Visit a ‘real’ neighborhood before it gets the gentrification overhaul of tidy uniformity. Try Bridgeport for old world bakery or Uptown for banh mi.
BY Jacky Runice
Chicago Local Expert
What makes a restaurant in an unequaled restaurant city one of the best? It’s a delicate formula of fresh food, innovative presentations, cutting edge ideas, interesting combinations plus price, ambiance and service.
These 10 places promise a stellar experience and a distinctive taste of Chicago. Some are super spendy while others are than reasonable.
At most of the listed Chicago spots, it’s more than a meal but rather a downright experience. Reservations at places like Alinea can take a while to secure but expect a multi-hour session that involves all of your senses at a James Beard award-winning and Michelin-star standout. The model of successful chef-driven restaurants? That would be Boka.
A stop at The Bristol is like a whirlwind taste voyage to the farm with its produce-driven, highly seasonal and creative fare. If you can wrap your brain and taste buds around that. Everyone loves Mexican food but combine it with French technique and Michelin starred phenom, Chef Carlos Gaytan, and expect fireworks at Tzuco. The four outposts of Soul & Smoke are turning out Chicago’s best barbecue.
The Publican is a sure thing for Happy Hour, dinner or weekend brunch, and Smyth is the embodiment of the celebration of the table. Diners are treated to an authentic home-cooked experience, heritage techniques and secret family recipes at Virtue. Sophisticated but unfussy, Lure Fishbar offers fresh fish from around the globe, a raw bar with a rotating selections, and an impressive sushi program.
Taste, of course, is subjective and if there were a list of the 50 best in Chicago, we would probably hit on many of your choices. Let’s call these 10 among the best restaurants in Chicago, so if you’re in the market for an inevitably impressive dining experience, make your reservation.
Boka Restaurant Group, in partnership with chef Lee Wolen, just opened Alla Vita, an Italian-American restaurant showcasing fresh food made with the best ingredients. There’s a spacious outdoor patio and Indoors, the space is adorned in Italian floral prints and Fornasetti inspired artwork, affording a casual, garden atmosphere that’s especially inviting in the cooler months. Alla Vita’s menu covers antipasta (wood-fired bread, tender orbs of arancini); salads; homemade pastas like cacio e pepe ricotta dumplings; pizzas, al forno such as lasagna with wild mushrooms and Fontina or whole Sea Bream; and vegetables. Wolen, a Michelin starred chef known for his chicken dishes at Boka and GG’s Chicken Shop, presents a signature chicken dish at Alla Vita: one of America’s favorite Italian comfort foods – Chicken Parmesan dinner for two or four guests. Alla Vita’s wine program focuses on small, lesser known wineries and offers an extensive wine-by-the-glass option.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Alla Vita offers a casual, family-style menu of comforting Italian cuisine that should make both nonni and food snobs swoon.
Jacky’s expert tip: Boka Restaurant’s pastry chef, Kim Mok, takes the lead on sweets. Do not pass on classic Italian desserts like Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate Budino, and an assortment of gelatos.
Read more about Alla Vita →
The Publican has become a part of the fabric of Fulton Market highlighting farm-to-table fare long before it was a culinary catch-phrase. Among the first to open in the uncharted meatpacking district in 2008, its star has not dimmed. Driven by seasonality with menus shifting constantly, you can always count on some of the best bread in the city fresh from the restaurant’s own bakery. Although known for charcuterie and meat (butcher shop, Publican Quality Meats, opened in 2012), expect wonderful hand-selected and sustainably-raised fish, seafood and vegetables, too. Briny oysters, whitefish Milanese, barbecued carrots, ham chop, Slagel Family Farm chicken, it’s all great. The Publican has been with us for over a decade but the constantly evolving menu and extensive international beer roster keep it in the Top 10. Weekend brunch is among the best in the city, too.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: More than a decade in and The Publican shines in food, drink and conviviality with refreshingly zero pretension.
Jacky’s expert tip: Expect exterior dining opportunities, too: greenhouses (2-4 guests), domes (4-6 guests) and a heated tented dining room.
Read more about The Publican →
Everyone loves Mexican food but combine it with French technique and Michelin starred phenom, Chef Carlos Gaytan, and expect fireworks. The River North eatery recently expanded adding more space and airflow, patio seating and semi-outdoor seating with retractable, floor-to-ceiling doors. Expect a sophisticated and contemporary ambience and a sexy marriage of Mexican and French cuisine (like French onion soup with poblano peppers, Gruyére cheese and crostini). You’ll find fine tuna ceviche on the menu alongside steak tartare and mussels in saffron beurre blanc pulsing with dried chorizo, pickled jalapeño and. of course, a baguette for the slam-dunk. Tzuco brought aboard two celebrated pastry talents from Mexico City so plan your caloric intake pre-dessert. Fans of the culinary sorcery known as mole should order an Old Fashioned that resonates with Old Forester Bourbon, mole syrup, mole bitters and chile ash.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Everyone loves Mexican food but combine it with French technique and Michelin starred phenom, Chef Carlos Gaytan, and expect fireworks.
Jacky’s expert tip: In addition to many of Tzuco’s signature dishes, the weekend brunch menu offers selections like Tzuco Shakshuka, Mushroom Cazuela and Shrimp Hurache.
Read more about Tzuco →
You can actually taste the journey Chef D’Andre Carter took from his grandma’s South Side kitchen to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts: his barbecue is simultaneously homey and elevated. With a full-service restaurant in Evanston, a food truck, take-out spot in Avondale and residence in Time Out Market, Soul & Smoke is the (pit) master of barbecue in Chicago. What’s your pleasure? Smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich crammed with succulent strands of pulled pork shoulder and apple slaw enhanced with Chef Carter’s Signature BBQ Sauce; perfectly cooked greens enriched with savory bits of smoked turkey; gooey cavatappi noodles smothered in three cheeses; planks of juicy brisket, the marquee meat of barbecue, in a dinner or sandwich escorted by housemade Bread & Butter Pickled Cucumber and Sweet Onions; or buttery, soulful grits crowned with substantial sautéed shrimp and an Andouille sausage bisque. Consider smoked St Louis style ribs, rib tips, chicken gumbo, Cajun salmon filet and fabulous meat-by-the- pound including brisket, pork shoulder and pastrami.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Soul & Smoke’s homey yet elevated preparations makes it the (pit) master of barbecue in Chicago.
Jacky’s expert tip: Anything you make at home begs to be lacquered with Chef’s Signature Barbecue Sauce so buy a bottle to go.
Read more about Soul & Smoke →
Earning two Michelin stars in less than two years, the combo tasting menu restaurant (Smyth) and downstairs tavern (The Loyalist) make up a fever dream for which Chicagoans want no cure. Executive Chef John B. Shields, a veteran of Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, and his Executive Pastry Chef wife, Karen Urie Shields (TRU and Charlie Trotters) have created some genuine magic with their seasonally driven multi-course menus at Smyth. This is the place where farm-to-table really lives as the couple sources directly from The Farm, located an hour south of Chicago, that grows ingredients exclusively for the restaurant. It may sound hoity-toity but the atmosphere is informal and warm featuring an open kitchen and wooden tables in a homey atmosphere. Come as you are and allow two-and-a-half hours for the experience that can be complemented with an optional beverage pairing.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Smyth is the embodiment of the celebration of the table.
Jacky’s expert tip: “Smyth” refers to five years the couple lived, worked and cooked in Smyth County, Virginia, before coming back to Chicago.
Read more about Smyth →
We like to champion home grown restaurants but one cannot deny excellence exiting the kitchen daily at Lure Fishbar, a pescatarian’s fever dream. Adjacent to 21C Museum Hotel, the amber-lit space makes everyone look fetching, so consider a reservation for a first date or romantic night. Warm woods and a burgundy sushi bar adorned with hand-glazed ceramic tiles adds to the elegant atmosphere. Yes, there’s sushi and it’s outstanding: Dynamite Roll is exactly that – spicy scallop topped with spicy tuna, yellowtail and tobiko and even a classic hamachi roll shines with fresh fish flavor. Don’t miss crispy sushi rice serving as a bed for luscious Blue Crab, uni or yellowtail – it’s a bite you’ll not soon forget. Lure is much more than sushi: oysters, some with bright additions like pineapple relish and jalapeño ponzu; Lobster Bisque or New England Clam Chowder brimming with seafood; indulgent appetizers like deviled eggs capped with pint-sized crispy oysters, caviar service and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese; sandwiches from a shrimp po- boy to a classic lobster roll. Not feeling the fish? The Burger “Bash Style, painted with bacon and onion jam, is award-winning. Appealing entrees include an Asian-influenced steamed Red Snapper; grilled Branzino; and pan-seared heirloom chicken. Thoughtful wine list and inventive cocktails will hook you, too.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Sophisticated but unfussy, Lure Fishbar offers fresh fish from around the globe, raw bar with a rotating selections, and an impressive sushi program.
Jacky’s expert tip: Reach the rest rooms through the curtain that leads to the art gallery in the 21C Museum Hotel.
Read more about Lure Fishbar Chicago →
Although the Chicago dining orbit feels the tourism gravity in River North, you’d do yourself a favor by giving the south side some love. Virtue is an American southern restaurant in Hyde Park oozing hospitality, gratefulness and just great food. Chef Erick Williams, formerly Executive Chef of lauded restaurant MK and partner of Michelin rated County Barbeque, combines all that celebrated experience with his passion for southern culture. The restaurant evokes the warmth of Williams’ great grandmother’s home and honors his ancestors through the intricate recipes: biscuits with homemade butter and pimento cheese; rice dirtied with gizzards and gravy; collards with smoked turkey; gumbo, BBQ pork steak with smothered cabbage; roast chicken; and blackened catfish with Carolina gold rice. Cocktails can be sturdy like the Hyde Park Sazerac or alcohol-free (like the Hummingbird with basil and bitter lemon). See Virtue’s Chef de Cuisine, Damarr Brown, slay it on 2022’s Top Chef.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Diners are treated to an authentic home-cooked experience by way of heritage techniques and secret family recipes.
Jacky’s expert tip: If Chef is offering banana pudding, order the iconic Southern dessert done perfectly at Virtue.
Read more about Virtue →
Diners who have experienced Chef Larry Feldmeir ‘s (Sixteen, The Albert) winter-inspired menu are sure to return to sample his creativity in the warmer months, too, when The Bristol picks from its own garden. The candlelit Bucktown restaurant is the definition of warmth and comfort and that diners can choose highly seasonal, produce-driven ala carte items or an impressive eight-course tasting menu means the popular bistro works for more dining budgets. Autumn brings deftly prepared harvest dishes like Corn Bisque and Agnolotti with ricotta, oyster mushrooms, and charred corn. In winter, you’ll taste pickled and versatile winter vegetables and a variety of ripe citrus enhancing dishes. And spring and summer menus rock the bounty of the earth. Many ala carte diners start with just-baked milk bread, seasonal salad or soup (like celeriac) and a fresh app like trout tartare. “Oohs” and “aahs” emanating from diners begin when the painterly plates hit the table. Hand made fazzoletto (handkerchief pasta) has finely diced shards of carrot cast with bright accents peeking underneath and vibrant edible flowers showered from above. Substantial entrees like half chicken, roast salmon, short rib or super crisp tempura fluke satisfy all the senses. Order another glass of grapes from the deep wine roaster or a coffee by Sparrow to escort the Basque Cake. Lucky kids get their own menu.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Fans of creative, produce-driven fare beat a path to Bucktown’s The Bristol every season.
Jacky’s expert tip: The eight-course tasting menu is available in an all vegetarian version, too.
Read more about The Bristol →
Boka is like the kid in high school who was not only the quarterback and star of the musicals but you couldn’t hate him because he was also a great guy. Ten consecutive Michelin Stars, Best New Chef and Pastry Chef awards and an extensive redesign attract a conga line of curious diners old and new. Award laden Chef/Partner Lee Wolen has his way with seasonal American cuisine elevating even pedestrian vegetables so they stagger the taste buds. Imagine what he does with Whole Roasted Dry Aged Duck or Icelandic Cod? Winning starters include smoked carrots; lightly cured Kampachi; and Black Truffle Tagliolini. Don’t miss arresting, right-sized desserts by Kim Mok that won’t make you groan but glad. Service is impeccable and you’ll leave with an “everything is beautiful” feeling despite the steep tab.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: You have to give the Boka Restaurant Group props – it has written the definitive menu on successful chef-driven restaurants.
Jacky’s expert tip: Don’t fear the eight-course tasting menu because dishes are light, flavor-focused and it’s one surprise after another.
Read more about Boka →
The Alinea, or paragraph mark, signals the start of a new train of thought. The restaurant Alinea has been revolutionizing dinner since 2005 and it’s the only restaurant in Chicago to retain three-star Michelin status (latest in 2021). Chef Grant Achatz’ intersection of art and science draws culinary enthusiasts worldwide wanting to sample one-of-a-kind plates that change constantly on the 20-course menu. The all-small courses may arrive on pillows inflated with lavender air, mini pedestals or wire hangers. It’s dinner as theater, best appreciated by open minds and deep pockets. The first-floor Gallery experience is offered in two “showings” per night for parties of two or four only. The Kitchen Table, for parties of six, is the most intimate and cutting-edge experience. Three salons offer a multi-course tasting menu for parties of two, four or six. Book anything two months in advance online and leave the kids with a sitter.
Recommended for Best Restaurants because: Alinea creates a hallucination of culinary genius – it’s art, it’s science and it’s unforgettable.
Jacky’s expert tip: Plan and reserve your experience as far in advance as possible.
Read more about Alinea →
Born in Bucktown when bulletproof was a home safety choice and not a coffee order, Jacky Runice has been knocking around Chicago as a professional print, online and broadcast journalist and… More About Jacky
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Visit a ‘real’ neighborhood before it gets the gentrification overhaul of tidy uniformity. Try Bridgeport for old world bakery or Uptown for banh mi.