As we prepare to round the bend into the new year, we can confidently look back and say that 2016 was an excellent year for eating in Chicago. From choice cuts of steak perfectly seared over a roaring hearth to bowls packed with fiery Sichuan pork dumplings, a tempting new feast was never far from reach.
We saw exciting new ventures from some of the city’s most celebrated chefs who decided to take a more casual approach to their usual Michelin-starred affairs, while others took classic comfort fare to creative new heights. The impressive roster of newbies only further proves that Chicago’s dining scene can’t be predictably pinned down.
Here’s our rundown of the best new restaurants in Chicago from 2016, and all we can say is that 2017 has some big shoes to fill.
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After embarrassing yourself by trying to open six of the 12 doors that make up the façade of Heisler Hospitality’s (Lone Wolf, Pub Royale, and Queen Mary Tavern) newest restaurant -- pro tip: It’s the one with the flowers -- find solace in a glass of Mermaid Water (sweet vermouth, tonic syrup, gin, rhubarb, and Nardini Acqua di Cedro) or natural wine. While the focus of this greenhouse-like sanctuary is omnivorous eating, meat-eaters can get their fix with soy-cured wagyu beef and assorted skewered meats.
The taco to ruin all other tacos. That is what Rick Bayless gave us when he opened his Oaxacan-style brewery and taqueria doing it just like they do south of the border. Grab a pint of Smoke Alley dry-hopped smoked wheat ale to pair with build-your-own beef tasajo tacos. Venture deeper into the world of Mexican street food with the Tlayudas, massive Oaxacan tostadas covered in black beans, cheese, salsa, and a variety of optional toppings like portobello mushrooms, Oaxacan chorizo, or beef tasajo.
This is the Chinese restaurant that Stephanie Izard opened. Need we say more? OK, it features five different rooms, each decorated with a different Chinatown-inspired motif – think a tea shop, jade cocktail lounge, and maybe even a red-velvet-covered opium den. There is also an extensive menu of souped-up Chinese takeout staples, including Dan Dan noodles, duck fried rice, and, yes, soup dumplings.
While saying “This place (or any other place for that matter) is lit” has reached a mom-jeans level of social acceptability, this phrase could still technically be used here. No, really! There’s a giant fire in the back that bone-in salmon steak to charred perfection. John Manion’s char-grilled follow-up to La Sirena Clandestina focuses on Argentinean cuisine with an emphasis on foods prepared in an open hearth. The cocktail menu -- infused with an equal amount of Latin-American flare, such as the Spiced Coconut Sour -- seals the deal for this foliage-filled tropical escape.
A cylinder of iceberg lettuce dotted with Benton’s bacon and gorgonzola around a pool of green goddess dressing makes up the fanciest wedge salad you’ve ever seen. It’s Chef Brian Fisher’s way of showing you you’re not in Kansas anymore and that his new Lakeview restaurant is anything but ordinary. The former Schwa chef delivers show-stopping dishes such as Carolina Gold rice with duck egg and truffle as well as chicken liver mousse with Concord grape jelly and pumpkin seed butter.
Jason Vincent, you go on with your bad self and that Sortallini. His tiny restaurant made a huge entrance earlier this year when it opened in Logan Square with whatever the former Nightwood (RIP) chef felt like cooking. That means starting a meal with waffle fries covered in crab salad and ending it with BBQ baby back ribs, because why not? There’s an equally expansive wine list to go with it, thanks to beverage director/nerd Josh Perlman.
Clearly, the problem with most steakhouses these days is not being able to force enough meat into your face-hole in any one seating. The carnivore’s equivalent to GT Fish & Oyster solves this problem by offering each of its six meat options – lamb loin, beef tenderloin, bison, venison, etc. -- in 4- or 8-oz portions.
In a year filled with delicious new restaurants, it’s easy to forget the one that started it all. In January, behind the already acclaimed Intro, Lettuce Entertain You debuted a high-end sushi spot helmed by chef Naoki Nakashima. His commitment to carefully sourced seafood and equally exceptional execution results in mosaics of thinly sliced hamachi adorned with aji panca, scallion, and ponzu or truffle chawanmushi in dashi broth.
Eating at Oriole is like eating at your cool friend’s apartment -- you know, the one with exposed brick walls, furniture that matches, and two Michelin stars. The team’s laid-back approach to fine-dining means you can dine on langoustine spring rolls and huckleberry-flavored lamb belly while not worrying if you’re using the right fork or getting carried away with the wine pairings.
Always bet on the winning horse. Especially when that horse is Paul Kahan and the game is opening sure-to-please restaurants. The chef with a proven track record that includes Avec and Blackbird does it again in Wicker Park with a beer-and-grilled-oyster-fueled tavern offering what might just be the best new burger in Chicago. The secret: an In-N-Out-style special sauce spiked with dashi.
When the guys behind Alinea decided to go casual, the result was a raucous restaurant surrounding one of those oh-so-trendy open hearths as well as some of the best fried chicken in the city. While we hardly describe aged cheddar rillettes with truffles and fry bread as chill, blasting hip-hop and packing in diners like delicately cured sardines helps get their mission statement across.
Most of us have fond memories of grabbing a slice from Sbarro after catching the latest installment of Austin Powers. Good times. Revival is nothing like the food courts of your heyday. Instead, it’s filled with Antique Taco, Aloha Poke Co., Smoque BBQ, and other gourmet grab-and-go options. Because we also grew up, and even laser beam-wearing sharks don’t have the allure they used to.
Congrats, guys who also own Bar Marta, for opening a restaurant that gives the middle finger to reclaimed barn wood, Mason jars, and all those other 2016 clichés. Instead, hundreds of red lanterns cover the ceiling in the restaurant and dim sum is served on Lazy Susans in the upstairs bar. The straight-out-of-Chinatown vibe sets the stage for bacon buns, Sichuan pork dumplings, and matcha shaved ice.
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1. Bad Hunter802 W Randolph St, Chicago
2. Cruz Blanca Cervecería & Taqueria904 W Randolph St, Chicago
3. Duck Duck Goat857 W Fulton Market, Chicago
4. El Che Bar845 W Washington Blvd, Chicago
5. Entente3056 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
6. Giant3209 W Armitage Ave, Chicago
7. GT Prime707 N Wells St, Chicago
8. Naoki Sushi2300 N. Lincoln Park West, Chicago
9. Oriole661 W. Walnut St., Chicago
10. Publican Anker1576 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
11. Roister951 W Fulton Market, Chicago
12. Revival Food Hall125 S Clark St, Chicago
13. Won Fun & 2Fun905 W Randolph St, Chicago
This vegetable-centric concept from Heisler Hospitality (Pub Royale, Estero, Lone Wolf) has a rustic, outdoorsy aesthetic, complete with white-washed exposed brick walls, a communal bar-style table, and a smattering of potted plants along the walls. The spotlight is on locally sourced produce -- both fresh and wood-grilled -- but there are a handful of meat-based dishes as well.
One of two neighboring West Loop spots from Rick Bayless, Cruz Blanca Cervecería is a cool Mexican brewery and taqueria. The menu features six house-made brews and a rotating selection of guest beers, plus a few wines. The house taco plates, served with corn tortillas, help soak it all up. If you're looking for harder drinks and fancier food, head next door to sister restaurant Leña Brava, where the focus is on mezcal, seafood, and wood-roasted meats.
As you might guess from the name, this Chinese-inspired restaurant is from the mastermind behind Girl & the Goat, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. The 100-seat West Loop space is undeniably cool and stylish with portraits hanging on the walls, lazy Susan tabletops, and a jade-accented cocktail lounge. Izard describes the menu as "reasonably authentic," which means elaborate takes on dim sum, fried rice, and noodles, plus various small and large dishes. The food is meant to be shared, and if you're with a big group, definitely order the Peking duck or goat of the day.
Chef John Manion's (La Sirena Clandestina) sleek West Loop restaurant focuses on Argentinian fare, specifically wood-fired Al Asador cuisine. At the heart of El Che is a large hearth where Manion and his team cook locally sourced meat, seafood, and vegetables over open flames. Both first and second course dishes are grilled, like Delaware oysters sprinkled with brown butter crumbs and thin-cut pork chops coated with Coleman's hot spicy mustard and cooked directly on coals. Cocktails, including a caramelized take on an Old Fashioned, pair well with the smoky menu.
Located in a kind of dead zone between bustling Belmont and a vibrant block of Lincoln in Lakeview, Entente brings fine dining to an area sorely in need of it, serving both an à la carte and a reservation-only tasting menu inside a casual, industrial-chic space. Chef Brian Fisher (formerly of Michelin-starred Schwa) is at the helm, using gourmet techniques to spice up basic dishes, like in his grown-up take on a PB&J that features chicken liver mousse and concord grape jam on house-made bread. There's plenty in the way of drinks here, too, including inventive cocktails and a variety of Chicago-brewed beers.
Chef Jason Vincent, a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, is behind Giant, a tiny 40-seat restaurant in Logan Square. The upscale Midwestern-inspired menu is unpretentious and hearty in nature (opening menu dishes included pecan-smoked baby back ribs, garlic buttermilk potatoes, and biscuits with jalapeno butter) but nonetheless exciting and unexpected. The bite-size fried uni shooters are a standout, made of a crispy, golden exterior and rich, silky interior. The space itself is reflective of the food: quirkily designed but comforting.
GT Prime resolves the Achilles’ heel that most American steakhouses can’t seem to shake: positively unshareable cuts of meat. The River North brainchild of Giuseppe Tentori of GT Fish and Oyster offers the oh-so-simple solution of 4oz and 8oz versions of cuts like beef filet, Wagyu sirloin, bison filet, and venison loin. While you’re on that small plates grind, taste hot or cold options like the grain salad or the tomato salad with burrata. With prices far more reasonable than your typical steakhouse and décor like charcoal-colored wood and fur-covered bar stools sexy enough to make you swoon, there’s really no reason this shouldn’t be your next date spot.
Nestled within Intro at The Belden Stratford, this tiny sushi restaurant from Lettuce Entertain You is just the type of casual dining escape Lincoln Park needed. The menu features signature sashimi preparations, nigiri, and hand rolls, as well as a finely curated selection of sake and Japanese whiskey. The sushi and sashimi options go above and beyond basic fare, but also include familiar spicy tuna and rainbow maki. The 50-seat space is clean, minimalist, and welcoming.
Helmed by award-winning chefs Noah Sandoval and Genie Kwon, this intimate fine dining spot is as much about the food as the experience. Guests are invited to partake in the extended format tasting menu, which involves some 16 courses packed with unusual ingredients, surprising flavor profile, and interactive components. Unlike most restaurants, a menu isn’t provided at the beginning of the meal, making Oriole a prime destination for adventurous eaters (and dare we say, foodies). Sample dishes include rye capellini with yeast butter, black truffle, and tangerine lace, and chicory custard with whiskey, cinnamon, and Tahitian vanilla.
The Wicker Park iteration of The Publican is modeled after the 20th century saloons that once stood in the neighborhood. Similar to its meat-centric sibling, Publican Anker is fueled by craft beer, oysters, and a burger that ranks among Chicago's best (probably because of the melted American cheese and dashi-spiked special sauce). The menu is overall lighter (read: more vegetables, slightly less pork), but a meal here wouldn't be complete without the white cheddar and malt vinegar pork rinds served to nearly every table.
From the team responsible for three-Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning Alinea, this West Loop restaurant delivers the same world-class eats in a decidedly more casual space. The New American menu is served in three formats: à la carte in the dining room, family-style chef's tasting at the kitchen counter; or the fully-immersive chef's tasting in the basement prep kitchen. The large dining room, bustling open kitchen, and slightly-louder-than-normal music makes Roister feel extra lively and energetic.
This 24,000-square-foot, chef-driven food court on the ground floor of landmark building The National highlights local Chicago vendors, including fast-casual spin-offs from beloved chefs, a coffee shop/bar, and a record store. The impressive line-up includes Antique Taco, Smoque BBQ, The Furious Spoon, Aloha Poke Co, and more -- be they original concepts or outposts of well-known spots. The circa 1907 building, originally home to the Commercial National Bank, has been completely reinvented but original features, like the bank vault in the basement, are still intact.
Won Fun is a dual-concept, Sichuan-style restaurant in a West Loop warehouse. The first floor of the swanky two-story space is home to a 60-seat restaurant with red lantern-lined ceilings and an open kitchen serving family-style dishes split between Sichuan classics (pork dumplings in chili oil, dan dan noodles) and not-so-traditional recipes (General Tso's chicken wings, foie gras fried rice). On the second floor is 2Fun, a 160-seat lounge anchored by a 60ft dragon hanging over the bar and cocktails like the four-liquor Oolong Island Iced Tea.