Once a convention town, always a convention town? Hardly. In a big way, the Chicago dining scene of 2011 has seen a return to familiar, comforting cuisine. Even the old-school duo of meat and potatoes is welcome. But when prepared by the hands of a new generation of Chicago chefs, there’s nothing conventional about this city’s breed of rustic grub. Comfort food aside, Chicago's temples of haute cuisine continue to beckon food lovers and set the national standard for innovation.
Back in the 80s, chefs like Charlie Trotter, Jean Banchet, and Jean Joho laid the culinary underpinnings for a revolution that erupted with force circa 2000 and was swept in by chefs the likes of Sarah Stegner, Rick Tramonto, and Paul Kahan. So it’s no surprise the city continues to evolve into a culinary destination, not just for ambitious foodies, but for chefs themselves, who fly in from around the world for the chance to stage at influential, trendsetting Chicago kitchens.
Chicago is one of our favorite food cities in the country, and we’re always eager to go back and taste the changes. It’s home to a growing, innovative fast-casual scene, niches for avant-garde and traditional fine dining, and the continued expansion of chef-built restaurant empires. And while some of that creative smorgasbord owes itself to Chicago’s affordability and its location smack in the heart of the bountiful Midwest, the real magic of the city lies in its diners’ sophisticated and eager palates and chefs’ continued ability to both amaze and seriously satisfy them.
Aja at the Dana Hotel and Spa features modern, Asian-inspired cooking and draws on global components for a cosmopolitan feel. The setting complements the cuisine: the wood-paneled interior features elaborate carvings and ornamental robes as wall-hangings, reminiscent of some ancient shogun palace. In contrast, Aja Snak Bar, suspended just above the dining area, provides a partial “ceiling” that is unequivocally contemporary. Although we tasted at the restaurant before the departure of Chef Joshua Linton, the menu still provides elegantly composed dishes that straddle two ever-popular camps in Asian cooking: healthful and light, and deeply satisfying. An 18 Ingredient Salad takes its cue from the Greenmarket, while a dish of fatty hamachi served atop fresh guacamole highlights the restaurant’s focus on sustainable seafood.
At Aria, Executive Chef Brad Parsons and Chef Beverly Kim-Clark serve their special brand of Asian-accented, melting pot cuisine. And they employ (and consult) an international staff to execute Eastern updates to Western classics: you can order gnocchi with edamame, coconut polenta, and Thai bouillabaisse. For those who prefer an upbeat lounge to formal dining, Aria Bar and Sushi sets the mood for flirtatious cocktail imbibing and chopsticks play with a global sushi menu. The cuisine is only the beginning of the fun; both restaurants have an award-winning wine list.
You could save elegant Avenues for a special occasion. Or you could make an occasion out of an evening at this Michelin two-star foodie Mecca. Here you’ll find exceptional views of the city and the best seat in town to watch 2011 Rising Star Chef Curtis Duffy through his open kitchen. Duffy has a way with vegetables; he makes English peas sexy and mysterious, pairing them unexpectedly with cantaloupe and lavender. And for harmony of ingredients and sheer beauty, his plates are among the most artful in the city. Duffy’s cuisine is best experienced via the degustation menu, although à la carte options are available.Recommended:
To sample the luxury of Chicago’s Elysian Hotel at a price point you can stomach, stop by Balsan for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, drinks, or late night bites. You can hear the restaurant before you reach it and feel its energy pulsing as you pass. This is a place where beautiful people, business types, and food lovers in the know go to let loose and enjoy Chef Danny Grant’s thoughtfully prepared and sourced comfort food. The menu features house-made charcuterie, fashionable offal, and the requisite gourmet burger; there's also a marble-topped raw bar and a wood-burning oven for sides and entrées alike.
At Belly Shack, 2008 Rising Star Chef Bill Kim and wife Yvonne Kim built out the space with salvaged materials—like explosion-proof lights from a mine and a hulking 17th century church door that’s now a table. The space mingles economy with style, but soul is the main ingredient in Kim’s affordable, fast-casual cuisine. The Asian-Latin menu represents the marriage of Korean with Puerto Rican cultures (and the Kim union itself), and many dishes strive to be as healthful as possible—minus the signature, crave-inducing Belly Dog. A hearty and heart-healthy Hot and Sour Soup and satisfying Quinoa Ssam Salad leave guests with room for nonpareil soft serve ice cream, made with young coconut water.Recommended:
Pastry Chef-owner Jessica Oloroso of Black Dog Gelato knows that ice cream is difficult to get right, which is why she relies on instinct and lots of experimentation to come up with each batch of her silky-textured, creative gelato. Her creamy innovations have both superior mouthfeel and exciting flavor profiles (think Ricotta with Apricots and Honey and White Chocolate Banana Curry). This enterprising gelato chef started off with 2011 Rising Star Chef Stephanie Izard at her first venture, Scylla, and when the doors closed there, Oloroso took the ice cream machine home with her. A client base built from the ground up and some hard work in wholesale led to Oloroso’s dream come true: a place of her own. With its tickle-me-pink décor and fresh-cut flowers, Black Dog Gelato is ideal for drawing in street traffic. But it’s her exceptional frozen treats that are bringing palate-pleased Chicagoans back for more.Recommended:
The world is in perfect order at Chef Paul Kahan’s Blackbird. No where else in Chicago is the dining experience more complete and utterly in sync. Chef David Posey’s food is laid-back yet luxurious, and his flavor combinations—think garbanzo beans, pickled pear, caramelized egg yolk, and sumac—have the power to wake up palates to new possibilities. Likewise, 2011 Rising Star Pastry Chef Patrick Fahy exploits classic techniques to introduce novel sweets—like his much talked about Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Panna Cotta. Sommelier Eduard Seitan makes pairing look effortless and fun. He's likely to point out the sunny hue shared by Domaine Des Baumard Trie Spèciale Sauvennieres and the chamomile breadcrumbs dusting Posey’s eggplant confit—matching takes on new meaning in his hands. And Mixologist Lynn House's drinks are postcards for far away places like Oz, Mexico, and London, but her drinks’ ingredients—herbs, syrups, and even apple butter—have a locally grown Chicago address.Recommended:
If Bonsoirée were a type of real estate, it would be a small but well appointed pied-à-terre, a place that celebrates quality over quantity and serves as a hideout from the banal realities of everyday living. 2011 Rising Star Chef Shin Thompson took a risk opening up this 28-seat mini-temple to haute cuisine. And on all counts, he’s succeeded. The postage stamp dining room is serene in pale grey tones, and Thompson manages to cook some of the city’s top food in a bite-sized kitchen. His dishes are once precise, delicious, interactive, and witty; encapsulated Bread ‘n Butter is a high-brow play on a table’s oft second fiddle, and Duck, Duck, Goose is as seriously good as it is silly. This is Shin Thompson’s world. We’re just (thankfully) eating in it.Recommended:
2008 Chicago Rising Star Chef Giuseppe Tentori dispenses the benefits of his champion pedigree and brings complex flavor pairings and techniques to his smart, casual tables in Boka’s seductive setting. His guests also benefit from the mature, expertly-structured cocktails of Barman Benjamin Schiller, whose inventive cocktails recall a certain time and place—a stodgy wood-paneled library, Hotel California, or a Thanksgiving table. Pastry Chef Kady Yon brings an insightful sense of creativity to her desserts at meal’s end, either warming up to her guests with Honeycrisp Apple Cake, Vadouvan Apple Butter, Pickled Walnuts and Yogurt Gelato, or seducing them with Smoked Chocolate Gelato.Recommended:
Chef Nicole Pederson leads the kitchen at this inviting (and vaguely nautically themed) Marcus Samuelsson restaurant at Chicago’s Affinia Hotel. The “C” in C-House used to stand for chops, but with Pederson at the helm, meat and potatoes are far from the focus. Farmers’ market fare dictates Pederson’s menu; she pays equal attention to a delicate mushroom terrine and Swiss chard stems as she does a big ol’ hunk of pork. If you have room for dessert, try one of Pastry Chef Toni Roberts' sweet, nostalgic combinations like grown-up milkshakes and candy bar bites.Recommended:
Need to make a restaurant recommendation for a bride, businessman, Chicago native, weary Miracle Mile tourist, prix-fixe hound, or devotee to all things sugary? Try Café des Architectes at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower. Chef Greg Biggers oversees a loosely French breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner—not to mention a 30-minute executive lunch and meals with loads of prix-fixe options. On weekends, the hotel and restaurant welcome wedding parties who traipse up the hotel’s sweeping staircase for photo-ops framed by Near North views. Whatever the occasion, 2011 Rising Star Hotel Pastry Chef Meg Galus has her hands in all things sweet. You can sample her desserts à la carte or through a sinful four-course degustation menu. And at the very least, her Parisian Mini Desserts—at $3 a pop—are impossible to resist.Recommended:
Michelle Obama dines in this wood-paneled retreat with views of Lake Michigan, and so can you, if you’re a member or the guest of a member of the University Club. Entrance may be exclusive, but currying favor with a University clubber is a small price to pay for a bite of dessert prepared by 2011 Chicago Rising Star Pastry Chef Jimmy MacMillan. You can find MacMillan’s desserts at the jacket-required Cathedral Hall, and the only slightly less blue-blood, open-for-lunch Front Grill.Recommended:
Chef Harold Jurado’s first venture as a restaurateur, Chizakaya, is the Asian delegation among Chicago’s hot (and prestigious) congress of gastropubs. And though it occupies the same space that his mother’s restaurant filled while he was growing up, the restaurant is 100 percent Harold. Chizakaya’s walls are ablaze with Samurai murals and cheerfully spray-painted bricks that bespeak Jurado’s youthful spirit and culinary voice. The chef woos diners with an affordable small-bites menu and unusual, flavorful ingredient combinations. Jurado’s food is purposeful and soulful, from a Midwest-meets-Far-East Hamachi and Bone Marrow dish (with house-cured umeboshi standing in for traditional red onion jam) to a Blue Crab and Corn Congee, which manages to be at once comforting and sexy.Recommended:
Chef Cleetus Friedman’s City Provisions is a friendly neighborhood deli, with sun pouring in and a passionate commitment to sustainability pouring out of its kitchen and catering services. Friedman’s food pays homage to classic, unaffected Midwestern cooking, made with high-quality, eco-friendly ingredients. Crusty, golden Potato Latkes are paired with a Ginger Apple Sauce and have just the right balance of fat, salt, sweet, and acid. But it’s the Turkey Sandwich with House-made Rosemary Mayo that will spur a dead-of-night craving.Recommended:
At Courtright’s, diners are just as likely to see game on the menu as they are to spy white tail deer prancing by the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. This isn’t Chicago, folks. Courtright’s is nestled in the rural community of Willow Springs, roughly a half hour southwest of Chicago. And this out-of-the-way restaurant has been a worthwhile trek for generations of Chicago foodies. Chef Jerome Bacle continues the restaurant’s proud tradition, and with mentors like Georges Perrier and a résumé including Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia and La Tante Claire in London, he has the pedigree to execute serious Gallic cuisine.Recommended:
Custom House calls itself a tavern, but little about 2008 Chicago Rising Star Restaurateur Shawn McClain’s restaurant recalls a raucous, beer-swilling brew house. Maybe it’s the mid-century vibe. Maybe it’s the white tablecloths or thoughtful, seasonal menu. Name aside, one thing is clear: food is the star in this restaurant known for both its savory and sweet sides. Pastry Chef Bryce Caron’s desserts elicit an emotive response from guests and involve extensive experimentation (his chartreuse candies took four years to develop). And his presentations are meticulous, reminiscent of English meadows or jewelry boxes.Recommended:
The anchor restaurant to the boutique, Silver LEED-certified Hotel Felix strives to bring easygoing, affordable elegance to Chicago’s River North neighborhood. The restaurant’s décor is 21st century rustic chic, and the bar is designed for conversation. Floor-to-ceiling windows brighten the space during the day and provide city views at night. Chef Chris Curren garnered national attention in his native Cleveland for work at 3 Birds Restaurant before making a name for himself in Chicago as the owner of the popular Blue 13. He now divides time between his own restaurant and Elate, which serves crowd-pleasing, market-driven fare accompanied by a boutique wine list and craft cocktails.Recommended:
Pastry Chef Sandra Holl sold baked goods at Chicago’s Green City Market for five years before laying the brick and mortar foundation on her dreams. Now owner of Floriole Bakery, this classically trained French pastry chef draws inspiration from the Green City Market community, as well as her time at Tartine in San Francisco. At this Lincoln Park and Chicago Magazine favorite, Holl’s team of wholesome, flour-dusted, and colorfully handkerchief-ed assistants are ever on view to a croissant-loving crowd, courtesy of a glass window in the dining room.Recommended:
Rugged, sleek, and antique chic Gilt Bar is a place for sexy lumberjacks (or at least those clad in plaid) to lounge. This popular River North watering hole is the first labor of love of restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff. And Chef de Cuisine Jason Vaughan’s menu satisfies the cologne-scented, coiffed Paul Bunyan type. His Roasted Bone Marrow with Red Onion Marmalade is a lusty, husky plate fit for your typical axe-wielding, oxen-driving duo. Sodikoff followed up his Gilt success with the new Maude’s Liquor Bar and Doughnut Vault, the latter of which recently opened next door to Gilt.Recommended:
Girl & the Goat is one of the hottest restaurants in America, and it’s where 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Stephanie Izard showcases big, bold flavors and exciting, international ingredient combinations. Izard takes not-so-serious food quite seriously, and she serves her rustic dishes in a comfortable, but still edgy-industrial setting with a view of the star chef in action through a long open kitchen. Even though Izard painstakingly sources local ingredients, including the restaurant’s namesake goat, none of that translates into pretension or preciousness. Hers is food that’s meant to be devoured.Recommended:
2005 Chicago Rising Star Graham Elliot Bowles’ namesake restaurant in River North is a casual, cool house for playful, even cheeky American cuisine. All fine dining pretense is gone, but the character is the same—deconstructed Caesar salad still graces the menu (albeit in less composed form), and reconstructed buffalo wings and beef stroganoff are hits as well. And with Bowles’ restaurant empire expanding, Chef de Cuisine Merlin Verrier has taken a greater part in shaping the fun. The sleek, dark wood restaurant is an excellent spot for a chic dinner before a night downtown. But food is entertainment enough here. And like a good drama, the menu comes with thoughtful twists—curried marshmallows and powdered foie, anyone? Presentations have an Alice in Wonderland-like quality, and beverage pairings might include a classic Burgundy, an obscure Slovenian vintage, or a beer cocktail served in a laboratory beaker.Recommended:
2005 Rising Star Chef Graham Elliot Bowles generated enough attention through his Twitter account to stir up something of a phenomenon with his sandwich joint, grahamwich. And apart from the décor (including mismatched vintage trays and a little come-hither pastry case) and adorably-dressed staff, the sandwiches do a great job balancing gooey and crispy, fatty and acidic, and absolutely delicious with I’ll-have-another. A new menu with all new sandwiches has just rolled out—only the irreplaceable Grilled Cheese and Pastrami Rueben remain from the original. Sides include homemade chips, pickles, and popcorn, and sweet soft serve for dessert.Recommended:
2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Dirk Flanigan’s second venture, the 60-seater Henri, is The Gage’s youthful, well-bred sister—the one who wears diamonds and pearls in her hair, gets tipsy, and laughs at dirty jokes. The gracefully appointed dining room, with its chocolate velvet-covered walls and white crown molding, comes alive with joie as the wine flows from expert Sommelier Sheb Ince’s orchestrated flights or magnum specials. Flanigan’s menu may be rooted in the refined principles of classic cuisine, but as with any cheek-flushed ingénue, Henri really kicks up its heels for innovation in flavor combinations and technique. Dover Sole Meunière comes deboned, reconstructed, and served with lemon supremes and butter powder; Eel and Foie Gras Terrine is served with rich, savory shiso gelée. Mixologist Clint Rogers’ exultant cocktails and Pastry Chef Carly Sullivan’s decorous French confections further enliven this Michigan Avenue coquette.Recommended:
Depending on the weather, Jam can serve as a cozy nook or a sunny spot for brunch. It serves breakfast-y vittles every day until 3 pm. And when the Chicago’s farmers’ market is open, dinner is available, too. Either way, Chef Jeffrey Mauro’s food is served with an extra dash of soul. Years of experience, including two years on the line at Charlie Trotter’s and a formative stage at Martín Berasategui, come through in Mauro’s technique and execution—evident in dishes like his pristine poached egg (the secret: plastic wrap). And the restaurant’s namesake condiment comes in many delicious forms—Banana-Milk, Raspberry, and Sweet Mustard—ready to smear on toast, slather onto paninis, top a bowl of oatmeal, and plop onto pancakes.Recommended:
Cosmopolitan Japonais, with locations in Chicago and Las Vegas (the New York location closed in early 2011), is the place for lounging amid sleek, sexy décor and popping signature sushi rolls into one’s mouth (or the mouth of one’s date). Until recently, 2005 Chicago Rising Star Gene Kato was on hand to prepare hot appetizers and fusion entrées. And in a restaurant so geared towards flirtation, what better to cap an evening than a little something sweet? Pastry Chef Kym DeLost’s desserts fuse classic French and Japanese flavors and techniques with imaginative touches. DeLost’s take on tarte tatin employs a Toban Yaki—a traditional Japanese cooking vessel powered by steam—just the ticket to heat things up at night’s end.Recommended:
Ask a Chicago chef where he or she goes to eat and the likely enthusiastic reply is Kith & Kin. With the departure of Chef David Carrier last September, many might have considered the new restaurant’s fate to dangle on the wind, but Carrier stayed on as a consulting chef, and Andrew Brochu (formerly of Alinea and Pops for Champagne) stepped up from the role of chef de cuisine to lead the brigade. The vibe is cozy, comforting, down-home, and local-whenever-possible—never better maximized than at the fireplace table. Brochu puts an emphasis on top quality ingredients like Murray River salt and farmed sustainable seafood. Blackened Tiger Shrimp invite diners to use their fingers. And the inevitable and shameless act of finger-licking is surely to follow.Recommended:
The New York Times calls Longman & Eagle’s cuisine “hipster gonzo.” We call it gutsy comfort. Whatever the tagline, it’s pretty much summed up by a piping cup of Savory Foie Gras Hot Chocolate. Chef Jared Wentworth and Pastry Chef Jeremy Brutzkus (formerly owner of the now-closed Coco Rouge Chicago and pastry caterer to Alex Stupak’s wedding) concoct fanciful dishes with little fear and clearly no loathing. Their brash, calorific food is a welcome addition to Chicago’s comfort scene, and the city’s chefs head to the restaurant’s cubbyhole dining room and its well-stocked bar to replenish and nourish themselves after working hard on the line.Recommended:
Run by 2005 Chicago Rising Star Chefs Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, Lula is the consummate neighborhood spot—open pretty much all day, with a casual vibe and excellent, reasonably priced food crafted from local produce. Despite their lack of formal culinary training, this couple turns out delicious comfort food that you could eat every day and be satisfied. Breakfast is served until 2:30 on weekdays, and Monday night they offer a 3-course farm dinner for $28. In keeping with the laidback theme, Pastry Chef Kate Neumann prepares updated, homespun desserts that recall sweets at a (sophisticated) grandmother’s table.Recommended:
Opened only short time, Chef and Restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff’s Maude’s Liquor Bar has already hooked the appetites of chefs and mixologists around town. Sodikoff’s imaginative concept sends diners to French coastal waters circa the era of parasols, and invites them to dip their toes in the Med and sip period cocktails and champagne. Go to indulge in Maude’s Plataeux, a triple-tiered platter piled high with cold and briny fruits de mer. Chef Jeff Pikus, formerly of Alinea, heads the menu that features a combination of antique French meets Greenmarket-aware American.Recommended:
You can enter Mercat a la Planxa from Michigan Avenue, but you’ll have more fun
Located in Chicago’s artist-filled Pilsen neighborhood, Nightwood is the second restaurant from 2005 Chicago Rising Star Chefs Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds. The restaurant has the look of a vintage cafeteria—but with beautiful leather seats, pressed tin ceilings, and a wall of stacked firewood. Chef Jason Vincent’s food has a similar aesthetic. It’s mature and straightforward, and his rustic presentations belie the depths and clarity of flavor in his dishes. Vincent approaches the menu from a practical standpoint: what product is available now, and what’s the best way to use it? Nightwood is a place to go with good friends. It’s a place where pretense doesn’t matter, only the integrity of what’s on the plate.Recommended:
Chef Bruce Sherman is one of the Midwest’s best-known adherents to the local-seasonal philosophy. And his cozy, lodge-like restaurant, North Pond (overlooking Lincoln Park’s North Pond) is an enchanting setting in any season. Brunch is hearty, often with an almost Southern feel, and the dinner menu features the area’s best local products. Pastry Chef Greg Mosko’s perfectly composed desserts are reason enough to visit North Pond. His flavor combinations and use of acid and salt stand out among Chicago pastry chefs, and even after the largest of dinners, diners are bound to lick their dessert plates clean.Recommended:
Watch a game; stay for dinner. Old Town Social is a sports bar for foodies—if they can handle the noise, big screen TVs, and oblivious drinkers who know the charcuterie is mmm-inducing good but don’t care that it was made in house or from well-treated animals. 2011 Rising Star Concept Chef Jared Van Camp’s menu leans heavily toward meats and comfort food—as bar food should—but there’s a respectable cheese list and a salad or two for the herbivores in the crowd. For diners and drinkers interested in more than a session beer, Beverage Director Chris Freeman has assembled an extensive beer list, featuring local favorites and obscure European brews alike. Freeman pairs them expertly with Van Camp’s unpretentious grub, if you’re into that kind of thing.Recommended:
At Michael Jordan steakhouse one sixtyblue, Charlie Trotter protégé Chef Michael McDonald serves a menu that takes into account the always-demanding palate of the Chicago diner, with nods to small farms and a keen eye on the latest culinary trends. Pastry Chef Hillary Blanchard’s desserts strike just the right balance of familiar and fresh. Her Carrot Cake is pan-fried and served with cream cheese ice cream; a Key Lime Bomb comes with a light citrus salad. Instead of relying on gastro-pyrotechnics to wow guests, Blanchard gets to the root of some of America’s favorite desserts and then makes them better.Recommended:
When we last tasted at Lincoln Park favorite Perennial, 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Ryan Poli was still behind the line. Though he recently left to open his Latin-inspired Tavernita, diners will be in safe hands with 2005 Chicago Rising Star Chef Paul Virant and at the updated Perennial Virant. The restaurant, already in possession of numerous accolades, including three stars from the Chicago Tribune, has been acclaimed for its successful integration of luxury with casual charm.
Prairie Fire is the spirited second venture of the duo behind Northbrook’s popular Prairie Grass Café—two-time James Beard award winner Chef Sarah Stegner and Chef George Bumbaris. The restaurant occupies a national landmark building, conveniently located in Chicago’s West Loop. The seasonal, small-farms-forward menu proves that old-fashioned favorites can take on new dimensions when there’s no shortage of passion and commitment. A classic dish of steak and potatoes becomes something to write home about when a melt-in-your-mouth filet is paired with a creamy, smoky, old-school twice-baked potato that’s amped up with local cheddar and bacon. A Winter Vegetable Salad is raw, crunchy, and vibrant. Honey from the restaurant’s own beehive (housed at Heritage Prairie Farms) becomes the focus of an annual Prairie Fire event celebrating August’s sticky harvest—where community involvement, environmental responsibility, and authentic American comfort food intertwine, naturally.Recommended:
RIA is the softer, elegant, two-Michelin-star sister of the boisterous Balsan in The Elysian Hotel. And though the chef we tasted with has since departed, his right hand man, Chef Danny Grant, has taken over the kitchen, and he continues to seduce diners with luxurious ingredients used to their best advantage. Dishes are clean and modern, and are carried by surprising but harmonious flavor combinations. Wine Director Dan Pilkey’s wine preferences lean Old World, and are apt matches for Grant’s polished dishes—his pairings are a delight in their novelty and compatibility with the food. Pastry Chef Stephanie Prida’s desserts are stylish and true to the ingredients that inspire them. Even after a cream-foie-truffle-filled meal, her cakes are delectably moist and rich; each flavor stands out, and there’s always a hint of acidity to bring balance and keep forks digging in for more.Recommended:
Sexy Sepia exudes a quaint early-20th century feel, spiced up with Modernist black and white décor, somewhat suggestive framed antique photos, and a lovely tiled floor that recalls turn-of-the-century Barcelona. Swank chandeliers encased in smoky glass fill the lively, though still intimate, dining room and provide a contemporary edge. 2011 Rising Star Chef Andrew Zimmerman prepares refined American cuisine with traditional European touches. The former wannabe rock star has an artist’s eye for presentation and a musician’s talent for detecting harmony and balance amid ingredients. Mixologist Josh Pearson’s sensual, aromatic drinks appeal to both sexes.Recommended:
Trump Tower’s 16th floor may not have an exclusive on Chicago city views, but where else but Sixteen can you savor freshly shaved black truffles while staring directly into the skyline? 2003 New Orleans Rising Star Chef Frank Brunacci prepares sophisticated, playful dishes, and knows just as well how to scale back technique and presentation to highlight the simplicity and purity of product. Pastry Chef Sarah Kosikowski’s desserts are sweet spectacles that play off of Brunacci’s flair for high-end fun. And 2011 Rising Star Sommelier Rachael Lowe joins in the game with a skill for pairings honed during years at Gordon Ramsay at The London and Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.Recommended:
Chef Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia remains one of Chicago’s finest spots for Italian fine dining. And with Chef Sarah Grueneberg now leading the kitchen, the bar for high-level Italian cuisine is set just as high. Grueneberg’s passion for Italian culture and products translates into exquisite homemade pastas, beautiful composed vegetable dishes, and sumptuous meats and fish. Sommelier Steven Alexander brings encyclopedic knowledge of wine (Italian and otherwise) and an approachable personality to every table.Recommended:
If you have any preconceived notions of suburban hotel dining, leave them at coat check when you enter 2011 Rising Star Sustainability Chef Geoff Rhyne’s SugarToad at Hotel Arista in Naperville, Illinois. Rhyne has a garden where he grows vegetables and herbs, and he makes charcuterie in house with whole animals sourced from local farmers. Rhyne’s food is comforting and homey and laced with an unpretentious Southern accent (by way of Georgia and South Carolina). Wine and cocktail pairings—and warm service—from Sommelier Timothy Penick complete the dining package. A meal at SugarToad has rural leanings, big city appeal, and a happy home in suburbia.Recommended:
Chef David Schneider opened Taxim in Wicker Park to feature the diversity inherent in Greek cuisine, and his menu features dishes whose origins stretch from Western Greece through Asia Minor. Greek yogurt, lamb and pork charcuterie, cured fish, breads, flatbreads, and phyllo pastry are all house-made and paired with an all Greek wine list. For culinary history buffs, Schneider is also an entertaining, as well as walking, encyclopedia on the subject of Greek eating.Recommended:
The brigade at The Bristol, including Mixologist President Debbi Peek and front-of-house manager and partner John Ross, is like the cast of your favorite hit 70s television sitcom. They’re all colorful standouts in their own right, and you want to keep tuning in to see what delicious shenanigans they’ll get into this week. 2011 Rising Star Chef Chris Pandel is the cast’s loveable leader, serving soul-satisfying, Euro-Mediterranean dishes like Rabbit Liver and Kidney Lyonnaise. Pastry Chef Amanda Rockman does for desserts what Maryann did for the Professor (that is, melt her diners’ hearts with the pastry equivalent to big brown eyes—one bite of her pot de crème and you’d understand), and Mixologist Debbi Peek keeps drinkers and diners coming back for more with her MacGyver-like twists—of both lemon and technique.Recommended:
At The Publican, Chef Paul Kahan and Chef de Cuisine Brian Huston have crafted a menu inspired by simple farmhouse fare for a space that recalls a European beer hall. The design comes courtesy of Thomas Schlesser, who has so far drawn up plans for all the houses that Kahan built. Though you can dine on fish and seafood dishes (oysters are a don’t-miss), the stars are charcuterie and beer. Huston's charcuterie plate features some of the best meaty bites we've tasted and all components are made in house, down to the celery root pickles and mustards—be they whipped, sweet and creamy, or bright and bold with spice and acidity. Certified Cicerone (one of only a handful of such beer experts in the country) and 2011 Chicago Rising Star Sommelier Michael McAvena has a vast library of labels at his disposal, and he lets beer knowledge flow, along with easy hospitality.Recommended:
The Purple Pig calls itself a “Mecca for swine and wine,” and it most certainly celebrates pig in all its many forms—ham, porchetta, milk-braised shoulder, pork rillette, pig ear, braised tail, and ’nduja to name a few. But if pork isn’t your thing (sacre bleu), 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. will keep you full with seafood, salads, kebabs, fried bits, cheeses, and other Mediterranean-inspired fair. Bannos—a fourth generation Chicago restaurateur and Mario Batali protégé—highlights the best of old Europe at The Pig, including guilty-pleasure smears and an exclusively European wine and beer list.Recommended:
A meal at the gorgeous, art-filled Tru is an exercise in elegance and surprise, and the recent addition of Chef-partner Anthony Martin and a Michelin star have infused new energy into this bulwark of Chicago fine dining. Martin pairs high-brow and low-brow flavors like popcorn and foie gras, and elevates dishes with well-honed, disciplined technique. To enjoy Martin’s luxurious fare without wine would be a crime, and Tru mainstay Sommelier Chad Ellegood presents thoughtful wine pairings that dance between Old World and New and consistently put Tru’s cuisine where it belongs: on a pedestal.Recommended:
Uncommon Ground, on Devon Street in Wrigleyville, became a bastion for sustainability in Chicago 20 years ago, way back before local and organic were fashionable. The custom-designed blonde wood bar glows with good cheer, and with the fireplace crackling, you'd swear you just arrived home from a long time spent away. Owners Helen and Michael Cameron are caretakers at the original Uncommon Ground and its kid brother—the newer Uncommon Ground on Clark Street in Edgewater. Product is seasonal, locally produced, family farmed, and organic whenever possible. Chef Justin Martin, who heads the kitchen in Wrigleyville, puts out dishes are that are homey, loving, and honest-to-goodness good for you.Recommended:
With urbanbelly, 2008 Chicago Rising Star Bill Kim has created a hip, fast-casual counter service restaurant with high-caliber delicious food and a deep-rooted emphasis on the communal dining experience. Prices are reasonable, flavors are big, tangy, savory, and bold, and Chef Kim’s dishes are incredibly satisfying. Noodles are justifiably the main attraction, but urbanbelly is more than just a noodle bar, so be sure to branch out. And if you can’t make it out to this Avondale neighborhood eatery, there’s always Kim’s latest, Asian-Latin fusion Belly Shack.
Vie still is the culinary darling of Western Springs, Illinois, and a destination restaurant for many a Chicago diner seeking the thoughtful, seasonal fare of 2005 Chicago Rising Star Chef Paul Virant. Virant applies his philosophy of simplicity with best-quality produce; each item on a dish can stand alone, but together they inform one another and create an entirely new level of tasting experience. The recent addition of Pastry Chef Rochelle DuBridge brings a new playfulness to Vie’s sweets—her pastries are gussied-up versions of childhood favorites like Yodels and PB&J.Recommended:
At Brad Bolt’s bare-knuckles Bar Deville, don’t expect to see rules of conduct hanging from the bathroom wall. Though this Chicago mixologist did spring from the wells of The Violet Hour, his concept is geared towards the everyman, cooks included, who are as likely to kick back with a Miller High Life or a Pabst Tall Boy as an expertly crafted cocktail. For one thing, he’s got a way with Jeppson’s Malort that will change your mind about the oft-misunderstood spirit. Bolt’s drink philosophy puts simplicity first, and he prefers to think of his place as a casual, unpretentious bar that also serves a solid mixed drink.Recommended:
In 2009, the team behind some of Chicago’s most colorful concepts (Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander, Eduard Seitan, and Peter Garfield) opened honky-tonk taqueria Big Star in Wicker Park. It’s a simple formula: the food is refreshing, satisfying, and cheap. The bar’s soundtrack delivers the whole joint to a red sky prairie. At the bar, stocked by Mixologist Michael Rubel, you can get dollar beers and a shot of tequila with glowing approval from your bartender. And if you’re into Bourbon, you’re in luck. Rubel has a deep respect for the American spirit, and he has a knack for mixing the nuances of bourbon with the mineral and ash properties of Mezcal, along with the roots and foraged herbs that go into his house-made bitters and tinctures.Recommended:
Many bars may have left their secretive airs behind, but there’s a reason that the Prohibition bar trend took off. And it’s places like Sable Kitchen and Bar that remind you why. The scene is dark, sophisticated, and comfortable. Its big leather chairs and roaring fireplace beg a snifter of something strong, and the adjoining restaurant, under Executive Chef Heather Terhune, sends hard-to-resist nibbles to the bar. Head Bartender Mike Ryan is ever at the ready to give the hardworking of the Windy City something to celebrate. He serves an enormous range of cocktails that are invariably flavorful, whether it be a smoky, medicinal, or fresh flavor profile that piques your interest.Recommended:
Having read up on 19th century bartenders and their shrubs and syrups, Mixologist Charles Joly isn’t out to reinvent anything, but rather to turn back the clock for his guests, with a steady hand that also guides his drinks into a new era. He sources bitters locally and emphasizes seasonality in his cocktails, which are designed in close collaboration with Chef Nick Lacasse for the kitchen’s progressive American menu. Joly’s refreshing, unfussy attitude toward hospitality means the bar often stays open extra late for chefs who want a satisfying nightcap after work.Recommended:
When The Violet Hour, conceived by Paul Kahan, Terry Alexander, and Toby Maloney, opened in 2007, it swept Chicago away on a tide of revamped classic cocktails. Accolades (and accolades) aside, The Violet Hour continues to lead Chicago's cocktail scene. Designed by Thomas Schlesser, the bar’s palette of tranquil blues, cushy, tall-backed chairs, and small tables encourage conversation and easy drinking. Today, Mixologist Stephen Cole heads the bar with quiet dedication and a passion for spirits and history. His drinks may be time-honored, but his editorial vision breaks new ground. Cole, a stickler for detail, points out with charming earnest that his smooth and herbaceous Sazerac, which calls for Herbsaint, does not strictly adhere to the traditional recipe. And the suck-it-down-in-two-seconds Bricia Cantina, a Tequila drink with a summer punch quality and a whisper of spice, further shows off his range.Recommended:
Depending on the night, a visit to the The Whistler could entail shaking your rear end to vintage outlaw country, krunk, or jazz, courtesy of bands fresh off of the South by Southwest festival or DJs hailing from San Francisco. The Ghostbuster in you might take the stage on movie karaoke night, or you could unabashedly read aloud at the Annual Erotic Fiction Contest. The Whistler’s community events-style calendar goes hand in hand with a space that, by day, seems designed for after-school band practice and bake sales. By night, with the lights down low, an atmosphere of kids-at-camp-up-way-past-bedtime takes over. And from the behind the bar, 2011 Rising Star Mixologist Paul McGee makes $8 cocktails that combine a depth and breadth of ingredient knowledge with a fine-tuned sense of balance, whetted by half a lifetime spent behind the bar.Recommended:
The over-stuffed, lime green leather benches and leopard print bar stools don’t exactly scream homegrown, but the drinks at Watershed are local, local, local; all beers, wines, and spirits come from the Midwest (there is an errant cheese from Vermont, but we won’t tell if you don’t). The house mixologists strive to keep their bar progressive but also comfortable, with vibrant and gaudy-in-a-good-way cocktails. Because Watershed is unlike any other bar in the neighborhood, and a little hard to find, the scene is laidback and mellow. We recommend you try to find it.Recommended:
A hop, skip, and tiny jump from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile—aptly named for the sheer abundance of things to see, do, and buy—this boutique hotel easily keeps its guest entertained. The rooms are on the smaller side, but with retro splashes of color and hints of style, they’re never uncomfortable. The hotel restaurant, C-House, provides guests with seasonal American fare with subtle touches of innovation thanks to the efforts of Part-owner and Chef Marcus Samuelsson , Executive Chef Nicole Pederson, and recent arrival, Pastry Chef Melissa Trimmer.
Blackstone is easily one of the funkiest hotels in Chicago. With retro architecture, plush furnishings, and a bold color scheme, a stay at Blackstone is very tongue-in-cheek chic. The Hubbard Place Lounge offers exclusive services for the hotel’s elite guests and features freshly prepared food, a private concierge, and access to a Lexus LS Hybrid hotel car. The hotel’s Art Hall features rotating exhibits with works from local Chicago artists and is open to all.
Located in the River North area of Chicago, minutes away from both Streeterville and Chicago’s Gold Coast, Dana Hotel and Spa is a stylish boutique hotel with full amenities, including a business center, meeting and event rooms, a gym, and the total spa experience. A well-appointed menu of self-indulgent activities includes massages, facials, a Hanakasumi Japanese Body Ritual, and pedicures at the Serene Pedicure Treatment Area. A contemporary Asian aesthetic fills the hotel’s voluminous lobby in warm neutral tones, which carries over to the rooms. Each room is elegantly styled in sustainable woods, including hand-hewn Jarrah floors, comfortable beds, and bathrooms with spa-inspired showers. Dining options include the Asian-inspired Aja, the casual, hip Aja Snak Bar, and the Vertigo Skytop Lounge, named to Conde Nast Traveler's 2009 Hot List.
For a seriously swank and stylish hotel experience, Chicago’s new The Elysian Hotel is unmatched. Rooms and suites are huge, averaging 890 square feet. Furnished terraces, fireplaces, and beds draped with 460-thread count Italian linens outfit each luxuriously appointed room. White Carrera marble bathrooms come with soaking tubs, separate showers, and dual vanities, and the hotel spa offers body wraps, therapeutic massage, facials, spa gatherings, a men’s atelier, pilates, and in-room service. For hotel dining, The Elysian offers upbeat bistro fare at Balsan and sumptuous fine dining at the Michelin two-star RIA.
As downtown Chicago’s first hotel designed to meet Silver LEED certification, the all-new boutique Hotel Felix features a restored 1920s façade and a spa-like experience within. Dancing waters and white marble columns in the lobby lead to the upscale American restaurant Elate, featuring the work of Chef Chris Curren. Rooms are gracefully appointed with luxurious cotton linens and stocked with equally luxurious bathrobes, complimentary high-speed Internet, and flat screen TVs. Hotel amenities include red carpet concierge, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and a fully-equipped professional business center. Unwind in the rejuvenating spa or with a craft cocktail in the hotel lounge.
Travelers to Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park are first greeted by a grand, newly renovated lobby—a first glimpse at the $50 million hotel makeover. The Eno Wine Room, a 2010 winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, lies invitingly at its center. The David Rockwell-designed rooms are spacious, comfortable, and retro-chic, and marble-tiled bathrooms are fitted with separate tubs and showers. At MySpa—an 11,000-square-foot, full-service sanctuary—guests can enjoy massage, skin and body treatments, and a fitness studio. For fine dining, the award-winning Aria, led by Chef Beverly Kim-Clark and Executive Hotel Chef Brad Parsons, provides a contemporary twist on new-world Asian, with an eclectic signature sushi menu and an extensive wine list. The Aria Bar and Sushi Club provides the same level of quality in a lounge experience.
The James lies in the heart of downtown Chicago. Green modernity and warm hospitality are twin themes that first greet guests at this luxurious hotel’s entrance. The spacious lobby features a walk-in-the-woods-themed photograph occupying two walls and a tall stack of colorful vintage suitcases. Stylish rusticity carries on to the guest rooms, outfitted with sustainable wood floors, and bathrooms designed with wood, marble, and slate tiles. There is an in-room recycling program, and complimentary bicycles are available to guests. The hotel is equipped with a full-service business center, including numerous event and meeting rooms, a gym, and complimentary wireless internet access. Dining options include Chicago perennial favorite David Burke’s Primehouse.
The soaring glass tower that houses the 400-plus rooms at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower sparkles amid downtown brick and mortar. The Chicago location of this international French hotel chain provides four-star accommodations and is strategically located minutes from the Mag Mile, Museum of Contemporary Art, Lake Michigan, and trendy upscale shopping. Customer service, always preceded by a well-pronounced “bonjour,” is never wanting, even when the lobby is at full capacity. Rooms are spacious and ultra-plush. The sleek glass-front Café des Architectes is an airy spot that serves contemporary cuisine and offers al fresco dining on the terrace. Be sure to check out 2011 Chicago Rising Star Meg Galus’s special brand of pastry, followed by a champagne cocktail at Le Bar.
What to say about Grant Achatz's Alinea that hasn’t already been said? The eye-popping presentations, avant-garde techniques, and edible sculpture aesthetic are rooted in a rock-solid foundation of food that simply tastes good. The relentlessly creative spirit of the restaurant (you will learn and love at least five new flavor combinations before you leave, guaranteed) combined with delicious food executed at the highest level, is where its brilliance lies.
Blackbird’s sister restaurant (and next-door neighbor) is one of the city’s best late-night food spots, presenting small plates of simple food, often highlighting a single ingredient, done extremely well. It serves this rustic, hearty, often wood-grilled fare until 1am, and is where you will find Chicago chefs hanging out after work and on their days off.
Charlie Trotter’s remains a bastion of Chicago fine dining. The restaurant recently celebrated its 21st anniversary, and to this day it remains one of Chicago’s and the country’s most significant restaurants. The atmosphere is staid but cozy, and the food is a mix of classic elegance and gentle innovation, with plenty of nods to Asian (specifically Japanese) ingredients. With Trotter’s you know what you’re getting—the best quality ingredients, a high-level service, engaging compositions—but always with an element of surprise.
The American steakhouse is alive, and well, and David Burke’s Primehouse is a strapping specimen if there ever was one. Huge, delicious slabs of top-quality beef emerge from a pink Himalayan salt-lined aging cave. Burke is so serious about his steak that he even bought a bull (named “Prime”) and is breeding his own beef. Along with the requisite offerings come some tasty and even inventive dishes from Chef Rick Gresh, notably smoked tomatoes that spruce up an arugula salad and a satisfying dish of seared foie gras with pea tendrils. Really, though, Primehouse is all about the meat—the flavor, where it comes from, where it’s aged, how it’s stored, and how it is served.
2005 Rising Star Pastry Chef Mindy Segal’s Wicker Park eatery is a delightful blend of bakery, café, restaurant, and dessert bar—meaning it’s comfortable and hits the spot nearly any time of day. The baked goods are largely American with a bit of French influence; brunch is sumptuous; the lunch menu has excellent, hearty sandwiches; and dinner offers solid seasonal fare, plus an excellent cheese list. Only one or two savory dishes are offered each evening, and even those have a pastry chef’s hand. Dessert, of course, is not to be missed; this restaurant is all about pastry technique and flavors. There’s always a good assortment of chocolate concoctions, plus seasonal desserts, ice creams, sorbets, cookies, and milkshakes.
Once a private dining club, Les Nomades still has an old-Chicago feel. It’s an intimate, special spot, in a townhouse smack-dab in the middle of downtown, and while its décor is dated, its food is timeless, thanks to young, talented chef Chris Nugent, a 2008 Rising Star. Nugent’s menu is über French, but in the most delicate, pleasing way. Representing the New French cuisine in America, Nugent’s sophisticated dishes aren’t heavy on the sauces and focus on using French technique with local ingredients. The food is light, inviting, elegant, and not overly filling. It makes for a wonderful celebratory meal, or just a good excuse to get dressed up and indulge.
Michael Kornick's MK is a bastion of Midwest contemporary American—that is to say, dishes with a seasonal bent and a focus on local produce. But it's global, too—you're as likely to find buffalo steak as you are Moroccan olives or lobster with curried cream; it's a menu that is eclectic in a familiar way. The restaurant is an airy, stylish space, with a look that's a bit modern ski lodge, a bit warehouse-chic, thanks to its River North location. The wine program, run by 2008 Chicago Rising Star Sommelier Josh Kaplan, is one of the city's best affordable lists. As Josh says, the list is made for drinkin'—and asking him to guide you in that pursuit will make your dining experience all the better.
2005 Rising Star Chef Homaro Cantu and Ben Roche are still together after all these years, fusing their mad scientist-driven gastronomical adventures with a shared kitschy sense of humor. Take their variation on the classic peanut butter and jelly, for example, which is presented as a seamless ravioli of sodium alginate with peanut puree inside French toast. Diver scallops are presented with passion fruit noodles and buttered popcorn puree, contrasting sweet and salty. Mixology at Moto is outlandish, too, and definitely never dull.
Schwa is a chef’s dream: absurdly low rent and labor costs mean this 28-seat restaurant can close Sunday, cap the evening at 34 covers, and, most importantly, use any incredible ingredient they can get their hands on. Kitchen and diners are connected in a way rarely seen in American restaurants, with the chefs serving each dish, and patrons walking through the tiny, jam-packed kitchen to get to the bathroom. There’s no wine list and no servers; Chef Michael Carlson prefers to spend his energy—and his money—playing with seasonal ingredients with a global outlook for his nine-course, seasonally updated menu.
Devotees of the intricate Franco-Japanese cuisine of Chef Takashi Yagihasi, and his moderate prices, crowd into this Bucktown standby whenever possible. Yagihasi is a master of layering flavors into his menu, an approach he takes whether he’s preparing the weekly chef’s menu, using sustainable seafood and farmer’s market finds, or making Niku Udon base for his popular Sunday noodle brunch. And while the attentive service is most definitely high-class at this Michelin-starred spot, intimate touches, exposed brick walls, and the clean lines of Japanese-inspired décor help give a down-to-earth, at home feel to the whole experience.
It’s Rick Bayless. Frontera Grill and the neighboring upscale Topolobampo were the first bastions of authentic Mexican fine dining in the country, at a time when many seriously considered the term to be oxymoronic, and even in Mexico it wasn’t being done. Nowadays of course, thanks to Bayless, people flock to elevated Mexican street fare, and foods trucks offering the great-grandsons of Bayless’ dishes can be spotted up and down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and beyond. Come see where it all started and where his restaurants continue to lead the way—the sustainable seafood bar a sign that Bayless, ever responsible and respectful to product, is still rey.
2008 Chicago Rising Star Hotel Chef Kristine Subido has created a dynamic, eclectic menu for the W Hotel’s trendy, scene-y dining room and bar. Wave is a festive spot, and the energy isn’t only at dinner. Subido is constantly improving upon the food and beverage program, making it one of the best in the city. She changed the menu so it is all about sharing, presenting small plates before they were “in.” Subido teaches cooking classes each month, has developed creative spa menus, and presents an alternative savory and sweet tea service menu to pair with afternoon tea or afternoon “mar-tea-nis.”
Recommended by: Recommended by Sommelier Michael Simon, formerly of Graham Elliot
Recommended by Mixologist-Partner Brad Bolt of Bar Deville
Recommended by Chef-owner Harold Jurado of Chizakaya
Recommended by Chef Jason Vincent of Nightwood
Recommended by 2011 Rising Star Chef Dirk Flanigan of Henri and The Gage
Recommended by Pastry Chef Bryce Caron of Custom House
Recommended by Chef-owner Cary Taylor of The Southern
Recommended by Chef-owner Jeffrey Mauro of Jam
Recommended by Chef Anthony Martin of Tru
Recommended by Restarauteur Rob Katz of Boka Restaurant Group
Recommended by Pastry Chef Jeremy Brutzkus of Longman & Eagle
Recommended by 2011 Chicago Rising Star Concept Chef Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social
Recommended by Chef-owner Jared Wentworth of Longman & Eagle
Recommended by Beverage Director for Boka Restaurant Group and Head Mixologist at Boka Restaurant Benjamin Schiller.
Recommended by Pastry Chef-owner Sandra Holl of Floriole Café & Bakery
Recommended by 2011 Chicago Rising Star Chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia