It seems like only yesterday it was January, cold and gray. But regardless of how we've made it to June, we're here, and we must say, the first half of the year was pretty fantastic for restaurants and bars across Chicago. From top-notch sushi joints and upscale restaurants to inventive cocktail spots and places with great patios for summer, Chicago has seen quite a few new spots open up that we think will be worth visiting time and again.
The Alinea Group’s new restaurant is melding the ideas of fine dining and 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.
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.
After opening GreenRiver last September, the group behind New York City’s Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog has given Chicago a more intimate venue next door. Head bartender Julia Momose created a menu much shorter than GreenRiver’s, with 12 seasonal flower-focused cocktails. Those flowers form the bases of cocktails like the refreshing Wild Maquis, concentrated on lavender with slightly savory mescal, Cocchi Americano and Herbes de Provence. GreenRiver’s Aaron Lirette is behind the small food menu, with dishes like oysters, pork pâté and olives.
Forbidden Root's been slinging its bottled beers around Chicago for a while, but now it has a shiny brewpub in Noble Square. The bar is the focal point of the spot—a huge square smack dab in the middle of the space, tall and displaying rotating taps. While the beer is clearly the focal point, we're quite happy with the menu, too. The burger has a great giardiniera mayonnaise that brings a nice crunch with crispy and salty fries we just can't get enough of.
I loved Bunny. I will be forever sad that Bunny closed, but at some point it's time to move on and face the facts. And it turns out, the facts are actually in our favor—the space formally known as Bunny was quickly replaced with the Budlong, a fried chicken joint that is quickly becoming the standard for Nashville hot chicken in Chicago. It's ridiculously cheap (meals start at $9) and the chicken is juicy as hell while the skin is crispy with a smoky and warming heat. There's a few more locations on the way, so we're sure we'll be eating the Budlong's chicken for a long time to come.
Consider a night at the Northman as an education in cider. Two years in the making, the bar on the border of North Center and Lincoln Square offers an extensive list of international and local ciders and bartenders who can talk you through the choices. The list boasts page after page of draft, canned and bottled ciders, along with a French- and English-inspired bistro menu. Make sure you belly up to the bar and get the Spanish long-pour cider: It's unfiltered and uncarbonated but gets just the right amount of fizz as it streams from a tap almost as high as the ceiling. As for the rest of the menu, your servers can walk you through the rotating selection of semidry, dry and sweet ciders, as well as an expansive list of calvados.
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 open beside Maria's, a large indoor seating area, a back patio and a small front patio. While we're sure we'll miss the pies from Pleasant House, we're certain we'll be more than just fine with the Kimski menu.
Indonesia-based Imperial Group opened in River North this March, with executive chef Andy Foo at the helm. The authentic Chinese menu is expansive—go straight to the phenomenal soup dumplings and fluffy, light and filling seafood fried rice. Enjoy beautifully plated dishes, like the refreshing Chinese pickles, in an ornate space lined with booths and packed with four-tops. Plan to share all plates—you’ll want to try a little bit of everything.
If you're looking for a place to fill the brewery gap in your Instagram feed that's been haunting you in this beer city, Hopewell's the spot for you. It has the cleanest design and is the most Pinterest-y brewery possibly ever, with light wood, white accents and a simple bar. Focusing on lighter beers, Hopewell does best with its First Lager, a year-round crowd-pleaser, and its Swift IPA, which is bright and citrusy. Sign up for a brewery tour, stop by to play a few board games and order in food from wherever you like. You'll be set for an entire afternoon.
Sixteen on Center is on a roll this year and shows no signs of slowing down—we'll see the Revival Food Hall (that massive Loop lunch hall you keep hearing about) open this summer, too. But the team started out the year by sneakily opening Moneygun, a cocktail bar with 30 classics and bar snacks. It's a good spot to hang for small groups who want to work their way through the menu. Personally, we're big fans of the Pink Squirrel and the Dark and Stormy, but most of the cocktails on the list are solid picks as well.
In the bar space next to Johnny’s Grill, you’ll now find Mezcaleria Las Flores. Owner and beverage director Jay Schroeder presents each of the cocktails here in fun glasses—one even comes in a bowl. At $10 a pop, it’s easy to throw back a few of Schroeder’s concoctions, like the refreshing Magnetic Pole Reversal with sotol, cucumber, lime and basil. Don’t miss the expansive back-bar menu, with pours of agave spirits served with lemon and spices. And being next door to Johnny’s has its perks—you can order from the neighbor’s kitchen for snacks or dinner.
Adding the back patio to St. Lou's Assembly was the best decision the folks at this restaurant could have made. When you first walk in, be prepared to feel like you've stepped back in time to an old diner from the '70s. If it's a nice day, head to the back patio. It's modern with big tables and bocce ball. You'll find a few cocktails served on draft, including a frozen piña colada from Moneygun, but we're partial to the lavender lemonade with your choice of clear spirit (we chose gin), bright and refreshing for a warm day. The meat and threes are all solid picks, but we'd snack on the fried okra all day.