Latest Chicago restaurant reviews

Which Chicago restaurant should you dine at tonight? Read through our most recent Chicago restaurant reviews.

Juno

Critics' pick

Juno is back, with some of the best sushi in town

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Lincoln Park

Time Out loves

The Lobby

Critics' pick

This time last year, the Peninsula Hotel was deep in its search for a new chef for Avenues, a process that, in the Chicago restaurant scene, is a little like the hunt for the Dalai Lama. Avenues doesn’t just hire chefs; it launches them. The Peninsula was looking for its next Graham Elliot. The search focused on a chef named Lee Wolen. At the time, Wolen was a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York, but he had put in time here at Moto and Butter, and, in between, at Spain’s famed El Bulli. For a chef who wanted to come back to Chicago, there is probably no greater pull than Avenues. So when he was offered the job, he accepted. The plan was to rehab Avenues from top to bottom—not just the food but also the room. But then, the plan changed. The Peninsula, responding to pleas for more event space, decided to turn Avenues into a wedding hall. That left Wolen with the Lobby—the Peninsula’s least-revered space, the one tossed off as a place for guests to eat pancakes. I’m guessing this was a little soul-crushing for the chef. But I’ll also posit the Lobby might have been an unexpected gift. Wolen doesn’t come from the Graham Elliot or Curtis Duffy school of food—he is less infatuated with visual tricks and powders—and had he taken over Avenues, the inevitable comparisons would have muddled the conversation about Wolen’s food. And in the Lobby—which of course is both the literal lobby of the Peninsula Hotel but also a beautiful space unlike any other hotel lobby in the city

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Gold Coast

42 Grams

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Jake Bickelhaupt is one ballsy chef. Bickelhaupt opened 42 Grams on January 10, in Uptown, far away from Restaurant Row. It’s BYOB. It uses a ticketing system and each ticket costs $203.68*. That includes taxes and service, but it’s pricey, especially when you consider that our two seats at 42 Grams cost $17 less than the two-top we had at Next two nights earlier and we had to go to Binny’s armed with detailed instructions for what kinds of wine to bring. And, while Bickelhaupt has worked at Alinea, Schwa and Charlie Trotter’s, he hasn’t been a household name. That’s about to change. Prior to opening 42 Grams, Bickelhaupt was running Sous Rising, a dinner series in his apartment, with his wife, Alexa, who handles service and front of house. When the Chester's Chicken underneath their apartment closed, they took over the space and turned it into an 18-seat restaurant, with a table for ten and eight seats at the chef’s counter. The table and counter are seated together at separate times, so when we recently went in for dinner at the counter, my date and I were joined by three other couples, one from St. Louis and one from Iowa, who regularly come to dine in Chicago and who heard 42 Grams was worth a visit. It is. Every single one of the 15 courses, from the “crispy snacks” like salmon skin chicharrons dusted with malt vinegar powder to the coffee and chicory pudding that ends the night, is delicious and exciting. It’s also homey-feeling—th

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Uptown

Next

Critics' pick

Thirty-five days ago, I was seated nearly in the lap of TOC’s IT systems coordinator, whose computer for some reason loaded Next’s then-kinda-buggy website when mine would not. I bought a ticket, for four, under my name, to Next. Within days of that purchase I realized I had grossly underestimated how challenging it would be to trade my ticket for someone else’s—an attempt to conceal my identity. Days before my reservation, negotiations collapsed when the trading party decided that the sacrifice of taking my 6pm reservation was not worth the possibility (proffered with shame, but proffered nonetheless, by Yours Truly) that a sort of entry-level VIP treatment might be extended. And so, 14 days ago, I ate at Next as myself. “Next is Alinea.” “Next is not Alinea.” This seems to me a pretty useless and static framework for analyzing two dynamic restaurants. And either way, the assumption is that Alinea is something perfect, a restaurant where each course is earth-shatteringly creative and tastes better than even the best Edzo’s burger. Alinea is an exceptional and memorable restaurant, but it’s not untouchable. Except, as far as I’m concerned, for the servers, whose unstuffiness is probably the only thing that could make the critical weight the food is burdened with bearable. In this sense, Next is Alinea: Done. In every other sense, what “is” Next? Let’s begin with a story. As my meal was winding down, I spotted a friend across the room. I meandered over as his group was begin

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West Loop

Schwa

Critics' pick

At some point during a recent meal at Schwa—between the pad thai and the arctic char roe, I believe—a chef came out of the kitchen with two small plates. As he explained that each plate held a lone quail-egg ravioli, I’m pretty sure I had the same reaction as everybody else who got the gratis course: relief that Schwa’s quail-egg ravioli days were not yet gone; relief that I could still indulge in Michael Carlson’s greatest hits. I wish I could resist calling them that, or ignore the fact that the Schwa chefs look like they just stumbled out of a van straight from South by Southwest. But Schwa’s plight has too much in common with the quintessential rock & roll story to not talk about it in musical terms. There’s the almost instantaneous celebrity the restaurant acquired when it opened in 2005, the fanatic crowds that clamored for Carlson’s food, the awards that were quickly bestowed (a Food & Wine Best New Chef Award), the “breaking up” of the original team, the rumored excessive partying, the sudden collapse of the restaurant five months ago and, now, the return—the second album, if you will. Happily, this is where the analogies to music start to weaken. Everybody knows sophomore efforts seldom hold up to debuts. But Schwa appears to have returned from its hiatus unscathed. The first dish of the progression, a plate that combined Jonah crab with roasted banana, celery and coriander, set the tone for the entire evening: The dish’s seemingly incongruous elements melded toget

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Wicker Park

Restaurant Takashi

Critics' pick

Reviewing mediocre restaurants is a challenge. When met with a restaurant that shows no personality and food that is simply “meh,” the writer resorts to playing up some sort of anecdote to create an interesting read. And not to sound like Debbie Downer, but there are a lot of mediocre restaurants out there. So when something like Restaurant Takashi comes along, it’s a relief. There’s no need to beat around the bush; it’s an excellent restaurant. The man behind the moniker, Takashi Yagihashi, knows his stuff and has proved it, going from Ambria’s much lauded kitchen of the early ’90s to winning the Best Chef: Midwest James Beard Award in 2003 for Tribute in the Detroit suburbs. Some called his food modern French with an Asian twist, others would say contemporary Japanese with French technique, but however you word it, it’s clear that chef Yagihashi has figured out how to combine his heritage with his training, and the results are impressive. Now he has hit a practiced, well-earned stride, in what couldn’t be a better setting. In the cozy Bucktown A-frame that most recently housed Scylla, but now exudes a decidedly more Zen atmosphere, chef Yagihashi creates beautiful food that’s delicate, subtle and perfectly balanced, each dish hitting all five tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami, or savory. Take the kampachi appetizer (or “small plate” as the menu dubs it), pristine slabs of young yellowtail sashimi, glistening atop a bed of shredded napa cabbage that’s been gently

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Bucktown

Doughnut Vault

Critics' pick

“Excuse me, do you know what this line is for?” “It’s for doughnuts,” I said, humiliated. I was waiting in a line 50 deep for a food most often preceded by the word Dunkin’. “Are they that good?” Before I could answer, the lady in front of me brushed aside her long blond hair and turned to face us with a look of exasperation: “They are.” This was Doughnut Vault: the minuscule, chandeliered vestibule (capacity: approximately four) from which doughnuts appear Tuesday through Saturday at 8:30am, only to disappear just as ephemerally approximately 12 tweets and 90 minutes later. Currently, 750 are made each day, 900 on the weekend. There is no question the rounds of fried dough that emerge from this shoebox—the creation of the restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar)—are as good as any doughnut being made in Chicago. The problem is they’re better. “Stupid!” The Dance editor of Time Out Chicago is not one to raise his voice. “Stupidly good. The über–Krispy Kreme.” He held a chestnut-glazed doughnut, as fresh as one has ever come. I waited exactly 56 minutes for it. After the first 15 of those minutes, the couple behind me left for Sprinkles. The rest of us read novels. We played with dogs. We pretended we knew this was worth it. I, for one, did not know. Not until I took my box of doughnuts to a bench and let my hands and face fall prey to the sticky, airy perfection that is a Doughnut Vault glazed doughnut. Do I wish the glazed doughnuts were less grotes

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River North

Café des Architectes

Critics' pick

Many years ago, I became obsessed with the baked Alaska at one sixtyblue. The flamed meringue flailed wildly in all directions, and it was exciting, and nostalgic, and I couldn’t put it down. A week or so later, though, I forgot about it and never went near the restaurant again. Who could be bothered? The restaurant was far west on Randolph, and there were so many other restaurants to hit, that one sixtyblue seemed designed to be an afterthought. And its chef, Martial Noguier, seemed destined to flounder in the wastelands of west Randolph until the restaurant met its demise. Which is just a dramatic way of saying that the fact that Noguier is now at the perpetually overlooked restaurant in the Sofitel isn’t all that surprising. He needed a better location, and the Café des Architectes needed Noguier’s good reputation. Not that his reputation has done it a lot of good. On a recent Friday night, Architectes was deserted, bustling with all of five tables. What nobody seems to have realized yet is that this hotel restaurant is now home to the most inspired French food in the city. Noguier’s dishes brim with intricate flavors and textural details, all of which get wrapped up into one exciting, singular package. And he achieves this dish after dish: His hamachi carpaccio takes the delicate yellowtail and layers it with both smooth artichokes (a puree) and crisp (fried). The sumptuous texture of his braised short ribs is offset by the crunch of carrots. Peekytoe crab salad is di

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Gold Coast

The Bristol

Critics' pick

By the time I made my first visit to the Bristol, I’d gone online and read its menu, reread its menu and then read it again. To say it had a pull on me would not be accurate; it was more that it seemed to know me, as if the simple language of it was making an appeal to my specific weaknesses for fat, cheese, pickles and bread. I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. When I watched the dining room fill up and saw people lining the walls, impatiently sucking down ginger-spiked cava sangria as they waited for my seat to be vacant, I got the feeling a lot of people have been waiting to get their hands on this food. It should be noted that at least some of the people I saw waiting were shunning seats at one of the two communal tables and holding out for a table of their own. Me, I scanned the room and saw that the individual tables were arranged in such proximity to each other that the communal tables actually seemed roomier. And as I soon learned, there’s an added benefit to a communal table: It’s easier to scope out dishes before committing to ordering them. I couldn’t help but notice that, one night, after my companion and I swooned over the combination of crisp, acidic fruit and creamy Manchego in the heirloom apple salad, the couple across the communal table from us ordered it, too. Same thing with the fried sardines, which they must have overheard us rhapsodize about, and for the crispy chicken thigh (pictured), which that night came with warm strands of shredde

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Bucktown

avec

Critics' pick

There are rules when eating at avec. One of them is “No talking about Israel.” A few weeks ago I was eating dinner and my friend—not I—was breaking that rule. Loudly. The man sitting next to me, whom I did not know but whom I spent the evening less than one inch from, leaned into our space and said, “What nation are you talking about?” This is why you don’t talk about Israel at avec. I shut down the conversation by slicing an X in the air with my hands and saying one word: “no.” But the man—his name was Brandon, I learned later—was undeterred from talking to us. He changed the subject. “Have you guys ever had these dates?” he asked. He pointed to the hot casserole in front of him with only one date left. “They’re so good.” The bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates are, of course, another rule of avec. You must order them, every time, until you’ve had them so often that you no longer need to be at avec to taste them—you close your eyes, access your taste memory, slip into a bliss coma…. “Are you guys tourists?” I asked Brandon. He and his companions looked wounded. “We live up the street,” they said. The idea that a Chicagoan exists who has not yet eaten the avec dates was inconceivable to me. But here were three people who had lived in Chicago for years and were just now at avec for the first time. Rules dictate this situation, too. “You must eat the focaccia,” I said. “And probably the brandade.” They nodded and smiled. But I knew they weren’t listening. They’d alr

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West Loop

Nico Osteria

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Let’s play a little choose-your-own-adventure.  A. Are you serious about your drinks and want to chat with the bartenders while snacking on shared plates? B. Do you want to be in the middle of the hottest new restaurant, or willing to put up with chaos to tackle the dinner menu? C. Are you an early riser who wants to sneak in breakfast before work or have a leisurely morning meeting? If you answered A, just show up and snag seats at Salone Nico, the bar adjacent to Nico Osteria (or at the even quieter bar upstairs). If you answered B, head to Open Table to make a reservation for dinner. And if you answered C, you’re in luck, because Nico serves the best new breakfast in town. Gold Coast newcomer Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood restaurant from Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality that's located in the Thompson Hotel, may offer a variety of experiences, but you'll get excellent food and drinks at all of them. On a recent night, we showed up early for our 9:30 reservation so we could have a drink at the bar first. It’s something you should do, too, since the food is ideally paired with wine (there's an excellent list of Italian wines from Bret Heiar), but you won’t want to miss out entirely on Matty Eggleston’s cocktails. The list is divided into three aperitif and three full-strength cocktails, my favorite of which is the Nico, a Negroni-esque drink that's strong with a bitter backbone and made with gin, amaro, Cocchi Americano and mineral w

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Gold Coast

Girl & the Goat

Critics' pick

There are cities in this country where the modern restaurant’s purpose is to take you somewhere else: London via a gastropub, North Carolina via a smoke shack. Restaurants become the tool of escapism. Chicagoans mostly have the opposite experience. In our buzziest contemporary American spots, a shared aesthetic has emerged, and it’s not American food—it’s Chicago food. Grubby and pubby at its base, Chicago cuisine is often accompanied by beer, and it venerates miscellaneous cuts of meat from an animal’s organs or forehead. It’s deceptively pricey (all those small plates add up). It claims European influences (but it’s really inspired by the Midwest). There are vegetables in Contemporary Chicago Cuisine, but they’re tossed with cheese or lard. And desserts— ironically, they’re afterthoughts: a waffle here, a shortbread cookie there. CCC is a masculine—no, a machismo—way of eating, and men eat meat. Dessert is for Nellies. Eating this food is the opposite of a transporting experience. You don’t escape Chicago at these restaurants. You fall deeper into it. The “roasted pig face” at Girl and the Goat is classic CCC. Two patties, looking like something thawed from a Jimmy Dean box, formed from the meat of a pig’s jowls and chin. Some fried potato sticks, almost identical to Potato Stix, are strewn around the plate. There’s a fried egg on top, of course, because, though not quite unique to CCC, fried eggs are the cuisine’s default garnish. Unpleasantly charred on the outside, th

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West Loop

Momotaro

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh With almost no exceptions, you want to order the dish a restaurant is named for. At Momotaro, that’s the momotaro tartare, which melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread. It’s served with puffy rice crisps, which are totally unnecessary, since my dinner date was content to just scoop up the tartare on its own—and for that matter, so was I. It’s a wholly unexpected dish, and it sets the tone for a dinner at Momotaro, the latest restaurant from the Boka group (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others), a restaurant group known for opening exceptional restaurants. Here, chef Mark Hellyar and sushi chef Jeff Ramsey have teamed up for a take on Japanese cuisine that’s elegant, and in most cases, delicious. If you haven’t made a reservation (and even if you have), you may wind up waiting for a table along with boisterous groups of 20- and 30-somethings. There’s a small bar area in the huge, wood-paneled dining room, but a better bet is the downstairs izakaya, which glows with red light and has a four-sided bar and seating designed for groups. I liked the space so much that on a recent Friday, we went to the izakaya to wait for our table and returned to end the evening with a nightcap of Japanese whiskey. There’s a 15-deep Japanese whiskey list, which includes easy-to-find types, like the Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 12, along with Coffey Grain, a relative newcomer to the U.S., which is round and swee

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West Loop

Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh I've eaten many bowls of oatmeal in my life, starting with the Oatmeal Swirlers I was obsessed with when I was six until today, when it’s one of my go-to breakfasts (except now with significantly less sugar and much less fun). But I've never had a bowl of oatmeal quite like the one at Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse, where the oats are cooked until they still have some bite. They’re served with a moat of milk and twin dollops of cultured cream and jam (on my visit, cherry), then sprinkled with raw sugar and pecans. Tangy from the cream and sweet from the jam, with perfectly cooked oats, this oatmeal is a revelation. But it’s not quite surprising, given how the oats are rolled right in the shop, and the pair behind the new venture, Dave and Megan Miller (formerly of Bang Bang Pie Shop), who are changing the idea of what a bakery is. They’re milling all of their own heritage grains on site and if you walk past the butter and jam toast bar, you’ll see mills, a mill/sifter and a flaker, which are used to prepare all the grains. These range from oats, found in the oatmeal, to the whole wheat pastry flour used in the chocolate chip cookies. There are numerous benefits to using these housemade grains. First off, they’re better for you than plain white flour. Second, they actually taste like they’re supposed to. Take the grits, which are easily the best in the city. Made with three types of corn—yellow, red and blue—the grits are a mix of fine an

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Lincoln Square

GT Fish & Oyster

Critics' pick

I couldn’t get into the lobster roll at GT Fish—the bread was too sweet, the lobster too wet. And when it came to the stuffed squid, I found myself digging out the chorizo, shrimp and rice—the squid itself had been overcooked, and I wanted to avoid having to gnaw on it. Desserts—I’ll get to those in a minute. But let’s just say they did not provide happy endings. Everything else at GT Fish I loved. I loved the cocktails, which was no surprise given these expert Dark & Stormys were designed by Benjamin Schiller. And I loved the room, which ever since the Boka Group (those guys behind Girl & the Goat and Perennial, among others) announced would become GT Fish I’ve mistakenly referred to, in conversation and in print, as a “fish shack.” Clearly, I did not know of what I spoke. Fish Bar in Lincoln Park—that’s a fish shack. GT Fish is a restaurant. And in contrast to Fish Bar, here the nautical details lend the room a sleekness. The aura is cool, salty. Not unlike the wind in Cape Cod. The Cape is not the only thing this place is selling, though. With every order of oysters—cool and plump and ocean-kissed—comes two bottles of GT-branded hot sauce, in packaging that leads me to believe we’ll soon see the stuff at Jewel. The sauce itself is neither remarkable nor un, but it’s indicative of this restaurant’s secondary ambitions: to raise the profile of chef Giuseppe Tentori, perhaps even to the level of the other star chefs in this company, Paul Virant and (especially) Stephanie I

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River North

Fat Rice

Critics' pick

Let’s knock this out right away: You’re getting the arroz gordo. It’s a spectacle to behold, a paella-like thicket in which sausage, pork, clams and prawns are piled on a bed of rice—a dish worthy of sharing its name (which translates to fat rice) with the restaurant itself. Tackle the prawns first: Crack their shells and disengage their plump insides. Now the clams. There might be a stray sandy one in there, but the rest have integrity. Next, a tea egg (boiled, then cracked and steeped in tea and soy sauce, such that the liquid seeps in, marbling the exterior): It’s fragrant and saturated with seasoning. And now the unsightly hunks of pork, a disappointing mass of tough and chewy meat. Just when the arroz gordo becomes almost senseless, there’s an olive: an acidic reprieve. And then there’s the soul of the dish, crisped black at the pot’s edges, packed with nuggets of Chinese sausage and pickled raisins that burst with sweet, tangy juices. I’m talking about the rice. There’s something about big, conglomerate dishes like this—the fat rice, the low-country boil at Carriage House, the moqueca at La Sirena Clandestina—that makes them immensely pleasurable to eat. They’re the opposite of faddish: They’re dishes with long histories, things you don’t have to think about to enjoy. This sense of history and of place is what makes Fat Rice’s approach so successful: Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (formerly the duo behind the supper club X-Marx) are cooking the food of Macau,

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Logan Square

Three Dots and a Dash

Critics' pick

Bar review by Amy Cavanaugh There are, it seems, two Three Dots and a Dash. There’s the crowded, noisy Three Dots, where a DJ plays Justin Timberlake and you’re lucky to get a seat—and even if you do, someone will be elbowing you in the back as they urge their friend to “Chug! Chug! Chug!” their marigold-accented tiki drink. Then there’s the serene tiki bar, where you can sit at the raffia-decorated bar and listen to island-themed music while you eat coconut shrimp. I just can’t seem to find the second Three Dots. I’ve been to the bar on several occasions, weekdays and weekends, at 5:15pm, right after Three Dots opens, and at 11:15pm for a nightcap after dinner. No matter when I go, the bar is raucous and the music is loud. Friends swear they’ve been to Three Dots when it’s quiet and you don’t have to yell at your companions to be heard. I haven’t found that magic time yet. But it’s River North, right? And Three Dots is the hot new bar, and a Melman project at that, so of course people are going to line up in the alley, where a blue light marks the door and a bouncer with an earpiece checks IDs, right? Right. So I’m going to move on and tell you why you should pack your earplugs and just go anyway. First of all, you won’t realize how much you were missing perfectly made tiki drinks in your life until you have one here. Since Trader Vic’s closed in 2011, there hasn’t been a dedicated tiki bar in the city, and we’ve needed one. These aren’t frozen daiquiris dispensed from

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River North

Boka

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh While we were driving to dinner at Boka last weekend, my dinner date confessed: “All I want to eat for dinner is chicken.”  “You’re in luck,” I said. “Lee Wolen is a god of chicken.” When the Boka Group overhauled its ten-year old flagship restaurant earlier this winter, it made a few key changes. It revamped the space so it’s unrecognizable from its previous, staid incarnation—now, there’s a huge moss- and plant-covered wall (designed by former Time Out dining editor Heather Shouse’s Bottle and Branch horticulture company) with paintings of elegantly dressed-up animals; a bar area that feels like a boisterous brasserie, with dark leather, brick walls and dim lighting; and portraits of Bill Murray and Dave Grohl as generals. Bartender Ben Schiller had already departed for the Berkshire Room, and he was replaced with Tim Stanczykiewicz (GT Fish & Oyster, Balena), who handles the list of crowd-pleasing cocktails that don’t overpower the food, like a bee’s knees. And it brought in chicken god Lee Wolen, formerly chef de cuisine at the Lobby, to take over for GT Fish & Oyster’s Giueseppe Tentori. At the Lobby, Wolen’s star dish was a roasted chicken for two, a dish brought to Chicago from New York’s NoMad (the sister restaurant to Eleven Madison Park, where Wolen was a sous chef). It’s a different dish at Boka, but it’s still a knockout—lemon and thyme brioche is stuffed under the skin, then the breasts are roasted and the legs confited, shr

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Lincoln Park

Salero

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh I popped into Salero around 1pm this week and grabbed a seat at the bar. “I heard you have a new lunch menu,” I told the bartender, who brought me over a menu. “Yeah, we started it quietly, like dinner,” he said. “So we can get the hang of it.” If my meals at Salero are any indication, this restaurant already has the hang of it—and people aren’t going to be quiet about it much longer. Salero is from the team behind Wood in Boystown, and, until last weekend, owner Franco Gianni also owned Lincoln Square’s Laughing Bird, a Filipino-American spot that closed after just five months. But things are working much more smoothly at Salero—Ashlee Aubin is the chef for both Salero and Wood, and here he’s executing a terrific Basque-inspired menu. It’s easy to miss Salero, as it’s located next to Avec and Blackbird. When I went for dinner, there were plenty of people waiting outside for tables at those two restaurants. Here’s some advice, people waiting for at a table at Avec: Go have a drink at Salero’s bar, where the list is packed with Spanish favorites, like Basque ciders (a drier, acidic style), an edited, excellent list of sherries, and cocktails, like a bright and tart sangria, served with a fresh orange juice ice cube. You also won’t go wrong with easy-drinking Spanish-style gin and tonics, which are heavier on the tonic and served in a big goblet. If your wait is a long one, order a few nibbles off the pintxo menu, which is only available a

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West Loop

Bohemian House

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh All throughout my dinner at Bohemian House, I wondered why the restaurant had opened in River North and not, say, a hot dining ‘hood like Logan Square or Randolph Street. It’s not just that the space feels homey, with mismatched flowered china, couches for lounging, and a back bar made up of blue tables stacked on top of each other and mounted on the wall. The décor is a stark contrast to the slick restaurants all over the neighborhood, but it’s more because the food, from chef Jimmy Papadopoulos (formerly of Schaumburg steak house Sam & Harry’s), feels intensely personal, like he invited you into his house and made you dinner. This is serious, thought-provoking food, but Papadopoulos makes it approachable. For starters, it’s a treat to dine at a new restaurant that isn’t a big Italian place or a fried chicken joint. I love these things, obviously, but the world is a big place—there are so many more cuisines to celebrate and flavors and ingredients to try. Here, the menu melds Czech, Austrian and German influences into a cuisine that’s rich and deeply flavored with pickles and vinegars to cut through heavier dishes. Start with a drink. There’s a list of straightforward cocktails, like basil lemonade spiked with Pimm’s and an old-fashioned made with house vanilla-fig bourbon. Drink these while you’re perusing the menu, because while they’re pleasant, this is Central European food, and when you eat that area's food, you want to be drinking

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River North

Dusek's Board and Beer

Critics' pick

On the door of Dusek's Board and Beer, the opening date (2013) is laid out in gold letters. Next to it is an unexpected word: "re-established." Rather than bring an overpriced, newfangled hipster paradise to East Pilsen, the folks behind Dusek's have done something unexpected: tried to bring a little bit of the neighborhood back to its 19th-century roots. Dusek's is only one part of the ambitious Thalia Hall project that includes a bar, a restaurant and a performance venue. Thalia Hall was originally the creation of John Dusek, who opened the building in 1892, when the neighborhood was Czech. The hall itself isn't quite refurbished yet (though I peeked inside and the space is incredible) but the bar and restaurant are ready to go. The restaurant itself is cozy and warm, with a tin ceiling, tons of Edison bulbs, and reclaimed wood–and–wrought iron tables that, while beautiful, can be a bit unstable. One corner of the front dinner room looks like a movie set of a 1940s dining room, completely with books, tchotchkes and a table set on a platform a few inches off of the ground. The owners wanted to re-establish Dusek's idea of a multipurpose community hall, which had me seriously anxious—concert venues traditionally serve pretty mediocre food. With chef Jared Wentworth (Longman & Eagle) at the helm, I shouldn't have worried. In fact, my visit to Dusek's was the first time in months that I've looked at a menu and been totally unable to pick what to order; everything looked too

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Pilsen

The Aviary

Critics' pick

If there is a such a thing as an Aviary VIP, it exists mostly in the line outside. Perhaps VIPs get to jump that line (which, for the record, has been relatively short between 7 and 9pm on weeknights). But once inside, they become just like the rest of us. They grin like idiots and snap photos of their cocktails with their cell phones. Because no matter where a VIP has been before, he’s never had a drink like the Blueberry. Who has? Plenty have seen a photo of the drink, in these pages and many others. The Martin Kastner–designed pitcher, a circle of glass with flowers, herbs and zest on the inside, may be the prettiest cocktail the world has seen, especially when positioned in front of a tea candle, which is exactly where the servers at the Aviary put it, maximizing the stained-glass effect. But seeing the drink, while striking, is one thing; tasting it over the course of 30 minutes is another. As the whiskey cocktail macerates in the botanicals, it changes from something floral and light in color to a dark amber elixir with pronounced tannins. It’s a splendid drink both ways. But taste is secondary to the experience of looking at it, pouring it, watching and tasting it change. This is the question Aviary poses (though probably not intentionally): When a cocktail is an intellectual exercise, how much does it matter how it tastes? The Ginger is a deconstructed Moscow mule. A lowball glass is filled with ginger-flavored ice, dotted with slices of pepper and herbs, and served

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West Loop

The Gage

Critics' pick

The people of the Loop have been waiting. They’ve been waiting for an alternative to Bennigan’s or for a liquor list that goes beyond Old Crow and Miller draft. Now, thanks to Billy Lawless, the wait is over. The Ireland native and his father (same name, but call him William) ventured far from their neighborhood pubs the Irish Oak and the Grafton to open a big-deal spot on a big-deal strip of Chicago. And they did it right. A lot of money was sunk into the Gage, and it shows—the design strikes the perfect balance between “What a swank new spot” and “Has this place been here forever?” Multiple rooms extend beyond a big, beautiful wooden bar, with shiny, sage-green subway tiles wrapping each room into the next. Booths are big and comfy, tables are dark wood and sturdy, a couple of TVs by the bar are unobtrusive, and little details give the place a touch of vintage class. Drinks and food sport downtown prices, so plan on spending some loot and don’t look back. Like sweet ’tinis? The signature Gage Cocktail— pear Grey Goose, Aperol, clove-infused apple juice with a splash of cranberry and lime— is your drink. Are you a brown liquor sipper? The whiskey list is lengthy and expertly selected. The beer list goes beyond the basics and wines are accompanied by clever, straightforward descriptions. Assuming that even happy hour–goers need something quality to munch on, chef Dirk Flanigan has created a “snack” menu that includes shrimp cocktail (fresh but with a blah aioli), crispy chi

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Loop

Longman & Eagle

Critics' pick

At Longman & Eagle, there are old fashioneds, stirred slowly and carefully behind a dark, gorgeous bar. There are dozens of whiskeys for three bucks; the house favorite, Cabin Still, is mellow and gentle. And there are flannel shirts, and mustaches, and Grandma sweaters. A lot of them. But if you’ve gotten it into your head that eating at a restaurant owned in part by the Empty Bottle guys means that you’ll be systematically ignored by a waitstaff of smelly, aloof, strategically scruffed dudes and the waifish, Lycra-clad women who dig them, then you have seriously underestimated the genre. Truth is, the folks working here are some of the friendliest and most professional hipsters you’ll ever meet, and their graciousness isn’t lost on the neighborhood. Why else would I have been seated next to couples with babies and families with tweens? Yet, however welcoming and well-informed my server was, T.G.I. Friday’s this is not, and it was hard not to notice that those groups were ordering their fair share of burgers. And, not to start things off on the wrong foot, but the Kobe burger, like most Kobe burgers I’ve had, is nothing to get excited about. The meat’s mushy, the bun’s too big for the patty, and mine reeked of smoke from the bacon, despite the fact that the strips were scarcely cooked. (If those tweens were ordering it simply for the awesome beef fat–fried fries, though, bless their hearts.) To do this restaurant right, you’ve got to allow yourself organ meats. Get the bee

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Logan Square

Mercat a la Planxa

Critics' pick

The sous vide pork belly at Mercat a la Planxa —the restaurant in the newly renovated Blackstone Hotel—is like warm, pig-flavored ice cream, the meat and fat of it melting slowly and effortlessly in the mouth. It is, like most of the food here, not just fine, and not just good—it is very, very good. Being Catalan cuisine, which includes a lot of tapas, the menu isn’t terribly ambitious—rather, it’s simple by design. But for what it is, some of it is near perfect. The filet mignon, though merely grilled, is fantastic, served in soft, pink slices with a salty crust. A short-rib flatbread topped with bacon marmalade has only four or five ingredients, but it’s just as indulgent and delicious as it sounds. Traditional tapas are as good as they can possibly be: Croquetas are hot and crispy, with a creamy interior hiding savory bits of ham; the pimientos charred, sprinkled with big kernels of sea salt and sitting atop aioli; truita de patata can espinacas, the Spanish tortilla on the menu, is a big, satisfying chunk of savoriness; and pulpos con patatas gets the texture of both the octopus and potatoes exactly right. You can’t do too much with these things and maintain their integrity, but chef Jose Garces, who has garnered a reputation as a tapas master at his restaurants in Philadelphia, does just enough. And yet, I don’t think I’ll be returning to Mercat for dinner anytime soon, mainly because there’s a serious lack of soul to the place. The experience is what I imagine having d

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South Loop

mfk.

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh We all have those meals that stick with us forever, and here’s one of mine: Salty, funky cured anchovies draped over slices of bread and a glass of txakoli—an effervescent, refreshing white wine. That’s it. The meal, which I ate several years ago at Txomin Etxaniz, a winery in the Basque region of Spain, made me recognize just how powerful simple, perfectly executed food can be. And now, it’s a meal I can relive again and again, not just in my memory, but at mfk., a new restaurant in Lakeview. mfk., from a pair of husband and wife owners (who met while working for chef Art Smith) and New England–born chef Nick Lacasse (formerly of the Drawing Room and a contestant on Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates) is named for legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher and captures the essence of seaside eating in both its menu and décor. The single room is located below ground on Diversey Parkway, but its bright white tiles and brick, light colored tables and chairs and blue-hued paintings make the tiny space feel larger than it is. The seersucker napkins and James Taylor soundtrack evoke dinners on Cape Cod. A selection of affordable wines, including a $6 glass of rosé, is poured into tumblers, and easy cocktails top out at four ingredients. And the menu, with plates of grilled seafood and vegetable dishes, is as straightforward as it is delicious. The Spanish-influenced menu is compact, with four sections: bar bites, vegetable dishes, grilled seafood

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Lakeview

Most popular Chicago restaurants

1

Charlatan

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh I had dinner at Charlatan on a Friday night and went to a party at sister restaurant Three Aces on Saturday. The same person greeted us at the door at each restaurant, and while he was equally friendly at both, at Three Aces he was dressed like a rock star, all black and silver, and at Charlatan he was straitlaced, with a button-down shirt. This sums up the difference between the two places. While Three Aces feels like a casual bar, with loud music and a big patio in the summer, Charlatan is a more serious place, where the crowd is a little bit older, and where people aren't packing in for pizzas and $5 Malört and Old Style tallboys on Tuesdays, but snail pasta and Italian wines. At both, though, the reason you’re going is probably the same—for Matt Troost’s food. Troost also deals in Italian food at Three Aces, but at Charlatan it’s more elegant. There’s still some fun at Charlatan, which took over the West Town Tavern space: The window outside promises "rock and roll," there’s skeleton-print wallpaper, and of the three animal heads affixed to the wall (deer, boar and bison), two of them appear on the menu. While the menu is fairly short, it’s broken into categories called “Salt and Time,” “Toast and Green,” “Rolled and Extruded,” “Farm and Sea” and “Sides and Bites,” so there’s only prices to help you figure out portion size, and you need to think about what each title means. We had plenty of time to think about it, though, since we we

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West Town
2

Au Cheval

Critics' pick

If Au Cheval weren’t such a bizarre and, frankly, difficult restaurant at which to eat, you’d find me there every Friday night for the matzo ball soup. Pre-Cheval, the most I ever wanted from a matzo ball soup was glistening pools of schmaltz. Post-Cheval, I demand it not only glisten but also be stocked with roasted carrots and cippolini onions, sophisticated complements to an enormous matzo ball that is more accurately described as a matzo souffle. This soup is a rarity on Cheval’s menu, but not because of how it tastes. Perfectly executed, endlessly cravable food is in every corner of this place. The chopped chicken liver—another great Jewish dish Brendan Sodikoff’s “diner” is elevating—goes on thick challah with soft salted butter, a combination that is (sorry, but I’ve got to be a drama queen here) so delicious it’s devastating. And the beef stew is exemplary for both its supple texture and silky sauce. Where the soup stands out is its lightness: You can actually start a meal with it (it shares this distinction only with two salads). It’s also a dish you can eat in its entirety without feeling as if you’ve taken a shower in hot beef fat. This cannot be said for much of the rest of the menu. The omelette boasts a smooth, puffy, unblemished surface that looks like butter, but also literally tastes like butter, so much so that it’s hard to take more than one bite. A ham “sandwich” with cheese fondue is not a sandwich at all, but rather a crock of melted cheese dotted with

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West Loop
3

avec

Critics' pick

There are rules when eating at avec. One of them is “No talking about Israel.” A few weeks ago I was eating dinner and my friend—not I—was breaking that rule. Loudly. The man sitting next to me, whom I did not know but whom I spent the evening less than one inch from, leaned into our space and said, “What nation are you talking about?” This is why you don’t talk about Israel at avec. I shut down the conversation by slicing an X in the air with my hands and saying one word: “no.” But the man—his name was Brandon, I learned later—was undeterred from talking to us. He changed the subject. “Have you guys ever had these dates?” he asked. He pointed to the hot casserole in front of him with only one date left. “They’re so good.” The bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates are, of course, another rule of avec. You must order them, every time, until you’ve had them so often that you no longer need to be at avec to taste them—you close your eyes, access your taste memory, slip into a bliss coma…. “Are you guys tourists?” I asked Brandon. He and his companions looked wounded. “We live up the street,” they said. The idea that a Chicagoan exists who has not yet eaten the avec dates was inconceivable to me. But here were three people who had lived in Chicago for years and were just now at avec for the first time. Rules dictate this situation, too. “You must eat the focaccia,” I said. “And probably the brandade.” They nodded and smiled. But I knew they weren’t listening. They’d alr

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West Loop
4

The Bristol

Critics' pick

By the time I made my first visit to the Bristol, I’d gone online and read its menu, reread its menu and then read it again. To say it had a pull on me would not be accurate; it was more that it seemed to know me, as if the simple language of it was making an appeal to my specific weaknesses for fat, cheese, pickles and bread. I don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. When I watched the dining room fill up and saw people lining the walls, impatiently sucking down ginger-spiked cava sangria as they waited for my seat to be vacant, I got the feeling a lot of people have been waiting to get their hands on this food. It should be noted that at least some of the people I saw waiting were shunning seats at one of the two communal tables and holding out for a table of their own. Me, I scanned the room and saw that the individual tables were arranged in such proximity to each other that the communal tables actually seemed roomier. And as I soon learned, there’s an added benefit to a communal table: It’s easier to scope out dishes before committing to ordering them. I couldn’t help but notice that, one night, after my companion and I swooned over the combination of crisp, acidic fruit and creamy Manchego in the heirloom apple salad, the couple across the communal table from us ordered it, too. Same thing with the fried sardines, which they must have overheard us rhapsodize about, and for the crispy chicken thigh (pictured), which that night came with warm strands of shredde

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Bucktown
5

The Publican

After my third visit, I left the warm glow of the Publican in a daze. Having obsessively anticipated the “pork-and-beer” project from restaurateurs Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Eduard Seitan and chefs Paul Kahan and Brian Huston, it felt almost surreal to have fallen so quickly into the restaurant’s grasp. I was sucked in by the effortless elegance; the beerhall-like communal tables; the old-world flatware; the gingham platters; the bulbous lights; and, of course, the food. The Publican follows a simple logic: (1) find the highest-quality oysters, fish and pork and (2) stay out of the ingredients’ way. That third meal, a comforting Sunday-only, family-style supper had a lot going for it: The season’s first snow was falling, and the restaurant was unusually mellow. It was the food, though, that left me swooning. Succulent, whole, pan-seared loup-de-mer flaked easily off the bone to reveal a stuffing of mildly bitter turnip greens, pine nuts and sweet golden raisins and sprinkled with stray pea shoots. Four cuts of lamb were perfectly tender (collapse-at-the-mere-sight-of-a-fork–tender ribs and ground-kidney–stuffed loin among them), each bite brightened with tiny chiffonades of mint. The restaurant’s ambiance might be European and its flavor profile Mediterranean, but when the Publican hits all the right notes, as it did that night, its heart feels unmistakably Midwestern. During an economic shitstorm when luxury can’t help but feel tacky, there’s not a garish or overdon

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West Loop
6

The Kitchen

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh When Telegraph announced in May it was closing and Webster's Wine Bar was moving into the Logan Square space, I was surprised, but more curious to find out where talented chef Johnny Anderes would end up. I didn’t have to wonder long—this summer it was announced he would be running things at the Kitchen, a Colorado-based restaurant expanding for the first time outside the state with a Chicago outpost in the Reid Murdoch building. Transplanted restaurants can be a tough sell to Chicagoans—it often seems like they don’t understand Chicago, or they swoop in and expect to do cuisines or concepts better than we already have. But the Kitchen is a little different: It's been building school gardens in Chicago for the past couple years as part of their Kitchen Community initiative, and it tapped a chef like Anderes (formerly of Avec), which is exactly the sort of move an out-of-town restaurant group should make. And it pays off—while the food is not exactly groundbreaking or even terribly exciting, all the cooking is well-executed, and the menu is crowd-pleasing. On a recent Thursday, the restaurant was so crowded we had dinner at the bar. The Kitchen occupies a prime piece of real estate, right on the river at the Clark Street bridge—and there were groups of coworkers there for drinks, while during our lunch visit we were pretty much the only ones there not having a work meeting. The space is also gorgeous: The kitchen is visible from all parts

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River North
7

Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh I've eaten many bowls of oatmeal in my life, starting with the Oatmeal Swirlers I was obsessed with when I was six until today, when it’s one of my go-to breakfasts (except now with significantly less sugar and much less fun). But I've never had a bowl of oatmeal quite like the one at Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse, where the oats are cooked until they still have some bite. They’re served with a moat of milk and twin dollops of cultured cream and jam (on my visit, cherry), then sprinkled with raw sugar and pecans. Tangy from the cream and sweet from the jam, with perfectly cooked oats, this oatmeal is a revelation. But it’s not quite surprising, given how the oats are rolled right in the shop, and the pair behind the new venture, Dave and Megan Miller (formerly of Bang Bang Pie Shop), who are changing the idea of what a bakery is. They’re milling all of their own heritage grains on site and if you walk past the butter and jam toast bar, you’ll see mills, a mill/sifter and a flaker, which are used to prepare all the grains. These range from oats, found in the oatmeal, to the whole wheat pastry flour used in the chocolate chip cookies. There are numerous benefits to using these housemade grains. First off, they’re better for you than plain white flour. Second, they actually taste like they’re supposed to. Take the grits, which are easily the best in the city. Made with three types of corn—yellow, red and blue—the grits are a mix of fine an

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Lincoln Square
8

The Dawson

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Sometimes it can be hard to tell exactly what a restaurant is striving to do. While I know what I’m getting into when I go to, say, a steakhouse or a sushi restaurant, there’s a category of American restaurants that can be harder to classify. And then there are restaurants that can’t seem to classify themselves. The Dawson, the new restaurant from owners Billy Lawless (Henri and the Gage) and Branko Palikuca, opened in October with an all-star line-up: chef Rene De Leon, formerly of Next and Alinea; Clint Rogers, late of Henri, the general manager and leader of the beverage program; and Annemarie Sagoi, formerly of the Charleston, helming the cocktail program. And then De Leon left, less than a month after the restaurant opened. It never bodes well when the chef departs so swiftly, but sous chef Patrick Russ (who was most recently at Next) immediately took over as executive chef, then slowly started changing the menu, which once ranged from sausage pigs in a blanket and tofu spring rolls to Mughlai curry and wood-grilled whole fish. The changes have been subtle, as the pickled onion rings, pork tacos and curry remain. The burger got a little bit bigger and the toppings changed completely. The roast chicken was swapped for smoked chicken. There are a few more salads now. I’ve only eaten at the Dawson under Russ—I made my first visit, just for drinks, while De Leon was still there—and there were even more menu changes between my first and

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Noble Square
9

42 Grams

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Jake Bickelhaupt is one ballsy chef. Bickelhaupt opened 42 Grams on January 10, in Uptown, far away from Restaurant Row. It’s BYOB. It uses a ticketing system and each ticket costs $203.68*. That includes taxes and service, but it’s pricey, especially when you consider that our two seats at 42 Grams cost $17 less than the two-top we had at Next two nights earlier and we had to go to Binny’s armed with detailed instructions for what kinds of wine to bring. And, while Bickelhaupt has worked at Alinea, Schwa and Charlie Trotter’s, he hasn’t been a household name. That’s about to change. Prior to opening 42 Grams, Bickelhaupt was running Sous Rising, a dinner series in his apartment, with his wife, Alexa, who handles service and front of house. When the Chester's Chicken underneath their apartment closed, they took over the space and turned it into an 18-seat restaurant, with a table for ten and eight seats at the chef’s counter. The table and counter are seated together at separate times, so when we recently went in for dinner at the counter, my date and I were joined by three other couples, one from St. Louis and one from Iowa, who regularly come to dine in Chicago and who heard 42 Grams was worth a visit. It is. Every single one of the 15 courses, from the “crispy snacks” like salmon skin chicharrons dusted with malt vinegar powder to the coffee and chicory pudding that ends the night, is delicious and exciting. It’s also homey-feeling—th

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Uptown
10

Girl & the Goat

Critics' pick

There are cities in this country where the modern restaurant’s purpose is to take you somewhere else: London via a gastropub, North Carolina via a smoke shack. Restaurants become the tool of escapism. Chicagoans mostly have the opposite experience. In our buzziest contemporary American spots, a shared aesthetic has emerged, and it’s not American food—it’s Chicago food. Grubby and pubby at its base, Chicago cuisine is often accompanied by beer, and it venerates miscellaneous cuts of meat from an animal’s organs or forehead. It’s deceptively pricey (all those small plates add up). It claims European influences (but it’s really inspired by the Midwest). There are vegetables in Contemporary Chicago Cuisine, but they’re tossed with cheese or lard. And desserts— ironically, they’re afterthoughts: a waffle here, a shortbread cookie there. CCC is a masculine—no, a machismo—way of eating, and men eat meat. Dessert is for Nellies. Eating this food is the opposite of a transporting experience. You don’t escape Chicago at these restaurants. You fall deeper into it. The “roasted pig face” at Girl and the Goat is classic CCC. Two patties, looking like something thawed from a Jimmy Dean box, formed from the meat of a pig’s jowls and chin. Some fried potato sticks, almost identical to Potato Stix, are strewn around the plate. There’s a fried egg on top, of course, because, though not quite unique to CCC, fried eggs are the cuisine’s default garnish. Unpleasantly charred on the outside, th

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West Loop
11

The Lobby

Critics' pick

This time last year, the Peninsula Hotel was deep in its search for a new chef for Avenues, a process that, in the Chicago restaurant scene, is a little like the hunt for the Dalai Lama. Avenues doesn’t just hire chefs; it launches them. The Peninsula was looking for its next Graham Elliot. The search focused on a chef named Lee Wolen. At the time, Wolen was a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York, but he had put in time here at Moto and Butter, and, in between, at Spain’s famed El Bulli. For a chef who wanted to come back to Chicago, there is probably no greater pull than Avenues. So when he was offered the job, he accepted. The plan was to rehab Avenues from top to bottom—not just the food but also the room. But then, the plan changed. The Peninsula, responding to pleas for more event space, decided to turn Avenues into a wedding hall. That left Wolen with the Lobby—the Peninsula’s least-revered space, the one tossed off as a place for guests to eat pancakes. I’m guessing this was a little soul-crushing for the chef. But I’ll also posit the Lobby might have been an unexpected gift. Wolen doesn’t come from the Graham Elliot or Curtis Duffy school of food—he is less infatuated with visual tricks and powders—and had he taken over Avenues, the inevitable comparisons would have muddled the conversation about Wolen’s food. And in the Lobby—which of course is both the literal lobby of the Peninsula Hotel but also a beautiful space unlike any other hotel lobby in the city

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Gold Coast
12

Gather

One Wednesday night I walked into Gather at 9:45 and asked if the restaurant was still serving. “We’re open until 11pm no matter what,” the host said. On this and subsequent evenings, this guy proved to be one of the more gracious front-of-house folks working today. But I wish he had dissuaded me, because I took a seat at the bar and ate a meal that lasted until 11pm, and it was terribly awkward—before I could even finish my soup, the restaurant cleared out, leaving me as the only patron. So, yes, it was nice of the staff to let me sit there, but Gather should really just close at 10pm. This is not a late-night spot; instead, it’s been built from top to bottom as a place to bring the parents, go on a third date or celebrate whatever upwardly mobile milestone Lincoln Square residents celebrate—kid got on the cheerleading squad, sister got into Harvard. If you’re with a group, great—Gather is built for this, and has a section on the menu (“gather and share”) dedicated to feeding you. It’s made up of dishes like charcuterie boards, a shareable short rib chili (you spread it on corn cakes), steak tartare served with housemade brioche. These are satisfying enough but will likely be consumed without comment. Hey, at least the food’s not getting in the way of conversation, right? Chef Ken Carter’s talents are more easily accessed when you’re ordering for yourself. Not with the squash soup necessarily (it’s got all the ambitious trappings of a fine-dining soup, but the myriad garn

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Ravenswood
13

Firecakes Donuts

Jonathan Fox's offering to the doughnut-crazed masses is adorably vintage, with boxes of mostly-classic flavors (old fashioned buttermilk; chocolate-glazed) wrapped in cute bakers' twine. The triple-chocolate is a solid replication of chocolate birthday cake, and the old-fashioned is one of the most modest in town—a fact that will thrill smaller eaters. Yet the only Firecakes doughnut that really makes a statement technically isn't a doughnut at all: It's the crisp and surprisingly light apple fritter.

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River North
14

Acadia

Critics' pick

Behold Acadia. No, really: Look at it. It’s quite stunning. The chef and owner, Ryan McCaskey, cites summers spent in Maine as his inspiration for the restaurant. But the decor is not one of fishing lures and seascapes. It’s a study in rich whites, a rare exercise in the restaurant as a space of tranquility and elegance. Stylistically, it’s not unlike L2O. But experientially, it’s quite unlike it: You can laugh here. Loudly. I like it here. And it seems the people working here do, too. The terrifically fun and keen hostess? Love her. The sweet and knowledgeable GM and sommelier, Jason Prah, who practically beams when you so much as glance in his direction, hinting that you might be interested in discussing the wine list? Love him, too. (All right, the interesting and reasonable wine list helps.) The enthusiasm carries over to the bartender, Michael Simon, who shakes cocktails as energetically as he conceives of them. The guy’s not exempt from human error: His Corn Flakes Flip, which tasted like a grain-alcohol milkshake, was a cute idea gone completely awry. But by and large Simon’s experiments pan out fantastically, whether in a pleasantly not-sweet rum smash with a big nose of fresh mint or in the heady herbal concoction called the Amnesiac, which I unfortunately liked so much I had to set it aside after a couple of sips for fear the combination of Bitter Truth EXR (an amaro), Yellow Chartreuse, Carpano Antica vermouth and absinthe ice cubes would, true to its name, leav

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South Loop
15

Nico Osteria

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh Let’s play a little choose-your-own-adventure.  A. Are you serious about your drinks and want to chat with the bartenders while snacking on shared plates? B. Do you want to be in the middle of the hottest new restaurant, or willing to put up with chaos to tackle the dinner menu? C. Are you an early riser who wants to sneak in breakfast before work or have a leisurely morning meeting? If you answered A, just show up and snag seats at Salone Nico, the bar adjacent to Nico Osteria (or at the even quieter bar upstairs). If you answered B, head to Open Table to make a reservation for dinner. And if you answered C, you’re in luck, because Nico serves the best new breakfast in town. Gold Coast newcomer Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood restaurant from Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality that's located in the Thompson Hotel, may offer a variety of experiences, but you'll get excellent food and drinks at all of them. On a recent night, we showed up early for our 9:30 reservation so we could have a drink at the bar first. It’s something you should do, too, since the food is ideally paired with wine (there's an excellent list of Italian wines from Bret Heiar), but you won’t want to miss out entirely on Matty Eggleston’s cocktails. The list is divided into three aperitif and three full-strength cocktails, my favorite of which is the Nico, a Negroni-esque drink that's strong with a bitter backbone and made with gin, amaro, Cocchi Americano and mineral w

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Gold Coast
16

Momotaro

Critics' pick

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh With almost no exceptions, you want to order the dish a restaurant is named for. At Momotaro, that’s the momotaro tartare, which melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread. It’s served with puffy rice crisps, which are totally unnecessary, since my dinner date was content to just scoop up the tartare on its own—and for that matter, so was I. It’s a wholly unexpected dish, and it sets the tone for a dinner at Momotaro, the latest restaurant from the Boka group (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others), a restaurant group known for opening exceptional restaurants. Here, chef Mark Hellyar and sushi chef Jeff Ramsey have teamed up for a take on Japanese cuisine that’s elegant, and in most cases, delicious. If you haven’t made a reservation (and even if you have), you may wind up waiting for a table along with boisterous groups of 20- and 30-somethings. There’s a small bar area in the huge, wood-paneled dining room, but a better bet is the downstairs izakaya, which glows with red light and has a four-sided bar and seating designed for groups. I liked the space so much that on a recent Friday, we went to the izakaya to wait for our table and returned to end the evening with a nightcap of Japanese whiskey. There’s a 15-deep Japanese whiskey list, which includes easy-to-find types, like the Yamazaki 12 and Hibiki 12, along with Coffey Grain, a relative newcomer to the U.S., which is round and swee

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West Loop
17

GT Fish & Oyster

Critics' pick

I couldn’t get into the lobster roll at GT Fish—the bread was too sweet, the lobster too wet. And when it came to the stuffed squid, I found myself digging out the chorizo, shrimp and rice—the squid itself had been overcooked, and I wanted to avoid having to gnaw on it. Desserts—I’ll get to those in a minute. But let’s just say they did not provide happy endings. Everything else at GT Fish I loved. I loved the cocktails, which was no surprise given these expert Dark & Stormys were designed by Benjamin Schiller. And I loved the room, which ever since the Boka Group (those guys behind Girl & the Goat and Perennial, among others) announced would become GT Fish I’ve mistakenly referred to, in conversation and in print, as a “fish shack.” Clearly, I did not know of what I spoke. Fish Bar in Lincoln Park—that’s a fish shack. GT Fish is a restaurant. And in contrast to Fish Bar, here the nautical details lend the room a sleekness. The aura is cool, salty. Not unlike the wind in Cape Cod. The Cape is not the only thing this place is selling, though. With every order of oysters—cool and plump and ocean-kissed—comes two bottles of GT-branded hot sauce, in packaging that leads me to believe we’ll soon see the stuff at Jewel. The sauce itself is neither remarkable nor un, but it’s indicative of this restaurant’s secondary ambitions: to raise the profile of chef Giuseppe Tentori, perhaps even to the level of the other star chefs in this company, Paul Virant and (especially) Stephanie I

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River North
18

Atwood

This downtown standby draws mobs of tourists and local ladies seeking nourishment after a particularly grueling shopping session at Macy’s. For them, these updated American classics are perfect—sophisticated and unintimidating. Case in point: a winter menu that offers thyme-and-mace–roasted duck breast with mashed sweet potatoes and a dried fig gastrique; oven-roasted acorn squash over date-and-pistachio–studded couscous; and a warm apple-walnut dumpling served with vanilla bean ice cream.

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Loop
19

Acanto

Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh The last dish I recall eating at Henri, which closed in June, was escargot, a rich and buttery plate I wish I could eat again right now. Despite only existing for four years, Henri’s perfect service, fancy plates and gorgeous interior made it feel very old school and classic. But owner Billy Lawless (The Gage, The Dawson) decided the upscale restaurant wasn’t the right fit for the Millennium Park area, so he reinvented the space as a more casual, approachable restaurant. Obviously the answer was to take the exact opposite approach from Henri’s old school French-inspired menu and go Italian, the cuisine of the moment in Chicago. The menu has done a complete 180, but not everything has changed. The space has been revamped, red walls have replaced the light blue, but the beautiful curved bar remains, and it’s still turning out excellent cocktails. And Chris Gawronski is still running the kitchen, too, and, for the most part, you wouldn’t know that three months ago he was focused on a completely different cuisine. You can order a traditional Italian meal of starter, pasta and entrée, but you should start with the sharing section, which has charcuterie, like an ethereal sopressata, served with a little pot of parmesan fonduta and puffy bread squares. I wished we’d eaten it faster—the fonduta is delicious when it’s piping hot, but it gets thick and unappealing quickly. Cheese is a focus at Acanto, where there’s a 10-deep cheese list, all of wh

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South Loop
20

Big Jones

The server at Big Jones opened her eyes wide with surprise. “Oh wow,” she said, shaking her head and laughing nervously. Ten seconds earlier, when we had ordered a mint julep, she was relaxed and jovial. “Oh! That’s fun!” she had said, as if we were the first people to start a meal with a cocktail. But now that we had also ordered a hurricane, she seemed almost scared. “Really?” she asked. Well, yes, really. This is supposed to be New Orleans, isn’t it? I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been to the Big Easy. But I can’t say that the dining room here fits my perception of the place. The interior is the opposite of festive: The cream-colored walls are subdued and almost bare, save some out-of-place art (like that slightly abstract triptych of Babs). There’s a touch of Southernness to the curved style of the chairs and the elaborate, old-school logo. But there are no plastic cups full of beer here. And there certainly aren’t throngs of people willing to do anything for a string of beads. There are those cocktails, though. The julep was sweet and nicely balanced, with an herbal finish—not bad even though it wasn’t served in a julep cup or over crushed ice. That hurricane? I can’t imagine it’s anything like the ones sipped on Bourbon Street. It was certainly boozy but also severely dry and, ultimately, not very fun. But I don’t really care how true (or not) Big Jones is to the “coastal South” it takes as its inspiration. When a plate of impeccably cooked shrimp doused in a da

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Andersonville
21

Frontier

So the hipster-vintage-saloon aesthetic and a taxidermy grizzly bear wander into a sports bar. This is pretty much the setup of Frontier, a gastropub from the folks behind Lottie’s and the Pony, which mashes North Woods lodge elements into the neighborhood-tap mold. Chef Brian Jupiter’s food—charbroiled oysters, sliders and even whole-animal feasts—adds another component to the mix, and the more time you spend eating impressive dishes like the tarragon-buttered redfish, the faster it all starts to come together.

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West Town
22

Allium

It’s not every day a restaurant owner e-mails you to tell you to eat at someone else’s restaurant. But how about a restaurateur e-mailing you to tell you to eat at another restaurant—because of a hot dog? That is what happened two years ago. The e-mail was from Drew Goss, who co-owns West Town Tavern with his wife, Susan (and the note was sent to my editor, David Tamarkin). The place Goss was recommending was the bar at the Four Seasons. And the urgent reason to go, Goss enthused, was “the best hot dog in Chicago.” David forwarded me the e-mail with this addendum: “!!!”. A few weeks later, I went to the bar at the Four Seasons and tried the hot dog, the creation of Seasons chef Kevin Hickey. A few months after that, it went on my list of the 100 Best Things We Ate in 2010. And when, in the winter of 2012, the hotel announced that its new restaurant, Allium, would include, among other things, that housemade hot dog, I wasn’t surprised. It is the most ambitious and most delicious hot dog I’ve ever eaten. Every component—the poppy-seed bun, the hot dog, the relish, the ketchup—is made in-house. Yet it is not a stuffy thing: It is every bit as enjoyable (actually, doubly as enjoyable) as a ballpark Vienna Beef. Who wouldn’t want to build a restaurant around it? Or rather, who wouldn’t want to revive a hotel restaurant around it? This is a genre that has begun to look more like a graveyard: TheWit and the Peninsula killed their upscale dining rooms (Cibo Matto and Avenues, respe

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Gold Coast
23

Bavette's

A couple of weeks after Brendan Sodikoff opened Bavette’s, I started hearing reports. “It’s just like all his other spots,” a friend told me. “It’s exactly the same,” another said. Having now made a few visits to Bavette’s, I’m guessing these reports were based purely on conjecture. Which isn’t fair, except that, well, Sodikoff does have something of a track record. His first three restaurants act something like triplets, all with similar looks and personalities and food, but slightly different interests. Gilt Bar’s the clubby one. Maude’s is the aesthete. Au Cheval’s the hipster. Throw Doughnut Vault in there as the (pudgy) black sheep and you have a strong, if somewhat predictable, family of restaurants. Bavette’s messes with this metaphor. Contrary to the reports I heard, it’s a deviation, or, to put it in terms closer to my opinion, an evolution. The room is lit differently; golden light bounces between tufted red-leather booths and the mirrored bar. Like his other spots, the place is highly conceptual, but the concept—jazz-era steakhouse with light French touches—is more sophisticated. Sodikoff’s other spots are taste-specific; the loveliness of this one is, I believe, close to universal. You don’t even have to like steak. In fact, I had better luck with the chicken. The fried chicken is crazy good, the juicy wings encased in a flaky and crunchy crust; the roast chicken is otherworldly, with skin a very dark amber, delicate and moist flesh and a thickjus on the plate.

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River North
24

Fat Rice

Critics' pick

Let’s knock this out right away: You’re getting the arroz gordo. It’s a spectacle to behold, a paella-like thicket in which sausage, pork, clams and prawns are piled on a bed of rice—a dish worthy of sharing its name (which translates to fat rice) with the restaurant itself. Tackle the prawns first: Crack their shells and disengage their plump insides. Now the clams. There might be a stray sandy one in there, but the rest have integrity. Next, a tea egg (boiled, then cracked and steeped in tea and soy sauce, such that the liquid seeps in, marbling the exterior): It’s fragrant and saturated with seasoning. And now the unsightly hunks of pork, a disappointing mass of tough and chewy meat. Just when the arroz gordo becomes almost senseless, there’s an olive: an acidic reprieve. And then there’s the soul of the dish, crisped black at the pot’s edges, packed with nuggets of Chinese sausage and pickled raisins that burst with sweet, tangy juices. I’m talking about the rice. There’s something about big, conglomerate dishes like this—the fat rice, the low-country boil at Carriage House, the moqueca at La Sirena Clandestina—that makes them immensely pleasurable to eat. They’re the opposite of faddish: They’re dishes with long histories, things you don’t have to think about to enjoy. This sense of history and of place is what makes Fat Rice’s approach so successful: Owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo (formerly the duo behind the supper club X-Marx) are cooking the food of Macau,

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Logan Square
25

Filini

Guests at the Radisson Blu and residents of the Aqua are the logical clientele for this flashy, bilevel hotel restaurant. And it certainly would do them no harm to try the polipo, a salad of nicely cooked, tender grilled octopus. Same goes with the perfectly good bowl of tomato soup or the butternut-squash capellacci. But the problem is that in this city, it’s easy to do so much better.

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Loop

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Loop's restaurants tend to be either quick service breakfast and lunch spots or crowd-pleasing places for dinner

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Comments

2 comments
Frank S
Frank S

What's the deal with online reviews where you can't screen by ratings or neighborhoods? 

Alan Z
Alan Z

How do you look up restaurants in individual neighborhoods?