Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.
As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).
Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.
Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.
That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.
Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.
The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.
—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor
$= most entrées under $10
$$ = most entrées $10-$20
$$$ = most entrées over $20
$$$$ = most entrées (or degustation menus) over $30
All restaurants accept major credit cards, unless otherwise noted
Marie’s Liquor and Pizza
Pizza, 4127 W. Lawrence, (773)685-5030. $$
For crispy thin-crust sausage-topped pies, it’s either this spot or southside gem Vito and Nick’s. Marie’s gets the nod however for the weekend-night torch-singers and lounge acts, and the fact that their wine, spirits and beer list consists of the entire liquor store next door.
Middle Eastern, 4639 N. Kedzie, (773)279-8900. $
BYOB and the best rotisserie chicken in the city. The spot for Lebanese featuring juicy grape leaves and coriander-perfumed falafel.
French/Belgian, 5148 N. Clark, (773)334-9851. $$
Hopleaf’s compact menu offers comforting French/Belgian bar standards done well, like mussels steamed in Belgian white beer.
Cajun/Creole, 1525 W. 79th, (773)994-6375. $
Mary Madison’s from-scratch eats include a chocolate-brown swamp of spicy étouffée filled with plump crawfish, specks of peppers and onion surrounded by an island of white rice. One gulp and a lost afternoon in New Orleans comes rushing back.
Sausages, 3324 N. California, (773)279-9550. $
Doug Sohn’s “encased-meats” emporium, the best hotdog joint in Chicago, which also means the best in the world. Go for the exotic sausages—wild boar, rattlesnake, etc.—that Sohn always has as specials; go for the duck-fat fries available every Friday and Saturday; but more than anything, go for the lovingly prepared classic dogs, Polish sausages and other old favorites.
Upscale Pub, 2900 W. Belmont, (773)-604-8769. $
The Hell’s Angels version of Hopleaf, serving up bad-ass beer and the best burgers, named after metal bands like Sabbath and Slayer, in the city.
Ed’s Potsticker House
Chinese, 3139 S. Halsted, (312)326-6898. $
Ironically, the cigar-shaped namesake potsticker dumplings aren’t that good, but the chive-and-bacon pancake, mouth-bursting soup dumplings, lamb with cumin and the fried, glazed eggplant more than make up for the shortcoming.
Pan-Asian-Fusion, 605 W. 31st, (312)949-1314
Chef Guan Chen and his wife Yan operate so idiosyncratically, they make the peculiar Schwa look as professional as Charlie Trotters. This is likely the only tasting-menu-format BYOB pan-Asian French New American fusion restaurant in the world where rich stir-fried beef perfumed with lemongrass, ginger and garlic brightened by a julienned nest of green apple is served alongside old take-out favorites like General Tao’s chicken and Mongolian beef.
Diner, 3510 S. Halsted, (773)847-9058. $
The plate-glass front window is always steamy from the grill, the air always smells like greasy burgers and the sweet-spiced Greek-style chili is always hot.
Rustic American, 2152 N. Damen, (773)862-5555. $$
We were tough on chef Chris Pandel when he opened, but somewhere along the way he stopped cooking for the neighborhood dilettantes and focused on producing more from his heart or, actually, given the offal focus, more pig and beef heart. The drinks, including a refreshing zingy Moscow Mule, are now also complementary to his well-considered cuisine.
New American, 1747 N. Damen, (773)489-1747. $$
Mindy Segal, one of the city’s greatest pastry gurus, slings cake and comfort food, albeit elegantly crafted versions of favorites like mac and cheese and tuna melts.
Costa Rican, 1865 N. Milwaukee, (773)252-5687. $/Cash only
The city’s sole Costa Rican restaurant serves Latin food heavy on black beans, rice and plantains, but its vegetarian burritos—packed with mushrooms, rice, avocado and hot peppers—puts the plain old Mexican burrito to shame.
Rustic Italian and Mediterreanean, 1647 N. Milwaukee, (773)342-2340. $$
Rob and Allison Levitt’s tasty temple for locavores is filled to the brim with luscious charcuterie and tongue-delighting shortbread.
Piece Brewery & Pizzeria
Microbrewery/Pizza, 1927 W. North, (773)772-4422. $
A Wicker Park pizzeria and brewpub that serves New Haven-style (that’s thin crust) pies with a broader range of toppings—like meatballs or broccoli. Jonathan Cutler’s craft beers are just as memorable as the pies.
New American, 2039 W. North, (773)395-7100. $$$
Shawn McClain’s Asian-influenced Spring spawned a legend-in-the-making. The menu favors seafood, in creative presentations, grounded in Midwestern food elements.
Chinese, 228 W. Cermak, (312)842-7818. $$
Owner Ben Li undergirds his fiery chili-inflected dishes with the right amount of sweet, sour, salt and umami. Don’t miss his Dry Chili Chicken, aka Chicken Crack Part II (Chicken Crack Part I is available at Lao Szechuan), his house-cured and hoisin-glazed pork belly, and Black-Pepper Garlic Tenderloin, an American-Sichuan fusion dish of fried flank steak sautéed in butter and garlic and oyster sauce.
Lao Sze Chuan
Chinese, 2172 S. Archer, (312)326-5040. $$
This nondescript, bustling spot in the newer north end of Chinatown—that is, in the outdoor mall—is the place everyone’s buzzing about. Whether it’s foodies or Chinese expats, Lao Sze Chuan’s spicy menu is drawing crowds, and deservedly so. Chinese patrons seem to favor the fondue-like hot pot, but we’re content to let chef Tony Hu do the cooking.
East Garfield Park
Soul food, 3175 W. Madison, (773)638-7079. $
Brimming with history—the soul-food palace was a key gathering spot for civil rights leaders in the sixties—Edna’s sings a song of the South. With its unbelievable fried chicken, creamy mac and cheese and savory vegetable faves like collard greens and fried okra, Edna’s delivers.
Avenues (Peninsula Hotel)
New American, 108 E. Superior, (312)573-6754. $$$$
Forget filet mignon dotted in ruddy bordelaise. Hotel restaurants, once grand ballrooms of classic uninspired French cuisine, are now laboratories for gastronomic inventiveness. Former Alinea sous chef Curtis Duffy leads the way with breathtaking organically plated works of molecular-gastronomy swirled art.
Seafood, 166 E. Superior, (312)523-0923. $$$
Stuck with the cinnamon-roll funhouse of Ann Sather, we really could have used a high-end Scandinavian resto like Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit in New York. Though after sucking down his luscious pork-like salmon belly pastrami and mini-yellowtail tacos, we’re not too disappointed by this seafood-serving alternative.
Food court, 835 N. Michigan, mezzanine, (312)335-3663. $
The ultimate food court. From rotisserie to stir fry, soup to pasta, foodlife’s got something for you—and the handy smart-card system means you can wander from kiosk to kiosk, loading up, and not have to dig out your wallet until you leave.
French-Asian, Park Hyatt, 800 N. Michigan, 7th Floor (312)239-4030. $$$
Park Hyatt Chicago’s gem is NoMi, a spectacular, sprawling space and unrivaled room with a view overlooking Michigan Avenue. Chef Christophe David spices up the menu with sushi/sashimi flown in daily.
Italian, 980 N. Michigan, (312)280-2750. $$$$
Chicago’s unanimous four-star Italian restaurant continues to soar both literally (overlooking North Michigan Avenue) and figuratively, under the creative reigns of its founding chef Tony Mantuano. These days it’s also the favored spot of President Barack Obama.
American Bistro, 155 E. Ontario, (312)255-8505. $$
This is the best place to eat after a long Mag Mile shopping excursion. Steve Chiappetti, who made his bones at Mango, Grapes and Rhapsody in the late nineties, has made a triumphant return harnessing his mad skills into American bistro-style cooking that is unfussy and a perfect match for Viand’s slightly jazz age interior.
Greek, 314 S. Halsted, (312)726-2407. $$
The oldest spot in Greektown. Flaming saganaki cheese—the hallmark of Greek restaurants everywhere—was invented right here on Halsted Street in the 1960s by current and original owner Chris Liakouras. The Parthenon also played a role in popularizing the gyro in Chicago by giving it away as sort of a free amuse course from 1968-1971. They still serve the best gyros in town, make most everything from scratch and eschew frozen appetizers and pre-made foods used by their competitors.
Asian-New America Fusion, (773)486-7511. $$$$
Chef Shin Thompson’s Asian seafood-tinged BYOB pre-fixe spot is like Alinea on a shoestring with less stabilizers, but often featuring just as much creative, clean flavor.
Mexican, 3619 W. North, (773)772-8435. $
For anyone who’s ever doubted that a taco or a sandwich could be as sophisticated or rewarding as a four-star meal, just check out Tony Anteliz’s spit-roasted pork and chipotle Tacos Arabes, or his deep-fried pork and crusty-bread-wrapped cemita milanesa.
Papa’s Cache Sabroso
Puerto Rican, 2517 W. Division, (773)862-8313. $
They didn’t invent the jibarito, aka plantain sandwich, but they made it better. There’s a charcoal-roasted chicken on every corner in Latin neighborhoods, but this version, which features crispy, hot, spicy skin and moist flesh, is the only one that deserves a line out the door.
5211 S. Harper, #C, (773)955-0229
That we would have stumbled into this Disneyland-like interpretation of Caribbean cuisine and loved it, especially after a mediocre experience years ago, was about as likely as Johnny Depp playing George W. Bush in a biopic. But, when Dixie Kitchen, purveyor of swampy rich gumbos, closed last year and Calypso started serving the best Dixie menu items alongside their jerk chicken, we gave it another shot. After downing a fluffy pile of golden caramelized johnnycakes, crispy cornmeal-coated, juicy-fleshed sweet-and-tangy wheels of green tomato and hush puppy-like shrimp and conch fritters accompanied by spicy remoulade, we make fun no more.
Barbecue, 3800 N. Pulaski, (773)545-7427. $
Proving you don’t need bulletproof glass to offer up some of the best ‘Que in Chicago, Smoque serves up tender juicy brisket and spicy, gently smoked toothsome ribs. Sides like mac and cheese or baked beans, which are usually a sideline at other BBQ spots, are as good as the meat.
Vegetarian, 3411 N. Halsted, (773)935-6696. $
Seitan and quinoa may need defining for the average carnivore, but for the vegetarians out there, these foods (wheat gluten and a high-protein grain, respectively) symbolize a dining experience with boundless choices.
Korean, 2940 N. Broadway, (877)693-8653. $
Four words: Seoul Sassy Fried Chicken. This Teriyaki-style marinated crispy skin flecked with garlic, ginger and pepper wrapped around succulent meat clinging to its smoky bones will have you swearing off the Southern classic forever.
American Bistro, 2925 N. Halsted, (773)528-7200. $$
Chef Erwin Drechsler, in crisp chef whites with his salt-and-pepper beard, often mans the maitre d’ station, peering out over his reading glasses to scan for your reservation or bid you a hearty adieu after a filling meal. Drechsler is the man who taught lauded Blackbird chef Paul Kahan how to cook, so it should be no surprise that the seasonally focused, market-based cuisine on display at Blackbird is also the same rubric from which Drechsler works.
Italian, 3311 N. Clark, (773)281-3310. $$
A simple interior of white paper-covered tables and handwritten, photocopied menus belies the noisy, energetic atmosphere of waiters carting heaping bowls of full-flavored Italian pastas to tables of well-heeled professionals.
French-Japanese, 3257 N. Halsted, (773)248-6160. $$$
If you have a hankering for tuna maki and duck liver mousse, this is your one-stop shop. Once considered one of the best restaurants in Chicago, it still delivers unlikely eclectic Japanese-inflected French gourmet specialties like goat-cheese-filled Japanese pumpkin ravioli.
New American, 1723 N. Halsted, (312)867-0110. $$$$
Grant Achatz has been dubbed a molecular gastronomist but, compared to most of his peers, he tempers his wizardry with a lot more flavor and craft. Everything at Alinea changes so fast, and the cuisine, the serveware and the interior design, which is far removed from its culinary progenitors, is in such constant flux, that if there has to be a label, it should probably be “Evolutionary Gastronomy.”
Goose Island Clybourn
American, 1800 N. Clybourn, (312)915-0071. $$
For snacks and suds, Hopleaf has always been our go-to, however Greg Hall got serious last year and brought on John Manion (now at Branch 27) for a porktastic reinvention of the menu. Throwing down fish tacos and a Nueske’s grilled ham and gouda sandwich with pickled leeks and a runny egg along with a glass of Pere Jacques was the highlight of our summer.
Kith and Kin
American bistro. 1119 W. Webster, (773)472-7070. $$
The first real neighborhood restaurant that’s also a destination. David Carrier, vet of Trio and The French Laundry, cooks like a Michelin-starred mom and features luscious comfort-food-laden ceramic crocks of velvety chicken-liver pate and beefy French onion bubbling over with a caramelized halo of gruyere. Crispy confit chicken thighs give fried chicken a run for its money.
Seafood, 2300 Lincoln Park West, (773)868-0002. $$$$
Chef Laurent Gras’ luxury-ingredient-laced raw seafood presentations will ruin regular sushi for you. If you like things cooked, though, expect one of the best bread services in all of Chicago, as well as superior hot dishes like pork belly coated with duck fat and drizzled with black truffle jus.
Sushi, 2239 N. Clybourn, (773)880-8012. $$
If you’re craving a California roll, stick to the grocery-store sushi, for the Chan brothers’ talent is making luxuriant nigiri and sashimi including foie gras-larded flounder and truffle-oil-glazed salmon. Their lush carrot soup is also four-star pre-fixe restaurant worthy.
Mon Ami Gabi
French bistro, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, (773)348-8886. $$$
With a beautiful park-side setting and a lively French-bistro charm, Gabino Sotelino’s downscale little sister to his late, great Ambria proves the range of the master chef’s charms. Ah, steak frites…
New American, 2610 N. Cannon, (773)477-5845. $$$
The London School of Economics-trained Bruce Sherman, who really developed his skill cooking from the daily markets while living in India, is one of the smartest, most politically conscious chefs in the city. His food is meticulously crafted and farm-fresh.
Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn, (773)327-1512. $$
Though we love Burt’s in Morton Grove, it’s not in the city proper, but rest assured we’re not settling when we laud this inspired deep-dish pie surrounded by a halo of caramelized crust, baked in cast-iron pans blackened by decades of seasoning.
New American, 1800 N. Lincoln, (312)981-7070. $$
Despite working at the French Laundry, some of the top molecular-gastronomy temples in Spain and getting a nod for best restaurant 2005 in Esquire magazine for his work at the now-defunct Butter, Chef Ryan Poli still manages to be one of the most underrated chefs in Chicago. His food, comprised of the best products the Green City Market located across the street from Perennial has, is unforgettable, however.
New American, 1417 W. Fullerton, (773)348-0706. $$$$
Trio alum Dale Levitski virtually disappeared overnight after almost taking the crown on Top Chef in 2007. After a few chefs fell through, including one who planned on serving $120 organic veal filet mignon in this horrible economy, Levitski took the reigns at this new Lincoln Park spot and made what was seemingly an unsalvagable situation, and weird Home Depot-contractor-special dining room, into one of the tastiest places to score high-end nosh this year. Levitski’s mostly tasting-menu format (you can go a la carte—but cost-wise it doesn’t make sense) which includes a beautiful reinvention of the grilled-cheese sandwich—featuring crispy griddled cheese wafers encasing caramelized onions and granny smith apples—proves that even though Trio closed under his watch, he’s just as talented as the guys who preceded him in that post: Rick Tramonto, Shawn McClain and Grant Achatz.
Lincoln Square/North Center
New American/Seafood, 4111 N. Lincoln, (773)472-4111. $$
We haven’t seen this many nuts in one place since we watched “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Chef Sean Sanders uses them as a secret ingredient in almost everything. The best application: a sweet drizzle of almond crème over a Chervil crepe bursting with roast chanterelle mushrooms and toasted sweet corn, one of the best things we ate last year.
German, 4732 N. Lincoln, (773)784-4444. $$
The Chicago Brauhaus lets you celebrate Oktoberfest year-round. A traditional German oompah band rocks here nightly, cranking out your favorite Bavarian drinking tunes and occasionally slowing it down with a little “Edelweiss” while you chow on some hefty classic German dining options.
Filipino, 2501 W. Lawrence, (773)271-2988. $$
In a culinary world dominated by steam tables filled with gloppy Adobo pork, the made-to-order Tocino, aka Filipino bacon, and crispy Lumpia (pork-and-garlic-filled egg rolls), are a welcome relief.
New American, 3868 N. Lincoln, (773)327-3868. $$$
California- and Asian-styled gourmet fare like miso black cod, mushroom pad Thai and sake-marinated steak from chef Carol Wallack.
Thai, 4608 N. Western, (773)769-1173. $
The Royal Thai Army must be led by Colonel Sanders, because the crunchy red-chili-spiced Thai fried chicken (kai thawt) served at Spoon easily dethrones Harold’s as Chicago’s new chicken king. Sure you can score pad Thai, but now you can order like a Bangkok regular and sample authentic specialties thanks to a translated “Thai regulars” menu.
Al’s #1 on Taylor
Italian Beef, 1079 W. Taylor, (312)226-4017. $
With thousands of corner shacks serving up indiscriminate, reheated, pre-packaged beef from Scala or Vienna on a thick roll, the original Taylor Street location of Al’s beef, featuring eleven herbs and spices, including a sweet nutmeg warmth, as well as hot fennel giardiniera, is the paragon of beef.
Italian, 1352 W. Taylor, (312)243-1035. $
Gennaro’s is an old red-sauce emporium in Little Italy serving up La Famiglia-style eats. John Jr. tends bar, pouring tipples of a garnet Chianti (the same house formula his father served in 1959), while Mary Jo works the room like a Southern-fried waitress, peppering her conversation with a well-placed “honey.” Gennaro’s has made few concessions to history. A legacy from when the neighborhood used to be dicey, John buzzes you in from behind the bar.
New American, 2537 N. Kedzie, (773)489-9554. $$
Co-owners Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, along with chef Jason Vincent, conduct daily kitchen jam sessions based on availabilities from local farmers and markets, and deliver their findings in the form of ever-changing and always-surprising specials.
Cuban, 26 E. Congress, (312)922-2233. $
Owner Philip Ghantous roasts the meat for his sandwiches in-house and marinates them in a garlic-and-citrus-flavored mojo sauce. He also makes his spicy, herby chimichurri fresh each day. Cafecito’s Cubano sandwich, which features the perfect amount of tangy pickles and mustard and proper ratio of ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese to crusty, grilled bread, is one of the best around.
Modern Italian, 201 N. State, (312)239-9500 $$$
With its glinting modern design accents and cherry-blossom-fantasia ceiling fresco, Cibo Matto’s more John Edwards’ rock-star sex-scandalicious than the old staid Obama-favored Spiaggia. Though Chef Todd Stein’s eats, like hand-cut spaghetti a la chittara, a tongue-twisting tension of soothing mint, smarting chilis and tender crab, is just as old-school-crafted as anything at Tony Mantuano’s joint.
French, 440 S. LaSalle, 40th Floor, (312)663-8920. $$$$
The quintessential big-city splurge: topnotch French chef Jean Joho, spectacular views of the city, huge wine list and impeccable service.
Burgers, 111 N. State, 7th Floor, (312)781-4884. $
Serving up medium-rare coarsely ground patties featuring television-commercial-ready cross-hatched grill marks that dribble peppery juices down your chin with each greedy bite, these are the Loop’s best burgers.
Middle-Eastern, 21 N. Wabash, (312)443-9534. $
The best falafel in Chicago, mahogany dark, deep-fried chickpea balls that cast off puffs of steamy cumin perfume from their coriander-infused, soft, verdant interior, hidden in the back of Jeweler’s Row.
Spacca Napoli Pizza
Pizza, 1769 W. Sunnyside, (773)878-2420. $$
The crust on these wood-fired pizzas is a study in perfect imperfection. Airy, crunchy, with bits of char and lines from the floor of the brick oven, the Margherita topped with creamy fior de latte mozzarella, anise-perfumed basil and zingy tomatoes conjures an afternoon in Naples.
New American, 339 N. Dearborn, (312)755-9463. $$
Though Brian Duncan’s wine selections and John Caputo’s classic American tavern menu have always been the attraction, this stalwart is now reinventing itself as the premier cheese-lover’s destination with a cheese-focused menu and a variety of cheese flights.
New American, 416 W. Ontario, (312)787-1400 $$$
If you like your steak and eggs on acid (wasabi sauced), your art full of blood-stained skulls, and your dining-room soundtrack skewing indie-shoegazer a la Silversun Pickups, this is your clubhouse. Chef Chris Curren and his partner Dan Marunowski serve their own personalities up every night, and it’s a damn tasty affair.
Café des Architectes
Modern French, 20 E. Chestnut, (312)324-4063. $$$$
A French dude at the helm plus a swanky downtown hotel setting is generally a recipe for culinary boredom. But chef Martial Noguier, coming off a long quiet stint at one sixtyblue, had something to prove, namely that he’s one of Chicago’s perennially underrated talents. His tender honey-caramel-sauced Madagascar shrimp and deep-fried potato croquettes that shoot truffle-perfumed steam stake that claim. Noguier’s pastry chef Suzanne Imaz, who twists super classics like Floating Islands and Baked Alaska, is one of Chicago’s finest.
Spanish Tapas, 737 N. LaSalle, (312)573-1510. $$
Iberico is a perennial hotspot, always crowded, always a delicious time, with killer tapas and some of the best sangria in the city.
Italian, 331 W. Superior, (312)337-9444. $$
Thankfully, an explosive fire that ruined the kitchen last year didn’t mean the end of this great Chicago institution. Even then, we might have been able to live without the edifice, but never without the fiery politically inflected banter or the jocular chop-busting of the Nardini brothers.
Crofton on Wells
New American, 535 N. Wells, (312)755-1790. $$$
One of the few fine-dining places where you might find a vegan entrée amidst French touches like foie gras. Chef Suzy Crofton has mastered a winning formula—delicious, creative cuisine served in an unpretentious atmosphere.
French Bistro, 546 N. Wells, (312)467-0546 $$
Chef Didier Durand is Chicago’s lead defender of foie gras, enduring endless protests and the occasional brick through the window. This is an emblematic bistro serving up classics from bouillabaisse to vichyssoise.
David Burke’s Primehouse
New American Steakhouse, 616 N. Rush, (312)660-6000. $$$
If P.T. Barnum and Julia Child had an illegitimate encounter, David Burke would be their spawn. At Primehouse, Burke’s serving up designer grass-fed beef genetically derived from his $250,000 Angus bull stud, Prime 207L. With his lobster, steak and cheesecake lollipops, bacon-flavored sprays and pink rock-salt curing rooms, Burke is a bigger culinary showman than Emeril.
Frontera Grill/Topolobampo/Frontera Fresco/Xoco
Mexican, 445 N. Clark, (312)661-1434. Xoco and Frontera Fresco: $; Frontera: $$; Topolobampo: $$$
Frontera Grill boasts regional Mexican cuisine with a sophisticated spin, a festive atmosphere and knock-your-socks-off margaritas. Next door, Topolobampo delves deeper into territory at once more elegant and exotic. Fresco, located on the seventh floor of the Macy’s on State store, was once the most important development in high-quality, quick-service food in Chicago, but has since been supplanted by Xoco, which makes the best cup of hot chocolate and wood-roasted suckling-pig pibil sandwiches in the city.
Japanese, 19 E. Ohio, (312)222-0600, $$
Tucked in underneath the dingy metal awning of the Tokyo Hotel, the entrance to this sushi house looks like portal to a secret meeting in some classic film noir. Maybe it’s too hidden for, though this classic noodle and sushi joint has been around forever, it never made our list. Had we checked out the toothsome ramen noodles floating in porky steamy broth and the melty hunks of raw fish cut by Akira Yokoyama earlier, it definitely would have.
New American, 217 W. Huron, (312)624-9975. $$$
From high-end chicken wings to deconstructed Caesar salad with brioche Twinkies, this truly is fine dining redefined.
Indian, 59 W. Grand, (312)645-9500; $$
Sometimes you’re not in the mood for stir-fried brain masala, and you just want to go to a place where you know every dish’s name. For butter chicken and the best lunchtime Indian buffet in town, you won’t do better.
New American, 500 N. Clark, (312)321-6242. $$$
Taking over the legendary Gordon’s space was an act of culinary bravado, but chef Carrie and manager Michael Nahabedian’s Naha has lived up to its surroundings. Designed with a simple, yet elegant, interior space, Naha serves up its take on the New American cuisine dominating our city’s platters by infusing it with Mediterranean influences.
Pizzerias Uno and Due
Pizza, Uno: 29 E. Ohio, (312)321-1000; Due: 619 N. Wabash, (312)943-2400. $$
The birthplace of Chicago-style pizza, so they say, is a hotspot for the tourist crowd, but there’s not a Chicagoan around who wouldn’t salivate at the thought of a Uno/Due pie, packed to the nines with sausage and cheese and washed down with an Old Style.
Shaw’s Crab House
Seafood, 21 E. Hubbard, (312)527-2722. $$$
Forget those concerns about seafood in the oceanless Midwest—at Shaw’s catches are flown in daily from the Atlantic and you can taste the freshness.
American, 415 N. Milwaukee, (312)829-6300. $
Where there are chefs and bikers, there is always righteous nosh and endless pours of killer whiskey. This “hidden” spot a chocolate bunny’s hop from the Blommer Chocolate factory is no exception. The croque madame larded with think planks of pink ham topped with crispy gruyere and a runny egg is a good hangover helper, but the tempura-battered green beans with spicy chili dipping sauce is the real late-night treat.
Rogers Park/West Ridge
Pakistani, 2401 W. Devon, (773)274-8600. $
The best chicken boti, with flakes of char from the natural-wood-charcoal-fired tandoor and neon green streaks from crushed peppers, is crispy, while seekh kababs, skewered round cylinders of ground beef, onion and coriander, are moist and spicy.
Hai Woon Dae
Korean, 6240 N. California, (773)764-8018. $$
The best place to grill Bulgogi over a bucket of live coals, filch swigs of the Korean Budweiser, OB beer, and live the suburban backyard dream indoors. From bi bim bop to mountains of complimentary Panchan- or Korean-style appetizers, including kim chi, red chili-infused fermented cabbage, this utilitarian storefront open twenty-four hours is a late-night haven.
South Loop/Near South Side
Deli, 1141 S. Jefferson, (312)939-2855. $
Steam tables filled with silky short ribs and softball-sized matzoh balls, this is the lunch counter of your dreams. Add in a side of Chicago-style attitude and Manny’s is, hands-down, the best place to score a corned beef or pastrami sandwich in this city.
Mercat a la Planxa
Spanish, 638 S. Michigan, (312)765-0524. $$
Simple flat-top (planxa) grilled fare like head-on prawns and meaty lamb chops paired with smokey romanesco and braised rabbit agnolotti from Philly super chef Jose Garces redeem the honor of the tired “small plates” phenomenon.
Chinese, 1301 S. Wabash, (312)461-0161. $$$
From its dramatic fiery-red interior in a former film-storage warehouse to its mesmerizing spicy Chinese dishes, Opera keeps its customers singing its praises out loud.
Vegetarian soul food, 205 E. 75th, (773)224-0104. $
Except for the honey in some sauces, the entire menu here is vegan. Many popular dishes, including the McNugget-shaped (and obscenely addictive) “protein bits,” are fried. True to its “soul food without the meat” credo, Soul plays nice with the traditionally carnivorous palate.
Vietnamese, 1055 W. Argyle, (773)561-4077. $$
Storefront Vietnamese for curious white folks. Authenticity-seeking chowhounds can score a good bowl of pho replete with beef brisket, bible tripe and tendon, while more discriminating palates might favor gui cuon, or traditional Vietnamese rice-paper spring rolls.
Chinese, 1132 W. Argyle, (773)769-1254. $$
Ford past the gaggle of glistening glazed ducks hanging sentry over hotel pans full of steaming tripe and bell jars filled with fried chicken skin and sit down for Chicago’s best Beijing duck service.
Mediterranean, 615 W. Randolph, (312)377-2002. $$$
Cozy, storefront neo-enoteca with communal dining and simple but often sublime Mediterranean-inflected cooking, the handiwork of chef Koren Grieveson.
New American, 619 W. Randolph, (312)715-0708. $$$
Chef Paul Kahan’s California-derived simplicity has inspired the newest generation of restaurateurs to care about ingredients and freshness instead of spicy presentation.
Asian, 945 W. Fulton Market, (312)491-0058. $$$$
Homaro Cantu dishes food with the cerebral abandon of James Joyce and the creepy technological obsession of William Burroughs. Edible menus and dishes like Maki in the Fifth Dimension, donut soup and Kentucky-fried ice cream are already Chicago classics.
Beer, Pork & Seafood, 837 W. Fulton Market, (312)733-9555. $$
Filled with the biggest wooden communal dining table in Chicago, this beer, pork and oyster hall is ready for a shipload of Vikings, or at least a small cabal of hell-raising foodies.
New American, 1400 W. Randolph, (312)850-0303. $$$
New toque Michael McDonald has reinvigorated this West Loop pioneering resto with duck-fat-powder-coated hash browns and pumpkin soup sporting an egg nog-flavored “cloud.” Once Charlie Trotter’s right-hand man at C restaurant in Los Cabos, McDonald’s invention and accessibility is partially why his old boss is now less relevant.
Pan Asian, 820 W. Randolph, (312)733-8880. $$$
Swanky décor and an eclectic mix of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian flavors combine to make this one of the most popular spots on Harpo Row.
123 N. Jefferson, (312)441-1920; $$$
Chef Andrew Zimmerman’s charcuterie, including a Gunthorp Farm duck pâté wrapped in bacon and infused with green peppercorn and dried cherries, a heady mix of fruit and spice, is worth the visit alone. Add in one of the best cocktail programs in the city and you’d have to be drunk not to visit.
Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village
Breakfast, 1470 N. Milwaukee, (773)489-0690; 1152 S. Wabash, (312)291-0100. $
From tenderloin-larded Eggs Benedict to Butterfinger pancakes, the Bongo Room has a brunch menu that’s always worth the extended wait.
Mexican Seafood, 1035 N. Ashland, (773)486-6850. $$
This spot on Ashland looks like the prow of a wooden ship. Featuring some of Chicago’s best Mexican seafood including tostada de pulpo, a crunchy corn wafer topped with purple chunks of octopus glistening and swimming in limey cilantro infusion or huachinango al mojo de ajo, a whole deep-fried snapper with its crunchy fins and crispy tail suspended in batter, and topped with chopped garlic, white wine and cilantro sauce.
Middle-Eastern, 2018 W. Chicago, (773)384-9930. $
A monument to nightlife impresario Jerry Suqi’s American-tinged Middle Eastern childhood led by his mom’s home cooking, which included creamy hummous and tender malfoof (cabbage stuffed with lamb, garlic, rice and onion).
Southwestern, 1434 W. Chicago, (312)243-0477. $$
A funky café outfitted in folk art with a tasty touch of Santa Fé menu, Flo has grown from a brunch hotspot to a lunch and dinner staple known for innovative cuisine at modest prices.
2100 W. Division, (773)292-1600. $$$
The antidote to paying $50 for hunks of all-you-can-eat fire-licked glistening meat carved from glinting scimitars wielded by fake gauchos downtown. The parrillada para uno, a platter of tender flap steak, custardy sweetbreads and crispy-skinned cinnamon-spiced black sausage will fill you plenty.
Vegetarian, 1460 W. Chicago, (312)243-7100. $$
The vegetarian restaurant for rabid but exacting carnivores. Whether it’s the crispy potato-and-shitake-mushroom egg rolls or the sweet-potato tart with bourbon maple syrup, you won’t miss the meat.
Modern Breakfast, 937 N. Damen, (773)489-0302. $
Jam is the first breakfast place where creativity, refinement and flavor align in a manner coincident with fine dining. The greatest example, malted French toast where the tang of lime whip cream mingles with the berry-like heat of a pink peppercorn garnish, brightening up a rich crispy caramelized crust and malted-custard-flavored gossamer cotton-candy-cloud-like interior.
Punk Haute, 1466 N. Ashland, (773)252-1466. $$$$
The best BYO Chicago storefront restaurant run by chefs sporting mohawks—where the wine is served in glass tumblers and the ravioli with gently poached quail egg soaking in ricotta, brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano—is worth the elusive reservation.
Modern Greek, 1558 N. Milwaukee, (773)252-1558. $$$
Ain’t no flaming cheese or gooey bricks of spanakopita up in this joint. Chef David Schneider eschews stereotype and like Rick Bayless did with Mexican, focuses on regional delights including a politiki melitzanosalata, which is not a Communist sympathizer, but the creamiest, sultry smoked-eggplant spread you’re likely to come across. Schneider still kicks out the gyros, but the spring house-made pita, or satz bread, is filled with roasted duck, not lamb, and drizzled with pomegranate sauce.
West Town Tavern
Contemporary Comfort, 1329 W. Chicago, (312)666-6175. $$
You’ll find solid, moderately priced entrées prepared with the finest ingredients, from the farfalle tossed with spicy sausage, eggplant, zucchini, fresh mozzarella, capers and oven-cured tomato to the zinfandel-braised pot roast with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and Pennsylvania Dutch black vinegar sauce. But don’t skip the tavern beer cheese appetizer—it’s a true classic.