Chicago is a relaxed town, and that extends to fine dining; Chicago restaurants skip the pretension, focus on great flavors and experiences and even feature craft beer pairings along with wine. Many of Chicago's best chefs, like Grant Achatz or Iliana Regan, prefer whimsical and experimental dishes over traditional fine dining fare. Candy balloons? Why not? (They're at Alinea, by the way). Some are even BYOB restaurants or have great bar food, which lessens the sticker shock a bit. But some also require jackets for men, so make sure you check the dress code before you head out.
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Best fine dining in Chicago
Chef/mastermind Grant Achatz serves food the likes of which you’ve never seen. Sit back and enjoy the show, a well-orchestrated ride that plays with textures, temperatures and notions of “normal” cuisine, while somehow remaining grounded in season, flavor and flawless execution. Past menu stunners have included squab with peppercorn custard, sorrel and strawberries; and cocoa-coated watermelon with cubed Kobe beef. But you never know what dish will steal the show when you’re in the audience.
From Noah Sandoval and Genie Kwon, Oriole's the fine dining newcomer you've heard so much about. You'll find it off the bustling street of restaurant row, tucked away in the West Loop. The menu varies regularly, but based on the truly superb and thought-provoking meal we had there, you'll be pleased. Start with a complimentary drink (which I'm sure also changes, on our chilly evening it happened to be a warm sochu-based drink). The menu is built to surprise, so don't expect to see your full menu until afterwards—but believe us, we're still dreaming of the sea urchin with scallops and cauliflower. Drink and wine pairings are available, guiding you seamlessly through the dreamy meal.
To dine at Grant Achatz’s follow-up to Alinea is a rare—and rarefied—opportunity to submit oneself to a very specific vision of what great dining might look like. That vision changes every three months, from French food to Italian food to modern plates that don’t even look like food. Usually the experience is more lighthearted and lively than Alinea. But it is in no way less delicious.
Smyth (and the Loyalist, listed below) opened with a fine dining and casual spot from John Shields and Karen Urie Shields earlier this year blowing us away with both concepts. But let's start with Smyth, the fine dining aspect of the pair. Smyth has two coursed meal options (eight- and twelve-courses), with dishes like the savory dungeness crab with foie gras. The setting is cozy and approachable, for as refined as the dishes feel, the attire is come-as-you-are and very down to earth. Dishes are complex and interesting, but this spot also works well as an introduction to fine dining with its overall relaxed demeanor.
Forager and self-trained chef Iliana Regan serves "new gatherer" cuisine at her tiny Lincoln Square storefront. Dishes may include thin slices of bear, placed atop a rice crisp and served on a rock; foie gras shaped like owls; or a fried hunk of mushroom with garlic aioli. You won't find food like this at any other fine dining restaurant.
Fewer than 30 diners can fit in this tiny restaurant, and all of them must have made reservations weeks in advance. But as a 2006 Food & Wine best new chef, chef-owner Michael Carlson has a right to call the shots. Let him. You’ll be treated to intriguing creations like pine-flavored peekytoe crabs with marinated royal king mushrooms or sumptuous venison with a white chocolate foam. The menu changes often, but whatever Carlson has up his sleeve, you’re certain to have a meal like nowhere else in town.
Topolobampo is the most sophisticated and upscale of Rick Bayless's restaurants, and the one most frequented by President Obama and his family. As with all of Bayless's restaurants, the products used here are local and seasonal. So whether you're eating fresh oysters or ceviche or one of the beautiful moles, you know you're eating the best the season has to offer. An ever-changing menu means it's hard to predict exactly what will be on offer day to day—but because Bayless is involved, it never really feels like a gamble.
Chef-owner Ryan McCaskey’s South Loop fine dining respite is a study in rich whites, a rare exercise in the restaurant as a space of tranquility and elegance. Flashes of inspiration light up the menu—shrimp paired with cuttlefish noodles and cauliflower, a charcuterie plate starring gently smoky “duck ham”—but the overall focus is on food that is rich and satisfying rather than revolutionary.
This highly anticipated opening from David and Anna Posey offers an affordable introduction to fine dining for those interested in inching toward their first five-plus-course dinner. (If you aren’t feeling quite up to that, there is an à la carte menu, too.) We’re taken with the toothsome confit bass with squash broth and shaved shiitake mushroom, as well as the buckwheat-crust tart with salted ramps and duck liver. Pick from either nonalcoholic pairings—house-made juices like spritzes with ginger—or an affordable wine pairing with both reds and whites. The small space does a good job of making you feel at home, with comfortable, closely arranged tables and an outdoor waiting area featuring a cozy wood-burning fireplace to curl up next to.
Chicago has a few small, far from downtown places where chefs have carved out personal enclaves for high-level fine dining. But perhaps none were born with the maturity and finesse of this 34-seat, off-the-beaten-Lincoln-Square-path BYOB from husband-and-wife Chris and Nina Nugent. Chris, a veteran of Les Nomades, brings precision to every dish on the nine-course, $135 tasting menu. The food is technically flawless, while Nina’s front-of-the-house charm brings the personality.
This iconic West Loop kitchen is still one of Chicago’s best. The beautiful, constantly changing seasonal plates are full of surprising elements—chilled sweet corn soup with arctic char roe; barbecued sturgeon and pork belly with snap peas, marinated shiitake and peanut consommé—which makes for exciting and, sometimes, challenging eating. Drinks from bartender Kyle Davidson are elegant, and the wine list offers exceptional wines.
Want to skip rent this month and have the best Italian fine dining experience in town? Splurge here. The space has been redone—the entrance features bottles upon bottles of wine, the tables all face the windows and offer views of Michigan Avenue, there are new chandeliers and everything is brighter and fresher. The tasting menu has well-cooked proteins, fresh crudos and house-made pastas (don't worry, the gnocchi with ricotta and black truffle sauce remains).
Chef Carrie Nahabedian delivers an upscale experience minus the pomp, courtesy of a snazzy room and a seasonal menu that reads like a who’s who in regional, sustainable foods. The menu changes weekly, so expect anything from seasonal veggies—French wild asparagus, spring peas and sugar snap peas—accompanying a wild Yukon River Alaskan salmon to Spanish-inspired bread pudding with saffron ice cream, candied orange peel, crème fraîche and bacon.