Chicago Hot Spots
Culinary expertise and menu versatility abound in these restaurants that are making headlines in their first year of operation.
If there was ever any doubt about Chicago's clout as one of the top food cities, the decision by the James Beard Foundation to move the annual awards celebration to the Windy City this year dispelled those questions. This month marks the first time the ceremony will be held outside New York City, and Chicago is rising to the occasion with a host of new restaurants primed to welcome the James Beard crowd as well as leaders from throughout the restaurant industry who will be coming to the city later in the month for the National Restaurant Association's annual conference. Among the best are these restaurants that have opened in recent months:
LOCATION: 130 South Michigan Avenue
OWNERS: Alpana Singh, Matt Fisher, and John Ward
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Chris Curren
CHEF DE CUISINE: Patrick Russ
PASTRY CHEF: Karianne Soulsby
AVERAGE CHECK: $24 lunch; $38 dinner
MENU: American clubhouse cuisine, with American wines
Inspired by the cultural amenities and vibrancy surrounding the location, Alpana Singh opened Seven Lions in the historic People's Gas and Coke Building, which has more than 50 ornamental lion motifs on its façade. The name, however, is a tribute to her heritage (Singh is derived from the Sanskrit word for lion) and her late grandmother who referred to her seven children as her lions. The concept of a modern American clubhouse was chosen because the style of food is classic and the dining experience fits every occasion. "Come for a burger and beer at the bar, to impress clients over lunch, or to celebrate a special event—a clubhouse caters to every need," Singh says. The dining room seats 85, the bar seats 30, private-dining enclaves can seat another 80–95, and an al fresco patio serves 70–80.
LOCATION: 4662 North Broadway Street
OWNERS: Chef Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh
AVERAGE CHECK: $185 or $243 including tax, tip, and service charge
MENU: Fine dining with Asian inspirations
Husband/wife duo Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh have scored a winner. Formerly the chef at Alinea, Schwa, and Charlie Trotter's, Chef Bickelhaupt earned two coveted Michelin stars within the first year of opening this pre-paid, fine-dining-meets-supper-club restaurant on Chicago's North Side. The cozy Uptown neighborhood spot (named after two souls, each mythically weighing 21 grams) has a BYOB policy and two seatings per night. The first seating for eight is held at the chef's counter, which affords upfront viewing and interaction. A later seating gathers 10 guests at a communal table reminiscent of Sous Rising, the underground dinner party Chef Bickelhaupt and Welsh ran before becoming "legitimate" restaurateurs. Chef Bickelhaupt is known for extremely creative dishes and artistic presentation with a distinct Asian influence and emphasis on natural, modern techniques layered with texture. Think salmon nigiri with trout roe and powdered plankton, and a semi-sweet beet salad with microgreens, fromage blanc, and quail yolk. Even after dinner ends, guests continue listening to Chef Bickelhaupt's eclectic playlist via Spotify at 42 grams.
LOCATION: 201 North Morgan Street
OWNER: Anshul Mangal
CHEF: David Dworshak
AVERAGE CHECK: $25 for lunch; $40 for dinner
MENU: Contemporary Latin American
Latin cooking expert David Dworshak heads up Takito Kitchen's second outpost in the West Loop, centering more on South American food and drink than tacos, which is the focus at the earlier Takito. Chef Dworshak's Argentine arepa is generously sized and comes stuffed with beer-aged cheese and topped with pickled vegetables. An instant favorite, it pairs nicely with lighter dishes like Peruvian-style ceviche and tender plancha-grilled octopus. Beverage favorites include new twists on tequila and mezcal cocktails. A back-room chef's counter gives guests a view of the action, while the colorful-meets-industrial décor in a wide-open space fosters a lively vibe.
LOCATION: 11 West Illinois Street
OWNERS: Dan Powell and Markus Chwajol, with operating partner Dan McCormick
CHEF: Jimmy Papadopoulos
AVERAGE CHECK: $35–$45
MENU: Bohemian-inspired fare with influences from the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria
Decked out in colorful tapestries and murals, with eclectic furniture and ornately framed artwork flanked by exposed brick and a long, wooden bar, this Boho-chic restaurant centers on upscale Czech fare from Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos, who's already earned street cred for his über tender, spice-forward chicken paprikash and dumplings. Other dishes, like beef pierogi, German-inspired knockwurst, schnitzel, and spatzle with pork belly, partner with hoppy pilsners, craft drafts, and creative cocktails by veteran bartenders.
LOCATION: 1545 North Damen
OWNERS: Executive chef and partner Paul Kahan, managing partners Terry Alexander, Peter Garfield, and Donnie Madia
CHEF DE CUISINE: Dennis Bernard
AVERAGE CHECK: $20 (includes alcohol)
MENU: Southern-Inspired Mexican
Paul Kahan, executive chef and partner at Dove's Luncheonette, the latest restaurant unveiled by One Off Hospitality and located next to the group's wildly popular, tacos-and-whiskey-serving Big Star, says Dove's looks like any casual, retro-style diner, complete with countertop seating, classic wood paneling, and a jukebox. But this menu's anything but grilled cheese and burgers: Southern dishes like fried chicken and grits get a Mexican spin with chorizo verde gravy and queso fresco, respectively. On the flipside, tamales are stuffed with collard greens while smoked brisket pairs with avocado-buttermilk purée and watermelon radish. Strong coffee and tequilla cocktails wash it all down—morning, noon, and night.
The Franklin Room
LOCATION: 675 North Franklin Street
OWNER: Mike Schatzman
CHEF: Chao Thapthimkuna
AVERAGE CHECK: $35
MENU: American Cuisine
Celebrating the drinking culture and sense of connection that neighborhood taverns have cultivated in Chicago for centuries, The Franklin Room is often packed—especially on a Thursday night at 8 p.m. Conceptualized by Mike Schatzman and Chef Chao Thapthimkuna, the brains behind the popular Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar just doors away, the décor of this modern speakeasy-like tavern flaunts wood details, warm lighting, and wrought iron fixtures—elements that reinforce an atmosphere for spirited eating and drinking. The bar menu is focused on independent distillers and rare releases of whiskeys, bourbons, and other spirits, served alongside elevated Midwestern pub fare like shrimp pot pie, Cheddar-fried smelt, and cedar-smoked branzino.
LOCATION: 925 West Randolph Street
OWNER: John Ross, B. Hospitality Co.
CHEF: Tony Quartaro
AVERAGE CHECK: $50
B. Hospitality Co., owner of The Bristol and Balena, brings oldschool Italian-American food, service, and hospitality to the West Loop with its latest concept. Set in a revamped, 8,000-square-foot warehouse on restaurant row, Formento's features a retro-Chicago bar with subway-tiled floors and dark wood, an elegant dining room outfitted in fabric and dramatic floral arrangements, and private dining spaces. On the back end, the restaurant has a large kitchen modeled after one you might see in a hotel, and a separate pastry kitchen for resident sweets chef Sarah Koechling. Looking to the plate, the menu was inspired by owner John Ross's Italian-American grandmother, Grandma Formento, whose dishes suggested the retro-meets-modern approach. Think fresh crab dip with homemade Ritz crackers, a veal tomahawk chop, and classics like calamari, scampi, and extra-tender Chicken Parmesan made from pounded, de-boned half chicken layered with homemade marinara and Mozzarella. Topping it off is an impressive 600-plus wine list. Next door, the sandwich shop Nonna's offers Chef Quartaro's goodies to go.
FIG & OLIVE
LOCATION: 104 East Oak Street
OWNERS: Laurent Halasz and chef de cuisine Anthony Reyes
AVERAGE CHECK: $30–40 (excluding drinks)
MENU: Mediterranean, Seafood
Part modern Mediterranean, part West Hollywood chic, the Chicago rendition of the L.A.-based FIG & OLIVE mixes contemporary dining with a wrap-around bar, low-slung white leather lounge chairs, and group seating in a breezy and sleek, warmly lit space. Dishes feature super-fresh seafood and the integral use of rare and small-batch extra virgin olive oils. Sharable plates include a variety of crudos, crostini, and carpaccios, while large plates like paella del mar and whole-roasted branzino are paired alongside wines and bubbles from Southern France, Italy, and Spain—all giving a nod to seaside towns.
Grillhouse by David Burke
LOCATION: 1301 American Lane in Schaumburg, Illinois
CHEF/OWNER: David Burke
AVERAGE CHECK: $60
MENU: Modern American fare with a farm-to-table focus
A big space deserves big flavors, and that is what James Beard Award–winning Chef David Burke delivers in the 22,000-square-foot, 450-table dining spot he opened in October in Chicago's northwest suburb. For Grillhouse, Chef Burke sources seasonal ingredients from nearby farms, but the stars of the menu are the steaks, which he dry-ages for 12 to 30 days using Himalayan salt, a process for which he holds a U.S. patent. A 4,500-pound brick oven in the open kitchen cooks flatbreads, whole fish, roasted chicken, and other specialties. The Loft, a 7,667-square-foot space, is dedicated to banquets, accommodating groups as small as 20 to as large as 300. Grillhouse by David Burke is open daily for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch, and Sunday for brunch.
LOCATION: 2300 North Lincoln Park West
OWNERS: Rich Melman and Matthew Kirkley, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
AVERAGE CHECK: $65–$95
MENU: Prix fixe, with chefs and cuisine changing every two to three months
To describe the cuisine at Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises' latest innovation is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Every two to three months, everything changes: the menu, the chef, and the entire concept. It's an intriguing model for fine dining, as proved by the eager anticipation of diners who purchased $300,000 worth of tickets to attend an Intro dinner—that before the restaurant even opened. Intro enables rising-star chefs from around the country to flex their entrepreneurial muscles and, at the same time, benefit from the business expertise of one of the industry's leading restaurant groups. Each chef-in-residence is given full license to create the entire dining experience, from the menu and music to the ambiance and style of service for the 98-seat restaurant. Guests can keep up with the latest ticket sales, concept themes, and chef updates via Intro's social media @IntroChicago.
Labriola Ristorante & Café
LOCATION: 535 North Michigan Avenue
OWNER: Rich Labriola
EXECUTIVE CHEF: John Caputo
AVERAGE CHECK: $15–$25 for lunch, $30–$40 for dinner (excluding drinks)
MENU: Upscale Italian
Centrally located just off Chicago's Magnificent Mile, the upscale side of this hybrid full-service/fast-casual Italian restaurant and café boasts a menu of homemade pastas and antipasti as well as steaks and seafood. Chef John Caputo developed the menu for this spin-off from the first Labriola Café in west suburban Oak Brook. Both locations rely on recipes by the nationally recognized Labriola bakery for made-from-scratch breads, pizzas, and pastries. Inside the expansive, 300-seat space, guests find an edgy, high-end pizzeria accented with subway tiles, red leather, and detailed woodworking. As the weather warms, a 60-seat sidewalk patio allows diners to linger over their meals in true European fashion.
LOCATION: 432 West Diversey Parkway
OWNER: Scott Worsham
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Nick Lacasse
AVERAGE CHECK: $45
MENU: Spanish-influenced seafood
Veteran chef Nick Lacasse brings seaside cuisine with Spanish influences to this intimate 28-seat eatery bearing the name of the famous food writer MFK Fisher. Look for simple starters pairing little fishes with crusty breads, samplings like Cantabrian salt-cured anchovies and escargot with preserved lemon and harissa butter, plus everything from manila clams to skate wing and sea scallops grilled on a traditional Spanish-style plancha. The From the Soil menu features elevated presentations of veggies in the form of grilled cauliflower with pickled Fresno peppers and herb salad, and toasted vermicelli with asparagus and poblano saffron, all paired with thoughtfully selected Mediterranean wines and innovative cocktails. The all-white chairs and wall tiling are accented with sea-green colors and natural light to set the scene of a coastal café.
LOCATION: Location: 820 West Lake Street
OWNER: Boka Restaurant Group (Kevin Boehm, Rob Katz)
CHEFS: Mark Hellyar, Jeff Ramsey
AVERAGE CHECK: $50
MENU: Upscale Japanese
At this upscale Asian installation by the restaurant group behind Girl & The Goat and GT Fish & Oyster, dual chefs Mark Hellyar and Jeff Ramsey—who combined have spent a total of 10 years in Japan—create authentic dishes using seasonal ingredients and some of the best seafood from around the world flown in daily. Chef Hellyar oversees innovative dishes like barbecued eel rice with sansho pepper, marinated Hamachi collar with ume mustard, and shishito-marinated chicken thigh grilled over Japanese charcoal using a traditional robata grill. Chef Ramsey—the only American-born chef to receive a Michelin star in Japan—helms the sushi bar, serving beautiful creations and boats of sashimi, sea urchin, yellowstripe bream, and other exotic fish. Bamboo accents and earth tones define the space, which is divided into a main dining area, sushi countertop seating, and a cocktail bar.
Oak + Char
LOCATION: 217 West Huron Street
MANAGING PARTNERS: Art Mendoza, Tyler Mendoza, David Blitz, and Jeffrey Lake
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Joseph Heppe
AVERAGE CHECK: $38–$40
MENU: Modern Midwestern
Inspired by the historic fire that reduced Chicago to char but led to the city's rebirth, this eatery centers on natural cooking techniques using direct fire, clay pots, and tandoor ovens. Residing in the space formerly held by Graham Elliot in the River North art district, Oak + Char is a marriage of rustic but innovative cooking using Midwestern ingredients. Dishes include clay pot coconut mussels with duck sausage, cider-brined pork collar, and smoked local chicken with kale pesto and farm eggs. The bar menu boasts beef fat onion rings and mixologist Mae Governale uses spirits aged in charred oak for some of the creative cocktails. The dining room hosts a mix of bar space, communal tables, and leather-topped seating amid charred pine, exposed brick, and murals of oak trees.
The Kitchen Chicago
LOCATION: 316 North Clark Street
CO-FOUNDERS: Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk
EXECUTIVE CHEF: Kyle Mendenhall
HEAD CHEF: Johnny Anderes
AVERAGE CHECK: $29 lunch; $50 dinner
MENU: Community Bistro Seasonal American
Dedicated to local, seasonal, and responsibly sourced cuisine, The Kitchen serves fresh, simple dishes—just like its original location in Boulder, Colorado. In Chicago, the menus reflect food grown and raised in the Midwest along with fresh seafood. An impressive wine collection is housed in the restaurant's all-glass, temperature-controlled cellar. Signature dishes include hand-cut garlic fries, wild mushroom tagliatelle, yogurt-marinated half chicken, and sticky toffee pudding. Located on the main floor of the landmark Reid Murdoch Building, which was built in 1914, the 6,500-square-foot space was formerly a grocery warehouse. The setting is airy, defined by reclaimed blond wood, natural light, and wall-to-wall windows facing the city's skyline.
LOCATION: 2824 West Armitage Avenue
OWNER: Aldo Zaninotto
CHEF: Cameron Grant
AVERAGE CHECK: $35–$50
MENU: Italian Cuisine from the Northern and Piedmont regions
Paying homage to his Belgian and Italian roots, former Carlucci's manager Aldo Zaninotto opened a casual bistro outfitted in dark wood and steel-gray fixtures, with a focus on foods and wines from the Piedmont region of Italy. Chef Cameron Grant serves up a mix of authentic Piedmont specialties like vitello tonnato and beef carpaccio. A wide range of homemade pasta includes tajarin, with butter and sage, and cavolini, with Italian sausage, olives, and seasonal vegetables. Chef Grant uses locally sourced meats such as pan-roasted duck breast and braised rabbit for the secondi. Though wine's a focus, classic cocktails like Negronis, Manhattans, and grappa often round out the meal.
LOCATION: 3500 North Elston Avenue
CHEF/OWNERS: Beverly Kim and John Clark
AVERAGE CHECK: $45
Red Light veteran and former "Top Chef" contestant Beverly Kim dominated the press when she and her husband, fellow chef John Clark, opened this off-the-beaten-path 40-seat, Korean-American restaurant in the Avondale neighborhood. The website warns the daily menu is subject to change without notice, but that's part of the excitement of this casual eatery that's often packed to the gills and usually has a substantial wait. One menu item was a family-style dish of hand-torn noodles with spicy ground lamb sofrito and Chinese black beans. Chef Kim has also served her answer to a Korean pancake, in this case a pork belly and mung bean pancake with kimchee, black garlic, hen egg, and pineapple. Rye butter mochi, fresh Ricotta, honey, and Asian pear are among the types of desserts guests find, along with a diverse beverage list of wines, beer, cocktails, vermouth, bitters, and other digestifs.
LOCATION: 66 West Kinzie Street
OWNERS/PARTNERS: Bill and Giuliana Rancic and Lettuce Entertain You
EXECUTIVE CHEF/PARTNER: Doug Psaltis
AVERAGE CHECK: $60–$70
This River North hot spot is the steakhouse iteration of TV celebrities Bill and Giuliana Rancic, whose original restaurant, RPM Italian, is located nearby. It can take months to secure a reservation in the 350-seat dining room, but late-night revelers often perch at the wrap-around bar. Many of the 15 steaks on the menu are dry-aged. There are also a handful of seafood choices, classic salads, and, of course, a raw bar. Designers went for the exclusive '50s-era steakhouse vibe with a retro blend of dark colors and leather. Imbibing guests choose from classic cocktails, a wine list with 350 bottles, or a coveted collection of more than 40 Scotches selected by revered Chicago mixologist Paul McGee.
LOCATION: 621 West Randolph Street
OWNER: Franco Gianni
CHEF: Ashlee Aubin
AVERAGE CHECK: $19 lunch; $65–$75 dinner
MENU: Modern Spanish
It's easy to assume a Spanish restaurant like West Loop newcomer Salero might serve tapas, but you won't find goat cheese marinara or Spanish tortilla here. Instead, Chef Ashlee Aubin focuses on authentic dishes from throughout Spain, including the French-influenced Basque region and the Spanish coast. Popular items include jamon Serrano served simply with Manchego cheese, crispy veal sweatbreads, and seafood specialties like the zarzuela de mariscos with scallops, salt cod, shrimp, and mussels in a saffron broth. The restaurant also offers a seven-course seasonal tasting menu for $75. In addition to distinctive Spanish wines, the bar offers an impressive and on-trend sherry collection as well as sidra, or Spanish cider. Inside, a minimalist blend of blond wood, iron accents, and bull-horn fixtures give the space an urban-European feel.
LOCATION: 455 North Park Drive
CHEF/OWNER: Jose Garces
AVERAGE CHECK: $70–$90
MENU: Argentine steakhouse
Chef Jose Garces returns to his hometown with the second rendition of Rural Society, which soared to popularity when the first location opened at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., in July. A grill in the center of the Chicago restaurant provides foodie eye candy as it preps the wood-fired meats and fish, and the bar stays true to the restaurant's core with a strong South American wine list and Argentine-inspired cocktails.
LOCATION: 1846 W. Division Street
CHEF/OWNER: Michael Taus
AVERAGE CHECK: $20–$28
MENU: Inventive American
After closing the 20-year-old Zealous, iconic Chicago chef Michael Taus waited more than two years before opening this chic neighborhood restaurant, touted as the new incarnation of his legacy and a tribute to what he calls "the most personal dining experience" of his career. A 50-seat lounge featuring handmade couches, armchairs, and two fireplaces greets guests as they enter the 6,000-square-foot indoor/outdoor space. The main dining area seats 110, with suede banquettes and a 20-seat communal table, effectively creating a comfortable ambiance. Chef Taus' approachable, yet whimsical, menu is anchored in French technique, with dishes like diver scallops with warm truffle vinaigrette, poached egg, and green apple. And, in true Taus fashion, wines and desserts are anything but overlooked.
LOCATION: 1114 West Randolph Street
CO-OWNERS/CHEFS: Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski
GENERAL MANAGER AND PARTNER: Daniel Goodman
AVERAGE CHECK: $25
MENU: Italian and French, with a focus on meat
Chefs and co-owners Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski combine classic French and modern culinary techniques in their culinary homage to all things cured meat. Playfully referred to as the sausage kings of Chicago, Chefs Rice and Guzowski present the best of Midwestern meat via house-made terrines, French-style sausages, bacon, pâtés, and Italian charcuterie such as house-made mortadella and finocchiona with fennel seed. West Loop Salumi, the charcuterie shop down the street, fills in with goodies where needed. Vegetable-driven dishes and salads using seasonal, local produce balance out the menu, which is complemented with cocktails, craft beers, and distinctive cider selections. Modeled after the meatpacking facility formerly in the space, TÊTE designers kept the exposed brick and concrete but added pig-related décor for the final touch on a charcuterie mecca.
LOCATION: 1471 North Milwaukee Avenue
CHEF/OWNER: Rick Bayless
AVERAGE CHECK: $25
MENU: Classic Mexican plates and street food
Xoco Bistro opened in August as a full-service counterpart to the popular quick-service cafe Xoco River North, but five months in, owner Rick Bayless gave the restaurant a bit of a makeover. He added a classic plates section to the menu, updated the name to include the word Bistro (to avoid confusion with the River North location), and shifted the beverage program to concentrate more on tequila and mezcal cocktails, as well as wine.