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Six New Year’s Wishes for Chicago’s Dining Scene

More exciting restaurants, and no more depressing closures, please

Young American, featuring chef Nick Jirasek and beverage director Julia McKinley, is one of many spots we can’t wait to check out.   Photo: Courtesy of Young American

With so much dining activity in Chicago, it can be difficult to keep track of what’s happening, even for someone who obsessively follows the scene. So to celebrate the arrival of 2019, here are six things I’m anticipating and wishing for this year, from promising new restaurants to Restaurant Week changes. Let’s get to it, shall we?

May these restaurants open ASAP

Although 2018 saw many new restaurants, not a lot of them got me too fired up. Here’s hoping that shifts in 2019, as some really fun new spots are on the horizon.

I’m most interested in Young American (2545 N. Kedzie Ave., Logan Square), which is taking over the former Johnny’s Grill. The bar combines the talents of Nick Jirasek, the chef at Old Habits (one of the places I did actually like in 2018), and Julia McKinley, one of the most talented bartenders in Chicago (you might have seen her behind the bar at The Milk Room).

I fear the local food hall scene is saturated, but I’m nonetheless interested in the new Time Out Market (916 W. Fulton Market, West Loop) coming to town. Its pilot location in Lisbon, Portugal, is an absolute don’t-miss, featuring unique restaurant concepts from big-name local chefs (instead of rehashes of existing spots). If the market’s team can bring even half of that awesomeness to Chicago, this new one will be a destination.

I’m also looking forward to tasting a new version of chef Stephanie Izard’s food at Cabra (200 N. Green St., West Loop), where she’ll serve her take on Peruvian cuisine. The restaurant, which will overtake the roof of the forthcoming Hoxton boutique hotel, is set to open this coming spring.

Lift the veils on these mystery projects

Many restaurant groups have yet to officially announce or finalize dining projects they are launching this year, but if you follow industry news, there are hints of big things to come.

One exciting move is the migration of chef Nick Dostal, who blew me away at Sixteen, to the Alinea Group for an as-yet-unannounced job. Will he be taking over an existing space? Opening a new one? Who knows, but whatever he does, the results will surely be amazing.

The team behind the dearly-departed Grace, Michael Muser and Curtis Duffy, have dug themselves out from litigation to announce that they’ve acquired a West Loop space … but what the heck will go in it? Keep your eyes on these developments.

Here’s hoping Restaurant Week doesn’t get worse

Every year, I calculate the best Restaurant Week deals to make sure you get a solid experience at a great value and don’t actually end up paying more during this “bargain” season. This year, the menu prices for the annual event have gone up for the first time in a while — from $33 or $44 for dinner to $36 or $48 for dinner. Will this give restaurants more flexibility to create menus with better ingredients? Or will it just mean that bargains get worse? I’ll know after I do all the math, but as always, check the menus closely before you dine.

May the sushi trend continue

Probably the most notable trend in 2018 was the proliferation of high-end sushi joints across town. Some restaurant groups opted for fancy and flashy (though our own dining critic Jeff Ruby wasn’t so fond of Radio Anago), but most interesting were the small, single-chef-driven omakase spots like Kyoten and Omakase Yume. Another, Mako, is coming soon.

These are, at least so far, critically acclaimed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more open, as overhead is low for tiny restaurants with barely any employees. However, does Chicago have enough high-end fish eaters willing to pay $200 and up for fancy raw seafood? I can see this being a bubble that bursts hard — though I hope it doesn’t, as Chicago is finally getting the high-quality Japanese food it needs.

Can my favorites please stop closing?

2018 was a pretty bad year for restaurant closures, and while some of these were not-great spots that got priced out of their real estate, others were places I will really miss. Animale, Appellation, Salero, Bohemian House, Presidio, BellyQ, A10 … I could go on, but I’m wishing that this year, the threatening maybe-recession doesn’t turn the restaurant industry upside down.

Please, pay more attention to our hometown accolades

If we learned anything from Michelin and Beard season last year (other than that the Michelin inspectors ignore the entire suburban area and part of the city), it’s that these national awards don’t really tell us anything about our local restaurant scene. That’s why, if you want to get a quick cheat sheet to what should be on your restaurant wishlist, you should pay attention to local awards and accolades.

Check out the upcoming Jean Banchet Awards — if you print out former lists of its best new restaurant nominations from the last few years, you’d have a good number of names without having to do much work. Also pay attention to trustworthy local lists, like those published by Time Out or this magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants. And watch out for those interesting chefs who are opening restaurants far away from the West Loop. Dining at those spots is the best way to make sure you’ll get great meals at great values in 2019.

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