Honky-tonk taquerias, nose-to-tail dishes and ultra-seasonal chalkboard menus have energized the city, as have bars serving cult beers, small-batch liquors and esoteric wines.
Video: Chef Rick Bayless on Chicago
Rick Bayless of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill (an F&W Best New Chef 1988) was already one of Chicago's star cooking talents when his recent Top Chef Masters victory pushed his fame over the top. Xoco is his most accessible restaurant yet. This affordable, quick-serve place has a menu inspired by Mexican street food. Anchoring it are caldos (soups) and huge tortas (sandwiches) stuffed with fillings, like braised beef short rib, that get toasted in a wood-fired oven. Insider tip: Get to Xoco before 10 a.m. to try the amazing ham-and-egg breakfast bread pudding.
Plus: Rick Bayless on Chicago
This new farm-to-table restaurant in the South Side's Pilsen neighborhood is by the stellar Lula Cafe team. Jason Vincent's daily menus provide a clear snapshot of the Midwest's growing seasonin late spring, crisp smelts with green-garlic mayo; in summer, duck confit with purslane, fava beans and artichokes.
At this no-reservations Bucktown spot, chef Chris Pandel's nose-to-tail talent lets him create irresistible snacks such as sausage-stuffed olives battered and fried like Scotch eggs. Groups of eight to 12 can now sign up for Pandel's bespoke dinners and help him plan the family-style menu.
Harkening back to a time when pubs offered meals and beds, this restaurant will start renting out six rooms. Staying over will seem like a good idea after eating chef Jared Wentworth's gastropub food (Welsh rarebit with a warm pretzel for dipping) and exploring the two-page whiskey list.
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Jimmy Bannos, Jr., doesn't want people to think his famous restaurateur dad (Jimmy Bannos, of Heaven on Seven) handed him his latest chef gig. "I'm not some spoiled little punk in dad's restaurant. I can cook," he says. And he is boldly turning out meaty delicacies rarely seen in the tony Magnificent Mile area; even the ladies who lunch happily eat his sweet-crunchy pig's ears with pickled cherry peppers. A Euro-centric wine list includes 50 choices under $40.
When Blackbird's Paul Kahan (an F&W Best New Chef 1999) and Avec sous-chef Justin Large took over a beat-up bar in Wicker Park, they insisted it would be little more than a dive serving tacos. That was an understatement. Highlights of the supercool "honky tonk" taqueria include excellent pork-belly tacos and greasy-good queso fundido (a glorious melted-cheese appetizer studded with chorizo). Dim lighting, fashionably disheveled bartenders and country music encourage down-and-dirty drinking of highbrow and lowbrow beers. But there are also exceptional cocktails by Violet Hour mixologist Michael Rubel, best sipped on the patio.
Chef Bill Kim's follow-up to his pan-Asian noodle shop, Urban Belly, is equally fast and casual, serving Asian-Latino food in a stripped-down setting under the Blue Line El tracks. Kim studs hot-and-sour soup with hominy, evoking the Mexican soup posole. He also finds unexpected ways to use noodles, like sneakily tucking crispy egg noodles in the bun of Chicago's beloved hot dog.
Jeffrey Mauro (North Pond) and Mike Noll (Schwa) are re-energizing the city's brunch scene. Their best dish: a pork-cheek-and-egg sandwich with green-apple ketchup. They recently began BYOB dinners and have plans for midnight brunch in their garden.
"It's a rustic restaurant with a bit of bad ass," says Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard about the much-anticipated spot she recently opened with Boka co-owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. Using Spanish, Italian and Southeast Asian ingredients, Izard creates unique dishes like this clever play on surf-and-turf: lamb-stuffed calamari topped with marcona-almond butter. On the drinks list: Girl & the Goat wine from Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, and beer collaborations with Three Floyds Brewery.
Best Places to Drink Now
Brewmaster Jim Cibak hails from top Chicago craft breweries Three Floyds and Goose Island. At this new Logan Square brewpub, he's creating excellent house beers like Iron Fist pale ale, which has enough revved-up hops to satisfy the fiercest hop-head.
Plus: F&W's Beer Guide
The collaboration of three former Webster's Wine Bar employees, Rootstock has one of the city's most fascinating lists of small-production wines, like the 2006 Movia Ribolla Brda from Slovenia, plus artisanal beers from the Lost Abbey. Cognac lamb sausage and other elevated pub foods are served until 1 a.m., making Rootstock the last call for local chefs.
Chef-owner Brendan Sodikoff brings French Laundry training to this swank saloon, where he serves roasted pork meatballs with white grits and other haute snacks. The bar offers esoteric wines like Irsai Olivér (a crisp Hungarian white) and classic cocktails from consultant Paul McGee of the Whistler, including the Death's Door Daisy made with Wisconsin-produced Death's Door vodka.
This Gold Coast hotel exudes luxury with its Greco-Roman statues and crystal-starburst chandeliers. But its restaurant, Balsan, follows Chicago's casual trend, serving wood ovenfired pizzas and craft beers.