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

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

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, French

Spring peas at Bar Biscay

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
Restaurants

Maine lobster dumplings at S.K.Y.

Lower West Side

Pristine ground lobster meat is packed into thin gyoza shells, then set afloat in an herby jade butter. Fun fact: Chef Stephen Gillanders tested 30 gyoza skins to find just the right fit. $16.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Bars, Breweries

Eggplant at Band of Bohemia

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
Restaurants

Color TV at City Mouse

West Loop

Bourbon and nutty sherry are brought to life with red currant and black tea, resulting in a smooth, soul-soothing drink that oughta be a new classic. $13.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American creative

Mint chip ice cream at Anker

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
Restaurants

Bay scallops with XO sauce at Passerotto

Andersonville

Delicate bay scallops tremble beneath chive blossoms and dribbles of pungent onion puree and house-made XO sauce, an amalgam of dried fish, nduja, chilies and brown sugar that neatly walks the line between sweet and savory. $11.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Beet salad at Pacific Standard Time

River North

Earthy-sweet beets, kale and charred blueberries are wrapped in a yogurt dressing that owes its savory, grapefruit-like citrus quality to a mold known as koji. $13. 

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American

Slagel Family Farm’s Cornish Hen at Bellemore

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Mediterranean

Crème brûlée pie at Aba

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: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Sausage-and-piparras pizza at Pizzeria Bebu

River North

With 25 pies to choose from, Bebu is not for the indecisive, so steal our go-to order: Spicy in-house sausage, semisweet peppers and red onions are a match made in mozzarella heaven. $20.

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Photograph: Morgan Olsen
Restaurants

Tacos al pastor at Taqueria Mazamitla

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
Restaurants

Bubbling shrimp at Etta

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: Gonzalo Guzman
Restaurants, Latin American

Chorizo-and-cheese empanada at Lito’s Empanadas

Lincoln Park

The crown jewel of Lito’s empanada lineup is stuffed with spicy chorizo, potato, and melty mozzarella and Muenster cheeses, which glue everything together. Pair it with the in-house sweet sauce, a mayo-based creation that tames the heat. $3.25.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American creative

Fried smelt at Anker

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: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Handmade bell dumplings at A Place by Damao

Bridgeport

Like many of the menu items at this Chengdu-homaging restaurant, these supple pork dumplings swim in a searing, bright-red oil made from dried chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorns. A slow burn will haunt your lips long after the meal ends. $6.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American

Squid ink alla chitarra at Somerset

Rush & Division

Black-hued noodles twist around a treasure trove of calamari, prawns, tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs. The best part? It reheats surprisingly well the next day. Half $18, full $27.

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Photograph: Pablo Ponce

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: Kailley Lindman
Restaurants, Sandwich shops

What the? Sandwich at Nonna’s

West Loop

If you’re counting calories, skip ahead: This coma-inducing sando is stacked with crispy eggplant, fried chicken, gooey mozzarella, serrano chilies and spicy mayo. $10.

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Photograph: Courtesy 3 Square Diner
Restaurants

Omelette at 3 Squares Diner

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Italian

Clams Positano at Il Porcellino

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: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Soul and southern American

Cajun duck egg and boudin at Big Jones

Andersonville

All of chef Paul Fehribach’s biscuit sandwiches are stellar (really—we’ve tried them all), but the crispy boudin, topped with crunchy chow and a molten duck egg, is the definition of decadent. $13.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Turkey sandwich at Pink Squirrel

Logan Square

We’ve never been so excited to see a turkey sandwich on a bar menu, and after a few Wisconsin old-fashioneds, you’ll understand why. $10.

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Photograph: Tim McCoy
Restaurants

The Potato'Nator at Tempesta Market

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Huckleberry sundae at Pacific Standard Time

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
Restaurants, Food court

Cubano at TriBecca’s Cubano at Revival Food Hall

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: Kailley Lindman
Restaurants

Casarecce pasta at Gibsons Italia

West Loop

Tangles of house-made, gold-extruded noodles mix and mingle with verdant asparagus, Parmigiano-Reggiano and dollops of fluffy ricotta, resulting in a refreshing, satisfying carb course. $20.

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Photograph: Zoe Krey
Restaurants

Apple martini at Booth One

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Beef jibarito at Cafeteria Yesenia

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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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Mexican

Grilled-cauliflower tacos at Cruz Blanca

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
Restaurants, Seafood

Mr. Maguro at Sushi-san

River North

Consider this dish a collector’s-edition box set of tuna: Each 10-piece order includes sea-kissed, ruby-red cuts of tuna loin, chutoro and otoro, plus one roll. $39.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Bacon-and-egg flatbread at the Warbler

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.

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Photograph: Courtesy Heritage Bicycles
Shopping, Sports

Lavender latte at Heritage Bicycles

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
Restaurants

Jerk salmon at Friistyle Chicago

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Pizza

Sausage pizza at Phil’s 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
Restaurants, Japanese

Fried chicken at Naoki Sushi

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Bars

Hot Flashes at Golden Teardrops

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
Restaurants, American

Duck at Café Robey

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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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants

Banana budino at S.K.Y.

Lower West Side

Presented as a bowl of what looks like pebbles, the hand-cut granola inside bursts with pistachio and cocoa nib, obscuring a dense bananas-Foster budino. $7.

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49
Photograph: Jay Schroeder
Restaurants, Mexican

The BasedGod Is Perfect at Todos Santos

Logan Square

If you’re a mezcal fiend, chances are you’re a regular at this Logan Square watering hole. But we enjoy switching things up with this sotol-anchored cocktail that has hints of grapefruit, tarragon, chili and lime. $12.

50
Photograph: Sean Su
Restaurants, Pizza

Spumoni Bomba at Forno Rosso

Dunning

In this classic done right, three flavors of creamy gelato—strawberry, pistachio and chocolate—are enveloped in a hard milk-chocolate shell that’s drizzled with white chocolate. $8.

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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