For Chicago restaurants, the past two years have been an existential reckoning. It began with mass furloughs and unequal PPP loans doled out as cruelly and capriciously as a Squid Game challenge. Soon workers, freed from their daily grind, began calling out the many abuses endemic to the industry. Many never came back, leaving dining rooms and kitchens understaffed.
Yet amid this chaos, a new dynamic has emerged. Call it survival of the scrappiest. Everyone tried to do carry-out, and some succeeded beautifully. Snow globe dining appeared, the power of resilience bubbling up on sidewalks. More than anything, young chefs with something to say chose a different path than their predecessors. Rather than opening hot spots with a mountain of debt, they plied their trade in ghost kitchens and pop-ups. They moved from tweezering herbs to creating street food informed by their own heritages. When they did venture into fine dining, their efforts were niche events; they weren’t headlining the Chicago Theatre but playing the Hideout.
Eventually these chefs opened brick-and-mortar spots with a clearer idea of what diners today want: craveable and original fare priced on the lower end, emotionally resonant meals in the middle, and a fresh infusion of the high-end tasting menus for which Chicago is so famous.
After a year’s hiatus, we are delighted to bring back our annual ranking of the city’s best new restaurants. These 14 places, which opened in 2020 or 2021, most fully and satisfyingly represent the new spirit of Chicago dining.