25 best new restaurants in Chicago – Chicago Tribune
As any great chef will tell you, starting from scratch is no easy feat.
When Chicago Tribune food critics Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger began sketching out plans for a new list of the best restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs, it became clear just how many questions the process would pose.
While their predecessor, Phil Vettel, could build off his existing Phil’s 50 list and decades of dining, our critics recognized how extensively the pandemic has reshaped experiences at nearly every restaurant, not just in Chicago, but globally. It wouldn’t be fair to judge based on pre-2020 experiences, before social distancing rules, smaller staffs and soaring food costs affected everyone, from humble hot dog stands to fine-dining institutions.
In their first 1½ years as our food critics, Kindelsperger and Chu have charted the ascent of a number of new restaurants, from brick-and-mortarless virtual concepts making a splash (Funeral Potatoes) to some already boasting Michelin stars (Esme, Claudia, Kasama). As we considered how best to tackle this Best Restaurants project, we realized this cohort of restaurants launched in the pandemic had quickly entered the ranks of the city’s best — so why not celebrate them on their own?
While our critics will keep whittling away at the list of best restaurants, both old and new, here are the 25 best new restaurants, with a fairly generous “new” defined as opening in 2020 or later. Expect the full list in early 2023, and until then, happy eating. — Ariel Cheung, Food editor
While Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood continues to shrink, the number of ambitious new Greek restaurants in Chicago has increased. While many recent debuts have impressed, a consistent favorite is Andros Taverna, run by the husband-and-wife team of Doug Psaltis and Hsing Chen. The best dishes feel like they’ve been stripped to their essence, so the Mediterranean octopus is served with little more than a lemon wedge, yet the quality of the product and the wood-fired grilling set it apart. Though it might be the most expensive one in town at $25, Georgie’s gyro features a ridiculously soft handmade pita, extra juicy meat, bright red tomatoes and just enough tzatziki to tie it together. Even the colorful and crisp vegetables served with the mezze platter look like they were freshly purchased that morning from the farmers market. If you visit during brunch, make sure to score some of Chen’s immaculately constructed pastries.
James Martin struggled with a difficult decision when critically acclaimed chef Erick Williams approached him about working at Virtue. “It was one of the hardest things, to be like, ‘I think I have a different path,’” Martin said. “I wanted to tell a different story of Black excellence.” Now he tells his story at Bocadillo Market through the food of Spain and the American South. Martin’s crispy calamari bocadillo, the restaurant’s namesake Spanish sandwich, is a lovely edible souvenir from a honeymoon trip to Madrid with wife and co-owner Jessica Neal. A fantastically huge slice of Extremadura almond pie, his take on a traditional tecula mecula egg tart, is a cousin to Southern chess pie. The chef dedicated the Spanish bean stew to his mother, Mable Martin, who died 11 months before he opened his long-dreamed-of restaurant in 2021. “My mom and I grew up cooking lima bean stew every winter,” he said. “Ham hocks, lima beans and white rice. It was a very simple stew.” An Ode to Mable — with lima beans, morcilla sausage and bomba rice — beautifully bridges Martin’s cuisines of culture and choice.
The seared watermelon steak has become a signature dish at Bronzeville Winery, the restaurant unlike any other in the South Side neighborhood brimming with history. Crisp blackening and a smoky aroma evoke not only the beloved barbecue at Honey 1 BBQ just up the street, but also Alinea’s pheasant speared on a smoking oak leaf branch. The dish is a legacy of opening chef Whitney McMorris, inspired by modernist mentors. She may no longer be in the kitchen, but her work pulses as powerfully as that of the architects, artists and designers who created the space. “And then obviously the wine, we sell quite a bit of wine,” said Cecilia Cuff, co-owner with Eric Williams of The Silver Room. Sommelier Derrick C. Westbrook, one of Wine Enthusiast magazine’s 40 under 40 tastemakers in 2018, curates the wine list here, as well as at [email protected] in the West Loop. “We’ve had customers come in who are so happy that they just cried,” Williams says. “They say, ‘We’ve lived here 20 years, and now we can just walk home after dinner. We never thought it would happen in our community.’”
Trevor Teich’s Claudia has existed in some respects since 2013, which should immediately disqualify it from this list. But until last year, Claudia operated as a pop-up. Now Teich has a beautiful and cozy Bucktown spot where he can put down roots and home in on the kind of experience he’s always wanted. That essentially means a menu focused on modern cooking techniques, which he uses to create dishes dripping in nostalgia. You’ll find two tasting menu options, each one saturated with pristine seafood and playful presentations. The highlight will undoubtedly be Teich’s signature dish, Snails in the Woods, a constantly changing course featuring snails as the main event. But Claudia also offers a remarkable bar experience, where you can dine on flawless French classics like foie gras torchon and pâté en croûte. At the bar, you can also sip some stunning cocktails, which are often influenced by classic stories. (Currently, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the inspiration.)
Chef Ryan Brosseau and owner Lacey Irby not only opened their French Canadian restaurant in the middle of winter in Chicago, but early in the pandemic. They set a wistful table in an otherwise empty dining room, with a handwritten place card that read “Someday.” That didn’t stop them from offering impeccable takeout. The fried smelt, simple yet superb, caught in crisp veils with pickled carrot curls and scallion bulbs, could move you to tears. “People want food that’s comforting and approachable, but still makes them feel special,” Irby said. Someday finally came, with tables inside and out laden with Midwestern ingredients transformed in recipes inspired by Brosseau’s maternal grandmother Margaret. “My grandfather was a farmer,” he said. “So it was pickles, jams, jellies, pies and all kinds of stuff to feed everybody through the winter and capture what they could during the summer.” Among the charcuterie, seasonal jam accompanies a shimmering fat-cloaked duck liver mousse, served with nine-grain sourdough toast, which takes two days to make. “The bread is really not great until the next day,” he said. “I’m really proud of that bread, if I’m allowed to say that.” Mais oui, and so he should be.
Esmé at its best is daring and defiant, yet studied and polished: sweet potato ice cream with a heaping scoop of caviar to start off a dinner; a chef-ified Cheeto canape. After years of working at Next, chef Jenner Tomaska’s venture with his wife, Katrina Bravo, abounds with stunningly intricate courses, all presented with an artist’s exacting eye for presentation. It’s one of those experiences where every serving dish and every piece of cutlery had a story to tell, and the service is so precise, you feel yourself waltzing through your meal. Since our three-star review, they’ve opened a slightly more casual bar, with an a la carte menu, and continued to host events for up-and-coming artists from the city with a focus on philanthropy to boot. If you’re going to open one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, this is a smart way to do it.
Opened during the extremely anxious summer of 2020 (remember capacity limits and 6-foot table spacing?), Ever immediately stood out for its unshakeable confidence. This is particularly impressive considering chef Curtis Duffy’s previously acclaimed venture, Grace, imploded after an issue with a business partner. But he and co-owner Michael Muser have always had a knack for pushing forward. The precision on display here is so impressive, it can feel a bit intimidating — an opening dish displaying the restaurant’s name in stenciled coconut milk in a pool of cucumber gelee was so flawless it looked carved by machines. But unlike the theatrics that dominate a visit to Alinea, Ever keeps the focus on the meticulously composed dishes, which look unlike any other place in town. Duffy also has a way with vegetables, which explains why a favorite dish on a recent visit was an English pea sorbet that was at once cooling and delicately aromatic.
The kimchi ranch funeral potatoes, made at this virtual restaurant in Logan Square, have already reached icon status in certain circles. It’s no wonder, when it comes baked and bubbling with a spicy dill Ritz cracker crumble over a black pepper béchamel, laced with pepper jack cheese and a puree of kimchi from Joong Boo Market. But chefs and co-owners Eve Studnicka and Alexis Thomas-Rice use what may be a surprising ingredient to some: frozen hash browns. “I feel like that’s a really good, accessible way for us to balance out our time and our budget, and still make something that’s really delicious and intentional,” Studnicka said. They recently celebrated the two-year anniversary of their collaboration with a retrospective of their greatest hits. Among them, the pepperoncini pimento mac and cheese blanketed a crisp Parmesan garlic butter crumble over tender macaroni shells, bathed in a cream cheese and aged cheddar sauce; and zucchini bread, studded with mini dark chocolate chips in a simply lovely crumb, is spiced with warm nutmeg. Let’s hope they keep having fun too, because that’s what Funeral Potatoes is most impressively Midwestern generous about dishing out.
Chef Ethan Lim originally opened Hermosa as a whimsical sandwich shop with after-school hot dog specials, named for the neighborhood in which it lives. When the pandemic first shut down indoor dining and in-person schooling, however, he chose one focus: Let’s nourish people. “Not to get too philosophical,” Lim said, his voice breaking. “But it is perhaps existentially how I view what my place is.” He explored how to best serve the community, eventually emerging with an extraordinary Cambodian family meal with one table per night. Lim’s Cambodian-inspired fried chicken stars as a lunch sandwich and a dinner tasting menu main dish, among a constellation of courses. He doesn’t make traditional food; they’re thrilling dishes made his own. But the kroeung seasoning paste is as elemental as they come. Floral and herbaceous, the marinade infuses the bird with an elusive aroma before it is fried to a golden crackling crust. He’s in the process of changing again for a winter menu with sous chef Miguel Huerta, sure to nourish Chicagoans when they need it most.
Most steakhouses are so similar, you can predict how everything is going to be before you walk in the door. But the most exciting new steakhouse in town shakes up the whole experience. The restaurant is the work of Jason Song, a statistics and finance major from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign turned restaurateur. His obsession with steak is palpable, even as he dispenses with tired conventions of the steakhouse. Instead of offering enormous slabs of beef, which are wildly oversized for an individual, Holu offers steak by the ounce, allowing you to try multiple different cuts and varieties, from prime 45-day dry-aged rib eye to Australian wagyu. The meat is then cooked by a waiter in front of you on a tabletop grill, so you get to watch the process unfold.
Ube huckleberry Basque cakes by day and mushroom adobo over garlic rice by night was just about all Tim Flores and Genie Kwon wanted at their neighborhood cafe. The chefs, owners and spouses decidedly did not want to do the tasting menus of the fine-dining world they left behind, after working as the chef de cuisine and pastry chef at Michelin two-star restaurant Oriole. “The name Kasama in Tagalog means together or companion or included,” said Flores, who is Filipino American. “So that’s very meaningful for what we’re doing, which changed a ton.” Their plans changed, because the world changed. An exquisite, 13-course Filipino-inspired tasting menu skyrocketed their prominence as one of the best new restaurants anywhere. But you can still just get coffee and a precise pastry for breakfast, or an Italian beef-style sandwich with shaved pork adobo for lunch. Or possibly a truffle croissant. “There’s always that question of authenticity and where we want to take it and how it might be perceived,” Kwon said. “And the goal was not to price people out of enjoying this food.”
If Khmai serves as your introduction to Cambodian cuisine (as it’s one of the first of its ilk in Chicago), know the best dishes here balance searing heat and bracing acidity with a captivating, but never overwhelming, amount of funk. Start with the tuk kreoung, a catfish dip loaded with aromatic lemongrass, along with fish sauce and lime juice. Or go with the plear sach koh, a steak salad topped with fresh herbs and crunchy vegetables, which is nonetheless spicy and deeply savory. The traditional Khmai section changes often, but we were stunned by the amok morn, featuring tender pieces of chicken in a coconut curry that are wrapped in steamed banana leaves. All of this is astounding when you consider what owners Mona Sang and her mother, Sarom Sieng, went through to get here. But there’s no doubt that they’ve created a warm and welcoming spot with some of the most exciting food we’ve tried this year.
2043 W. Howard St., 312-626-7710, khmai-fine-dining.com
Sausage and giardiniera has become something of a signature on the Chicago-style tavern thin crust pizza at Kim’s. “It’s just pure Chicago,” said pizzaiolo Bradley Shorten. He owns the tiny pizzeria with spouses Billy and Cecily Federighi, two of his best friends (the trio is behind the project formerly known as Eat Free Pizza), plus pivotal partner Ed Marszewski of Marz Brewing. Fate seemed to bring them together, first for Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream in Bridgeport, then as the new partners of the shop long known as Uncle Pete’s and helmed by new namesake Kim Sinclair since 1971. They inherited a small, vintage Faulds oven made in 1954; she’s a part of the soul of the building itself. A mushroom, onion and black olive pizza scatters cremini across the crackly canvas, then finishes with feathery ribbons of pecorino. The crust is not just crisp, but deep with character. You may have grown up on neighborhood pizza;. Kim’s is the best of everything it could have been.
After making an impressive run at Coda di Volpe, chef Chris Thompson created one of the city’s most impressive charcuterie programs with Lardon in Logan Square. You can actually see his handiwork hanging behind glass toward the back of the restaurant. But why not order a platter, so you can appreciate the complex taste of his phenomenal soppressata and finocchiona? Make sure to pair it with a collection of cheese, including options from Wisconsin. While the meat tastes great on its own, Lardon also offers a number of sandwiches. My favorite is the Frenchie, which combines house-cured ham and country pork pate, with brie, dijon and cornichon mayo. While the patio is delightful during the warmer months, the interior already has serious charm, looking like it’s been around a hundred years, even though it’s only been open for a little over one.
The Untitled #1 was Robert Maleski’s first Milly’s pizza, and may be his most representative, with pepperoni and jalapeno on the defining caramelized crust. “When I was practicing at home for a year, trying to perfect this style of pizza, that’s pretty much the one I made every single time,” Maleski said. His practice preceded the pandemic layoff from his job as a server at a suburban hotel restaurant, and his pizza has evolved into maximalist edible pop art at his own pizzeria in Uptown. It’s a personal vision within a carefully crafted burnished frame — by an artisan who’s a legend in the making, sometimes wracked with the throes of the creative process. “To be honest with you, I’m never really happy with any of the pizzas I put out,” he said shortly after he opened in February. “I’ve only made maybe five or six pizzas that I’ve ever been fully happy with.” Maleski has clearly become his own toughest critic. He has indeed made many pizzas that have impressed his regulars, and worth the respect of the late legendary Burt Katz too.
Behind a takeout counter in Chinatown, what appears to be a kitchen door leads to the first craft cocktail bar in the enigmatic neighborhood that spans generations. “At Moon Palace, they had old-school bartending, with sour mix and premade juices,” said Lily Wang about her parents’ restaurant, which she’s re-imagined with partner Joe Briglio. “But a lot of people really liked my mom’s mai tai. I think it’s probably because she makes them really strong.” The Nine Bar mai tai is defined by a brilliant orgeat syrup made with almond cookies. While the mai tai pays homage to Wang’s mother, the mapo fries honor her father. “My dad’s mapo tofu is one of my favorite dishes,” Wang said. “And if I see loaded fries on a menu, for me, it’s a no-brainer.” A chile-laced pork sauce dots a bed of golden waffle fries, smothered with togarashi-spiced mayo, pickled peppers and sharp scallions. Chef Elvis Mom oversees the food. Previously at Spinning J, he led a Khmer pop-up at the bakery and soda fountain in Humboldt Park. We can only hope his stunning ube egg tarts, with a deep purple custard in a feathery, flaky crust, will become a staple for generations to come.
The latest restaurant from brothers Oliver and Nicolas Poilevey obviously has a strong French base, which makes sense considering the two also run the venerable Le Bouchon. But Obelix shows it isn’t afraid to take real chances by bringing in influences from all over the globe. The gorgeous steak tartare pulls in Vietnamese ingredients, while the seared black cod comes with Okinawan sweet potato from Japan. Even a side dish of asparagus comes with hollandaise sauce made with orange-hued drippings from making al pastor tacos (courtesy of Oliver Poilevey’s other restaurant, Taqueria Chingon). You can’t go wrong with anything in the duck section, from the hilariously over-the-top foie gras taco to the salade lyonnaise “canard,” where duck makes multiple appearances. But the star is probably the dry-aged duck breast, which has a boldly modern presentation.
The Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group’s entry into the omakase sushi scene was not done quickly. Instead of opting for the standard minimalist sushi experience, complete with silent chefs and almost no decor, the group went maximalist with The Omakase Room, crafting a gorgeous counter that puts chefs Kaze Chan and Shigeru Kitano at center stage. This results in a surprisingly boisterous evening, where you can ask questions and might find yourself chatting with half the room. The extraordinarily expensive seafood is sliced and prepped right in front of you, and then positioned on a perfectly lit pedestal in front of each guest. It’s certainly not cheap, and some of the courses might be too fussy for their own good, but it’s great to see that Lettuce offers an experience unlike any other in town.
Provaré in West Town feels so effortlessly confident that it can be surprising to learn it was opened by two people with no industry experience. But chef Jourdan Higgs and business partner Michael Williams had a hunch that combining freshly made Italian pasta with Creole flavors would work. The crowds have certainly proved them right, as the shop is regularly packed. It’s clear that Higgs takes great care in crafting the pasta, using a pasta extruder flown in from Italy, and then pairing the noodles with intensely seasoned sauces and fresh-tasting seafood. But even the non-pasta dishes, like the lamb chops and the chef’s special calamari, are exactly executed and confidently flavored.
1421 W. Chicago Ave., 312-988-0943, provarechicago.com
Joe Flamm opened his debut restaurant to high expectations. Fans of the “Top Chef” winner flocked to Rose Mary, perhaps surprised by the Croatian Italian cuisine. They still fill the dining room more than 1½ years later. The zucchini fritters had early issues with execution, possibly due to the popular demand. They’ve remained on the menu, now with crackling crusts, darkened as if by the Mediterranean sun, painted delicately with paprika and honey. Hearth-grilled ćevapi, the rustic stubby sausages, come with a side of housemade lepinja, traditionally a flatbread. It’s anything but flat, having risen like a beautiful petite boule of sourdough bread. “I worked for Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia, in my opinion, one of the greatest Italian restaurants in Chicago history,” Flamm said. “I didn’t want to leave there and just do a rendition of that. I wanted to do my own thing and make my own mark.” The chef just returned from a trip to Italy, but he finds inspiration closer to home, from the Croatian family of his wife, Hillary Delich, to the customers he serves each night. “I plan to keep going back, but this place is going to grow and change as we learn more about this cuisine through the guests from the community,” Flamm said. “That’s how this restaurant is going to grow and evolve hopefully for years to come.”
Sochi Saigonese Kitchen is another project launched by first-time restaurateurs. But the project is so polished that you’d never guess Chinh Pham and Son Do hadn’t been doing this their whole professional lives. Hoping to showcase Vietnamese dishes the two loved eating while growing up in the country, the menu is laser-focused, meaning it’s almost impossible to go wrong. But we’d suggest starting with the original egg rolls, which are encased in crackly rice paper and served with bright green lettuce and a slightly spicy dipping sauce. We also loved the Slap Mama crab fried rice, a genuinely gorgeous bowl topped with sweet crab meat and bright red masago (smelt roe). At lunch, you’ll even find what might be the city’s most perfectly constructed banh mi, where every component is arranged so precisely that each bite contains all the components — and leaves you wanting more.
We debated whether Solazo should even qualify as a new restaurant. After all, it technically opened in 2007. But after a fire broke out in 2019, owner Pepe Barajas completely gutted the space and transformed the menu. When it reopened in 2021, almost nothing was the same. Now the trendy spot has a beautiful open dining room, which allows you to watch the hustle happening in the kitchen. Along with a completely new menu, you’ll also find an agave-focused cocktail menu, making this an excellent spot to meet with friends, especially when the weather is nice on the outdoor patio. To update the food, Barajas spent time traveling around Mexico for research, which explains the complexity you’ll encounter in dishes like enchiladas with mole coloradito and the camarones a la diabla. But you’ll also find a range of top-notch tacos and an excellent tres leche cake.
A couple of bites into a brisket sandwich on a very cold day in 2021 made it clear, this to-go-only operation was the most exciting barbecue opening in years. Granted, owners D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick first started Soul & Smoke in 2015 as a catering operation after careers in fine-dining restaurants. But when the pandemic upended the catering industry, the husband-and-wife team opened their doors to the general public, allowing Chicago’s barbecue fanatics to dig in. Along with the astonishingly tender and smoky brisket, ribs and pulled pork, chef Carter also makes sure the soul food-inspired mains and sides get the attention they deserve. The two have also continuously tried to improve, from tinkering with recipes to recently purchasing a massive new smoker — and we’re looking forward to testing out the results for a long time to come.
Chef Stephen Sandoval has spent years infatuated with the cuisine around Mexico’s Baja peninsula — think abundant seafood and wood-fired grills — even working as executive chef at Rick Bayless’s Baja concept, Leña Brava. But Sandoval also spent time at restaurants all across the globe, from Argentina to Spain. He’s combined many of these influences to create Sueños, which he calls “borderless Baja.” There’s an astonishing amount of seafood at the Soho House pop-up, including the remarkably complex Sueños ceviche, one of our favorite dishes of 2022. But don’t skip the pulpo skewers, featuring tender chunks of grilled octopus, or the fish collars, which are glazed with a dark red guajillo chile glaze. The project is doing so well, Sandoval plans to open a permanent location soon.
A tahini chocolate chip cookie has become a destination dessert at a side street shop in Logan Square. “I used to call it a bakery,” Dina Cimarusti said, but the owner and baker at Sugar Moon now thinks she should call it an experimental baking studio. And she probably should. The prizewinning special-effects-artist-turned-baker creates ambitiously, turning out over two dozen complex items at a time, from her staple cornflake espresso cookies, to maddeningly elusive seasonal croissants. “That cookie dough is basically like a three-day process,” Cimarusti said. “I like baking from frozen to make a nice crispy edge, but keeping the center gooier.” Walk into her wondrous shop, after an anticipatory wait in line, and it’s likely the aroma of bread and garlic that greets you. Cimarusti’s pizza focaccia compares to the best caramelized crusts around Chicago, ringed around with blackened lacquer, intensely flavorful, yet ethereally light. “This isn’t like a normal bakery,” she said, feeling bad about the lingering lines. “This isn’t a bakery that you can come to every week.” Perhaps not, but we can dream, in chocolate chip tahini.
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