Best New Restaurants in Chicago
By Carly Boers, Penny Pollack, and Jeff Ruby with Joanne Trestrail
The past 12 months witnessed scores of Chicago-area restaurant openings—but these 18 rise above the pack.
The 18 Best New Restaurants
- 1 Grace
Photo: Anna Knott
The pristine kitchen here has six long counters, under which are 14 refrigerators. Curtis Duffy likes a quiet workspace—demands one, actually—and the hum of 14 refrigerators would’ve driven him nuts, so he put the compressors in his basement and on the roof of the building next door. No hum. The best restaurants do whatever it takes behind the scenes to ensure success, and all the diner sees is the polish of an operation that makes it look easy.
To call Duffy’s Michelin-bait offerings stunning is not quite right. Anyone who knows the man’s towering ambition expected nothing less than excellence. What’s amazing is that he exceeded expectations. Grace’s two prix fixe dinners ($185), 10 to 13 courses assembled by the 17 silent chefs visible behind a huge picture window, are modern masterpieces full of esoteric ingredients (African blue basil, Iranian pistachios, a “new” ancient grain called freekeh) in brilliantly composed dishes that dance between opposites (cold versus hot, solid versus powder, sweet versus sour) and are served on striking surfaces (such as a slat of a whiskey barrel).
A good example of what Duffy is up to is the poached chestnut purée with Périgord truffle shavings, roasted almond milk, and red sorrel on the seasonal vegetarian menu: an intense shock wave of flavors not the slightest bit busy or cutesy. This goes galaxies beyond what he accomplished at Avenues, where he first impressed us in 2008.
Though Grace’s neutral space looks sharp, it isn’t especially memorable—except for the four unisex bathrooms reflecting the four seasons. And while general manager Michael Muser skillfully runs the dining room, his servers, striving for playfulness and authority, look like they could use a shot of something to loosen up. Nonetheless, it’s exhilarating to see a talented chef like Duffy at the height of his powers with ample resources and support behind him, if only because it happens so rarely. Savor it: No other new restaurant in Chicago comes close.
652 W. Randolph St.
Chef/partner: Curtis Duffy
Perfect for: People who think Alinea is too flashy
- 2 Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
Photo: Anna Knott
A discreet storefront gives way to this sexy bi-level restaurant. On the main floor, the tunes and decor evoke the Jazz Age; in the loungey basement parlor, classic cocktails embellish every table. It’s a place so alluring that it warrants ditching after-dinner plans in favor of another old fashioned. It’s a place that renews our faith in the steak house.
The Bavette’s experience serves as a reminder that steak house meals needn’t mean stuffy service and unnecessarily colossal portions. In a time when menu after menu offers “twisted” this and “reimagined” that, this one is refreshingly straightforward: plump cocktail shrimp, buttery bone-in rib eye, double-boned Berkshire pork chop. Even pedestrian-sounding roasted chicken reaches succulence when bathed in a decadent jus—proof that the familiar can still dazzle.
It seems the 34-year-old owner, Brendan Sodikoff, has an innate knack for introducing the right concept at the right time: the doughnut (Doughnut Vault), the diner (Au Cheval), and now the steak. In the coming months, he plans to launch a trio of new restaurants—an Old World deli, a barbecue joint, and a Japanese-style noodle spot—and you’ll likely form new obsessions. But for now, it’s tough to imagine him besting Bavette’s.
218 W. Kinzie St.
Chef: Cameron Magee
Perfect for: Diners who enjoy steak sans white tablecloth
- 3 Found
Photo: Anna Knott
Does anybody ever leave this place? Half of Evanston seems to be lingering at courthouse benches abutting Found’s U-shaped bar, on the 19th-century settee in the lounge, and in the library-like dining room. They nibble lamb meatballs with pistachio chimichurri, sip grenache blanc, and chat while another wave of hungry diners lurks near the door, cursing the no-reservations policy.
Found’s popularity is no accident: Amy Morton spent years planning her socially conscious American bistro, and she nailed pretty much every detail. The vintage-thrift decor is part of the charm—if an eccentric academic married an interior designer, this would be their living room—and ebullient servers don’t hurt. But the whole operation draws its power from Nicole Pederson’s bold small plates. Her bright fried oyster tacos mingle with crisp bacon nubs and tomatillos, her twice-fried chicken wings exude a sweet tang, and her knife-and-fork shredded pork shoulder sandwich with sweet potato mash and gravy is a hefty open-faced revelation.
Found already has the kind of enthusiastic menu and following that any restaurant would kill for. Chances are, once you get a seat, you won’t leave either.
- 4 Elizabeth Restaurant
Photo: Anna Knott
Elizabeth stands on the shoulders of giants: Alinea and Next for online ticketing; Schwa and EL Ideas for the communal dinner party vibe. But Iliana Regan’s creations would be shockingly original even without the glorious view up there.
Her three earthy menus—especially the 24-course “Diamond” ($145 on weeknights, $175 on weekends), a four-hour journey through forests, skies, farms, and oceans—overflow with sheer imagination and daring. You might get a prosciutto-wrapped smoked mussel placed on your hand or “noodles” of shrimp with shredded kale and toasted quinoa served in an Asian spoon by the charmingly subdued owner herself.
So many chefs slavishly hook onto trends, but Regan remains refreshingly oblivious to them. Get to Elizabeth before she realizes how good she is.
4835 N. Western Ave.
Chefs/partners: Iliana Regan
Perfect for: Foodies who like eating raccoon Bolognese with strangers
- 5 Kai Zan
Photo: Anna Knott
A Humboldt Park sushi restaurant from virtually unknown chefs (brothers Carlo and Melvin Vizconde) seemed unlikely to rise to hot-spot status. And it didn’t—it catapulted.
The twin toques sharpened their skills at various sushi gigs before opening this serene 22-seater. “Me and my brother used to have regulars,” Carlo says, “and most of them never ordered from the menu.”
At Kai Zan, the savviest diners follow suit, letting the Vizcondes guide their feast with one of the best deals in town: a $50 omakase menu showcasing their finesse with piquant oyster shooters, truffle-oil-soaked escolar pearls (delicate seared escolar atop rice spheres), ultrafresh madai (snapper) carpaccio, and maki cloaked in creamy avocado.
2557½ W. Chicago Ave.
Chefs/partners: Carlo and Melvin Vizconde
Perfect for: Sushi lovers looking to break out of their maki-roll rut
- 6 Carriage House
Photo: Anna Knott
In Carriage House’s scrumptious mushroom, truffle, and egg dish, the egg in question is cooked for 60 minutes at exactly 145.6 degrees. “This way, the whites and yolk cook uniformly to an almost custard consistency while still being runny and delicious,” says chef Mark Steuer.
Trust him: The man knows eggs like a spider knows silk. And Steuer knows grits. And shrimp and pork in various guises, all of which get treated with equal love at this smart and satisfying Southern spot.
If you’re interested in nuanced flavors, look to dishes such as quail stuffed with a black pepper dumpling, Vidalia soubise, and a mirepoix pickle relish. Otherwise, snag a place at the communal table, order a Miller High Life, roll up your sleeves, and get dirty.
1700 W. Division St.
Chef/owner: Mark Steuer
Perfect for: Sociable folks unbothered by noise
- 7 Trenchermen
Michael and Patrick Sheerin’s striking steampunk chamber pulls off a neat trick. It manages to feel like a crowd pleaser while seamlessly working in off-kilter creations such as candied quinoa and Pickle Tots and punching up a rib eye with pickled turmeric or a chocolate crémeux with red Fresno chilies. And when the brothers play it straight, as with potato gnocchi slippery with ricotta cream and punctuated by black winter truffles and nubs of country-cured ham, you know the kitchen isn’t coasting on gimmickry. The steady servers and Tona Palomino’s killer cocktails (order the Divide & Concord, a grape-toned concoction involving absinthe, egg whites, and gin) also help make Trenchermen the right restaurant at the right time for Wicker Park: equal parts geniality and trickery.
2039 W. North Ave.
Chefs/partners: Michael and Patrick Sheerin
Perfect for: Adventurous hearty eaters
- 8 Chez Moi
Photo: Anna Knott
“A Unique French Bistro,” reads the menu. That kind of boasting usually implies enough overwrought twists and spins on classics to make the hair on your tête stand on end. Not at Chez Moi.
From crusty sourdough bread to crackly crème brûlée, this cozy room delivers straight-up Parisian bistro fare. Dominique Tougne’s signature coq au vin is a one-way ticket to your favorite boîte in your favorite arrondissement, his seared trout over braised cabbage in caper-lemon beurre blanc makes the tried-and-true seem brand-new, and the gâteau Breton—each bite crumbly, buttery, and moist—tastes like the biggest and best shortbread cookie on the planet.
Chez Moi is unique, all right: deliberately unhip and decidedly authentic.
2100 N. Halsted St.
Chef/Owner: Dominique Tougne
Perfect for: Nostalgic Francophiles
- 9 Little Goat Diner
Photo: Anna Knott
Stephanie Izard could open an Arctic-themed bistro in a bathroom at O’Hare with nothing but a musk oxen prix fixe menu, and thousands would miss their flights to eat there. Little Goat is the opposite: a big, shiny all-day diner engineered to appease the masses with biscuits and gravy, patty melts, chocolate malts, and meringue tarts.
If this sounds unambitious, consider the attention to detail given to each dish on the more than 80-item menu, as in a scallion and pork belly pancake with homemade hoisin sauce and a bok choy salad with ginger maple dressing. Then there’s the separate kitchen dedicated to baking bread and the coffee shop with a roast that Izard handpicked on a trip to Colombia. Rarely has a greasy spoon been this polished.
820 W. Randolph St.
Chef/Partner: Stephanie Izard
Perfect for: Anyone and everyone
- 10 BellyQ
Photo: Tasmina Cadiz/Courtesy of BellyQ
If Avec represents one bookend on the overstuffed dining shelf of West Randolph Street, then BellyQ has quickly established itself as the other. Perched at the strip’s western edge, Bill Kim’s slick 200-seat ode to sizzling Korean barbecue, savory pancakes, and rich hot pots throbs day and night.
The food brings the same artful simplicity as Kim’s previous efforts, Urbanbelly and Belly Shack, and the larger stage—with distractions such as an unnecessary karaoke room—hasn’t led to watered-down flavors. A giant chilled soba noodle salad with Thai basil, olive-oil-poached shrimp, and Chinese eggplant is some kind of masterpiece—and just another item on a menu packed with treasures.
1400 W. Randolph St.
Chef/Partner: Bill Kim
Perfect for: Fans of Korean short ribs and icy cocktails
- 11 Sumi Robata Bar
Photo: Anna Knott
The robatayaki cooking technique—grilling over Japanese white oak—has gotten a lukewarm reception in Chicago: a restaurant trend that never quite trended. But spend a night at this tranquil four-month-old spot—where Gene Kato (Japonais) grills bite-size morsels so flavorful you’ll likely want to double up—and it becomes clear that the ancient Japanese were, in fact, onto something sensational.
Half the offerings are appetizers, such as sliced tea-smoked duck breast medallions with piquant Japanese mustard, and the other half are prizes from the robata. Four diners can cover the entire menu, dabbling in wagyu rib eye, tender bulbs of salted onions, and Alaska king crab drizzled with spicy mayo.
702 N. Wells St.
Chef/Owner: Gene Kato
Perfect for: Those who like a postmeal nightcap (the subterranean Charcoal Bar has an impressive list of craft cocktails)
- 12 Table, Donkey and Stick
Photo: Travas Machel
When you crowdsource to decide who your chef will be, as this cozy Alpine-style storefront did in a series of pop-up dinners last fall, the vote can go in a lot of directions, few of them good. But Scott Manley (Vie, Blackbird), the people’s choice, hits the sweet spot with striking plates of pheasant galantine, duck liver mousse, and pork sausage, all of which are lighter than they sound (even when pork fat pretzel rolls are involved). Instead of offering refuge to hikers in the Alps, TDS serves its neighbors belly-warming Armagnac-stoked Manhatterhorns at a farm table in back—and around the fire pit even farther back. That’s refuge, Chicago-style.
2728 W. Armitage Ave.
Chef: Scott Manley
Perfect for: The bearded population of Logan Square
- 13 A Toda Madre
Photo: Travas Machel
Fresh, cheap, and endlessly pleasant, A Toda Madre would be your go-to Mexican spot by now if it weren’t a half a tank of gas away in Geneva. The sunny little space’s 12 wood tables groan with shareable plates of grilled pollo adobado, chiles rellenos with huitlacoche and cream, and tamarind-glazed shrimp skewers.
Tequila-sipping customers get crammed even tighter—so tight that the hostess gets an iPad instead of a stand. It’s loud and beautiful chaos, wherein the general goodwill of the staff and diners produces a vibe less claustrophobic than communal. And, of course, steaming-hot churros with cinnamon sugar and passion fruit curd don’t hurt.
416 W. State St., Geneva
Chef: Gama Martinez
Perfect for: Diners who don’t mind when their neighbors ask what they’re eating
- 14 Fat Rice
Photo: Travas Machel
“Macanese cuisine is the original culinary fusion,” says Abraham Conlon.
The stylish yet homey Logan Square spot pays tribute to the dying cuisine of the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong, which mixes influences from no fewer than four continents—and somehow aces it. The frisky menu captures Macau’s bold approach with top-notch hand-rolled noodles, cold jellyfish cheeks, tender piri-piri chicken in a Goan tomato curry paste, and some of the city’s best pot stickers. And Fat Rice boasts what must be Chicago’s favorite shareable feast of 2013: the paella-like arroz gordo, a clay vessel overflowing with linguiça, Chinese sausage, salted duck, roasted Portuguese chicken, littleneck clams, and grilled prawns. Now that’s a melting pot.
2957 W. Diversey Ave.
Chefs/partners: Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon
Perfect for: Those who thought fusion cuisine was a recent invention
- 15 The Boarding House
Photo: Anna Knott
This is 2013. Today’s diners are over the incongruity of eating fried chicken in a zillion-dollar dining room with a popping skyline view, much less finding it on the same menu as hamachi crudo, jamón Serrano, and red-wine-braised short ribs. But the confident staff and ecstatic customers are so thrilled to be part of the winning team at Alpana Singh’s brash four-story restaurant, bar, and wine cellar empire that they don’t care one bit if Bjorn Rasmussen’s menu is all over the place.
Take advantage of Singh’s razor-sharp wine acumen to pair smart dishes with interesting wines—such as slow-poached citrus salmon atop a polenta cake with a glass of 2011 Elk Cove pinot gris—and the Boarding House’s shrewd method emerges.
720 N. Wells St.
Chef: Bjorn Rasmussen
Perfect for: Wine buffs and Alpana-heads
- 16 Siena Tavern
Photo: Anthony Tahlier
What do you get when a splashy Italian Top Chef alum and the owners of two permapacked River North sports bars team up? A splashy permapacked Italian joint—with undeniably delicious food.
Join the 10,000-square-foot party and prepare yourself: Fabio Viviani, Lucas Stoioff, David Rekhson, and their overly-exuberant staff jam the from-scratch concept down your throat (herbs grow on a wall behind the bar, mozzarella is crafted in-house), and they’ll all but order the gnocchi for you. One chomp of the tender nuggets—sauced with truffle cream and topped with fried sage and pancetta—and you’ll be grateful you acquiesced.
Then the bomboloni: The ever-present management raves about the pillowy, oversize doughnut holes. And again, darn it, they’re right.
51 W. Kinzie St.
Chef/Parnter: Fabio Viviani
Perfect for: Expense account diners and bachelorette-party throwers
- 17 Earth + Ocean
Photo: Anna Knott
Food writers salivate when they hear precious restaurant names like Earth + Ocean, especially if the place has a well-known chef behind it, such as one like Rodelio Aglibot (Koi in Los Angeles, BLT in Manhattan, Sunda in Chicago). A cuisine called New American that covers the whole planet? It’s an easy target.
Turns out that Aglibot’s sleek urbanesque restaurant in Mount Prospect deserves the audacious moniker. The Hawaii native skims over his homeland for melted Maui onions, touches down in Argentina for a tender gaucho rib eye, and swims upstream for superfresh Skuna Bay salmon. It’s hard to figure where he came up with his sweet-and-spicy lollipop-style chicken wings sprinkled with Buddha dust, but then again, Aglibot calls himself the Food Buddha. Bull’s-eye.
125 Randhurst Village Dr., Mount Prospect
Chef: Rodelio Aglibot
Perfect for: The group that can't decide between pizza, sushi, and pork belly
- 18 Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed
Photo: Anna Knott
Subway tile: check. Banquettes, booths, communal table: check. Dishtowel napkins: check. Smoky aromas: check. So how is this barbecue joint different from all other barbecue joints? It’s certified kosher—so no pork ribs, no braised pork, and no pulled pork. And no dairy. But plenty of terrific barbecue and a lot of fun.
At the communal table, you might be seated next to a large family celebration, learn that some of the guests are single, and end up playing matchmaker. All this and some of the juiciest barbecued beef ribs, chicken, and brisket around with plenty of global kosher wines to wash it all down. It’s smokehouse-meets-bar-mitzvah-party, and you half expect the room to break out in a hora. Don’t be perplexed. Just enjoy.
3411 N. Broadway
Chef: Bryan Gryka
Perfect for: Philosophy majors and yentas
The 10 Best New Budget Restaurants
- A Andy’s Thai Kitchen
Best budget Thai: This tiny place is often packed to the gills, but if you can score a table at an off-peak time, you’re in for a treat. Thai standards shine, but the real news is such seldom-encountered fare as crispy on choy, with its happy heap of tempuraed Chinese water spinach ($12), and slithery noodles of yum woon sen talay ($9), generously topped with seafood.
Find it: 946 W. Wellington Ave., 773-549-7821, Lake View
- B Antique Taco
Best budget tacos: You know a place is onto something when the young and tattooed are willing to eat, drink, and talk there instead of laptopping. The guac and chips ($6) at this airy corner storefront stand with the best in the city and tacos (pork carnitas, $7 for two; grilled ribeye, $8 for two) burst with bright tastes. Beer comes in cans, rosemary margaritas in glass milk bottles.
Find it: 1360 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-687-8697, Wicker Park
- C Cafe Tola
Best budget empanadas: Like a stationary food truck selling Mexican street snacks and coffee, this wee, jolly enterprise is, for all practical purposes, takeout-only. If, however, you can’t wait to eat an empanada ($3) stuffed with chicken and salsa verde or with black beans, goat cheese, and plantain, no one will kick you out as you stand, gobbling. Finish with a concha ($1) and a latte (12 oz., $3.25).
Find it: 3612 N. Southport Ave., 773-966-8917, Lake View
- D En Hakkore
Best Budget Bibimbap: Bountiful bowlfuls of bibimbap ($8–$12) embellished, if you choose, with meat, four kinds of fish eggs, or five kinds of sashimi are the stars of the show at this Korean counter-service spot, but sushi rolls ($4 for classic maki, $9 for supersized) are also pretty compelling. This might be the only place in town to get a paratha panini stuffed with kimchi and spicy pork belly ($7.50), just sayin’.
Find it: 1840 N. Damen Ave., 773-772-9880, Bucktown
- E Homestyle Taste
Best Budget Northern Chinese: Massive portions of well-prepared Northern Chinese food, rock-bottom prices—irresistible. You’ll wish you’d grown up in a home where these tastes were in style: boiled cabbage and pork dumplings (12 for $6.95); stir-fried lamb and vegetables abuzz with cumin and chili peppers ($12.95); garlicky deep-fried sautéed string beans ($7.95); and, at meal’s end, an upbeat fortune cookie.
Find it: 3205 S. Halsted St., 773-949-9328, Bridgeport
- F Local Root
Best Budget Locally Sourced Food: In-house baking and a focus on freshness, generally, create an oasis of coziness in this hotel-rich nabe. Soups ($2.49 for a cup), sandwiches with salad or frites ($11-$12.50), and a great big cookie ($1.99) make a nice lunch; in the evening, get mellow with three-cheese flatbread ($8) and a glass of wine, maybe followed by bleu-cheese-and-berry crepes ($6.49).
Find it: 601 N. McClurg Ct., 312-643-1145, Streeterville
- G Oiistar
Best Budget Ramen: Elegantly minimalist decor and hip-hop on the sound system form the backdrop for a cross-cultural menu of steamed buns ($8-$9 for two), ramens ($13–$15), and appetizers. The buns are filled with duck breast, pork belly, or portobello mushrooms; noodles are housemade; and apps include everything from French kimchee soup ($7) to tuna carpaccio ($10). Accompany with sangria or an oiimoji (mojito).
Find it: 1385 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-360-8791, Wicker Park
- H Pecking Order
Best Budget Chicken: All chicken, all the time—grilled, roasted, or fried—keeps people coming back. The flavors of the Philippines make meals special; homey presentations and a picnicky vibe put diners at ease. A half chicken with off-the-husk grilled sweet corn and Mom’s Pickles ($12.95) satisfies big appetites. Sandwiches like the Country Bird ($9) are another way to go. Don’t miss boozy Lean Back punch.
Find it: 4416 N. Clark St., 773-907-9900, Uptown
- I Piggyback
Best Budget Barbecue: Yee hah! Dry-rub barbecue, smoked or wood-fired, is the draw, with pork, chicken, and beef brisket available in sandwiches ($9-$9.50), tacos ($3), and on large plates with fries and slaw ($11 for a half chicken, $22 for a full slab of baby back ribs). Deviled eggs, beer, fried green tomatoes, and pie for dessert—plus sports on TVs over the bar—add to the all-American vibe.
Find it: 410 Circle Ave., 708-669-9744, Forest Park
- J Reno
Best Budget Bagels: Wood-fired bagels ($2.25) get you in the door, but go-for-broke sandwiches ($7.50), pizza ($9–$14 for a 14-incher), pasta ($8–$14), desserts ($4–$6), and a glass of wine will make you want to linger longer. Every bite seems engineered for maximum pleasure, from sweet-tart pickled apricot jam offered with bagels to sage and Gruyère on the butternut squash pizza.
Find it: 2607 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-697-4234, Logan Square
6 Future Stars
- A Brindille
April 2013: An intimate Parisian-inspired boîte from Michelin-starred Carrie Nahabedian (Naha) sounds like an instant hit.
Find it: 534 N. Clark St., River North
- B Juno
May 2013: Jason Chan (Urban Union) and maki master B. K. Park (Arami) scoured sushi joints around the globe to create “five concepts that nobody else is doing,” says Chan.
Find it: 2638 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincoln Park
- C Dillman’s
June 2013: Brendan Sodikoff says that this Old World deli will be the first of his trio of forthcoming newbies (see “Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf”). Bring on the gefilte fish.
Find it: 354 W. Hubbard St., River North
- D Tanta
June 2013: Since Gastón Acurio is considered the Peruvian Ferran Adrià, this fourth location of his Tanta (others are in Lima, Madrid, and Barcelona) must be Chicago’s El Bulli.
Find it: 118 W. Grand Ave., River North
- E Mott St
Fall 2013: Will the wait times at this 100-seat (including the outdoor patio) Asian-influenced spot be as long as they are at Ruxbin, its sister restaurant less than a mile away?
Find it: 1401 N. Ashland Ave., Bucktown
- F Eataly
November 2013: Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s multi-restaurant Italian megamarket is slated to be 13,000 square feet larger than New York’s version. Take that, Manhattan.
Find it: 43 E. Ohio St., River North
This article appears in the May 2013 issue of Chicago magazine.