The 10 Chicago Restaurants We Loved Most in 2021
Celebrating Chicago’s best eats (including “the most insane fried chicken sandwich’”)
As the year winds down, we’re paying tribute to some of our favorite spots that have fought their way to survival throughout the pandemic. Whether completely overhauling their menu at the onset of the pandemic or even opening up during the worst time possible, each restaurant deserves your business (and a ton of credit for making it this far).
It’s certainly been no walk in the park, just ask Andrew Barbera, Owner and Front of House Manager of Edgewater’s Beard & Belly, “The main thing I want people to know is that we are still getting our butts kicked. We have almost no business after 9pm, and every single time there is a Covid surge or a new variant, we see a major dip in sales for weeks or months. The next three months are going to be absolutely crucial for us to survive.”
Other operators have continued to stay in touch with customers throughout the pandemic through the power of social media. Margaret Pak, Chef and Co-Owner of Thattu explained, “we’ve stayed active on social media, engaging as customers continue to message us. They’ve been super supportive with kind notes of encouragement.”
Here are some of our favorite restaurants, how they’ve survived so far and what we think makes them so great.
You’re here because: The Bristol is no newcomer to the Chicago dining scene, with 13 years under its belt. This neighborhood gem’s food quality is as consistently excellent as its high level of service. A robust line-up of “Bristol To Go” dishes and personal greenhouses for dining outside are just two ways The Bristol has adapted to changing diner needs throughout Covid-19. And here, it’s all about diner needs. Executive Chef Larry Feldmeier notes: “We owe the success of making it through to our guests. Focusing on not compromising and making guests feel as welcome and comforted as possible, while still excited to go out.”
You’re dining on: Chef Feldmeier’s menu changes with the seasons — see it in action with the seasonal tasting menu, which recently featured cod rillete with Osetra caviar and apple and parsnip bisque with rabbit sausage. There’s also an à la carte menu if you’re not up for the full experience; don’t leave without trying The Bristol’s signature Basque cake with rotating seasonal garnishes.
2152 N. Damen Ave. (map)
Torchio Pasta Bar
You’re here because: You’re a sucker for comfort food in even comfier digs. Torchio Pasta, helmed by the Varley family, was closed for many months during the pandemic, with some wondering if they’d even reopen their doors. The River North handmade pasta palace reopened in July 2021, with a menu full of favorites and specials. Plus, Torchio has expanded its dining room to include an enclosed, heated and ventilated patio. Unlike another not-to-be-named Italian restaurant, when you’re here, you’re actually family.
You’re dining on: Start with the hearty semolina gnocchi covered with a blanket of mozzarella and marinara, and an order of veal and beef meatballs. The namesake Torchio pasta with sausage and cremini mushrooms in a cream sauce is a must, along with the bolognese with pappardelle served in a Parmesan cheese “basket.” For dessert, don’t forget a slice of the lemon olive oil cake with the most perfect crumb, or tiramisu with a Chicago twist: cold brew espresso from Sparrow Coffee Roastery.
738 N. Wells St. (map)
You’re here because: You’ve followed this Indian street food concept from its humble beginnings. Co-owners Margaret Pak and Vinod Kalathil have made a name for themselves for their street food from the Indian state of Kerala. After its home base, food hall Politan Row, shuttered in fall 2020, Thattu re-emerged through pop-ups across the city, including several at Avondale’s Guild Row. Despite not having a permanent home, Thattu managed to snag a Food & Wine Best New Restaurant nod in summer 2020. The team also crowdfunded and published a food zine showcasing sadya, Kerala’s vegetarian feast.
You’re dining on: Pop-up offerings rotate, but we recommend the Kerala fried chicken, masala biscuits made with more than 20 different Indian spices, and kadala curry with appam, a pillowy, spongy rice crepe. Check out Thattu’s Instagram for alerts on their next pop-up and menu.
3130 N. Rockwell Ave. (map)
Soul & Smoke
West Loop, Avondale, Evanston
You’re here because: You can’t get enough BBQ in your life. Chef D’Andre Carter and Heather Bublick are the powerhouse couple behind Soul & Smoke, which was born out of their Evanston catering business, Feast & Imbibe. When their catering business took a hit due to the pandemic, Soul & Smoke pivoted. According to Heather, “Transforming from a catering company into a takeout restaurant has been the only reason we survived.” Soul & Smoke now operates as a food truck and counter-service spot in Evanston, and is part of Time Out Market in West Loop as well as a virtual kitchen in Avondale.
You’re dining on: The BBQ dishes chef Carter grew up eating. The smoked brisket, St. Louis-style ribs and pulled pork sandwich are comfort food classics. The team pours their heart into their side dishes as well; the three-cheese mac and cheese and cornbread muffins are out of this world. Soul & Smoke makes a mean bottled cocktail, too — try the pineapple margarita or blackberry vodka lemonade.
1601 Payne St., Evanston (map)
You’re here because: You’re on a culinary tour of Michelin chef Carlos Gaytán’s hometown of Huitzuco, Mexico. During the pandemic, Tzuco began offering a takeout menu and winterized its patio for expanded seating. It also hosted a variety of special dinners including a Day of the Dead four-course feast, and a Black & Brown Unity Dinner with Chef Lamar Moore.
You’re dining on: Tzuco’s popular dishes include the Guajillo-roasted octopus and cochinita pibil with black bean puree, pickled red onions, habanero salsa, and warm tortillas. If you’re in search of a truly decadent meal, the Tzuco burger will fit the bill. Think a beef sirloin patty with oven-roasted tomatoes, Gruyère, pickled yellow beet, Serrano peppers, black truffle sauce and black truffle aioli with pommes frites. The dessert menu is full of rotating creative endings, like the “Snowman” with tangerine mousse, cardamom, and white chocolate and rosemary ice cream.
720 N. State St. (map)
Beard & Belly
You’re here because: You’ve been a fan of Beard & Belly since they got their start at Long Room in 2015. Fast forward five years, and the same crew opened their own restaurant in March 2020, just days before you-know-what. Beard & Belly was a takeout-only operation in the beginning but has since expanded to takeout, delivery and dine-in at their renovated Edgewater locale. There’s also a weather-proof patio out back.
You’re dining on: Definite cheat day eats. We’re talking piled-high burgers, mac and cheese, and a Buffalo fried chicken sandwich as big as your face. While the house chips are pretty great, be sure to tack on an order of fried pickles or cheese curds, plus all of the dipping sauces (the spicy remoulade is a favorite). And if you’re in need of something sweet to go with your savory American classics, the salted chocolate brownie is outrageous. You can also grab a slice or two of pie from Milwaukee’s Honeypie Bake Shop, which shares a space with Beard & Belly.
6157 N. Broadway (map)
Verve Wine + Provisions
You’re here because: After running two successful wine shops in New York and San Francisco, Verve Wine opened its third location in Lincoln Park in December 2020. Verve is part retail wine shop, part elevated wine bar, which gave it an advantage throughout the pandemic. According to Executive Chef Ryan Epp, “Having a retail and online component to the operation gave us an opportunity to keep employees and fulfill the needs of our guests in different capacities than we ever anticipated.” But what sets Verve apart is its staff, who are true experts of their craft. Whether you’re looking for the perfect bottle, a chat about your favorite wine region with sommelier João Alves de Sá, or recs for your soon-to-be favorite dishes, you’ll be well taken care of.
You’re dining on: Verve’s food is as stylish as its ambiance, and with chef Ryan Epp at the helm, you know you’re going to eat well. Chef Epp spent time at Per Se, Aviary, and Roister and brings impeccable execution to his dishes at Verve. Standouts include a Roman artichoke with Caesar tapenade and a precisely layered eggplant Parmesan. The brunch menu features cheesy grits with meat-like forest mushrooms, fantastic souffle-like ricotta pancakes and the world’s best biscuit with honeycomb. While you’re there, pick up a bottle or two of wine to go, or pop one open at your table for a minimal corkage fee.
2349 N. Lincoln Ave. (map)
You’re here because: You’re in search of a best-ever date night spot and know you can’t go wrong with traditional French fare. Bistro Campagne has been a Lincoln Square favorite for nearly 20 years, and its consistent quality and intimate ambience continue to be a draw. Throughout the pandemic, Bistro Campagne has gotten creative with its offerings, from holiday meal kits and “spritz kitz” to patio greenhouses and weekly pop-ups from pastry chef Angel Chavez’s virtual bakery, Au Levain.
You’re dining on: All of the French fare favorites from gooey French onion soup and garlicky escargot to classic steak frites and trout amandine. Be sure to pre-order Au Levain pastries for the best selection, or swing by on Sundays for walk-up service at Bistro Campagne. Recent offerings include an eggnog basque cheesecake, apple butter kouign amann, and spinach and feta brioche.
4518 N. Lincoln Ave. (map)
Mas Alla Del Sol
You’re here because: You love to support local, family-owned restaurants that are a staple of their community. Mas Alla Del Sol is owned and operated by the Moreno family, which brings its traditional recipes to a colorful storefront on Broadway in Edgewater. The Morenos pivoted to takeout and delivery throughout the pandemic, and even began bottling their fantastic (and strong!) margaritas, including a rotating flavor of the day.
You’re dining on: If there’s one dish that brings us back time and time again, it’s the mole. Served with enchiladas or chicken leg and thigh, the family recipe is the best in town. The tampiquena (skirt steak) and shrimp served with salsa ranchera are also terrific.
5848 N. Broadway (map)
You’re here because: After operating out of a South Loop ghost kitchen from October 2020 through February 2021, Cluck It finally opened in its own Lincoln Park space in April 2021. Cluck It’s husband and wife chefs, Cainan Edwards and Samantha Zubli, come from a fine dining background — expect sky-high quality in their food sourcing, preparation and even packaging. The team launched a sister concept, OONA, in summer 2021 which features tasting menu pop-ups.
You’re dining on: The most insane fried chicken sandwich you’ll ever lay eyes (and taste buds) on, rightfully named the Mother Clucker. It all starts with a half-pound fried chicken thigh topped with American cheese, coleslaw, pickles and Cluck It sauce on a brioche bun. The crispy breading is light as air, and it’s accompanied by perfectly tender meat and just the right kick of spice (there are four spice levels). Other must-try items include the clucks (boneless nuggets) and an indulgent Slagel Farms beef burger. For dessert, be sure to try another half-pounder: a hefty helping of banana pudding layered with the traditional accoutrements.
2518 N. Lincoln Ave. (map)
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