Every year before the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show we scour the streets of our beloved city in search of the latest and greatest restaurants Chicago has to offer. Also included in the mix are old time favorites and hidden gems. Below is the list we have compiled for 2012. It’s delicious.
151 West Erie St.
Ryan Poli (formerly Perennial) dishes up Spanish and Latin-influenced small plates in this trendy River North restaurant. For those who want just a bite, step inside the companion tapas bar called Barcito. Spain dominates the beverage list including beers and cider. Cocktails are “kegged” in creative combinations along with house-made sodas.
851 North Ashland Ave.
The eclectic menu at this small BYO Noble Square spot meshes Asian, Euro and American flavors on menu items such as the calamari stuffed with chicken & pork forcemeat, potato confit, Korean chili, peanuts, pickled fennel & pea tendrils. Funky décor, old theatre chairs and dim lighting practically guarantee a younger clientele.
1619 North Damen Ave.
Theo Gilbert built a devoted following at Terragusto serving fresh pasta dishes made from scratch in a tiny kitchen. At Ripasso, fresh pappardelle with the chef’s signature four-meat Bolognese sauce is available as well as other pasta favorites like squid ink with shrimp and cauliflower. But now you can order pasta flights or the chef’s tasting menu in addition to a la carte dishes beyond pasta. The reasonably-priced Italian wine list is a plus.
1301 North State Pkwy.
Public Chicago renovated the Ambassador East Hotel and completely revamped the historic Pump Room space. The New American menu and modernized concept is overseen by venerable NY chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Regional flavors and local purveyors are embraced. At night, the comfortable and chic lounge is transformed into a hip supper club atmosphere.
116 West Hubbard St.
Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi) prepares Japanese comfort food at this sleek, modern River North eatery specializing in small plates (over two dozen) and bowls of noodle dishes served in broth and without. Slurp the likes of Tan Tan Men (whole wheat noodles, ground pork and pork sausage and spicy miso broth), but use chopsticks for Chiyan Pon (fried egg noodles with mixed seafood). Sake is taken seriously here.
1558 North Milwaukee Ave.
Dare to dine on Greek cuisine outside of Greektown? You will be rewarded at Taxim located in Wicker Park. Seasonal offerings of inventive regional Greek fare have an emphasis on vegetables. Chef David Schneider shops local farmers markets for his produce and then treats them with respect in dishes such as okra sautéed with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil and cilantro; or fried heirloom eggplant slices with yogurt sauce. The Greek wine list is updated regularly.
2100 South Archer Ave., 2nd fl.
Dim sum in Chinatown gets a glam make-over with Cai’s crystal lights and silk-covered chairs. There are occasional rolling carts but the best approach here is to order off the lengthy dim sum menu of 70 dishes. Blanket the table with bamboo steamers filled with a variety of dumplings. Beyond dumplings: sticky rice with Chinese sausage, silken bean-curd skin stuffed with minced pork, and puffy buns filled with sweet barbecued pork are just a sampling.
NHA HANG VIET NAM
1032 West Argyle St.
You’ll find an ambitious and lengthy menu (200 offerings) at this tiny, family-run restaurant. Arrive hungry and with friends to experience a culinary tour of the region’s hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors. Whet your appetite with garlic-laden, deep-fried chicken wings and squid salad with pickled peppers, basil, cilantro and ground peanuts. It’s a beginning. BYO.
1265 North Milwaukee Ave.
The hallmark of Korean barbecue restaurants is quickly-seared marinated meats on tabletop gas burners. This recently opened Wicker Park barbecue spot has that and more. The kitchen turns out pancakes and dumplings, noodles and rice bowls, stews and hot pots. Braised pork spareribs are cooked low and slow. Full bar service includes soju.
2853 North Kedzie Ave.
Matthias Merges (formerly Charlie Trotter’s) changes direction from high-end New American to minimal-chic Japanese yakitori in a storefront space in Logan Square. Yakitori is about the simple flavors of authentic street food. Here, birds, offal, seafood and vegetables are expertly grilled on a sizzling hot fire. The bar program highlights sake and craft cocktails in addition to wines and spirits.
Tried & True
464 North Halsted St.
The best outdoor patio in Chicago sheltered from the busy street with gorgeous landscaping and heaters. Piccolo Sogno offers the complete Italian experience through it décor and its wide range of dishes from multiple regions in Italy. The Italian wine list is extraordinary and ask Ciró (chee ro’) for recommendations.
937 North Rush St.
Classic French Vietnamese food served in a fine dining setting. Ask for a table by the window to assure a fabulous street scene and the bar upstairs is a great meet and greet spot. Expect great service, along with a very romantic setting.
900 N. Franklin
This old favorite brings a homey, French country atmosphere to the dining experience. Here you will find bistro classics, with considerable flair, from daily fish specials to duck confit to escargots, but you’ll also find other rustic choices like lamb stew loaded with vegetables.
Upscale American Contemporary
1639 South Wabash Ave.
Ryan McCaskey’s South Loop American eatery (with Maine roots) serves contemporary and classic, ingredient-driven, seasonal plates. A la carte, 3-course prix fixe, or tasting menus are available. Dramatically lit, soaring ceilings in an airy setting with earthy neutral colors. Enjoy a modernized classic cocktail in their elegant lounge.
120 East Delaware Pl.
Dine on modern American bar food rooted in regional farm-to-table cuisine in the revamped Four Seasons restaurant space. Try the bold flavors of bison tartare with waffle chips, beer mustard, and a 62-degree egg or a dry-aged 23oz bone-in rib eye with blue cheese fondue.
800 West Randolph St.
Sit at the zinc counter or in tufted leather booths at this “uber-hip” trendy diner. The signature dish is burgers and a menu inspired by classic American diner fare given a sophisticated French accent. Cheese fries sport Mornay sauce, aioli and fried egg; potato hash is adorned with duck-heart gravy. Accompany your meal with craft beers, boutique wines and updated cocktails.
340 West Armitage Ave.
The upstairs cocktail lounge has a deer head over the fireplace, a clear indicator you’ll find game on the menu. This Lincoln Park small-plates eatery provides hearty comfort food and southern favorites with a modern twist, featured in categories of raw, veg, shellfish, fish, game and offal. Full bar.
CHICAGO CUT STEAKHOUSE
300 North LaSalle St.
A high-quality steakhouse and a revered local chef make a winning combination. Prime dry-aged beef, some in double cuts, and premium seafood are complemented by Jackie Shen’s (ex Red Light) vast culinary skills. Save room for the chef’s signature chocolate dessert.
BUTCHER & THE BURGER
1021 West Armitage Ave.
Allen Sternweller (ex Allen’s) embraces meat at his retro-styled counter-service spot in Lincoln Park offering patties made from grass-fed prime beef or game. Non-meat eaters may select seafood or vegan patties. Have your burger customized to suit your taste by choosing protein, bun, spice blend and topping. You can even get a breakfast burger. Eat the burger in or take out patties from the butcher shop.
GRANGE HALL BURGER BAR
844 West Randolph St.
Behind a barn door in the West Loop is this farm-to-table hamburger house serving meat and veggie patties on house-made buns. Choose from grass-fed beef, free-range turkey, or veggie and bean protein, and a variety of cheeses and toppings. Be sure to check out the pie safe. American beers, cocktails and rotating wine selection for those who imbibe.
PUBLICAN QUALITY MEATS
825 West Fulton Market
Paul Kahan (Publican, Blackbird, Avec, Big Star) has taken the meat market concept to a new level. Located across the street from Publican restaurant, this market/café and is a chef-driven establishment. Meat cases display house-cured charcuterie, grass-fed beef, Berkshire pork and free-range chicken. Freshly baked breads are stacked in baskets and house-made condiments line a white-tiled wall. Beer is the beverage of choice to accompany meat-centric sandwiches such as mortadella on griddled rye with peach mostarda; braised pork belly on flatbread with gyro-style accompaniments.
1633 North Halsted St.
The Boka crew has joined forces with Chris Pandel to open a rustic Italian restaurant in Lincoln Park’s theater row. Diners will enjoy sharing plates of wood-burning pizzas and spit-roasted meats, house-made pastas, charcuterie plates with country-style breads and cheeses, and much more.
1421 West Taylor St.
Recently opened in Little Italy, this rustic New American small plates restaurant offers an adventurous menu crafted in an open kitchen equipped with a wood-burning oven. Features include a raw bar, house-made pastas, alluring ingredient combinations in meat, seafood and vegetable dishes, and a “chef’s whim” tasting menu served at the communal table. Wines by the glass include six on tap and an extensive bottle list, craft cocktails and a few beers are available.
833 West Randolph St.
The team from Old Town Social has taken on the old Marche space and outfitted it with a marble staircase from Italy, wrought iron gates from Nice, and produce flour in a custom-built stone mill to turn local wheat into Neapolitan style pizzas in a wood-burning oven. Expect Mediterranean and French inspired cuisine such as veal sweetbreads with broccoli-hazelnut puree and a frog leg raviolini en brodo. A full bar has 24 drafts and mixologists who produce bitters, syrups and mixers in house.
1800 North Lincoln Ave.
Paul Virant (Vie) has revamped Perennial to take advantage of its proximity to the popular, sustainable Green City Market located across the street in Lincoln Park. The menu’s farm-to-table New American fare includes prix fixe options, sharing plates and brunch. Perennial Virant is located on the street level of the recently opened Hotel Lincoln.
Drinks & Snacks
110 East Pearson St.
Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia, Terzo Piano) hits the mark once again with this rustic Italian small plates food and wine bar. Outstanding crisp-crusted pizzas and pizza salads, mozzarella bar, gelato and espresso bar. Don’t neglect the small plates section of the menu. It has an intriguing Italian wine list with some unusual offerings, many by the glass. Bar Toma opens early and stays open late.
BREAD & WINE
3732 West Irving Park Rd.
This recently opened neighborhood American bistro and market specializes in farm-to-table fare. Over ten wines by the glass and reasonably-priced wines by the bottle can be paired with an eclectic menu focusing on house-made and locally-sourced. American and Midwestern cheeses and house-made charcuterie (corned duck breast; kielbasa) are served with bread, pickles, mustard and jam. Small plates, snacks and large plates round out the menu.
THE DRAWING ROOM
937 North Rush St.
The Drawing Room pairs their modern American-contemporary menu with their culinary cocktails crafted by highly trained Master Bartenders, and at your request, your cocktail can be prepared tableside using their custom built mobile bar carts.
5310 North Clark St.
Welcome to Italy in Andersonville. Traditional Venetian snacks line the counter along one wall of this tiny restaurant/wine bar from the owners of nearby Anteprima and Acre. Plates of cicchetti (Venetian small plates) are the draw at Ombra. Examples include tuna with borlotti beans and pickled peppers, new-potato salad with smoked trout and capers, and an herbed sheep’s milk ricotta plated with blood oranges and drizzled with a fruity olive oil. While sipping wine, try the fritti and bruschetta.
1023 West Lake St.
The focus of this intimate wine bar concept serving Spanish small plates is on ingredients and craftsmanship. Artisanal products are handled carefully, simply prepared and elegantly presented. Cheeses are Spanish and American. Charcuterie shouldn’t be missed. You won’t be disappointed ordering any of the dishes under headings of Meat, Seafood and Vegetable. The reasonably-priced wine list features sherry and seasonal rotations from Spain, Europe and America.
Gourmet Quick Serve
615 North State St.
Graham Elliot, from Top Chef Masters, created Grahamwich to redefine what a sandwich shop could and should be. It is bright, airy, and very, very hip. Grahamwich isn’t designed for lingering. It’s cash only, there’s only one communal table in the rear, and there’s a four-sandwich limit per customer.
449 North Clark St.
Rick Bayless’ Xoco (pronounced SHO-ko) focuses on Mexican street food from authentic convenient eats to house-made ice creams. It is designed to create the feel of purchasing from a street vendor through its exposed, interactive kitchen. Xoco is sparkling clean and often has a long line of customers waiting to get in.
ETNO VILLAGE GRILL
2580 North Lincoln Ave.
If you lack time but not taste, head for this Lincoln Park fast-casual corner sandwich shop. Burgers and Serbian cevapcici (sausage) sandwiches can be customized with eight types of cheese and a boatload of condiments (over 20). Chef Chris Carson (formerly 404 Wine Bar) prepares all the condiments in-house with rare exception. Consider adding his red onion marmalade simmered with balsamic vinegar, wine, cinnamon and star anise to a garlicky beef-pork “cevap.” No alcohol is served; no BYO.
65 East Washington St.
Across the street from Chicago Cultural Center and short walking distance from Millennium Park is a French-style bakery-café that offers sweet and savory treats for coffee breaks, breakfast or lunch-time meals. While cakes and pastries are specialties here, try the savory quiche, Parisian-style sandwiches, salads or charcuterie plates before you choose dessert.
FLORIOLE CAFÉ & BAKERY
1220 West Webster Ave.
This bakery-café is no longer the best kept secret in town. On the menu are breads, breakfast pastries, breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads, tarts, teacakes, and cookies. Floriole’s bakers use organic ingredients from local farmers whenever possible. Menu items change frequently depending on availability of seasonal ingredients and creative whim of the bakers.
2051 N. California Ave.
Formerly a food truck, Bang-Bang recently opened up a pie shop in the heart of Logan Square. Enjoy a slice of pie and cup of coffee in this quaint neighborhood shop. The menu is ever changing due to the season or the strike of inspiration.
50 W. Randolph St.
You won’t be bored here with flavors such as Candied Maple Bacon, Carrot Cake Pistachio, Caramelized Pineapple-Rum, and Coffee & Cream. With no more than 3 dozen donuts to a batch, Do-Rite only serves the freshest donuts.