What We’re Looking Forward to in Chicago in 2021

Things are looking up already.

Nobu Chicago
Courtesy of Nobu Chicago

No matter how you slice it, 2020 was a rough year for the Windy City. We’ve seen cherished businesses from Rogers Park to South Shore shutter their doors for good as the pandemic raged, briefly slowed, and then ranged once again through the region. Festivals were canceled, art openings were postponed, and, on top of all of that, we weren’t even allowed to soothe ourselves with a refreshing dip in the Lake. But with the advent of the coronavirus vaccine and a brand new year finally upon us, there are many—OK, at least six—reasons to look ahead with optimistic anticipation. Here’s the rundown on what we’re looking forward to most in 2021.

Crushed By Giants Brewing
Courtesy of Crushed By Giants Brewing

2020 restaurant newcomers getting their chance to shine

While the global pandemic was busy squashing once thriving Chicago bars and restaurants, a new crop of culinary wizards were trying with all their might to establish themselves amid the chaos. We’re talking places like French charmer Robert et Fils, cheffy donut specialist Brite, pie emporiums like Pizza Lobo and Sicilian hotspot Pizza Friendly Pizza, game-changing sandwich joints Big Kids and Cat-Su Sando, brewpub wonders Ørkenoy and Crushed by Giants, Nobu Chicago’s swanky debut, the Ace Hotel’s all-day go-to Lovage, South Side throwback Nipseys, West Town’s beloved Tamale Guy—the list literally goes on and on (and on). Here’s hoping the coming year gives this badass class of 2020 all the glory it unwaveringly deserves.


The return of live music, both inside and out

Remember slam dancing to obscure midwestern noise metal at the Empty Bottle? Stage hopping your way through Pitchfork, Riot Fest, Windy City Smokeout, or the always epic House Music Festival? How about kicking back to indie melodies at the Hideout or Schuba’s, crushing subterranean shots at Thalia Hall, catching big name headliners at architectural icons like the Chicago Theater and the Riviera, or treating your better half to a jazz quartet performance at the Green Mill? Yeah, us too. Chicago’s a music town through and through, and although the coronavirus has delivered our fair city’s concert calendar a near-fatal blow, we’re looking ahead to a 2021 with a socially distanced pep in our step and shoegaze-inspired bob in our chin. Between promising federal proposals like the Save Our Stages Act, backed by Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, virtual fundraising efforts like Chicago Independent Venue League’s CIVILization, myriad GoFundMe campaigns, and good old fashioned grassroots organizing, Chicagoans have shown unparalleled commitment to getting their favorite juke joints back on track.

Bill's Original Tavern Pizza
Courtesy of Bill's Original Tavern Pizza

Sandwiches and slices stealing the show

Scan over a list of 2020’s most successful culinary ventures and two very distinct cuisines immediately emerge as no-brainer victors: pizza and sandwiches. The ultimate in comfort and convenience, these endlessly versatile and markedly take-out friendly crowd-pleasers are poised to maintain their market dominance throughout 2021’s gradual transition back to normalcy. Expect to see even more top chefs throwing their hats into the saucy, cheesy, and foldable ring, joining the likes of Oriole vet Noah Sandoval and 16" on Center managing partner Bruce Finkelman at Pizza Friendly Pizza, Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream whiz kid Ed Marszewski of Kimski fame, Heisler Hospitality’s Pizza Lobo, and RPM spin-off Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza. On the stuffed and breaded side, a merry troupe of boundary-pushers like ex-Blackbird chef Ryan Pfeiffer and Turkey & the Wolf’s Mason Hereford’s brainchild Big Kids and Japanese-inspired hot shots Cat-Su Sando and Mom’s lead the charge for sandwich-centric pivots like wine mecca Rootstock’s new deli counter and Schwa’s summertime po’boy experiment followed closely by an up-and-coming Jewish(ish) deli revival lead by Jeff & Judes and Rye Deli + Drink.

Lost Lake package
Courtesy of Lost Lake

The continued rise of virtual cocktail bars

When the lockdown first started last March, Chicago barkeeps were at a total loss, unable to dazzle patrons behind the sticks while simultaneously barred from peddling their delicious wares via delivery or take-out due to strict liquor laws. That’s when Kumiko cocktail maven (and Thrillist Local Hero) Julia Mamose stepped up to the plate and spearheaded Cocktails for Hope, her hard fought and ultimately successful campaign to legalize to-go mixed drinks. Thanks to those valiant efforts, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of take-away tipples, with new and retrofitted operations popping up all over the city. Not to be missed: Gin and Juice, a tiki-tinged service fueled by celebrated Three Dots and a Dash beverage director Kevin Beary, Blackbird and Spiaggia alum Derek Mercer’s concept Present Tense, Mamose’s very own lineup at Kumiko, kits from craft cocktail pioneers like the Whistler and Violet Hour, innovative flavor combos from Superkhana International and Be Cordials, plus rare spirits specialist Billy Sunday’s CSC (yes, that’s Community Supported Cocktails) program and tiki titan Lost Lake’s similarly styled Lost Lake at Home, to name just a few.


If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that this city’s sports fandom is a true ride-or-die phenomenon. There have been bubbles, wubbles, and challenge cups, botched seasons, countless injuries, and canceled games, and, for the first time ever, empty stands at Soldier Field, yet loyal Chicagoans continue to show up for their number ones. Fingers crossed, 2021 will have us once again pounding Old Style and exchanging high fives as we bear communal witness to all the exciting lineup changes, fresh new additions (hello Zach Davies!), and explosive talent coursing through the veins of ‘da Bulls and ‘da Bears (not to mention the Cubs, Sox, Sky, Blackhawks, Fire FC, and World Cup champ-laden Red Stars). 

Dive bars, full stop.

Oh, Chicago dive bars, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Malort shots and two dollar tall boys, sticky bathroom floors and overflowing pints served with a semi-toothless smile, bear hugs from bouncers and jukeboxes blasting, photo booths crammed full and blinding flashbulbs, spontaneous dance parties and sleepy day drinking, creaky pool tables and happy dogs underfoot—and that’s barely scratching the graffiti-strewn surface. From downtown stalwarts like Old Town Ale House and Rossi’s, to northwest hideaways like Rainbo, Ola’s, J & M Tap, Chipp Inn, Archie’s, Alice’s, Reed’s, and Whirlaway, Lakeview time capsules like Nisei Lounge, and L & L Tavern, and South Side smashes like Skylark, Shinnick's, and Woodlawn Tap (née Jimmy’s), few locales are more dearly missed—or more eagerly anticipated—as our good old fashioned neighborhood dives. Sleep well, dingey darlings, as thirsty denizens the city over prepare for the welcome back bash of a lifetime.