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.

1. Grace

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.
West Loop
Chef/partner: Curtis Duffy
Perfect for: People who think Alinea is too flashy

2. Bavette's Bar & Boeuf

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.

Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
218 W. Kinzie St.
River North
Chef: Cameron Magee
Perfect for: Diners who enjoy steak sans white tablecloth

3. Found

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.

1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Chef: Nicole Pederson
Perfect for: Those in search of a no-pressure date spot

4. Elizabeth Restaurant

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.

Elizabeth Restaurant
4835 N. Western Ave.
Lincoln Square
Modern American
Chefs/partners: Iliana Regan
Perfect for: Foodies who like eating raccoon Bolognese with strangers

5. Kai Zan

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.

Kai Zan
2557½ W. Chicago Ave.
Humboldt Park
Chefs/partners: Carlo and Melvin Vizconde
Perfect for: Sushi lovers looking to break out of their maki-roll rut

6. Carriage House

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.

Carriage House
1700 W. Division St.
Wicker Park
American Southern
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.
Wicker Park
Chefs/partners: Michael and Patrick Sheerin
Perfect for: Adventurous hearty eaters

8. Chez Moi

“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.

Chez Moi
2100 N. Halsted St.
Lincoln Park
Chef/Owner: Dominique Tougne
Perfect for: Nostalgic Francophiles

9. Little Goat Diner

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.

Little Goat Diner
820 W. Randolph St.
West Loop
Chef/Partner: Stephanie Izard
Perfect for: Anyone and everyone

10. 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.
West Loop
Asian Barbecue
Chef/Partner: Bill Kim
Perfect for: Fans of Korean short ribs and icy cocktails

11. Sumi Robata Bar

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.

Sumi Robata Bar
702 N. Wells St.
River North
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

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.

Table, Donkey and Stick
2728 W. Armitage Ave.
Logan Square
Chef: Scott Manley
Perfect for: The bearded population of Logan Square

13. A Toda Madre

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.

A Toda Madre
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

“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.

Fat Rice
2957 W. Diversey Ave.
Logan Square
Chefs/partners: Adrienne Lo and Abraham Conlon
Perfect for: Those who thought fusion cuisine was a recent invention

15. The Boarding House

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 Christian Gosselin’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.

The Boarding House
720 N. Wells St.
River North
Chef: Christian Gosselin
Perfect for: Wine buffs and Alpana-heads

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.

Siena Tavern
51 W. Kinzie St.
River North
Chef/Parnter: Fabio Viviani
Perfect for: Expense account diners and bachelorette-party throwers

17. Earth + Ocean

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.

Earth + Ocean
125 Randhurst Village Dr., Mount Prospect
New American
Chef: Rodelio Aglibot
Perfect for: The group that can't decide between pizza, sushi, and pork belly

Milt's Barbecue for the Perplexed

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.

Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed
3411 N. Broadway
Lake View
Kosher Barbecue
Chef: Bryan Gryka
Perfect for: Philosophy majors and yentas