Restaurateurs and chefs as agents of urban renewal?In Chicago, they are playing a vital role in the city's New Urbanism by luring diners to neighborhoods on the verge. Check out some of the Second City's best new transformations.
615 W. RANDOLPH ST.; 312/377-2002; DINNER FOR TWO $60
THE SCENE Chef Paul Kahan of Blackbird has turned a dive diner into a wine bar in the West Loop's meatpacking district.
THE LOOK Snag a stool at the bar—the only other seating is at five communal tables, each with room for just eight people.
DON'T MISSCrushed-tomato and olive oil-braised octopus, sardines with Serrano ham, house-made fennel and orange salumi.
1307 S. WABASH AVE.; 312/922-2222; DINNER FOR TWO $80
THE SCENE A Japanese steak and sushi house in a former United Artists film distribution center in the "loftopolis" of the South Loop.
THE LOOK Japanese street art on the walls includes a three-by-eight-foot vintage neon sign that translates into "pleasure hotel."
DON'T MISS Pan-fried halibut cheeks with a deep-fried halibut futomaki roll; tonkatsu, or deep-fried pork, with Japanese pears.
Rockit Bar & Grill
22 W. HUBBARD ST.; 312/645-6000; DINNER FOR TWO $55
THE SCENE Nightlife duo Billy Dec and Brad Young update a 1900's lamp factory in the River North neighborhood.
THE LOOK Look for a seamless blending of old and new: six-foot-tall "antler" lamps, plasma TV's encased in antique frames.
DON'T MISS Twists on pub grub: Kobe beef burgers with vinegar-soaked fries, cornmeal-crusted calamari with baba ghanoush dipping sauce.
600 W. CHICAGO AVE.; 312/822-9600; DINNER FOR TWO $100
THE SCENE Franco-Japanese fusion from co-chefs Gene Kato and Jun Ichikawa in a former Montgomery Ward warehouse.
THE LOOK The flickering "wall of flames" in the dining room and the Chicago Tribune sign glowing across the river.
DON'T MISS Moo shu-style maple leaf-smoked duck; roast chestnut-crusted chicken with shiitake-rice stuffing and ginger-lemon sauce.
Rockit Bar & Grill
Home to what Good Morning America named the best burger in the nation, Rockit Bar & Grill is a River North landmark serving upscale American bar fare. The restaurant’s interior, designed by Nate Berkus of The Oprah Winfrey Show, consists of hardwood floors and exposed brick accented by antler chandeliers, wood-framed flat-screen TVs, and tabletops hewn from tree stumps. Patrons can also sit on the outdoor patio or in the bar area, featuring occasional live music performances. In addition to the famous Rockit Burger, menu highlights include the sweet potato fries and the Bloody Mary bar available during brunch.
Upon entering this modern Japanese restaurant, patrons are wowed by a Jeffrey Beers-designed interior adorned with a water wall, oversize mirrors, red leather chairs, and an undulating wooden ceiling hung with copper chandeliers. Visitors can dine at the sushi bar or head to the couch-filled lounge which opens onto a seasonal patio overlooking the Chicago River. As impressive as the restaurant's setting is the menu of traditional and contemporary Japanese dishes from executive chefs Jun Ichikawa and Gene Kato. Signatures include the lobster spring rolls and Le Quack Japonais: house-smoked duck with hoisin sauce, mango chutney, and moo shu wraps.