In Chicago, good restaurants aren’t hard to fine. Exceptional cuisine—both high and low end—is created in kitchens in every neighborhood of this sprawling metropolis. With such a smorgasboard of options, rising to the top of the heap is a challenge. So, which new restaurants make the grade this year? Here’s my criteria. First and foremost, to achieve hot-spot status, the eatery must have an inherent wow factor. This doesn’t mean fancy white tablecloths or sky-high prices. It’s the confluence of standout design, convivial ambiance, creative plating, compelling ingredients, outstanding flavors, attentive service, and, of course, a statement-making menu. It’s a lot to ask, for sure. But the fact of the matter is that dining out is a form of entertainment; every minute detail of the experience makes a solid impact. And these five spots deliver, but plan ahead! These are some of the most in demand tables in the city.
Restaurateur Donnie Madia and chef Paul Kahan are Chicago’s hospitality dream team. Their success continues at Nico, serving rustic Italian seafood in a glamorous space within the tony new Thompson Hotel. Palate pleasers include fresh crudo, lobster spaghetti, and salt-crusted branzino. Carnivores will go mad for quail al’tonnato (quail in a creamy sauce with olives and blood oranges) and the Neopolitan pork belly ragu.
Chef Kevin Hickey’s “kick back with a craft beer” persona is half the draw of his meat-centric bar and kitchen. The other half is the crazy, delicious menu of cocktails and food. Bottlefork’s wow factor is obvious; dishes like the Rich Man Po’ Boy (lobster, foie, crispy oysters) and braised beef poutine are inventive and packed with flavor, not pretension.
Chef Jared Wentworth has extended the culinary magic of restaurants Longman and Eagle to Duseks, a gastropub located in a former public hall. The vintage-inspired ambiance is enticing, but a spirited menu and two-dozen craft beers on tap seal the deal. Order the Ordinary, a nightly pairing of craft beer and a dish du jour.
Perched on a bar stool at a communal table in Wicker Park, you may encounter some of the boldest Asian-fusion flavors in the country. Chef Edward Kim’s shareable plates like candied shrimp kohlrabi salad, whiskey marinated pork neck, and General Tsao’s lamb sweetbreads usher in a new hipster iteration of the Asian street food genre.
In this 63,000-square-foot superstore, Mario Batali gives Chicago the ultimate Italian food court. There are 22 eateries, featuring a cross section of casual restaurants, fine-dining establishments, food counters, and bars. Your best bets are La Pizza, La Pasta, Le Verdure, Il Pesce, or the upscale Baffo Ristorante. Save room for Il Gelato downstairs. It’s molto delizioso.