in the new Randolph Street restaurant corridor just west of the Loop, may become as emblematic of the current fin de sicle as, say, La Coupole is of the last one: a stylized Jackie O.-era bus-terminal look, retrofitted for speed, all pale colors, slick surfaces, and the sort of neo-harsh lighting that flatters the young and cheekbony.

Paul Kahan's take on American grill cuisine is as neomodern as his dining room, like a menu from the Four Seasons, circa 1964, given an end-of-the-century twist—and often one ingredient too many. An amuse-gueule might be a thimble-size crab cake with tarragon or a tiny vegetable fritter that splits the difference between a country-club canapeacute; and a pakora. Crisp fillets of local pike that would have passed muster at Chicago's old-line Cape Cod Room come draped over a sort of gooey fruit chutney. Kahan's signature grilled sturgeon on a bed of soft, sweet braised celery root is sprinkled with a small, crunchy dice of dilled celery root, fortified with crisp bits of braised oxtail, and surrounded by a ring of curry oil—this cooking may have Modernist tendencies, but it is by no means minimal. Such delicious, uncomplicated desserts as crêpes stuffed with chocolate mascarpone can actually come as a relief.

Ale Fellows, Well Met
A century-old downtown bastion of schnitzel and sauerbraten, the Berghoff (17 W. Adams St.; 312/427-3170; lunch for two $16) has tons of dark wood, herds of trophy animals, and white-aproned waiters so, um, experienced that they seem to creak when they walk. At lunch, the manly, old-fashioned barroom next door is the place to be, a standing-room buffet-line annex that used to be a men's grill. The food, mostly sandwiches of corned beef or sliced bratwurst, may be just a step or two above what you'd find at a neighborhood Hofbrau, but the house-made draft beers, ales, root beers, and bourbon are renowned—the Berghoff received the very first Illinois liquor license after Prohibition ended—and most of the customers look as if they've been regulars since Ernie Banks played for the Cubs.

Meat and Potatoes (or Bacon and Dumplings)
Lithuanian cooking, or at least Lithuanian cooking in America, takes no prisoners. The national dish, kugelis, is a potato pudding dense enough to stop mortar shells, and the signature potato-starch dumpling, cepelinai, may be elastic enough to qualify as an alternative energy source. A good Lithuanian cook has never seen a dish that a little bacon and sour cream couldn't improve—the food (fortified with a bottle of Lithuanian porter) is perfect ballast for a harsh Chicago winter.

Marquette Park, a tidy bungalow neighborhood southwest of the Loop, has traditionally been the center of Lithuanian-American life in Chicago, and a stronghold of butt steaks and kugelis. But as the community drifted to the western fringes of the city, out by Midway Airport, so did its restaurants. Mabenka (7844 S. Cicero Ave.; 708/423-7679; dinner for two $14), a gleaming, suburban palace of fruit dumplings and grated potatoes, cherry blintzes and Lithuanian sausages—staffed by waitresses in starched native costume—is plain and strange and wonderful, like an outtake from the Small World set at Disneyland that just happens to serve great sauerkraut soup.

Holy Cow!
Italian beef may be the least immediately lovable of Chicago's culinary specialties, a bland sandwich of thinly sliced beef (invariably from Scala Packing) with gravy and peppers on a soggy bun. And out-of-towners, listening to yet another heated debate between partisans of one beef stand or another, often find themselves wishing they could steer the conversation toward coleslaw, or the Cubs.

Al's (1079 W. Taylor St.; 312/226-4017), a popular beef stand on the short stretch of Taylor Street that still calls itself Little Italy, has an autographed picture of Jimmy Durante, piquant hot-pepper jardiniere, and the undeniable advantage of being directly across the street from Mario's Italian Lemonade, a summer-only Italian ice stand good enough to make other so-called kings of lemon ice seem like pretenders to the throne.

Still, I can't stay away from Mr. Beef on Orleans (666 N. Orleans St.; 312/337-8500), a classic greasy dive with Jay Leno memorabilia on the walls, cooks who compress diphthongs, and long lines of customers who can't help acting like tough guys for the time it takes to nosh a sandwich.

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