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Bubbling shrimp at etta
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas Bubbling shrimp at etta

The 50 best dishes and drinks in Chicago in 2018

From breakfast to booze, these are the all-time best dishes we tried in Chicago in 2018

By Morgan Olsen and Maggie Hennessy
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We’re officially stuffed. Throughout 2018, we sampled our way through some of Chicago’s best restaurants—both newcomers and mainstays—to hunt down knockout dishes and drinks that left us feeling inspired. We ended up with a collection of menu items that is as diverse as the city itself, from lobster dumplings and vegetarian sushi to a surprisingly awesome apple martini and a stack of lemon-blueberry pancakes. Better yet: Most of the dishes and drinks on this year's list ring up under $15. Check out the amazing morsels and tipples that top this year's list and plan your upcoming dining adventures accordingly.

Best dishes and drinks of 2018

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

1. Spring peas at Bar Biscay

Restaurants French River West/West Town

At this lively West Town eatery, the Basque spirit reaches its purest form in its seafood-tinged pintxos—like the spring peas, mingled with tender ground-squid sausage beneath baguette slices topped with roasted sweet peppers. $16.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

5. Eggplant at Band of Bohemia

Bars Breweries Lincoln Square

It’s no surprise that the world’s first Michelin-starred brewpub cranks out some top-notch dishes, but this one left our taste buds speechless: Pillowy naan cradles fried eggplant, Old Bay–spiced aioli, pickled peppers and garden-fresh herbs. $8.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

8. Mint chip ice cream at Anker

Restaurants American creative Wicker Park

There’s nothing average about this dessert: House-made custard is injected with peppermint extract and a touch of spirulina before it’s studded with custom-made chocolate chips. $6.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

11. Slagel Family Farm’s Cornish Hen at Bellemore

Restaurants American West Loop

Roulades of thigh and breast meat encase garlicky hen sausage—all painted with schmaltz before cooking to deepen the fowl’s earthiness. It’s paired with potato dumplings and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, lending the dish a nostalgic, Stroganoff-like feel. $28.

Editor's note: The dish has since changed to include Green Circle chicken leg, chanterelles, kale and a smoked egg yolk.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

12. Crème brûlée pie at Aba

Restaurants Mediterranean West Loop

Take everything you love about crème brûlée—the creamy custard base and the smoky, caramelized-sugar topping—and put it in a pie. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? $8.95.

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Photograph: Morgan Olsen

14. Tacos al pastor at Taqueria Mazamitla

Restaurants Avondale

If you consider yourself a taco enthusiast, add this low-key Avondale joint to your list and treat yourself to an order of al pastor tacos. Juicy and slightly charred, the meat is wrapped in two tortillas and sprinkled with raw onions and cilantro (as it should be). $2.50 each.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

15. Bubbling shrimp at Etta

Restaurants Wicker Park

In this fire-roasted appetizer, fat shrimp swim in a crimson sauce of smoked tomato, butter, ground shrimp, mint, spicy ginger and smoky chiltepin chilies. Use the pile of blistered pita to wipe the bowl clean. $15. 

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

17. Fried smelt at Anker

Restaurants American creative Wicker Park

Ignore the fact that you don’t love the word smelt (really, the small, mild-tasting fish deserves a better name) and dig into this salad of Parmesan-tempura–battered smelt, Bibb lettuce, dill and butter-pickle mayonnaise. Oddly enough, this dish tastes just like a Big Mac. How’d they do that? $12.

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Photograph: Pablo Ponce

20. Matt’s Veal Parm

There’s no denying that Matt Wachsman and Jon Glaser make a damn good veal parm sandwich, but half the fun is walking into a stranger’s apartment to get it. The duo hosts pop-up events at home (buy a ticket to get the address) and donates all proceeds to Purple Asparagus, a Chicago nonprofit that educates children and their families on nutrition. Oh, and did we mention that the sammy is out of this world? $14.

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Photograph: Courtesy 3 Square Diner

25. Omelette at 3 Squares Diner

Restaurants Uptown

We have a soft spot for restaurants that serve breakfast all day, especially when it means we can order a pristine omelette for dinner. This one is dressed up with cured sausage, spicy shrimp ceviche, queso fresco, cilantro and hominy. $12.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

26. Clams Positano at Il Porcellino

Restaurants Italian River North

Who knew an appetizer could steal the show? A gaggle of saucy, bacon-studded clams is served with a plank of garlic ciabatta that’s perfect for sopping up all the rich, lemony goodness that’s left behind. $13.95.

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Photograph: Tim McCoy

29. The Potato'Nator at Tempesta Market

Restaurants River West/West Town

Chicago, we found the ultimate breakfast sandwich: A hash-brown patty is topped with bacon, a fried egg, American cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickled red onion and crammed inside a brioche bun. It’s a heart-stopping creation that’ll keep you stuffed till dinner. $10.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

30. Huckleberry sundae at Pacific Standard Time

Restaurants River North

No matter how full you are, don’t you dare skip Natalie Saben’s inspired desserts, like this wholly original sundae of honey ice cream slathered with puckering huckleberry syrup and shards of meringue dusted with Urfa Biber, a Turkish chili pepper whose sun-dried sweetness will linger on your tongue. $11.

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Photograph: Rachel Brown Kulp

31. Cubano at TriBecca’s Cubano at Revival Food Hall

Restaurants Food court Loop

Earlier this year, the folks behind Honey Butter Fried Chicken debuted a passion project at Revival Food Hall: a pop-up Cubano stall. Unsurprisingly, the namesake sandwich, which has layers of mojo-roasted pork, chipotle mayo and pickles, was a huge hit. Here’s hoping the concept finds a permanent home in 2019. $10.95.

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Photograph: Zoe Krey

35. Apple martini at Booth One

Restaurants Old Town

An apple martini in 2018? Trust us on this one. Crafted with vodka, apple brandy, green-apple liqueur, lemon juice and demerara syrup, this sophisticated quaff is the grown-up version of the lip-puckering stuff you slurped down in college. $14.

cafe yesenia
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

36. Beef jibarito at Cafeteria Yesenia

Restaurants New City

This no-frills Back of the Yards restaurant slings a first-class beef jibarito that’s accessorized with cheese, tomato, grilled onions and lettuce. But the star of the show is the plantain “bun,” which is expertly seasoned and fried to crispy-chewy perfection. $6.95.

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cruz blanca, jaclyn rivas
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

37. Grilled-cauliflower tacos at Cruz Blanca

Restaurants Mexican West Loop

By now, we can all agree that Rick Bayless knows his way around a tortilla, and his West Loop taqueria’s vegetarian taco is further proof. The grilled florets are rendered silky-smooth with the help of poblano-onion rajas, crema and queso añejo, and a pinch of cilantro brightens up each bite. $4.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

39. Bacon-and-egg flatbread at the Warbler

Restaurants Lincoln Square

In this deceptively humble-sounding flatbread, two runny eggs cap a balanced, brunch-ready pie that layers sharp provolone and salty bacon with jalapeño, tomato and a slick of pesto, all atop a squishy crust that has a mild rye-sourdough tang. $13.

Photograph: Courtesy Heritage Bicycles

40. Lavender latte at Heritage Bicycles

Shopping Sports Lake View

A damn fine latte is made infinitely better with a splash of house-made syrup that’s infused with dried lavender. It’s an oddly calming combination that’s ideal for lazy weekend mornings. $4.75.

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Photograph: Courtesy Friistyle

41. Jerk salmon at Friistyle Chicago

Restaurants Grand Boulevard

At this new South Side hit, fries are an important part of every meal—which is just the way we like it. Bring harmony to your food groups with fresh pomme frites topped with a filet of jerk salmon, mango salsa and dill aioli. $15.

phil's pizza, jaclyn rivas
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

42. Sausage pizza at Phil’s Pizza

Restaurants Pizza Bridgeport

You can’t call yourself a real Chicagoan until you’ve visited this Bridgeport gem, which specializes in tavern-style thin crust. If it’s your first time, order the sausage pie, which has a thin-crust base, savory tomato sauce and some of the best Italian sausage in the city. $10.30–$23.

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Photograph: Lindsay Widdel

43. Fried chicken at Naoki Sushi

Restaurants Japanese Lincoln Park

This year, one of the city’s best sushi joints introduced a delivery-only fried-chicken shop, serving poultry that’s braised in soy sauce, garlic and ginger, then dredged in flour and fried to finger-lickin’ perfection. Half $16.95, full $31.95.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

44. Hot Flashes at Golden Teardrops

Bars Logan Square

Derived from the elegantly brazen Boulevardier, this subtle variation subs in half the whiskey base with cognac for a stronger backbone; next, it’s embittered with Campari and smoothed over with sweet vermouth. The result is an ideal synthesis of flavors. $12.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

45. Duck at Café Robey

Restaurants American Wicker Park

You’ll need a fork to dig into this deconstructed Reuben, which arranges bites of pastrami-style duck accompanied by cabbage slaw, mashed potatoes, pickled mustard seeds and pumpernickel crisps. $23.

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The best dishes and drinks of 2017

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The best dishes and drinks of 2016

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The best dishes and drinks of 2015

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The best dishes and drinks of 2014

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The best dishes and drinks of 2013

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