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The Salt Shed with the Chicago skyline in the background.
Photograph: Sandra Steinbrecher

Time Out Chicago's 2023 Best of the City award winners

Read about our favorite restaurants, events and viral moments of the year.

Jeffy Mai
Written by
Jeffy Mai
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2023 is almost in the books but before it goes, let's give it a proper sendoff. So much has happened in Chicago over the past 12 month and we're here to highlight some of our favorites. New restaurants and bars have opened, exhibits and immersive experiences have come and gone, and the city even hosted a street race. It was another banner year for Chicago (unless you're a sports fan) and these businesses and events were a big part of the reason. Read on to celebrate the best of Chicago in 2023.

Food & Drink

  • Restaurants
  • Indian
  • Avondale
  • price 2 of 4

Chef Margaret Pak takes diners on a culinary journey to Kerala—a southwestern state in India that’s also the homeland of her husband Vinod Kalathil—at this buzzy Avondale newcomer. It comes on the heels of a brief, yet critically acclaimed, run at Politan Row food hall, where Thattu was a James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant. Expect comforting recipes like pork chop peralan, which stars a big hunk of meat resting atop a yucca cake alongside coconut-braised collard greens, and black chickpea-filled kadala curry with roasted coconut gravy.

  • Bars
  • River West/West Town
  • price 2 of 4

Chef Stephen Sandoval put himself on the map with Sueños, a pop-up that was located inside Soho House. His follow-up project continues to take Chicagoans on a journey to the Baja region. Veteran beverage director Danielle Lewis has crafted a menu of easy sippers—ideal for a nice day on the patio—and crowd-pleasing classics like an espresso martini and a michelada garnished with an oyster. But what sets Diego apart from your typical neighborhood bar is the food. Sandoval offers a standout selection of seafood, from fish and shrimp tacos to snapper ceviche and tuna tostada, as well as a mouthwatering burger.

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  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • River West/West Town
  • price 4 of 4

Omakase restaurants are so en vogue right now, and Chicago’s new California import Sushi By Scratch is among the best of the bunch. Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee’s sushi lair hidden under The Drop In delivers 17 courses of pristine and impeccable nigiri, featuring highlights like seared unagi topped with rendered bone marrow. The most memorable bite, though, is the a la carte foie gras offered at the end of the meal. A slab of duck liver is placed over rice and torched with brown sugar, before being finished with wasabi, salt and soy sauce. It’s a rich and indulgent piece that provides the perfect sendoff.

Born out of a shared love of vintage bikes and bivalves, Motorshucker is a traveling oyster bar that’s been popping up at venues and even festivals around the city. Track it down (currently in residence at Easy Does It) to feast on a selection of freshly shucked, direct-from-farm shellfish along with other offerings like seafood towers, spicy fried peanuts and disco chips topped with trout roe, bottarga and crème fraîche. Pair them with a glass of bubbles or a beer and you’ve got all the makings of the city’s best and most exciting pop-up concept.

Things to Do

  • Music
  • Music venues
  • River West/West Town

There’s no shortage of music venues in Chicago but the Salt Shed received a lot of attention when the project was announced. Housed within the former Morton Salt warehouse, the new entertainment complex features amenities like a state-of-the-art soundsystem by L-Acoustics, retail shops and a rotating lineup of local food vendors. While the Salt Shed debuted in 2022 with outdoor concerts, the indoor portion wasn’t finished until this year. And it’s already attracted some big names, including Japanese Breakfast, Tove Lo, the Postal Service and Run the Jewels.

Chicago is renowned for its comedy and restaurant scenes so why not combine the two? On the first and third Sunday of the month, the Lincoln Lodge plays host to Sauteed Standup, a cooking-comedy competition. Launched in early 2020 right before the pandemic shutdown, the show challenges two comics to prepare a dish for a panel of judges while also performing a stand-up set during the process. The result is a unique, and oftentimes unintentionally hilarious, experience that has been steadily growing in popularity.

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Nobody visits O’Hare International Airport for pleasure. But if you’re flying out of Terminal 5 this holiday season, take a moment to stop and admire the latest collection of public art. The city spent $3.5 million commissioning pieces from over 20 Chicago artists—the single largest acquisition of artwork made by local artists in the past three decades. You can check out what to expect here.

When news broke that NASCAR was bringing its inaugural street race to Chicago, many simply wondered, “Why?” Puzzlement later turned to annoyance after it was revealed major thoroughfares around Grant Park would be closed for several weeks, and that the Taste of Chicago was being pushed back from its usual July dates. Then on race weekend, pouring rain canceled most of the festivities—including concerts by the Chainsmokers and Miranda Lambert—and shortened the length of the event. But despite it all, those who tuned in were treated to an impressive spectacle that showed off the beauty of Chicago. Even skeptics had good things to say, and the city agreed by bringing the race back for another run in 2024.

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  • Things to do
  • Bucktown

To commemorate its 100th anniversary, Disney brought a new exhibition to the city where Walt Disney was born. Fans have the opportunity to check out over 250 rare and historical artifacts from the company’s storied history, such as early drawings for 100 Dalmatians, Ariel’s dinglehopper from The Little Mermaid and the original Winnie-the-Pooh. With 10 immersive galleries and 14 interactive installations, it’s very easy for both adults and kids alike to spend a few hours getting lost in Disney’s magical past.

Universal Studios isn’t coming to Chicago anytime soon but locals still got to enjoy the magical world of Harry Potter this past year thanks to an immersive experience inside Water Tower Place. Spanning three floors and 30,000 square feet, “Harry Potter: Magic at Play” transported Potterheads to all of their favorite locales from the series, such as Platform 9 ¾, the Forbidden Forest and, of course, Hogwarts. There were also various interactive activities like Quidditch training and potions class, plus Butterbear and exclusive merch.

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What started off as a fun tradition among friends a few years ago exploded in popularity this past summer when thousands descended upon Montrose Harbor every Friday morning. Aptly dubbed Friday Morning Swim Club, the meetup brought folks (and sometimes pets) together for a friendly, community-building dip in Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, the influx of swimmers raised concerns about safety, causing organizers and the city to cut the season short, but not before the event went viral.

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