Feed Your Senses: Why Chicago's Dining Scene Has Never Been Buzzier

By J.P. Anderson, Amber Gibson, Elaine Glusac, David Hammond, Stephen Ostrowski and Nicole Schnitzler | January 11, 2018 | Food & Drink Feature

Chicago’s dining scene has sizzle for days, and here are 17 reasons why: From white-hot trends to killer cocktails, these are the most exciting restaurants and bars in the city.

THE SEXIEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
No table tops Booth One.

Booth_One

From society bigwigs to Chance the Rapper, the city’s A-list is already clamoring for Booth One’s primo table—and we can’t wait to see who’ll be spotted there next (Photo by Nathanael Filbert. Styling by Theresa DeMaria. Models: Michael Youngblut and Sydney Cross/Factor Model Management.)

From Sinatra to Monroe, The Pump Room hosted the glitterati of the 20th century, and they ruled over the Gold Coast restaurant from Booth One. With its own phone and unmatched views, it was the ultimate see-and-be-seen spot and the city’s most desired table. The Pump Room is gone, but its spirit lives on in Booth One. Says Lettuce Entertain You founder Rich Melman, “It was fun thinking about how we could take the magic of the old room and modernize it.” That modernization can be seen in chic design elements like “Champagne bubble” light fixtures—and especially in the restaurant’s Booth One itself, where gray linen drapery strikingly frames the table and cements its status as the hottest seat in the place. A vintage white rotary phone provides a cheeky finishing touch, and Melman insists the table will remain a truly exclusive seat. “You can’t just reserve Booth One,” he says. “It’s ready for the most important and exciting person in the room at the time.” 1301 N. State Parkway, boothone.com –JPA

FAVORITE NEW CONCEPT
Choose your own adventure at Gideon Sweet.

Gideon_Sweet

Powerhouse chefs and longtime friends Matthias Merges and Graham Elliot are dishing out inventive fare—like these littleneck clams on focaccia toast—at Gideon Sweet. (Photo by Matthias Merges)

The dream pairing of star chefs Matthias Merges and Graham Elliot in new West Loop resto Gideon Sweet is enough to inspire foodie fantasies, but adjust your expectations accordingly: “There’s no signature dishes coming from Yusho or [a] Graham Elliot restaurant,” says Elliot. “It’s all brand new.” That extends to the service, too, whose naschen style, in addition to traditional ordering, lets guests select adventurous bites (roasted Sonoma squab, anyone?) off trays from servers roaming the artistically outfitted, refurbished warehouse. In an age where consumers are increasingly empowered as curators, it’s an apropos approach. “[It’s] putting a roadmap together and leading them through a process,” says Merges, adding, “[As a guest] I want to feel like I’m part of the experience and what’s happening, and I have the ability to control my own destiny.” 841 W. Randolph St., gideonsweet.com –SO

WOW-WORTHY SPACE
With no shortage of panache, the Gibsons Group’s new riverside destination is all sizzle (and plenty of pasta).

Gibsons

Gibsons Italia dazzles in the West Loop. (Photo by Kailley Lindman)

How do you honor an icon? Spin it off into four stories of gilded luxury overlooking the Chicago River. So it goes for Gibsons Italia, the first downtown concept in 12 years from the eponymous restaurant group, whose namesake Gold Coast venue is still an essential stop on the city’s see-and-be-seen circuit. “Everything is very clean—simple, yet luxurious,” notes partner Liz Lombardo Stark (daughter of Gibsons co-founder Steve Lombardo) of the new steakhouse adjacent to River Point Tower in the West Loop, where designer Mark Knauer forgoes the clubby atmosphere he created in its Rush Street predecessor in favor of a distinctly mod approach channeling midcentury Milan. “There’s literally not a bad seat in the house,” says Stark, and she’s not kidding: In the sexy, sprawling second-floor lounge, guests can unwind over cocktails while enjoying intimate river views, then move on to chef Jose Sosa’s entrées in the stadium-seating-styled third-floor dining room on handsome leather chairs inspired by the offices of Enzo Ferrari. It all builds anticipation to the sleekest, most stunning space of all: an all-glass, fourth-floor rooftop bar. It’s currently available only for private events, but as the rest of the space proves, some experiences are well worth the wait. 233 N. Canal St., gibsonsitalia.com –SO

HOTTEST EYE CANDY
When it comes to luxe libations, killer vibes and
serious people-watching, these sexy new Chicago restaurants are all the rage.

Eye_Candy

Clockwise from top left: Modern Mexican plates from Katsuji Tanabe set the tone at Barrio; riverside revelers get their patio fix at Pearl Brasserie; Beatnik imports exotic eats and interiors to West Town; Katana’s robata bar offers primo people-watching nightly. (Barrio and Beatnik photos by Kailley Lindman, Pearl Brasserie and Katana photos by Francis Son)

One sure-fire way to add heat to your dining experience: Dive into one of the city’s most super-sizzling scenes—like Pearl Brasserie (180 N. Upper Wacker Drive, pearlbrasserie.com), where traditional bistro meets Parisian Art Deco decadence and where a well-heeled crowd rolls in for power lunches and pre-theater fixes alike. Saunter past filled to-the-brim party tubs of chilled Champagne and a 40-foot marble-topped bar to discover the dining room, and settle in for veteran chef Jason Paskewitz’s hearty French fare (escargots with herbed Pernod butter and garlic panko, anyone?) alongside pristine riverfront views. It’s easy to feel just as sexy at Katana (339 N. Dearborn St., katanachicago.com), a lavish and buzzy L.A.-bred oasis that prides itself on authentic Japanese cuisine and over-the-top hospitality (as showcased by the team chanting “Irashaimase!”—“Welcome to our home!”—to every diner seated). A 13,000-square-foot space provides plenty of room for guest-gazing, and with gorgeous, in-the-know diners everywhere, that’s a very good thing.

It’s glammed-up groups and River North crowds that congregate at Barrio (65 W. Kinzie St., barriochicago.com) for Latin concoctions and modern Mexican plates (think forest mushroom tacos and charred corn and kale empanadas) from Top Chef alum Katsuji Tanabe. Weekend-ready revelers pass them around cabana-style booths while swaying to the rhythms of Klingande and MGMT and Instagramming the eve away. And over in West Town, the spotlight shines on Beatnik (1604 W. Chicago Ave., beatnikchicago.com), where opulent Persian rugs, bronze candelabras, lush greenery and crystal chandeliers create a bohemian-inspired interior that draws the coolest kind of clientele (the live DJs spinning everything from Brazilian Soul to ’60s French pop only help matters). Come for exotic bites like scallop crudo and roasted Lebanese-style lamb); stay for ambitious, globally tuned cocktails; leave feeling like a citizen of the world. –NS

THE ROCK STAR CHEF
Tatted toque Jimmy Papadopoulos cements his status as one of the city’s most exciting chefs with Bellemore.

Jimmy Papadopoulos

Jimmy Papadopoulos brings serious skills—and epic tats—to Boka Group-backed Bellemore. (Photo by Sam Grant, photo assistant: Michael Tutino)

Jimmy Papadopoulos tugs his pant leg, revealing a cheese-oozing burger among the food-centric tattooed tableau on his skin. He describes a chaotic kitchen scene on the canvas of his back, a flying pig on his chest. “Maybe that’s what people see, this rough-edged guy,” he says, chuckling at our cheeky title of “Rock Star Chef.” “Underneath, I’m real.” Real as in flannel-loving, quick to laugh—and DIY to the core: He once spent four days in his mother’s kitchen making foie gras torchon to the letter of The French Laundry Cookbook, part of his self-education that followed culinary school. That led to five formative years with Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg—where corporate largesse indulged ingredient play—and another two-plus breakout years headlining Bohemian House as its executive chef.

Now he’s opened Bellemore in the West Loop with rock-star restaurateurs in their own right Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. The menu spans homemade Hawaiian rolls inspired by his family’s Thanksgiving, an Instagram-ready oyster pie and dry-aged duck glazed with raspberry vinegar, beets, fennel and faro or, collectively, “stuff I want to eat.” He describes his style as “bright, bold and beautiful” and Bellemore as freeing him from constraint, which befits this reflective rock star who swaps substance for swagger. “It’s the same warmth I’ve put into my past work,” he says, “except now my imagination can just cook.” 564 W. Randolph St., bellemorechicago.com –EG

HOTTEST FOOD TREND
Forget oysters. When it comes to Chicago’s most exquisite nibbles, 2018 is the year of caviar.

Caviar

Thanks to offerings like this triple-tiered, Lazy Susan-mounted service at Hollywood glam-inspired BLVD, caviar is experiencing a thrilling renaissance. (Photo by Kevin Hartmann)

It’s the ultimate indulgence, a throwback to more glamorous times—and suddenly caviar is everywhere at restaurants across Chicago. Like ’50s Hollywood-inspired BLVD (817 W. Lake St., blvdchicago.com), where the triple-tiered, Lazy Susan-mounted caviar service ($95-$220) raises envious eyebrows throughout the dining room. “It feels very luxe, and that’s right in our wheelhouse,” says co-owner Kara Callero. At Eastern European/ Korean mashup Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar (2700 W. Chicago Ave., heritage-chicago.com), executive chef/owner Guy Mielke goes global with a broad selection of à la carte and plattered caviars ranging from Michigan golden whitefish to “funky” snail (yes, snail) caviar from Poland. Mielke’s advice for neophytes? “Do an eight- to 10-gram bite on one potato chip with a bit of crème fraîche, and you’re going to get the most amount of flavor and impact.”

Even restaurants without formal caviar programs are getting into the act, serving it as the most luxurious of supporting ingredients—think Eggs on Eggs at Band of Bohemia (4710 N. Ravenswood Ave., bandofbohemia.com), a deceptively simple omelet topped with brown butter crumble and a heaping portion of Osetra Royale caviar. “It’s elegant enough to pair with Champagne, but still stays true to the omelet’s humble roots,” notes executive chef Ian Davis. And few take the trend to lengths as decadent as The Barn (Rear 1016 Church St., Evanston, thebarnevanston.com), which offers an entire sandwich of it inspired by a Big Apple classic. Says owner Amy Morton, “Caviar is something I have always loved—and I’ve always known [that someday] I would steal the caviar sandwich on the menu at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in NYC. Once I decided to open The Barn, it was a natural fit.” –JPA

MOST MIND-BLOWING COCKTAILS
Chicago’s mixology scene? Second to none—and these four spots are at the top of the heap.

Cocktails

Clockwise from top left: Leviathan wows with complex creations; the Ricky Royale at Fat Rice’s speakeasy, The Ladies’ Room; much-hyped Prairie School delivers with top-notch tipples; Todos Santos takes mezcal cocktails to new heights. (Leviathan photo courtesy of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, Ladies Room photo courtesy of Edward Beebe-Tron, Todos Santos photo courtesy Todos Santos/Quiote, Prairie School photo by Jackie Gillum)

Behind a heavy velvet curtain at Logan Square foodie destination Fat Rice is The Ladies’ Room (2957 W. Diversey Ave., eatfatrice.com/menus/ladies-room), a sensuous, 18-seat Macanese casino-inspired speakeasy decorated with 1920s Chinese pinup posters. Large-format cocktails like the extravagant Grand Royale, a blend of several housemade spirits plus an entire bottle of grower Champagne, are perfect for rowdy groups. Earthy, smoky and savory flavors abound at River North newcomer Leviathan (660 N. State St., leviathanchicago.com), fitting for the Dana Hotel’s mysterious mezzanine bar named after a mythical sea creature. The namesake cocktail blends gin, rum, angostura, lime and mint and aquavit with ginger and shaved bonito flakes, and all of Beverage Director Benjamin Schiller’s sophisticated drinks are served in equally exquisite custom glassware, from hand-forged pewter mugs to smoke-filled terrariums.

The most exciting new addition to Fulton Market’s cocktailing scene? Prairie School (326 N. Morgan St., prairieschoolchicago.com), Heisler Hospitality’s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired concept with partner and industry all-star Jim Meehan, which embraces wabi-sabi design, combining leather couches with a white oak bar and specially commissioned ceramic tumblers. Head bartender Kristina Magro’s seasonal menu focuses on quality ingredients, like mixing slow-drip Kyoto-style cold brew coffee with Rhine Hall’s plum brandy. A Hoshizaki tap system dispenses chilled Japanese whiskey into highballs as well as beer and wine. And mezcal lovers can sip Mexico’s trendiest spirit from hand-spun tumblers at Todos Santos (2456 N. California Ave., todossantoschicago.com), the intimate basement mezcal bar under Quiote. Pair the complex cocktails with food truck tacos on weekends; bartender Jay Schroeder even hosts mezcal classes for the truly inquisitive. –AG

THE CONSUMMATE HOST
Ace Hotel mixologist extraordinaire Caitlin Laman brings welcome warmth to one of the city’s top hipster havens.

Caitlin

Caitlin Laman of Ace Hotel Chicago. (Photo by Sam Grant, photo assistant: Michael Tutino)

Hospitality goes way beyond just good service. “It’s about attitude,” says Caitlin Laman, beverage director of Fulton Market District hot spot Ace Hotel Chicago, including its rooftop tippling destination Waydown and street-level restaurant City Mouse. Laman’s watchwords are “Be kind”—as in, if you treat others with kindness, outstanding service and hospitality will follow. “Making a good drink is easy,” insists the 33-year-old Portland, Ore., native. “But if I had the best drink of my life in a terrible bar, I’d never go back.” At Waydown, it all starts front and back of the house, where Laman aims to create “an enjoyable space for staff where it’s easier for them to relax, have fun and share that experience with guests.”

To foster that fun environment, Laman’s bar serves some classic cocktails with a twist. The Sherry Colada, for instance, blends rum, pineapple, coconut and lime, as you’d expect. The surprising addition of Amontillado sherry adds a deeper dimension and takes the cocktail to the next level; it’s the best piña colada. Riffing on known cocktails, the Humboldt Park resident says, “makes it easier for guests to understand what they’re getting, and it’s easier for bartenders and servers to explain our drinks by comparing them to the classics.” All of which makes for a pleasurable experience in a space that’s not just trendy but fun for both bartenders and guests. Because as Laman knows so well, enjoyment, like kindness, is contagious. 311 N. Morgan St., acehotel.com/chicago –DH

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