Related: The Menu Items of the Year

Chef-partners Emily Kraszyk, Fleming, and John Lupton

Warlord3198 N. Milwaukee Ave., Avondale

What have you heard about Warlord? No reservations, long waits, super noisy? There’s truth in all this, but let me tell you what I find every time I go back (which is often) to this chef-driven project, where Emily Kraszyk, John Lupton, and Trevor Fleming share equal billing. Yes, the wait can be insane (partly because the restaurant is open only four days a week), but it’s tolerable if you spend it in the vestibule with a smoked apple daiquiri. And sure, the music may be loud, but it’s engaging — tracks that might show up on your Discover Weekly if you’ve ever listened to Brian Eno.

Listen to the food, too, because it has so much to say here at the most exciting new restaurant of the year. Do peel-and-eat shrimp thrill you? They do me when their shells are fire-blackened and slicked with spiced chile oil, the flesh inside sweet and crisp. The plating is so simple that the chefs risk flavors going flat to keep extraneous distractions off the plate. Yet even a steak here gives me that aha moment I crave in ingredient-forward cooking. A fist-size chunk of rib eye looks like none you’ve ever seen, equal parts eye and cap, napped with house-fermented Worcestershire, supple and tangy after weeks in that glowing dry-aging fridge by the front. After trying the lacquered duck — crisp-skinned, rosy-rare, savory in ways I had never before tasted — I’m in awe of how these chefs harness aging to unlock flavor.

Then there’s the fire that fuels this place: The hearth blazes, the candlelight glimmers in every corner, the crowd dances with life, flames to oxygen. It isn’t a performance each night at Warlord as much as a jam session, where brilliant cooks harmonize their insights, plate by plate. —  C.H., J.R.

Dry-aged rib eye with garlic scapes and bone marrow sauce; the chefs’ counter
Dry-aged rib eye with garlic scapes and bone marrow sauce
The chefs’ counter
Chef and co-owner Christian Hunter

Atelier4835 N. Western Ave., Lincoln Square

When Iliana Regan closed Elizabeth to decamp for Michigan, the restaurant's manager, Tim Lacey, took over its shoebox space and brought in chef Christian Hunter, renowned for his work at Community Table in Connecticut, to devise a tasting menu where he’d workshop new dishes every night. And for a while, the place seemed just that — a work in progress. A meal last July felt like Chopped: Props to the explosive Korean beet soup, thumbs-down to the rubbery jerk sweetbreads. It also came off as stiff, with the kitchen staff three feet away never acknowledging the cluster of guests.

What a difference a few months make. At a recent meal, the faux-rustic room, with its rough-hewn wooden tables and chunky silverware, perks up to the lively crowd that has since found it. The vibe feels like a party rather than a Pottery Barn showroom. The playful cooking speaks to the way our palates are so restless today, always looking to bridge cultures and find simple, familiar pleasures in fine ingredients.

A meal kicks off with a “larder” course of canapés, like semolina-fried cheese curds with romesco and housemade Chicken in a Biskit crackers to spread with green goddess gribiche. It zigs and zags every night thanks to the collaboration between Hunter, now a co-owner, and executive chef Bradyn Kawcak. There is a fantastic béchamel lasagna, a hunk of warm challah with honeyed fenugreek butter, a smoked rib set over a stew of clams and lentils. This kitchen, with its open boundaries and spot-on seasoning, makes most ideas sing. —  C.H.

Celery root with green goddess gribiche and lardons

John’s Food & Wine2114 N. Halsted St., Lincoln Park

A great neighborhood restaurant must do several things. First, it has to fit into its surroundings like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Second, its kitchen should make, better than any other, something you love as well as something you never knew you loved because you’d never had it before. And finally, its prices should be low enough to keep you coming back.

That’s John’s, a classic long-bar bistro squeezed between boutiques. Chef-owners Adam McFarland and Thomas Rogers are the kind of great cooks who can blow you away with a salad — say, one with beets, pistachios, and aged Gouda that takes your palate to a new place. The pulled pork sandwich with Thai vinaigrette on the lunch menu is the urbane cousin of western North Carolina ’cue, and the crispy-crunchy beef fat fries are just crazy magic sticks, like none anywhere else. The GM and wine director, Jonas Bittencourt, has way more fun than most with his list, and establishes a wonderful (and rare) push-pull with the kitchen. (A light, juicy Barbera with blue-cheese-sauced chicken comes to mind.) How do they keep the prices down? With a fast-fancy counter-service model. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s what makes John’s John’s. —  J.R., C.H.

Lobster salad; chef-owners Thomas Rogers and Adam McFarland; lumache with mushrooms and truffle
Lobster salad
Chef-owners Thomas Rogers and Adam McFarland
Lumache with mushrooms and truffle

Kyoten Next Door2513 W. Armitage Ave., Logan Square

Otto Phan’s Kyoten has long set the bar for omakase sushi in Chicago with his tour de force of crafted small plates and the best wild fish the seas have to offer. Yet with an omakase menu starting at $440, it’s not exactly in most diners’ regular rotation. So Phan opened this spot next door, and it became a new kind of benchmark — one that goes back to the origins of omakase. Here, it’s a chef’s choice selection of what’s good, fresh, and seasonal, presented simply as nigiri sushi.

Depending on the night, you might find mature buri yellowtail, seductively oily and firm, and sweetly delicate raw sardine that plays with every preconception you have about that fish. There will be melt-in-your-mouth favorites: white-with-fat tuna belly and Ora King salmon the color of blood oranges. The variety of flavors and textures keeps you in a state of anticipation. The restaurant is sophisticatedly appointed (blond wood, abstract art) and priced at $159 to undercut the dozens of competitors around town. Kyoten Next Door is the omakase experience to judge others by. As a friend puts it, “You get Otto-quality fish at a third the price.” —  J.M.

Sturgeon meatballs and varenyky

Anelya3472 N. Elston Ave., Avondale

A green-and-gold zakusky tower wheels toward your table looking like something from a 1950s department store. Combined with the carnival glow cast by overhead lights shaded by multicolored felt, the effect is almost campy. You’ll laugh at this three-tiered display of various fried, marinated, pickled, and stuffed bites to enjoy with your cocktail, then appreciate it as a canny icebreaker. Chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark have fashioned Anelya (which took over their previous restaurant in this location, Wherewithall) as an ode to Ukraine and named it for Clark’s Ukrainian grandmother. Relax, have fun, you’re here to eat, they’re saying.

But explore. Clark, leading a kitchen team of primarily Ukrainian immigrants and refugees, brings his estimable skills and deep research to this project and serves food you won’t find elsewhere in the city. Savor the varenyky dumplings in saffron butter, and swipe the juicy sturgeon meatballs through mashed potatoes. Sip the vodka infused with horseradish and honey or the kvass made in-house with rye bread and sugar. Save room for a slice of honey cake. Yes, Ukrainians are fighting a horrific war they didn’t ask for, but they also have a rich culinary culture. Pay attention: It’s beautiful. —  J.M.

Chef-owner Joe Fontelera

Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant4337 N. Western Ave., North Center

Journeyman Chicago chef Joe Fontelera (formerly of Arami) tested the waters for his heritage Filipino fare at Revival Food Hall before opening this handsome BYO. The amber lighting, knotty pine paneling decorated with old family photos, and wafting intoxicant of garlic rice all pull you in and prime you for the transportive experience the kitchen delivers. Fontelera bends and interprets Filipino recipes to create memorable dishes, showering the tomato ferment called burong kamatis over grilled eggplant or turning the sweet-sour braising liquid of adobo into a glaze for charcoal-grilled chicken thighs. The must-order is the sizzling sisig, a wobbly-looking pork hash topped with a raw egg that transforms into a crisp, gooey flavor bomb on its superheated iron plate. It’s like watching bacon fry. —  J.M.

Sapporo-style miso ramen

Akahoshi Ramen2340 N. California Ave., Logan Square

After 13 years as Ramen_Lord, Reddit’s ranking obsessive übergeek on all things pertaining to Japanese noodles, Mike Satinover opened his own shop to a rapturous welcome. Online reservations disappear in minutes, but there’s often room for walk-ins. The noodles? Very good: snappy and chewy and offered in four meticulously researched styles. The miso ramen, Satinover's specialty, is brash, deep, intense, and so rich the lard pools atop. I prefer the shoyu’s nuanced sardine broth, while the soupless tantanmen unites extra-thick noodles with hot-and-numbing spice, plenty of ground pork, and sesame paste for a carbonara-level indulgence. Whatever you order, it will be supremely slurpable. —  L.H.


Thattu2601 W. Fletcher St., Avondale

The regional cuisines of the Indian subcontinent are as varied as those of Europe, but if you ask an Indian food expert to call out one in particular, they’ll likely speak of Kerala with the same adoration Europeans from Ireland to Moldova talk of Italy. Margaret Pak fell hard for this cooking when her husband, Vinod Kalathil, took her home to the Malabar Coast to meet his mother and learn some of her recipes. So hard, in fact, that Pak trained as a chef and persuaded Kalathil to open this love letter of a restaurant, set in a brick-walled former factory down an artsy side street and decorated with Kalathil’s colorful photography. The first order here should be Pak’s Kadala curry, made with nutty black chickpeas and roasted coconut gravy, and the second should be a lacy, springy, crisp-edged appam crêpe to scoop it up. Pak offers fun snacks like spicy chicken bites and masala-spiced Chaater Tots with beet ketchup, but don’t sleep on her more complex plates, including a pork chop peralan rubbed with dry-roasted spices and set atop coconut-braised collards and a crisp yucca cake. —  J.R.


DeNucci’s503 W. Dickens Ave., Lincoln Park

Hello, red sauce, my old friend, I’ve come to slurp you up again. If there’s one constant in Chicago, it’s that every year sees a bumper crop of Italian American supper clubs. Many attempt to update the tired yet beloved genre, but DeNucci’s feels like it actually has something new to say. Some of it is the way it reflects modern tastes (Who wants a Negroni Sbagliato? A branzino piccata?), and some of it is the way it grounds the experience in old-school service and the kind of brass and tile decor that feels timeless. Maybe you won’t be greeted quite like Tony Soprano at Vesuvio, but you’ll be made to feel like your happiness is all that matters, whether you’re just having some calamari and a drink at the bar or feasting on a grand platter of cavatelli ragù alla Joe and a bottle of Super Tuscan Ornellaia. These folks know how to take care of you, and if that’s not Italian … —  C.H., J.M.

Bruschetta pomodoro; tagliatelle Bolognese
Bruschetta pomodoro
Tagliatelle Bolognese

Tuk Tuk Thai Isan Street Food2852 N. Clark St., Lake View East

Decorated in an explosion of colors and materials that evoke the cacophony of an Asian night market, this always busy but never chaotic restaurant offers some of the best and most flavor-amped Thai food Chicago has seen in years. Its menu explores the Isan region of northeastern Thailand, renowned for its vibrantly dressed salads and grilled meats. That’s where you should start, with tum thai, a heaping, juicy green papaya salad popping with teeny dried shrimplets and peanuts. Better yet: the version called tum kao pod, which is made with sweet corn fresh from the cob. Perhaps you’ve had laab made with ground pork or chicken, but have you had laab moo krob featuring crispy-meaty-fatty chunks of pork belly brightened with lime dressing? If you don’t stuff yourself, finish with the kanom tuay, coconut-pandan puddings that come to the table hot from the steamer. It’s like a sweet balm after the fireworks of the food. —  J.M.

Chef and co-owner Matteo Lo Bianco

Maman Zari4639 N. Kedzie Ave., Albany Park

I often feel about tasting menus the way I do about fixing scrapes and dings on my SUV — they’re a lot of money for precision craftsmanship that ultimately doesn't matter that much. Then, when I visit a place like Maman Zari, I’m reminded they can be delightful. Co-owners Mariam Shahsavarani and chef Matteo Lo Bianco offer a gently priced ($85) eight-course meal that tours the flavors of Persia, from saffron and rosewater to tart pomegranate molasses, dusky fenugreek, and vegetal herbs. The flavors are bright, the presentations eye-catching. Along this journey, which zips by over a quick two hours, you’ll encounter some of the hallmarks of the Persian table, like tahdig (rice crust) rendered like a fritter, and mirza ghasemi turned into the best stuffed eggplant you’ll ever taste. — J.M.

Ebi tom yum temaki

Itoko3325 N. Southport Ave., Lake View

Imagine your favorite Japanese restaurant as a kid — the place where your dad gave you some of his steak teriyaki, your mom offered a couple of pieces of her California roll, and you got your own appetizer of tempura. Now imagine this restaurant all grown up and living its best 2.0 life. Chef Gene Kato brings his experiences (Sumi Robata Bar, Momotaro) to Itoko’s something-for-everyone menu, from shishito peppers with black garlic mayo and foie-enhanced pork gyoza for starters to rice bowls and a prime strip loin for entrées. The sushi bar (set in the back of a warren of rooms) is top tier and features taco-like hand rolls: crisp nori cradling bliss-inducing centers of tom yum shrimp, XO-sauced scallops, or the signature mecha kucha with chutoro and o-toro, Kaluga caviar, and uni. Your kids won't need to bum your food; their own sushi and yakitori sets will keep them busy. —  J.M.