The surest sign of a world-class dining city is a scene that constantly reinvents itself. The past year saw a changing of the guard in Chicago, trading old-school spots such as Charlie Trotter’s, Zealous, and Ria for a new generation of polished restaurants that prove fine dining is hardly dead. OK, the new guard is basically just Grace.
Curtis Duffy’s punctilious West Loop triumph instantly catapulted itself into the conversation about Chicago’s best restaurants. No other new establishment rivals it in terms of sheer luxury—or even tries to. (Alpana Singh’s Boarding House glitters like few places in town, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it upscale.)
Not to take anything away from Duffy, who ought to be on the verge of international stardom, but the bulk of today’s action happens on a different plane. You’re just as likely to get a wonderful dish in a modest West Side storefront as in some fancy haute temple that charges three times as much. That fundamental shift has recently produced standouts in a number of improbable guises: a tiny sushi BYO in Humboldt Park (Kai Zan), a dark Alpine den named for a Brothers Grimm fairy tale (Table, Donkey and Stick), a corner spot dedicated to the disappearing cuisine of Macau (Fat Rice), a kosher joint that sounds more like a punch line than a restaurant (Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed).
After tasting our way through every remotely promising contender that opened in the Chicago area since last April—73, to be exact—we assembled this definitive list that follows. Most of the 18 winners, ranked in order of greatness, are unglamorous by design, trading pomp and flash for fun and approachability. Beyond that, the one thing they have in common is the only thing that matters in the end: terrific food.