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Photograph: Anthony Tahlier

The best new restaurants of 2016

The 14 best new restaurants of 2016 include fine dining newcomers, great brunch spots and veggie-centric eats

By Elizabeth Atkinson
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This year was a big one for restaurants, where winners seemed to open one right after another. We didn't get to quite all of them (since the end of November Publican Anker, Elske and Temporis have all opened or set an opening date), but we made it to plenty of restaurants ikely to become stalwarts of Chicago's dining scene. We saw truly sad closings (Bunny would have made this list had it not been for an unexpected closing), tried new fried chicken and sushi restaurants, ate at restaurants that are making their mark on Chicago's fine dining scene and dined at veggie-centric spots. Thanks for the eats, 2016.

RECOMMENDED: The best of 2016

The best new restaurants of 2016

1. Bad Hunter

Restaurants Vegetarian West Loop

Heisler Hospitality is on a roll this year. In July, they opened Estereo and, more recently, veggie-centric Bad Hunter in the space next door to Lone Wolf (there are meat dishes, but you should skip them). The room is airy, decorated with green plants and river stone-topped tables, and chef Dan Snowden is offering an all-day menu and a rotating market dinner menu. Hits include the beet tartare, tender and earthy with white anchovy and served with flax seed crackers and a small mixed greens salad. Saffron farfalle is comforting with a hearty root Bolognese, Hook’s parmesan cheese and grapefruit breadcrumbs. Check out the rotating specials menu—on our visit we went for a dish of oyster mushrooms, pears and arugula. With prettily plated entrees and killer veggie burger, even a carnivore will be pleased.

2. Naoki Sushi

Restaurants Japanese Lincoln Park

There’s a secret passageway through the kitchen of Lettuce Entertain You’s Intro, and it leads to this sushi haven. Are you the kind of raw-fish vet who knows your maki from your nigiri? Or more of a novice? The latest project from Naoki Nakashima is a delight, either way. Whatever camp you land in, dinner wouldn’t be complete without the rotating sashimi and nigiri specials and the melting salmon nigiri with smoked soy and shallot.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

3. El Che Bar

Restaurants American West Loop

John Manion's (La Sirena Clandestina) new restaurant has an Argentinean-American focused menu with a wood-fired emphasis. Dishes come hit after hit, with creamy gnocchi and amazing quail. Start with the grilled oysters, which are decadent and set the meal off on the right foot. The space exudes a cozy feel, with warmth from the fire. There's a bit of South American flair, with lush green plants in space dividers and a long bar opposite high-top tables. But the dishes are the main attraction—we're already planning our next meal and can't wait to finish with one of the house-made ice creams.

Photograph: Courtesy Oriole

4. Oriole

Restaurants Contemporary American West Loop

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.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

5. The Budlong

Restaurants Food court Loop

The Budlong's been through the ringer this year, opening in the former Bunny space (rest in peace, Bunny), then closing in the former Bunny space and now opening in a new space in Lakeview and having a location in the Revival Food Hall. Whew. But despite all of that, it's still our new Nashville hot chicken sandwich lunch staple, paired with a side of slaw and baked beans at the Revival location. Our pick is the classic, just enough spice for a hefty kick but doesn't leave our eyes watering. Whichever spice you pick, you'll be pleased with the tender chicken and crispy outsides.

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

6. Kimski

Restaurants Fusion Bridgeport

The well-loved Maria's Packaged Goods has done some upgrading and renovating to turn the space into a place where we could spend all summer. Kimski brings us Korean-Polish fusion eats like the Maria's Standard sausage with soju mustard, a hybrid sauerkraut-slash-kimchi, scallions and an amazingly soft roll. It also made way for a second bar to be put in beside Maria's, a large indoor seating area, a back patio and a small front patio. While we're sure we'll still miss the pies from Pleasant House, we're certain that we'll be more than fine with the Kimski menu.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

7. Smyth

Restaurants American creative West Loop

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 for someone who's just getting interested in fine dining with its overall relaxed demeanor.

Photograph: Eugene (Huge) Galdones

8. The Loyalist

Bars Cocktail bars West Loop

The sister restaurant to Smyth, the Loyalist is the casual vision from John Shields and Karen Urie Shields. Dishes are à la carte (and trust us, you should get the burger) and seasonal. They're all delicious and ever-changing, currently we're into the red beets with grilled avocado puree. But you'd be wrong to pass up the drinks, where cocktails like the Nothing Noble, with bourbon and Amargo Valet shine.

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9. Café Marie-Jeanne

Restaurants Cafés Humboldt Park

Café Marie-Jeanne won a place in our hearts with their brunch and their meat and cheese plates, bringing an all-day Parisian-influenced café to the bustling California and Augusta intersection in Humboldt Park. And it's not like that corner has a lack of restaurants—in the company of Rootstock, Haywood Tavern and Spinning J (not to mention California Clipper and C. C. Ferns), so it's important to offer something on trend but also different for the area. Mike Simmons's Café Marie-Jeanne seems to have done just that, providing a brunch and coffee spot for the daytime and a comfortable evening hang—or if you'd rather, just walk up to the counter and grab a croissant for your stroll around the neighborhood.

10. Giant

Restaurants American creative Logan Square

A framed print of Shel Silverstein’s poem "Me and My Giant" hangs on the wall of this ironically named restaurant—it’s tiny, seating only 44 people. But what Giant lacks in space it makes up for in flavor. The menu is filled with shared plates, each inflected with its own garnish and flair. Peppers are abundant, starting with sweet biscuits with a sugary crust and a jalapeño butter. Pasta is the other star—our favorite is the sortallini, a little like tortellini, served in a refreshingly acidic and bright sauce that’s packed with guanciale, basil and pine nuts.

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Photograph: Brian Willette

11. Honey's

Restaurants American West Loop
Honey's is gorgeous. It contains two rooms, the first boasting a white marble bar with a mirrored back bar lined with stools, and a smattering of two-tops and bench seating. But look up because the skylight is the star; Honey's sits on a West Loop block without tall buildings, so the overhead window fills the space with sunshine. The service is as cheerful as the room, with helpful staff keeping you well liquored and fed. For food, order an onslaught of appetizers and dishes from the cold bar (we're still dreaming about the oysters—briny, with garlic and bright lemon). Pair yours with a glass of wine from the solid list and you may want to move in.

12. Roister

Restaurants Contemporary American West Loop
The Alinea Group’s new restaurant is melding the ideas of fine dining and a casual bar. Feel free to show up in a T-shirt and jeans—as the name suggests, the spot is noisy with music blaring, and most seats are at the bar or around a bar surrounding an open kitchen. The food itself is as strong and surprise-packed as what you’ll find at the group’s other spots—the beef broth is an umami bomb with beef cheek and tongue and soft egg in al dente bucatini noodles.
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Pies at Pleasant House Pub
Pies at Pleasant House Pub
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

13. Pleasant House Pub

Restaurants British Lower West Side
Chicago's resident royal pie baker has made some big changes this past year; condensing the Chicago location and its Three Oaks, Michigan, shop into the former Nightwood space to create an all-day pub. Since it's open from morning to evening, you'll find people hunched over their computers with a pastry at their side and couples on coffee dates chatting over snacks. In the evenings, the menu switches to a full-service dinner. Start with the pickles, a tiny jar filled with tangy beets, carrots and gherkins, then pick any pie with a side of the salty, crunchy bubble and squeak, an English dish with fried veggies. You can't go wrong with the savory steak-and-ale pie and the creamy, veggie-friendly kale-and-mushroom number. End with the seasonal fruit trifle: a sweet, boozy cake with whipped cream, fruit and custard.

14. Leña Brava

Restaurants Mexican West Loop
The newest member of Rick Bayless's family of restaurants boasts a menu based around ice and fire in a mid-to-upscale setting with plenty of tables. The ice portion of the menu is filled with cold and raw dishes like aguachiles and ceviches. You're better off picking one of the two options, as they are a tad on the acidic side, then pair with salads, cócteles and oysters with reckless abandon. We're fans of the verde ceviche, with baja hiramasa yellowtail, green chile adobo, daikon radish, cucumber, shaved fennel, grilled garlic chives and avocado. On the fire side, try the braised shortrib with Oaxacan pasilla salsa, set pleasingly on top of creamy cauliflower mash. Between the bite of the ice plates and the warm smoke of the fire dishes, your taste buds will be delighted.
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