Chicago's 15 Best Restaurants (Slideshow)
April 17, 2014
We take a look at the best the Windy City's food scene has to offer
Chef Michael Carlson puts his spin on contemporary fine dining at Wicker Park’s Schwa, which has been open since 2005 and features a rotating, nine-course prix fixe menu. The space is simple, seating only 26 and features no support staff — just chefs who deliver your food directly. The menu, however, focuses on seasonal ingredients from around the globe and packs enough personality to fill the space with life. Sweet and savory are combined in unexpected ways — the menu features items like tiger fish touched with marshmallow and cardamom, botargo flavored with chocolate, and biscuits and gravy with mustard.
Opened by James Beard Award-winning chef Curtis Duffy in 2012, the Near West Side’s Grace has gone on to receive nearly every accolade imaginable from the culinary community including: Two Michelin Stars in the Chicago 2014 Guide, AAA's Five Diamond Rating, Forbes Travel Guide's 5-Star Rating, and Chicago Magazine’s Best New Restaurant. So how’s the food? Flavorful, to say the least. Options include surprising combinations like scallops with licorice flavors, and Miyazaki beef with peanuts and Vietnamese herbs.
Chef Ryan McCaskey explores contemporary American cuisine at Acadia, which hasn’t taken long to find a devoted following since it opened in 2012. The menu includes distinctly American flavors with international touches, like Stonington lobster with Himalayan rice and miso potato, and porcelet flavored with oats, beer, and cheddar. There’s also a strong focus on wine, with a house sommelier making pairing suggestions. Accolades for Acadia have included AAA 5-Star honors, and an “outstanding restaurant” notice from the Chicago Tribune.
12. Longman and Eagle
With Longman and Eagle, chef Jared Wentworth proves that sustainability-focused food needn’t lack in flavor or flair. This farm-to-table Logan Square spot has been in Chicago’s Michelin guide every year since 2011, and offers top-notch fine dining at reasonable prices. Small plates like pan-roasted lobster parfait in honey-salsify purée or a dinner featuring fresh, family-farmed burger served with beef fat fries both go for less than $20. Custom whiskey cocktails from Longman and Eagle’s impressive bar pair perfectly with the regional American menu.
American and Mediterranean cuisines cross-pollinate to inspired results at husband-wife team Carrie and Michael Nahabedian’s Michelin-starred Naha, which has remained a Chicago favorite since opening 14 years ago. Fresh fish, including Alaskan halibut and wild striped bass are the menu’s main attraction, but carefully flavored poultry dishes like lacquered aged Moulard duck breast, foie gras, and mountain huckleberries are also house favorites.
As the name implies, almost everything about Sepia’s look is vintage: the restaurant is housed in a turn-of-the century print shop and features old-time Windy City memorabilia, as well as vintage decoration and stemware. Chef Andrew Zimmerman's menu, however, is a brightly colored cross section of American cuisine modern touches. Diners choose from entrées like tea smoked duck breast, black garlic gnocchi, and skate wing with cauliflower and golden raisin chutney.
9. El Ideas
Having spent time at Le Cirque and Lockwood, chef Philip Ross put his full pedigree on display when he opened El Ideas in 2011. The multi-course prix fixe menu includes gourmet twists on simple dishes like a corned beef Rueben and a chocolate mudpie, as well as globetrotting fare like cuttlefish, green almond, and berbere ajo blanco. When it comes to atmosphere, the exceedingly small room turns fine dining conventions on their head — chefs dress in street clothes and diners are invited to take peeks into the kitchen area. Want drinks? You can bring your own. It all might be a bit much if the cuisine wasn’t so consistently fun and inventive.
Located on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, Everest delivers high-aiming, inspiring French cuisine to match the panoramic view. Developed by James Beard Award-winning chef Jean Joho, who also notably who also operates the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas, Everest features prix fixe three- and four-course meals, including dishes with inspired flavor pairings like loin of venison with wild huckleberry and spiced pear. The room also notably features bronze sculptures from Swiss artist Ivo Soldini at each of its tables.
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White brought us the most recent wave of fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia. Taking a cue from its name, which means "beach" in Italian, the food and décor at the restaurant are inspired by the coast. Mantuano has won countless accolades for his accomplishments here; including the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Chris Marchino took over for longtime executive chef Sarah Grueneberg in November and hasn't skipped a beat, continuing to delight diners with such fare as Pugliese burrata with golden Osetra caviar and potato crisps, squid ink spaghetti with Maine lobster and toasted breadcrumbs, and wood-roasted steelhead trout with honey mussels, black garlic, butter-roasted turnips, and Meyer lemon.
The restaurant is currently undergoing a massive redesign in honor of its 30th anniversary, and when completed in late spring there will be a newly designed dining room, a new location for the bar, and a new lounge area with its own menu. Onward and upward!
At this slightly fancier and more ambitious next-door cousin of his popular Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless serves irresistible Mexican fare of a kind not otherwise found outside some of the better restaurants of Mexico itself, if even there. Red snapper in "red ceviche" (cured with crimson hibiscus), frogs' leg tamal with cascabel chile, lamb in ancho-tamarind sauce, and cajeta crêpes with chocolate and plaintains are among vividly flavored attractions in this colorful, well-run dining room.
Only three years after its opening, chef Grant Achatz's groundbreaking restaurantNext seems as if it has always been part of the culinary avant-garde — ironic for a restaurant whose entire prix-fixe concept changes every few months. There's nothing blasé about Next. You never know what's going to be placed before you — it could be chicken liquid croquettes (elBulli menu) or the world’s best mac and cheese (Childhood menu). Well, technically, it will be neither, given that they're from past menus and the menus don't repeat. But you get the idea. Next has paid homage to legendary French chef Auguste Escoffier, then it was a futuristic Thai menu, followed by Childhood; an homage to the now-closed elBulli, explorations of Sicily and Kyoto, "The Hunt,” and a vegan menu. And for 2014, there's been a steakhouse menu under the helm of chef Dave Beran.
Whatever it is, the food here is inventive and exciting without being gimmicky and the service flawless without being fawning. But good luck getting in. There's an online reservation system for buying "tickets," but you'll be joining 20,000 (yes, 20,000) other folks just as desperate and committed to scoring a table. If you get into Achatz's next-door cocktail lounge, The Aviary; in itself no small feat, there's a tiny chance that you might get a late table at Next. Or check Next's Facebook page. Most nights, they hold a table or two and sell them there. The catch? You have to already be in Chicago.
The Publican shows you what restaurant design can be: This cavernous, high-ceilinged affair; filled with communal seats and warm hanging globes, makes you feel like you’ve simultaneously stepped into a contemporary fine dining establishmentand a restaurant from a Charles Dickens novel. But under chefs Paul Kahan and Brian Huston, this self-described beer-focused restaurant in the West Loop is much more than ambiance and suds. Aged hams, rabbit pasta and pork confit are just some of the amazing delicacies you can enjoy, along with a large savory dessert menu to cap off the evening.
3. Girl & the Goat
Stephanie Izard’s West Loop restaurantGirl & the Goat, (across the street from her other hot-spots Little Goat Dinerand Little Goat Bread) is popular with chefs and locals alike. The sense of community and comfort are widely apparent, from the soundtrack of pop and rock hits playing in the background to the broad, communal bar table. Dishes like locally grown roasted beets, green beans, white anchovy, avocado creme fraiche and bread crumb are just part of the reason why Izard won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef accolades in 2013.
With its minimalist interior and its highly imaginative menu executed by chef David Posey, Paul Kahan’s 1997-vintage Blackbird continues to please diners with always interesting but never quite outré creations; including steak tartare with rye berries, spicy radish, and hazelnuts; grilled octopus with parsnips, pomegranate, and toasted garlic; aged duck breast with dried parsley root and brussels sprouts; and grilled wagyu flatiron with charred cabbage, crispy onin, and roasted beef cream. Earthy and hearty, this is Midwestern modern cuisine par excellence.
The menu at Alinea can sometimes sound deceptively simple. Take the lobster with carrot and chamomile; for example. What shows up on the plate; however, is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. Having successfully reinvented the way people look at reservations at Next with their innovative, nonrefundable online ticket system and reinterpreted cocktails, bar food, and bar experience with The Aviary, Grant Achatz and his partner Nick Kokonas have also intensified the attention they pay to Alinea. They installed a Next-style reservation system there and continue to push the envelope with how people think about restaurants. Meanwhile, Achatz consistently turns out some of the most imaginative and delicious contemporary (or modernist, if you will) cuisine in the country.