It's Worth Getting Sloppy For This Grilled Cheese Taco
Grant Achatz's Restaurants
The main cog in the burgeoning Achatz empire, Alinea is located in a nondescript storefront on Halsted St in Lincoln Park. One of only two three-star Michelin restaurants in Chicago (along with Grace), and 13 in the entire country, Alinea holds a global reputation for Achatz’s innovative molecular gastronomy and beautiful, vivid style of presentation. It’s also one of the hardest places in the city to get a table. As of March 2016 it is being renovated but should re-open, in all its glory, later in the year.
Taking Achatz’s flair for showmanship and innovation to another level, not only does the menu at Next change every few months, but so does the entire experience, right down to the decor. Every theme has a different inspiration, from a time and place like “Chinese Modern,” or a particular food concept like “The Hunt.” The rotating concept ensures diners will have a different experience every time, and gives Achatz free reign to experiment with a huge variety of cuisines and techniques.
Stephanie Izard's Restaurants
Even the least foodie of Chicagoans have at least heard of Girl & the Goat, Izard’s James Beard Award-winning small plates restaurant on Randolph St. It features an eclectic menu with influences that are all over the map from soul food to modern Asian. The menu is also a master class in textures, as anyone who’s had the famous crispy pig face with a runny egg.
Opening a few years after Girl & the Goat made its debut, Little Goat is a more relaxed affordable take on her mash-ups of classic home comforts and non-traditional add-ins. Split between a bakery/bar on one side and diner-style eating on the other, Little Goat is a place to dig in, grab a beer and a reuben (with kimchi and havarti obviously), and relax with a few friends, preferably during patio season.
Beverly Kim's Restaurant
Found along the booming food strip along Elston Ave in Avondale, Kim owns and operates Parachute along with her chef-husband Johnny Clark. While anchored in some best-in-Chicago Korean basics like a seafood hot pot, Kim isn’t afraid to go wild with foie gras sauce and fermented aioli. For a city that has come to expect its Korean cheap and quick, Parachute offers a welcome fiery alternative.
Takashi Yagihashi's Restaurant
Long before the flood of ramen shops came rushing into town, Yagihashi was manning his own popular noodle outpost. His polished River North restaurant doles out generous bowls of punched up broth, chunks of meat, and crunchy Asian vegetables. If you’re in the mood for something just as tasty but even more indulgent, try the duck fat fried chicken.
Rick Bayless' Restaurants
The little Mexican place that started it all, Frontera was opened to stage everything Bayless loved about his time living abroad. Starting with a commitment to authentic and fresh ingredients that was pretty revolutionary for the 1980s and tastes just as good today, Frontera has filled its walls of vibrant Mexican art with the smell of tamales, red-chile, and marinated carnitas ever since.
Now past it’s 25th birthday Topolobampo is still the king of high-end Mexican dining in the city. One of the only Mexican restaurants in the country with a Michelin star Topolobampo remains a place for daring modern flourishes with menu categories like ‘Ancient,’ ‘Soulful,’ and ‘Enchanting.’ If you know Bayless it should go without saying that every one of those descriptions hits the mark.
XOCO and its Wicker Park offshoot are Bayless’s most recent gifts to the city of Chicago. A fast-casual style joint in River North, XOXO features Mexican street food with bold tortas and soups filling the menu and the bustling clienteles stomachs. If you have the time and the inclination (you should), stick around for some churros and hot chocolate after your pork belly.
Mindy Segal's Restaurant
A casual, mid-range Bucktown gem where, as you can probably guess by the name, the desserts are the stars. Dinner and weekend brunch bring many a West Side 20-something to plates of warm brioche doughnuts and indulgent milkshakes. As for the hot chocolate? It is unrivaled in the city and comes with house-made marshmallows to boot.
Sarah Grueneberg's Restaurant
Monteverde announces what it is all about with no hesitation, an elevated floor behind the bar, complete with an overhead mirror, gives a clear view of a team of cooks making the handmade pasta that is essential to Monteverde’s soul. None of the inspired Italian dishes will disappoint, nor will the simple but excellent cocktails, but it’s the fresh pasta like the cannelloni saltimbocca with prosciutto, lamb, and top-shelf balsamic, that will keep you coming back.
Art Smith's Restaurant
Nestled in a carriage house on Elm and Dearborn that predates the great Chicago fire Table Fifty-Two has been the city’s home for upscale Southern comfort food for years, including some of the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon. In fitting with modern trends and Smith’s own health transformation Table Fifty-Two is currently being updated and will be reopened as Blue Door, which will have a more fresh-focused and environmentally friendly take on Smith’s Southern classics, including free-range birds for the aforementioned chicken.
Tony Mantuano's Restaurants
The top-tier Italian mainstay where Mantuano made his name was given a more contemporary subdued makeover a few years back and the update has done wonders to reinvigorate an institution that barely needed to change a thing in the first place. Wood-seared scallops and gnocchi with black truffles are classics that no Italian-loving Chicagoan should miss, and don’t sleep on Spiaggia’s other star and secret weapon, sommelier Rachael Lowe.
On the other end of the dining spectrum from Spiaggia we have Bar Toma, Mantuano’s attempt to recreate the neighborhood pizza shops he loved growing up. While the menu contains a few classic dishes like chicken Vesuvio and rigatoni Bolognese, the pizza is rightfully front and center, crispy, chewy dough loaded with sausage and chiles, or burrata and bourbon figs.
Inside the historic Reid Murdoch building along the Chicago River, Mantuano’s River Roast is a relaxed and communal counterpart to Spiaggia, River Roast’s menu may look simple, with only five sharing-sized entrees to choose from, but things will get decidedly less simple when you see the wood-smoked whole chickens and cider-brined shanks of pork roll up to the tables around you, ready to be carved fresh at the table. Oh, and then there is the river part, RIver Roast has one of the best damn patios in the city overlooking it.
Graham Elliot's Restaurant
After closing his eponymous award-winning restaurant Elliot has left us with G.E.B. as it’s called, a more casual, simple dining experience with multifarious rock and roll meets food meets, something, vibe. While many other celebri-chefs have gone high end or trendy G.E.B. has gone a little more populist, with ingredients like homemade cheez-its and sides of popcorn. Food's still good though.
Paul Kahan's Restaurants
Kahan’s farm-fresh Midwest-loving early-period masterpiece, Blackbird has stayed an exemplary member of Chicago’s modern American club for almost 20 years. The minimalist interior leaves all the focus on the food, where it belongs. Balanced mélanges of local American ingredients in endlessly inventive combinations, there is a reason this guy is so big.
Continuing Kahan’s slow takeover of the Damen Blue Line stop, Dove’s takes the affordable Mexican street fare of neighbor Big Star and marries it to diner classics in an invitingly simple retro space that evokes the cheap neighborhood haunts that have mostly fled the area. There is no doubting Kahan’s sincere reverence for his inspirations when you grab a counter seat for a plate of burnt ends hash tossed with poblanos and queso fresco along with Dark Matter coffee.
Avec is Blackbird’s small-plates and wine, sister restaurant. While still highbrow, it offers a warmer more relaxed ambiance than Blackbird, with a menu that is just as inventive but a little-less classic American. People who eat the chorizo-stuffed dates have been known to ramble on about them for days.
Kahan threw a bit of a curveball but knew exactly what he was doing with his latest venture Nico Osteria, a rustic Italian seafood sensation in the Gold Coast’s Thompson Hotel. Kahan has paired an open glassy interior and vine covered walls with shrimp and calamari-stocked minestrone and swordfish meatballs. It may be a little too Gold Coast-y, but damn if Kahan doesn’t know what he’s doing.
The Publican is the quintessential Fulton Market restaurant and it’s hard to say that’s not intentional. If Blackbird was a modern love letter to Midwestern ingredients, Publican is Kahan’s full on bear hug. Open and communal and filled with mouthwatering plates of charcuterie, pork, and any other meat American’s eat and love, the Publican does right by all the Fulton meat markets that came before it.
Oh, Big Star, your tacos are good and so are your drinks, but people have moved on to less crowded pleasures up in Logan Square and down in Pilsen. Still Big Star displays Kahan’s commitment to showcasing the whole range of Chicago’s culinary offerings, as well as reaching out to a more light-pocketed class of diner. Worthy goals, and like we said, it’s still a damn fine place to grab a taco and tequila.
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Matt Spina is a writer in Chicago and a cultish devotee to the religion of the celebrity chef. Witness him grovel @MR_spina