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The king crab salad at Three Aces; Photography by Anthony Tahlier

Food for Thought

by Lisa Shames | CS magazine | June 24, 2011

There is a sea change in the Chicago dining scene, and we’re excited to ride that wave. The new guard has stripped everything down this past year—young, ambitious chefs are creating soulful, rustic cuisine that speaks to the times and, especially, to a new generation of diners. It was definitely the year for rising stars: Giuseppe Tentori wants you to ditch that steak in favor of fish; Stephanie Izard and her madcap meat menu continue to draw the crowds; and the best dishes sing with simplicity. Other trends we love right now: sommeliers taking risks with their wine lists that expand your palate but not your wallet, hotel dining going haute and brunch becoming the new black. Don’t forget to bring your appetite!

Best New Restaurant
Next

First, the good news: All those breathy accolades you’ve been hearing about Next—the new restaurant from Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas and Executive Chef Dave Beran—are true. From the food, including the one-bite-wonder hors d’oeuvres and incredible pressed duck, to the unstuffy service and sleek yet comfortable space, Next nails it. The bad news? The first menu, Paris 1906: Escoffier at the Ritz, is gone (a Thai-inspired one is rumored next), and all the great press means it’ll be even more difficult to get into. But unlike many things in life, the effort is totally worth the end result. 953 W. Fulton Market, 312.226.0858, nextrestaurant.com

Pig Tale
As its name suggests, pork is all over the menu at The Purple Pig. But there’s more than just pig’s ears and porchetta paninis at this cozy (i.e. miniscule) Mag Mile meat and wine bar; chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. has a way with vegetables and seafood too. The dishes on the rustic Mediterranean menu are meant to be shared, but more often than not we don’t want to. 500 N. Michigan Ave., 312.464.1744, thepurplepigchicago.com

New FIsh
Opening Executive Chef Laurent Gras has left the building, but that doesn’t mean L2O is a fish out of water. With chef Francis Brennan in command—the Charlie Trotter’s vet has been at the restaurant since day one and created the acclaimed bread program—we predict plenty of smooth sailing ahead. 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773.868.0002, l2orestaurant.com

Logan’s Run
The hipster set is all over this Logan Square restaurant, but Longman & Eagle is much more than a see-and-be-seen spot. Chef Jared Wentworth puts out some of the city’s most flavorful food, ranging from playful—wild boar sloppy joes—to more upscale—a Maine lobster parfait with red wine sauce. 2657 N. Kedzie Ave., 773.276.7110, longmanandeagle.com

In its Prime
David Burke’s Primehouse is by all accounts a steakhouse. But someone forgot to tell Executive Chef Rick Gresh, who routinely breaks with the meaty tradition by incorporating fun specials and events. From his playful bacon fat candle and dim sum brunch to collaborating with Goose Island Brewery on a beer, Gresh is always open to new ideas. Oh, and his steaks are pretty tasty, too. 616 N. Rush St., 312.660.6000, jameshotels.com/chicago

Restaurant of the Year
Girl & the Goat

It may have been a Top Chef win that propelled Girl & the Goat chef Stephanie Izard into the foodie stratosphere, but it’s sharp culinary skills and innovative dishes that have kept her there. From rustic creations like wood-oven-roasted pig face (really!) to her twists on surf and turf, Izard’s star status shows no signs of burning out. 809 W. Randolph St., 312.492.6262, girlandthegoat.com

Spice Trail
There’s no way to get around it: Unless you’re from Nepal, you’re gonna have a tough time pronouncing most of the items on the menu at Cumin. But don’t let that stop you from visiting this Wicker Park newcomer, which specializes in modern Nepalese and Indian cuisines. Instead, know that even if you just point to a dish on the menu—say, for example, the aalu ra simi (sautéed potatoes and green beans)—odds are you won’t be disappointed. 1414 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773.342.1414, cumin-chicago.com

Getting the Boot
An Italian restaurant in Little Italy doesn’t sound like anything new, but—in the hands of über-restaurateur Scott Harris (Mia Francesca, The Purple Pig) and chef Jonathan Beatty—Enoteca Davanti offers a fresh take on this classic cuisine. There’s the mini Mason jar filled with creamy ricotta and honeycomb served with warm Tuscan bread, the giant raviolo stuffed with a runny egg and spinach, and the truffle egg toast. And one of these days we’ll actually remember to save room for one of the pizzas. Sigh. 1359 W. Taylor St., 312.226.5550, davantichicago.com

Talk of the Toques
Forget the fancy awards. If you really want to know if a restaurant has cred, just see if any chefs are hanging out there. For years, Avec has been the unofficial favorite of most local chefs, but newcomer Maude’s Liquor Bar, with its upstairs lounge, might be taking the crown soon. And for all of us regular folks? Come early in the evening to experience the spot-on French bistro fare from chef Jeff Pikus, formerly of Alinea, including a classic Lyonnaisse salad, steak tartare and crispy blackened Brussels sprouts. 840 W. Randolph St., 312.243.9712, maudesliquorbar.com

Visitor’s Welcome
When Gabrielle Hamilton of NYC’s beloved Prune had to pick a restaurant in which to celebrate the release of her memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, the no-nonsense chef knew exactly where to go: The Publican, the 2-year-old, pork-meets-beer destination from the owners of Blackbird, Avec and Big Star. Considering they specialize in dishes like house-made sausages, suckling pig and farm chicken, it’s no wonder their soon-to-open neighboring butcher shop has had the city’s foodies salivating for months. 837 W. Fulton Market, 312.733.9555, thepublicanrestaurant.com

A Burger King
When I first spoke to Lettuce Entertain You’s Rich Melman early last year about his then-soon-to-open burger joint next to Tru restaurant, he tried to downplay it as simply “a tiny place with a simple menu.” Nice try, Melman. The popularity of M Burger’s Midwestern beef beauties on oven-fresh buns quickly spawned a second location, with a third, larger one scheduled for Water Tower Place this fall. While the prices are on par with fast food joints, the ingredients are anything but. All hail the king. 161 E. Huron St., 312.254.8500; 5 W. Ontario St., 312.428.3548, mburgerchicago.‌com

Science Fare
It’s not easy keeping up with—or sometimes even understanding—Moto’s Homaro Cantu and his riffs on molecular gastronomy. So we were a little surprised to find out that at his new restaurant iNG, the chef/mad scientist was tapping into his love for the ancient traditions of Asian cuisine. But don’t let the old-school noodle-pulling station in the front of the restaurant fool you: Cantu and Executive Chef Thomas Bowman have plenty of tricks up their sleeves—taste-bud-tricking miracle berries, anyone?—and we wouldn’t have it any other way. 951 W. Fulton Market, 855.834.6464, ingrestaurant.com

Vive la France!
Chef Martial Noguier has covered a lot of restaurant turf in Chicago over the years, including gigs at the Pump Room, One Sixtyblue and Café des Architectes. Along the way he’s gathered plenty of faithful followers for his unfussy French food. Now at Bistronomic, the Frenchman is gaining new fans for his roasted organic chicken, oxtail ravioli and patés. One thing that hasn’t changed: his love for cheese, as seen in his grilled cheese sandwich of the day. Merci. 840 N. Wabash Ave., 312.944.8400, bistronomic.‌net

Best Décor
Hubbard Inn

Initially it was the French, Spanish and Italian food of Hubbard Inn that influenced its design. From there, though, partner Adolfo Garcia went a little crazy—and we mean that in the nicest way possible—buying some beat-up circa-1900s cargo carts here (the tables) and antique doors there (the communal tables) and combining those with a ton of Andalusian tiles, vintage cafeteria light fixtures and velvet sofas. As for the 42 kitschy paintings: Garcia brought in a Mexico City art professor friend who spent the year making them. Crazy never looked so good. 110 W. Hubbard St., 312.222.1331, hubbardinn.‌com

Right on ’Que
Common thought is that if you want to start an argument, just bring up politics, religion or barbecue (and not necessarily in that order). But the consensus has been pretty solid that Bucktown’s Lillie’s Q is turning out some of the city’s best baby back ribs, tri-tip roasts and pulled chicken. Then there are the house-made sauces and marinades. But chef Charlie McKenna is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to this smoky stuff; rather, the former Tru and Avenues sous chef, along with his father, has earned numerous top prizes on the highly competitive barbecue circuit. Discussion over. 1856 W. North Ave., 773.772.5500, lilliesq.com

Dutch Treats
We’re not ready to call it a Dutch invasion quite yet, but Chicago is now home to two new Dutch-inspired restaurants: West Town’s Leopold, from the owners of Lakeview’s Witts, features 16 or so shareable plates from chef Jeffrey Hedin (don’t miss the braised short rib). While at Andersonville’s Vincent, chef Joncarl Lachman, also of HB Home Bistro, takes inspiration from Amsterdam restaurants for dishes such as broodje haring (pickled herring sandwich). At either place, “going dutch” takes on a new—and better—meaning. Leopold, 1450 W. Chicago Ave., 312.348.1028, leopoldchicago.com; Vincent, 1475 W. Balmoral Ave., 773.334.7168, vincentchicago.com

Family Ties
They’re partners in some of Chicago’s most popular bars, (Small Bar, The Exchange), but what brothers Ty and Troy Fujimura really wanted to do was open a restaurant that paid homage to their Japanese heritage. That dream became a reality—and then some—with acclaimed sushi chef B.K. Park (Mirai, Aria) at Arami, the restaurant they opened late last year. The laid-back-chic spot not only serves pristine sushi and sashimi, but some terrific hot dishes, too, including traditional bowls of ramen and donburi (rice bowls). Family matters, indeed. 1829 W. Chicago Ave., 312.243.1535, aramichicago.com

Who Knew?
Looks can be deceiving. Case in point: Little Italy’s Three Aces, which has more in common with a hipster dive bar than a restaurant, especially one that serves up such terrific food. But once you start digging into the rustic Italian dishes—ricotta gnocchi with duck confit, oxtail arancini—from chef Matt Troost you’ll forget all about the lack of frills and focus instead on what you’re going to order on your next visit. 1321 W. Taylor St., 312.243.1577, threeaceschicago.‌com

Classics That Continue to Wow Us
1. Coco Pazzo When this chic River North spot opened almost 20 years ago, owner Jack Weiss got plenty of hate mail for serving rabbit. Diners’ attitudes sure have changed, but this restaurant’s commitment to authentic Tuscan cuisine hasn’t. 300 W. Hubbard St., 312.836.0900, cocopazzochicago.com
2. Blackbird Chef shuffles and all, as long as this trendsetting restaurant stays under the command of the talented Paul Kahan, we’re not worried one bit. 619 W. Randolph St., 312.715.0708, blackbirdrestaurant.com
3. Spiaggia The view of Lake Michigan is lovely, but it’s the stunning Italian food of chef Tony Mantuano that we love best. 980 N. Michigan Ave., 312.280.2750, spiaggiarestaurant.‌com
4. Charlie Trotter’s Farm-fresh ingredients, sous vide and an über-seasonal mentality aren’t new, but chef Charlie Trotter was doing all that long before it became hip. 816 W. Armitage Ave., 773.248.6228, charlietrotters.com
5. Le Colonial After 15 years, this Gold Coast restaurant still manages to transport us back to 1920s Southeast Asia with its authentic Vietnamese food and exotic yet soothing décor. 937 N. Rush St., 312.255.0088, lecolonialchicago.‌com
6. Cité It’s not easy competing with the views from the 70th floor of Lake Point Tower, but new chef Frank Mnuk is doing just that. 505 N. Lake Shore Drive, 312.644.4050, citechicago.com
7. Naha The minimalist décor of this River North restaurant hasn’t changed—but the modern American food of chef Carrie Nahabedian constantly surprises. 500 N. Clark St., 312.321.6242
8. Shaw’s Crab House Nothing makes us happier than a bowl of lobster bisque at this timeless ode to the bounties of the sea. 21 E. Hubbard St., 312.527.2722, shawscrabhouse.com
9. Zealous Chef Michael Taus takes the name of his 18-year-old restaurant seriously—always pursuing excellence—while having a ton of fun in the process. 419 W. Superior St., 312.475.9112, zealousrestaurant.com

Chef of the Year
Giuseppe Tentori

As chef personalities go, Giuseppe Tentori is more the strong and silent type. No bright orange clogs or F-bombs here. Rather, the Italian-born Tentori, who arrived in the U.S. not speaking English, more often than not can be found quietly working the line at GT Fish & Oyster, the new restaurant that bears his initials. We imagine that keep-your-head-down attitude served him well as a chef at Charlie Trotter’s for nine years. But what he lacks in words he more than makes up for in dreamy dishes like foie gras and shrimp terrine. Tentori, we hear you loud and clear. 531 N. Wells St., 312.929.3501, gtfishandoyster.wordpress.com

Mix Master
Before Noble Square’s Ruxbin Kitchen opened last July, the buzz was fairly quiet for the then-unknown chef Edward Kim’s first Chicago restaurant. Boy, have times changed. Now the BYOB restaurant has diners lining up for its contemporary seasonal American menu that borrows freely from French, Mexican and Korean cuisines—think pork belly salad with cornbread, soba with slow-poached egg and horseradish granita. Only downside? The no-reservations policy means an inevitable wait. Bring an extra bottle. 851 N. Ashland Ave., 312.624.8509, ruxbinchicago.com

Belly Up
On paper, Avondale’s Urban Belly doesn’t sound very intriguing: a counter service restaurant with communal tables that’s located in a mini-mall next to a laundromat. But in the very talented hands of chef Bill Kim (look for a line of marinades in stores soon) none of that matters. Instead it’s his always perfect, always comforting Asian noodle soups, creative dumplings and seasonal kimchi that we can’t stop thinking about. 3053 N. California Ave., 773.583.0500, urbanbellychicago.com

Best Eye Candy
Sunda The chic design is lovely and the Asian food delicious, but it’s the celeb-spotting that everybody talks about. 110 W. Illinois St., 312.644.0500, sundachicago.‌com ... Big Star Trying to nab a spot on this taqueria’s patio isn’t easy. Your reward? Terrific tacos, cheap beer and a front-row seat to the hip set. 1531 N. Damen Ave., 773.235.4039, bigstarchicago.com ... Sable Kitchen & Bar That whole work thing doesn’t seem so bad when you can end the day with a crazy-good craft cocktail from Mike Ryan and chef Heather Terhune’s comforting small plates. 505 N. State St., 312.755.9704, sablechicago.com ... Hub 51 Didn’t get in enough stargazing at Sunda? This nearby spot attracts its own boldfaced names who come for the laid-back atmosphere and crowd-pleasing menu. 51 W. Hubbard St., 312.828.0051, hub51chicago.‌com ... Epic Multi levels, including a rooftop lounge, give you plenty of room to roam. 112 W. Hubbard St., 312.222.4940, epicrestaurantchicago.com

A Piece of the Pie
Accolades in a huge national magazine, an article in The New York Times—these are things most restaurants dream about. But for Great Lake, it’s been a mixed blessing, bringing more attention and customers to the small Andersonville pizza shop than the husband-and-wife owners can sometimes handle. But even before GQ named its mortadella pie one of the best in America, we were smitten with the beautiful made-by-hand pizzas and emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients. The long waits? Good things come to, well, you know. 1477 W. Balmoral Ave., 773.334.9270

Birds of a Feather
On one side there’s the bustling gastropub The Gage; on the other, the serene and French-inspired Henri. Hard to imagine that these totally different restaurants come from the same owners, Billy Lawless Jr. and Sr., and Executive Chef Dirk Flanigan. We find plenty to love about both, including the Scotch egg and braised rabbit salad (The Gage) and smoked steak tartare and butter-poached lobster (Henri). Just don’t ask us to choose our favorite. The Gage, 24 S. Michigan Ave., 312.372.4243, thegagechicago.com; Henri, 18 S. Michigan Ave., 312.578.0763, henrichicago.com

Michelin’s Mistake
Sure, there are plenty of great restaurants in Chicago (check out these 12 pages for reference), but when Avec closed for three months last year after a fire, the city’s food lovers couldn’t stop moaning about their loss. But that was nothin’ compared to the chatter after Michelin neglected to give this West Loop favorite a star. How could they omit the restaurant that pretty much started the whole small plates trend in Chicago and still manages to do it better than anyone else? Michelin Guide Director Jean-Luc Naret blamed the omission on the timing of the restaurant’s closure, saying he thought they’d be in next year. We’re holding him to it. 615 W. Randolph St., 312.377.2002, avecrestaurant.com

Best Fine Dining
Sixteen

The last time I saw Frank Brunacci, he was having a ball wheeling a makeshift cart topped with some of the most delicious meat I ever tasted around the dining room of Sixteen. Is that any way for the executive chef of one of Chicago’s fanciest restaurants—in the Trump International Hotel, no less—to act? Why, yes, I believe it is. Brunacci not only creates incredible haute cuisine, but it’s obvious he’s having a terrific time doing it. Fun fine dining? Now there’s a concept worth getting dressed up for. 401 N. Wabash Ave., 16th floor, 312.588.8151, trumpchicagohotel.com

Meat Head
You know a restaurant is serious about nose-to-tail cooking when its chef is the go-to guy for butchering demos. Chris Pandel of The Bristol has been preaching—and more importantly, following—the local, farm-to-table mantra with delicious results since the Bucktown restaurant opened late 2008. Need more proof? The writing is on the wall—literally—with its daily changing chalkboard menu. 2152 N. Damen Ave., 773.862.5555, thebristolchicago.‌com

Sweet Dreams
When it comes to outdoor patios, it’s hard to top the one at Piccolo Sogno. Not only is it expansive, but it’s filled with lovely trees, herbs and flowering plants—the restaurant’s name does mean “little dream,” after all. But all that would be naught if the food didn’t measure up to its surroundings. Not a problem for chef Tony Priolo, who dishes out beautiful plates of rustic Italian food. 464 N. Halsted St., 312.421.0077, piccolosognorestaurant.com

Top of the Charts
In all the Next restaurant hoopla and our frantic—and successful!—attempts to score a seat we almost forgot about Alinea, the first restaurant of chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas. But London-based Restaurant Magazine certainly didn’t, naming it the best restaurant in North America and No. 6 on its annual list of the world’s 50 best restaurants this past April. ’Nuff said. 1723 N. Halsted St., 312.867.0110, alinea-restaurant.‌com

Beauty Talk
The saying, ‘We eat with our eyes first’ isn’t lost on Avenues Executive Chef Curtis Duffy, who turns out some of the most beautiful dishes we have ever seen. Case in point: His signature Alaskan king crab dish with a sugar lace crust that acts as an edible barrier between the colorful layers. But the former Alinea and Charlie Trotter’s chef always puts flavor first. After all, you don’t rack up the multi-starred reviews on good looks (his or his dishes) alone. 108 E. Superior St., 312.573.6754, peninsula.com/chicago

French Flair
In the case of the Melman family, it’s apparent the apples don’t fall far from the tree. The children of LEYE founder Rich Melman, R.J., Jerrod and Molly, first found success with Hub 51 and are now doing the same with their newest joint venture Paris Club. The former Brasserie Jo space still keeps its French-inspired theme, albeit with plenty of modern twists courtesy of a team of chefs, including Everest’s Jean Joho. But now you’ll also find a buzzing bar scene, complete with a DJ booth and wines on tap. 59 W. Hubbard St., 312.595.0800, parisclubchicago.‌com

The Reign of Spain
I fell in love with Mercat a la Planxa the first time I went there—and so did my Spanish friends. We not only felt simpatico with the wonderfully wacky décor, but the small plates, while not always authentic, were delicious. Now the Michigan Avenue restaurant gives us more reasons to go back with the opening of Bodega N. 5 in its downstairs bar, where everything on its menu is just $5 between 6:30am and 5pm. Save us a seat. 638 S. Michigan Ave., 312.542.3605, mercatchicago.‌com

Best New Brunch Spots
Tasty Reasons to Get Out of Bed

Sprout There are a lot of quotation marks on Dale Levitski’s brunch menu, and for good reason—nothing is quite what it seems. Here’s what we do know: Reservations are a must, children aren’t welcome, diners dress up and the food is totally delicious. 1417 W. Fullerton Ave., 773.348.0706, sproutrestaurant.com

Old Town Social The ragtime band at OTS’s New Orleans-inspired brunch is a nice touch, but it’s the soulful food of chef Jared Van Camp that has us Whistlin’ Dixie. 455 W. North Ave., 312.266.2277, oldtownsocial.com

Kanela Breakfast Club It appears on the menu as a side, but when we tasted the creamy yogurt with honey, berries and granola that’s made by a real Greek grandma, we thought it deserved a leading role. 3231 N. Clark St., 773.248.1622, kanelachicago.com

Jam Pork belly, trout and lamb may not sound like breakfast food ingredients, but in the hands of talented chef Jeffrey Maura they’re a lovely way to start the day. 937 N. Damen Ave., 773.489.0302, jamrestaurant.com

Mercadito This River North restaurant keeps the party going—and going—with its Saturday handcrafted cocktail tableside service. Rise and shine, indeed. 108 W. Kinzie St., 312.329.9555, mercaditorestaurants.com

Mixologist of the Year
Benjamin Schiller

The term “mixologist” gets tossed around a lot these days, but in our humble opinions it should be reserved for people who create cocktails that can’t be replicated by a normal Joe Schmoe at home. One man who’s earned the mixologist title? Benjamin Schiller, who as head bartender/mixologist for the Boka Restaurant Group is in charge of the beverage programs for Boka, Girl & the Goat and GT Fish & Oyster restaurants. Schiller, who has a background in wine, creates thoughtful cocktails that are rooted in tradition—with amazing results.

Tru Story
With stints at The Ritz-Carlton Cleveland, Atlanta’s acclaimed Seeger’s Restaurant and Joel Robuchon at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, chef Anthony Martin has some extensive culinary cred, no matter that his youth (he’s 30) and baby face might lead you to believe otherwise. As executive chef for the last three years at Tru, Martin’s been following up that impressive resume with some equally impressive food, earning plenty of accolades in the process. Consider us smitten. 676 N. St. Clair St., 312.202.0001, trurestaurant.com

Seasons Greetings
I could go on and on about the amazing ricotta bread pudding, the spit-roasted Indiana duck with pickled vegetables or the deep-fried Michigan smelts. But that wouldn’t be fair since most of the menu at Nightwood changes on a daily basis. And we expect nothing less from owners Jason Hammel and Amelea Tshilds, who practically pioneered that here-today-gone-tomorrow concept in Chicago at their first restaurant, Lula Cafe. At this popular Pilsen restaurant, chef Jason Vincent takes that mantra even further, which means your favorite dish might not be there on your next visit. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. 2119 S. Halsted St., 312.526.3385, nightwoodrestaurant.com

Movie & Dinner?
With its chic vintage design, including custom millwork, modern chandeliers and a floor-to-ceiling wine wall, Sepia has always had décor that gets people talking (there’s a reason why the Vince Vaughn film The Dilemma was shot there). But since chef Andrew Zimmerman, formerly chef de cuisine of NoMI, has come on board, we find ourselves paying more attention to the plates in front of us—tandoori marinated sturgeon with beluga lentils, perhaps?—and less to its modern speakeasy decor. 123 N. Jefferson St., 312.441.1920, sepiachicago.com

Steak Out
Chicago is lousy with great steak joints, but we think Chicago Cut is, um, a cut above the rest. Here, chef Jackie Shen taps into both her eight years experience at Red Light as well as time spent at Lawry’s Prime Rib. The result? Miso-glazed sea bass, a delicate chocolate dessert and, yes, some of the city’s best steaks. 300 N. LaSalle St., 312.329.1800, chicagocut.com

Hotel Sweet!
In the not so distant past, hotel dining catered more to weary travelers than food-focused locals. These days it’s a different story—and the Elysian Hotel is perhaps Chicago’s best example, with two terrific restaurants. At the more casual Balsan, it’s comfort food with a French twist—cheesy tarte flambées, whole roasted chickens—along with Sunday suppers. At Ria, it’s luxury all the way, with leather wingback chairs, one-of-a-kind artwork and elegant seasonal dishes from chef Danny Grant. Balsan, 11 E. Walton St., 312.646.1400, balsanrestaurant.‌com; Ria, 312.880.4400, riarestaurantchicago.‌com

South of the Border
When it comes to authentic Mexican food in Chicago—and, really, in the country—the chef most talked about is Rick Bayless, whose restaurants include Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and our favorite Xoco. We find ourselves craving the tortas (sandwiches) and caldos (soups) on a daily basis—and judging by the long lines at this counter-service spot, we’re not alone in our obsession. 449 N. Clark St., 312.334.3688, rickbayless.‌com

Feeling Witty
The way Cibo Matto Executive Chef Evan Percoco sees it, dining in a restaurant is all about bringing people together. To do that, Percoco keeps diners enticed with dishes such as crispy artichokes, squid ink linguine and halibut piccata. And no ho-hum mints post dessert. Rather, it’s creative riffs on made-in-house cotton candy that always get his customers reminiscing about old times. In the Wit Hotel, 201 N. State St., 312.239.9500, eatcibomatto.com

Best New Hidden Gems
Secret Spots

Schedule your dinner dates now—before these foodie faves go mainstream.

Ceres’ Table Opening a restaurant spitting distance from a cemetery may not sound like a good idea. But chef Giuseppe Scurato more than overcomes that whole location issue with beautifully prepared contemporary American food with plenty of nods to his Sicilian roots. If the Michelin Guide can overlook its neighbor and award the Uptown restaurant a Bib Gourmand, you can too. 4882 N. Clark St., 773.878.4882, cerestable.com

Big Jones Chef Paul Fehribach’s love for Southern coastal food is all over the menu at this quaint Andersonville restaurant. Just as evident? His passion for local, sustainably grown products. Mix in a few modern twists and it all adds up to one tasty experience. 5347 N. Clark St., 773.275.5725, bigjoneschicago.com

Markethouse More of an “in plain sight” kind of thing, this Gold Coast restaurant, part of the Doubletree Hotel, features plenty of well-thought-out—and reasonably priced—takes on American classics from chef Scott Walton, whose farm-to-table mentality gets an extra boost from his well-stocked fifth-floor garden. 611 N. Fairbanks Court, 312.224.2200, markethousechicago.com

Owen & Engine This Logan Square spot takes the gastropub concept to the next level with house-cured sausages and made-in-house breads for its inventive riffs on Brit comfort food. 2700 N. Western Ave., 773.235.2930, owenengine.com

Saigon Sisters We’ll always have Argyle Street, but we can’t get enough of the flavorful twists of Vietnamese-inspired dishes at this tiny downtown restaurant underneath the El. 567 W. Lake St., 312.496.0090, saigonsisters.com