The Best New Dishes We Ate This Year in Chicago
From French-inspired fine dining to a cheeseburger for the ages.
Another year is just about in the books, and now’s as good a time as any to start reflecting on 2021’s highlights, as few and far between as they might have been. Between the reopening of beloved dive bars and that three-week, pre-Delta summertime span where we thought we might actually be out of the pandemic woods, it wasn’t all bad—especially when it comes to food. Chicago may have faltered in the face of widespread lockdowns, hiring shortages, and continued restrictions, but it never fully broke, giving rise to a fleet of ambitious, boundary-pushing debut restaurants. From Filipino flavors and Palestinian originals to Italian red sauce comforts and the best damn Greek salad this side of Mykonos, you’ll find it all within the ever-resilient City of Big Shoulders. Here are the best new dishes we tasted in 2021.
The dish: Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookie at Sugar Moon Bakery
Neighbors in the know have been flocking to this cozy, 700-square-foot Wrightwood Avenue bakeshop since it premiered in early September, loading up on inventive sweet and savory galettes, scones, brioche-based pastries, and, most notably, a tahini-spiked chocolate chip cookie (or three). An odd choice, perhaps, but one bite unlocks a new world of flavors—one we didn't even know we needed. As owner Dina Cimarusti explains, “Tahini adds a rich nuttiness to the cookie, and the smoked sea salt just ties it all together.”
How to book: Stop by for counter service.
—Lisa Futterman, Thrillist Contributor
The dish: Breakfast Sandwich at Kasama
As a New Yorker, we take our breakfast sandwiches seriously. So you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered Kasama’s morning masterpiece, the absolute best breakfast sandwich I’ve ever tasted, right here in my adopted hometown of Chicago—in my own neighborhood, no less. Husband-wife duo Genie Kwon and Timothy Flores originally aimed to open a high-end Filipino tasting-room concept, but pivoted quickly to a daytime take-away format in light of the pandemic. Enter the mighty breakfast sandwich, a chubby fist-sized mound of multi-textured bliss. A square-cut slab of pillowy eggs serves as the foundation for gooey American cheese and a plump hashbrown (yes, indeed), plus an optional chunk of housemade longanisa sausage—expertly spiced and cooked smashburger-style to ensure lusciously crispy edges—all cradled in a sticky-soft Martin’s Famous Potato Roll. Simply put, it’s the platonic ideal of a breakfast sandwich.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served daytime seating, order take-out via Toast, or get delivery via DoorDash.
—Meredith Heil, Thrillist Senior Cities Editor
The dish: Eggs Five Ways at Venteux
When this tiny lobby-level restaurant opened inside the Pendry Chicago earlier this year, it brought with it classed up, modern-day brasserie fare—and the Eggs Five Ways is no—er—eggsception. Using the classic French omelet as inspiration, the team bakes several farm-fresh eggs (adding in a few extra yolks for that inimitable saffron hue) before filling them with scrambled eggs and Delice de Bourgeon triple-cream cheese, then topping it all off with trout roe, cured egg yolk, and yeasted Hollandaise sauce. The result? A vibrant and ultra-rich homage to your everyday eggs (including, indeed, all five applications).
How to book: Reserve via OpenTable.
—Nicole Schnitzler, Thrillist Contributor
The dish: The Andros Salad at Andros Taverna
Salads always taste best in restaurants, especially when you're tasting it inside a sophisticated, forward-thinking Greek debut from culinary luminaries like former French Laundry pastry chef Hsing Chen and ex-RPM executive chef Doug Psaltis. The seemingly simple appetizer has emerged as a sleeper hit since the restaurant opened last February, rising above equally tempting bites to claim star status among the seasonally informed lineup. Gigantic and crunchy and topped with barrel-aged feta, every refreshing bite reminds you of that great diner staple, but much, much better. And Psaltis himself agrees, describing his leafy masterpiece as "a souped-up version of everyone's favorite Greek salad."
How to book: Reserve via Tock, order take-out via Toast, or get delivery via GrubHub.
The dish: Shroom Shawarma Wrap at Yamma
2021 was nothing if not a year of reevaluation, especially for those in the hospitality industry, where employment grew tenuous, values were called into question, and the landscape was forever altered. For Katie Poplawski, Ruba Hassan, and Tierra Hubbard—the trio behind this Palestinian pop-up kitchen—that came in the form of Yamma (Arabic for “mama”) and its tasty lineup of garden-fresh twists on Middle Eastern classics. Mezze staples like paprika-spiked hummus, whipped feta, and crunchy pita spears are sure bets, but the menu really perks up when it comes to sandwiches—particularly one loaded with ingeniously seasoned “shawarma” oyster mushrooms, roasted to velvety perfect. Toss in romaine, hummus, toum, cucumber, dressed cabbage, sumac onions, and chunky tahini, and you’re in for a hearty lunch guaranteed to leave greasy gyro meat in the dust.
How to book: Stop by Bourbon on Division for first come, first served seating (Thursday through Sunday, 8 pm to 3 am), order take-out via Toast and ChowNow, or get delivery via DoorDash and GrubHub.
The dish: Fried Smelts at Dear Margaret
As someone who is a bit averse to oily, hairy fish—like anchovies and sardines—I've also avoided smelts. Generally eaten whole, they're a Midwestern delicacy, sure, but admittedly not everyone's cup of tea. It wasn't until I tried them tempura-fried in beef tallow at Dear Margaret, a polished yet rustic ode to hearty French Canadian fare from chef Ryan Brosseau, that my perspective began to shift. Served alongside fried pickled vegetables and a citrusy tartar sauce, I suddenly realized just what I had been missing all those years. And judging by the restaurant's steady customer flow since opening in January, 2021, I know I'm not alone.
How to book: Reserve via Tock.
—Ari Bendersky, Thrillist Contributor
The dish: Nutella Sundae at Alla Vita
After making your way through plate after family-style plate of Arancini, Ricotta Dumplings, Truffled Mushroom Pizza, and Chicken Parm at this artfully decorated, red sauce-laden Restaurant Row newcomer, dive into pastry chef Kim Mok’s epic Nutella Sundae. You better believe Boka Restaurant Group's September baby isn't skimping when it comes to the sweets—constructed from dreamy layers of hazelnut-laced gelato, crunchy cocoa streusel, clouds of fresh whipped cream, and Amarena cherries, threaten to order seconds here and you may never go home.
How to book: Reserve via OpenTable.
The dish: Rêve Cheeseburger at Rêve Burger
In Chicago, one of the pandemic’s ongoing silver linings has undoubtedly been the dressing-down of formerly buttoned-up dining concepts. For a time, you could snag a multi-course Alinea meal delivered straight to your door, lovingly prepared and boxed as if you had actually booked a $400 reservation. Apocalyptic? Probably, but I’ll take it—in the same way I’ll happily take a stacked double cheeseburger to-go from chef Curtis Duffy, the force behind the West Loop’s reportedly $5 million dollar tasting menu debut at Ever. Started as a way to keep operations going while waiting for the return of indoor dining, Duffy and crew began churning out impeccably un-fancy burgers from their ghost kitchen. Eventually proving to be massively popular, he decided to stick with it even after his highly anticipated fine dining mecca touched down. Two four-ounce griddled beef patties—rumor has it chef du cuisine Justin Selk spent time stoking the fires at a Culver’s, so he knows what he’s doing—arrive drenched in American cheese and layered with Vienna dill pickles and special sauce (Sir Kensington’s ketchup swirled with tangy Duke’s mayonnaise), while a buttery brioche bun from Highland Baking Co. acts as the ideal vehicle for such nostalgic indulgence.
How to book: Order take-out via Toast or get delivery via DoorDash, Caviar, and Uber Eats.
The dish: Vegetarian al Pastor Taco at Taqueria Chingón
I really enjoy a fresh-off-the-spit al pastor taco, but to be able to share this with my pescatarian husband made the experience that much better. Chingón's reputation for having some of the best tacos in the city was solidified when they crafted this classic pork taco with the same flavors and textures using portobello mushroom and celery root. Just another reason they almost always have a crowd lined up outside their small Bucktown shop.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.
The dish: Crni Risotto at Rose Mary
Rose Mary, you had me at squid ink. This hugely anticipated Fulton Market stunner from Top Chef champ Joe Flamm launched with a bang late last spring, filled to the brim with coastal Croatian-Italian specialties and one of the most intriguing wine lists around. It was also the site of my very first in-person dining experience since March, 2020, and while the whole shebang was quite overwhelming—I may or may not have shattered both a wine glass and an entire wine bottle, my apologies—dish after dish left me centered and inspired. And none more so than the Crni Risotto, one of several risotto offerings on the menu. Simmered in jet black squid ink and rich lobster brodo, the unctuous bowl comes laden with delicate confit squid and an aromatic kiss of fresh tarragon. Each bite is like a splash of warm, salty Mediterranean sea water washing over your palate with calm, comforting persistence. No wonder, even all these months later, a table at Rose Mary remains one of the hottest tickets in town.
How to book: Reserve via Tock.
The dish: Focaccia and Eggplant Parmesan at Elina's
I love when a restaurant quietly opens and then becomes nearly impossible to get a reservation at when so many people still have never heard of it. Such is the case with this fairly intimate BYOB Italian spot in West Town from two pedigreed chefs. I finally went in mid-December and quickly understood the draw. First, every table gets some complimentary bites to start the meal, including seriously decadent, cheesy Focaccia, which I'm still dreaming about. But the Eggplant Parm—with its crispy edges, layers of melty cheese, and toothsome eggplant sitting atop a silky sauce of tomato and basil—will bring me back.
How to book: Reserve via Resy.