The best new restaurants in Chicago sent us globetrotting in 2019, adding stamps to our culinary passports from Japan, Israel, France, Nepal and beyond. Along the way, we noshed on pristine sushi, sipped a damn near perfect Negroni and slurped sea-kissed oysters straight from the shell. Now, we're sharing the best of the best with you—the Chicago restaurants that knocked our socks off and kept us coming back for more. We reviewed our long list of dining adventures in 2019 and hand-picked our favorites, from one of the finest Mexican restaurants Chicago has ever seen and a splurge-worthy omakase to a fantastic cocktail bar tucked away in a hotel basement. Let's take a look back at the new restaurants and bars that topped the charts this year.
Editor's note: As we've done in years past, this list includes several establishments that opened at the tailend of 2018 and didn't have a chance to be included in last year's lineup of top newcomers.
Time Out Market Chicago debuted in 2019
Last year, we unveiled Time Out Market Chicago at 916 W Fulton Market, bringing together some of the city's brightest talent under one roof. We're talking about Abe Conlon, Brian Fisher, Thai Dang, John Manion and Zoe Schor—and then some. The 50,000-square-foot, three-story culinary playground is home to 18 acclaimed chef vendors, four bars and a demo kitchen that will be activated all year. We like to think of it as a living, breathing, delicious version of our storied magazine.
Chicago's best new restaurants and bars
Every couple of years, a restaurant or bar debuts in Chicago and totally knocks us off our feet. It changes the dining landscape for the better and begs the industry to level up. Japanese-inspired drinking den Kumiko easily falls into this elusive category, thanks in no small part to Julia Momose's unparalleled cocktail menu, which is arranged from "bright and light" to "spirituous closers." Pair those tipples with elevated bar bites from Noah Sandoval and Mariya Russell, who dish out delicate nigiri, granita-topped oysters and savory Japanese milk bread.
It's impossible to walk into this Hyde Park restaurant and not feel chef-owner Erick Williams's heart and soul. It's in the artwork on the walls and the Southern fare that's ferried out of the kitchen; it even imbues the gracious waitstaff. First-time diners should start with the green tomatoes before delving into the blackened catfish and an order of collards studded with smoked turkey bits. No trip is complete without a serving of smile-inducing banana pudding with Nilla Wafers.
When the Hoxton opened earlier this year, Chicagoans clamored to get seats at Stephanie Izard's Peruvian rooftop restaurant, Cabra. Meanwhile, we were getting comfy in basement bar Lazy Bird, which offers a whopping 52 classic cocktails from bar genius Lee Zaremba. Each recipe has been tweaked and perfected, resulting in some of the finest drinks we've ever had the pleasure of sipping. Gin lovers shouldn't skip the show-stopping Negroni, which mixes a combination of bitters to mimic the flavor of vintage Campari.
After eight years of contract brewing, Middle Brow Beer Co. finally carved out a permanent home for itself on a bustling stretch of Armitage Avenue in Logan Square. The main attraction is the beer, of course, but it didn't take long for Chicagoans to realize that the crew here knows a thing or two about edible carbs, too—specifically thick toast piled with seasonal jelly and flame-dappled pizzas in flavors like margherita and papas bravas.
After closing their suburban strip-mall gem Hanbun, Dave Park and Jennifer Tran set their sights on West Town. There, they debuted Jeong (pronounced “chung”) earlier this year and received a standing ovation from just about every critic in town. The tasting menu rings up under $100 and includes the now famous salmon tartare, which is accessorized with dots of tangy crème fraîche and balls of toasted rice. Guests can also explore the Korean-American menu a la carte, choosing their own adventure of pork-kimchi dumplings, braised short rib and warm banana cake.
When we heard that New Orleans chef Zachary Engel of Shaya was packing up his bags and moving to Chicago, the anticipation was palpable. The James Beard Award winner didn't let us down with Galit, his Middle Eastern eatery in the heart of Lincoln Park. The kitchen orchestrates a parade of hummus, fire-roasted veggies and proteins, balloon-shaped pita and addictive sides. The wine list is equally special, with by-the-glass pours of vinos from Israel, Lebanon, Armenia and beyond.
Beloved chef Carlos Gaytán made his triumphant return to Chicago with Tzuco, a breathtaking River North restaurant that pays homage to his hometown of Huitzuco, Mexico. It won't take you long to realize that this restaurant is different—the interior is unlike anything we've ever seen in Chicago, designed with an earthy palette and outfitted with thorn-covered vines and other artifacts native to Huitzuco. The menu, too, honors his hometown and his mother's cooking techniques. The Chicharron de Pescado is a standout favorite, with a whole fried fish, chunks of tender meat, tangy salsa, pickled veggies and feta cheese foam.
Chefs Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim are living every culinary mastermind's dream with their sophomore project, Wherewithall, where the four-course tasting menu changes every night based on the day's bounty. And for $65 a head, it's one of the better dining deals in town. Expect plenty of delightful surprises along the way, and show up early for a glass of wine in the enchanting front bar.
We're cheating a bit with this entry, as Thattu is one of many stalls located inside West Loop food hall Politan Row. But if Margaret Pak and her husband, Vinod Kalathil, opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2020, we'd be first in line. The couple celebrates Indian street food from the southwestern state of Kerala, which translates to spicy-sweet masala biscuits, rich chickpea curry, aromatic coriander chicken and lacy rice crepes that go with just about everything on the menu.
Fans of Indian and Nepalese cuisines were treated to some fantastic new openings this year, including Vajra in West Town, where the familiar—samosas and butter chicken—melds with new favorites, like the unforgettable tandoori venison. Head bartender Juanjo Pulgarin makes the bar an equally alluring reason to visit with complex yet balanced cocktails that utilize ingredients like szechuan syrup, chamomile mint tea and sweet lassi.
In a matter of months, the One Off Hospitality crew closed beer-and-burger joint Publican Anker and opened a sunny French boîte in its place. Café Cancale is a brick-and-mortar love letter to partner Paul Kahan's life-altering trip to Cancale, a sleepy coastal town in France that's known for its spectacularly fresh seafood and unfussy fare. Start with a dozen oysters while contemplating the rest of the menu; the Lyonnaise salad and mussels à la Normande are absolute musts.
A handful of high-end omakase experiences debuted in Chicago this year, but there was one that shined brighter than the rest. Start saving now for celebrated sushi chef B.K. Park's $175 menu at Mako in the West Loop, where diners are treated to a lineup of bites that fluctuates with the season, like king crab with uni miso and A5 wagyu butter. The sushi counter boasts just 12 spots (there are an additional 10 seats behind it in the dining room), and each seating is limited to two hours. No need to rush: The chefs are trained to keep things moving at a comfortable pace.
Chicagoans embraced the joys of Filipino feasting thanks to this easygoing Wicker Park restaurant from siblings Marlon, Cybill and Malvin Tan. Situated in the former Americano 2211 space, Cebu offers island cooking on the mainland, with crispy lumpia, swordfish ceviche, meaty sisig and ube panna cotta.
If it's been a couple of years since you've had a proper Korean barbeque experience, allow Perilla to be your reintroduction to the interactive cuisine. Chef-partner Andrew Lim and partner-GM Tom Oh gifted Perilla to the people of Chicago as a way to bridge cultures and celebrate Korean-American eats. Make it easy on yourself with the feast menus (available for two or four diners), a melange of greatest hits, including dumplings, small plates and grilled meats.
Leave it to Team Alinea to reimagine the traditional Wisconsin supper club as something inherently sexy. Situated below Roister in the West Loop, St. Clair Supper Club does just that with a menu that revolves around ruby-red prime rib that's cut to order. Pad your order with a classic shrimp cocktail, a spun Caesar salad, a side of creamed spinach and a slice of frozen grasshopper pie for dessert. The toughest decision of the night: Brandy Old Fashioned or Martini?