Proof That Iceland's Ring Road Is the World's Most Beautiful Road Trip
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.
Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Matt Spina is a writer in Chicago and a cultish devotee to the religion of the celebrity chef. Witness him grovel @MR_spina
1. Alinea1723 N Halsted St, Chicago
2. Next Restaurant953 W Fulton Market, Chicago
3. The Aviary955 W Fulton Market, Chicago
4. Girl & The Goat809 W Randolph St, Chicago
5. Little Goat820 W Randolph St, Chicago
6. Parachute3500 N Elston Ave, Chicago
7. Slurping Turtle116 W Hubbard St, Chicago
8. Frontera Grill445 N Clark St, Chicago
9. Topolobampo445 N Clark St, Chicago
10. XOCO449 N Clark, Chicago
11. Mindy's Hot Chocolate1747 N Damen Ave, Chicago
12. Monteverde1020 West Madison Street, Chicago
13. Spiaggia980 N Michigan Ave, Chicago
14. Bar Toma110 E Pearson St, Chicago
15. Graham Elliot Bistro841 W Randolph St, Chicago
16. Blackbird619 W Randolph St, Chicago
17. Dove's Luncheonette1545 N Damen Ave, Chicago
18. Avec615 W Randolph St, Chicago
19. Nico Osteria1015 N Rush St, Chicago
20. The Publican837 W Fulton Market St, Chicago
21. Big Star1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago
22. Blue Door Kitchen & Garden52 W Elm St, Chicago
Alinea, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Lincoln Park, is a pinnacle of technique and creativity. If the ticketed reservation system tells us anything, it’s that a night at Alinea is more than just a meal: it is an unforgettable culinary experience featuring modern molecular gastronomy at its finest. And if its slew of accolades tells us anything -- namely that it is consistently included in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants List” -- it’s that Alinea is one of the best restaurants in the world. The revolutionary restaurant on Halsted is the brainchild of acclaimed Chef Grant Achatz -- who cut his teeth under Thomas Keller -- and the dining room is his stage to fuse art and science into dynamic, sensory-evoking menus. Deep pockets required.
The brainchild of Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Next is an experience in culinary exploration via 12-course tasting menus, in an atmosphere that evolves along with the menus themselves. Every four months, a new menu is released exploring a regional cuisine, genre, culinary concept, or a tribute to some of the world’s best restaurants, and they open with a note from Achatz and Kokonas describing the inspiration and what they hope to achieve and portray through each dish. Past menus have included Paris in 1906, The Hunt, elBulli, Vegan, The French Laundry, and Modern Chinese. The menus are groundbreaking, like the restaurant’s concept itself, with innovative, adventurous dishes adhering to the theme (like a course served in a colorful, plastic lunchbox replete with a tupperware and thermos -- some of its contents including parsnip “pudding,” Wagyu jerky, and a truffled Oreo -- for the Childhood menu). Next is theatrical, which is appropriate, as an evening at Next is a ticketed event. And as with Achatz’s first prix fixe establishment -- if you can score a ticket -- deep pockets required.
From James Beard Award-winning chef Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame), The Aviary is an ultra-posh cocktail bar that uses molecular gastronomy techniques to craft some of the prettiest cocktails you’ll ever have. To get a full taste of The Aviary, splurge on the multi-course cocktail tasting menu that pairs drinks with small bites. The speciality cocktails are pricey but the swanky experience is worth it.
Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard's West Loop restaurant is a perennial hot spot that defines the Chicago food scene. The menu is filled with incredibly innovative meat, vegetable, and fish small plates meant to be shared and devoured. Of course, a meal at Girl & the Goat isn't complete without an order of goat, served a variety of ways (in empanadas, as carpaccio). Reservations are hard to muster but you'll snag one eventually and find that the wait is so worth it.
Right across the street from its upscale sister Girl & The Goat, Stephanie Izard's Little Goat is an all-day upscale diner that serves insanely creative takes on classic American comfort food. Split between a sit-down restaurant and a bakery, Little Goat is the place to go for over-the-top breakfast (breakfast spaghetti, banana peanut butter waffles), exceptional burgers (you can choose between a beef, goat, and veggie patty), and crazy desserts (smoked pork & toffee crunch milkshakes, Cheez-It sundaes). If you can't sit and stay -- or handle the long weekend waits -- then hit the "Grab and Goat" take-away area.
From Chefs Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim, Parachute takes a soulful American approach to Korean cuisine. The husband-and-wife team cranks out innovative dishes like boudin noir with kohlrabi, apples, and seedy salad; dolsot bibimbap whose ever-changing toppings range from tuna and n’duja to short rib and foie gras; and salt & pepper ribs with a yuzu-chili pepper glaze. The family-style Avondale restaurant is drawing diners en masse, and the 40-seat dining room has a lofty list of reservation hopefuls vying for a table in the intimate space. Start with an order (probably two though, to be safe) of the addictive baked potato bing bread, made with bacon, scallions, and sour cream butter.
The celebrated chef of Bucktown's Takashi is recreating childhood memories of noisy noodle bowls and other Japanese comfort food in ST's open kitchen, which overlooks a 30-seat communal wooden table hovered over by a mezzanine. We think that Slurping Turtle is one of the best restaurants in Chicago.
Frontera Grill is Rick Bayless' first-established restaurant, and it serves up high-end casual Mexican fare inspired by Rick's years of delicious anthropological research South of the border. The margaritas are delectable, and there's even one you can order (the splurge margarita) that will probably leave your pockets empty but your stomach full. The authentic Mexican flavors are best enjoyed on the sidewalk patio where you can people watch.
Topolobampo, the contemporary Mexican concept from celebrated Chef Rick Bayless, is a soulful, serious ode to Oaxacan cuisine. Located in the same River North building as sister restaurant Frontera Grill, Topolobampo is known for its build-your-own three-, five-, or seven-course tasting menus and personalized experience. The craft cocktail list is divided into three sections: “Mezcal & Tequila,” “Local Spirits,” and “Our Classics.” And the wine list is extensive, divided by style, color, and varietal, with a section devoted to the hard-to-find, conversation-evoking wines of the Guadalupe Valley.
Conveniently next door to Top Chef master Rick Bayless' upscale Mexican joints Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, XOCO (derived from Mexican slang for "little sister") is a quick-service cafe with communal tables and a central wood burning oven. The aromas of Bayless' take on classic made-to-order south of the border street fare is sure to draw crowds from all over.
Pastry chef Mindy Segal's Bucktown restaurant is synonymous with comfort food from both the sweet and savory sides of the spectrum. Open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, Mindy's Hot Chocolate serves soul-warming dishes, like the Slagel Farm beef burger topped with a fried egg, creamy mac & cheese, and daily soups with crusty sourdough bread. Of course, a meal here isn't complete without dessert, which should include an order of the amazingly rich hot chocolate and a slice of the daily cake (or anything off the dessert menu -- it's all addictive).
Pasta is the heart and soul of West Loop's Monteverde, spearheaded by Spiaggia alum chef Sarah Grueneberg. The Italian restaurant serves pasta made in-house and imported from Italy, and though most dishes come in individual servings, some are served family-style. It wouldn't be one of the best celebrity chef restaurants in Chicago without stellar wines, and the reasonably-priced bottles come from Italy, California, and other top wine-producing regions.
Walls of wine bottles line the entrance to this elegant Italian eatery (which nabbed a 2014 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Restaurant), ushering diners into a contemporary space with black marble and white tablecloths. Chef Tony Mantuano heads the kitchen, making the preparation of elevated, artfully plated dishes look like a walk on the beach (by the way, "spiaggia" means beach in Italian). Jackets are no longer required in the dining room, but let it be known, this isn't the type of place where you want to show up looking like a schlub.
James Beard Award-winning Chef Tony Mantuano's Bar Toma in Near North Side is an Italian neighborhood restaurant with open brick walls covered in chalk murals and big leather booths that provide a familial feeling, just like it's classic fare. The mozzarella bar, espresso bar, and gelato are all merely a backdrop to the wood-fired pizzas, the recipe for which Mantuano crafted himself from imported Italian ingredients and are topped with basil, prosciutto, Calabrian chiles, and truffle oil.
If rock-and-roll is religion, then Graham Elliot's funky new bistro is its culinary tabernacle, with menus affixed to vinyl records, and candles evoking "patron saints" from Michael Jordan to Grant Achatz. Snag a seat on the cobblestone back patio and take down some sockeye salmon w/ garlic & lardo, or just knock back tiki-inspired 'tails like the dark rum/key lime/orgeat Black Tai Affair, so potent nobody would even notice if Garth Brooks showed up wearing boots.
Blackbird is the foundation upon which James Beard Award-winning Chef Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality Group was built. The West Loop fine dining staple boasts elevated and creative Midwestern cuisine through dishes crafted using simplistic techniques and carrying complex flavor. The space itself mimics the menu with a minimalist approach to design and stark whites to boost its already vibrant energy. The cocktail and wine lists are well-rounded, thoughtful, and complementary to the menu. Blackbird is open -- and bustling -- for lunch Monday through Friday, and reserves its focus for the highly sought-after reservations on Saturday and Sunday evenings.
One Off Hospitality's 41-seat counter service restaurant pushes Southern-inspired Mexican cuisine like chicken fried chicken smothered in chorizo verde gravy, smoked brisket taco Norteño, and chili con carne, along with craft cocktails and tequila galore.
With celebrity chef Paul Kahan at the helm of this tiny West Loop restaurant, it's not a surprise that Avec continues to draw crowds of devoted regulars, first-time tourists, and everyone in between. The Mediterranean menu is all about small plates, and the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates are a perennial crowd favorite that hopefully will never come off the menu. Everything works and tastes beautifully with the comprehensive wine list featuring selections from Southern France to Portugal.
Nico Osteria is serving up some seafood-y deliciousness, as well as some epic cocktails alongside mains like their in-shell lobster spaghetti. As far as we are concerned, Nico Osteria is one of the best restaurants in Chicago, but you'll have to stop by and see for yourself.
Paul Kahan's West Loop restaurant feels like the Midwest; big and welcoming with communal tables, it's a farmhouse and a beer hall at the same time. The menu focuses on three things: beer, pork, and oysters, but you'll also find vegetable and fish alternatives. The beer selection features brews from all over, with a fair share from Belgium and Chicago.
A lot of things about Wicker Park's Big Star will make you feel like you're in Texas. First, there's the taco-centric menu that features a dozen taco varieties and necessary sides like guacamole and queso. Then there's the drink selection, which is heavy on whiskey, tequila, and craft beer. The massive outdoor patio begs for you to order a margarita and drink the day away, especially during the summer when the seasonal music series is in full swing.
Formerly known as Table52, Blue Door Kitchen & Garden is serving up only the freshest dishes and drinks -- sourcing local ingredients, including from its own garden. The space is something out of the French countryside, boasting pastels, marble-topped tables, and wicker chairs on the beautiful outdoor patio. On the menu, you'll find delectable small plates like purple potato gnocchi, entrees like organic salmon with rutabaga latkes, and, of course, its beloved buttermilk fried chicken.