To keep tabs on every Chicago bar and restaurant opening is folly. But to keep tabs on the most worthy? Yeoman’s work, and we’re proud to do it. Thus we present Table Stakes, a monthly rundown of the five (or so) must-know spots that have swung wide their doors in the past thirty (or so). Do it to it.
Photo: Galdones Photography
The moment you see the crackling wood fireplace outside the vintage brick building housing one of 2016’s best new restaurants, you’ll sense this spot is special, and rightfully so. In fact, it's so good we had to tell ya about it twice. At Elske, husband-wife duo David and Anna Posey deliver the food and casually refined vibe that hint at the future of fine dining. The name is Danish (meaning love), but the food weds classical technique with Scandinavian-esque whimsy. The eight-course tasting menu — currently graced with creamed parsnips with caviar and an earthy duck liver tart with buckwheat and salted ramps — is a (comparatively) reasonable $80. But we also strongly suggest the a la carte soft scrambled eggs with confited chicken thigh. Decisions! Clever ingredient play carries over to Kyle Davidson’s bevvies, too, where matsutake-infused gin lends funk to a negroni and white grape juice mocktails are imbued with yeast.
Photo: Derek Richmond
Need an escape from Wicker Park without leaving the hood? This Publican spinoff is the grown-up tavern of your dreams hidden in the belly of the Six Corners beast. Publican Anker’s saloony ambience nods to its West Loop sibling, with industrial-chic touches like a zinc bar, wood bench seating and orb lights. Foodwise, chef AJ Walker’s delectable pub burger — with caramelized onions, special sauce and garlicky PQM pickles — is getting a lotta early love. But it’s the veg dishes we can’t get out of our heads, like the grilled cukes with whipped ricotta and zhoug, or fried eggplant with spicy honey and halloumi. Oh, did we forget the burnt chile chicken wings? You’ll want those, too. Get there early to snag a coveted window seat, then settle in with a few rounds for the city’s finest people-watching.
Income Tax Bar
This inviting spot in sleepy Edgewater embodies the kind of easygoing conviviality that’s so often lacking in the wine bar category. Income Tax’s Euro-leaning wine list is equal parts food-friendly and progressive, though you’d be remiss not to venture into the funky brandies also on offer. Executive chef and Empellon Cocina (NYC) alum Ryan Henderson’s highly shareable menu combines the best of Italy, France, Spain and Germany sans cliches. We’ll be starting every meal here with flammkuchen, a crisp onion tart with bacon and fromage blanc. The silky agnolotti with shaved purple carrot and fried veal sweetbreads is gorgeous in looks and flavor. By far our favorite feature, though, is Income Tax’s wine bottle sharing program, which lets diners pop any bottle on the list, drink as much as they want and leave the rest for others to order by the glass. No shame in finishing it, either.
Cafe Tola Lonchería y Tacos
The storefront that once housed encased meats temple Hot Doug’s has a new reason for you to line up: golden, savory empanadas. Cafe Tola Lonchería y Tacos is the second outpost of Victoria and Gerardo Salamanca’s growing empanada empire, and we’ll gladly bow down for more of their light-yet-sturdy stuffed delights. Our picks from the half-dozen, daily-rotating empanadas include spicy pork verde churched up with green chilies and black beans, and soul-warming rajas with potatoes and cheese. The space is bright, fun and heavy on kitsch — think poppy Frida Kahlo-esque artwork, vintage toys and seats lined with colorful serape blankets. Bonus: Cafe Tola is BYO. Double bonus: it’s a five-minute walk from rad craft beer shop The Beer Temple, so pick up some strange brews on your way.
Photo: Neil Burger
WonFun and 2Fun Chinese
Chicago’s dismal showing on Chinese food outside Chinatown took a turn last year with the arrival of Duck Duck Goat and Imperial Lamian. So when Bar Marta’s Austin Baker jumped into the fray with the bi-level Won Fun eatery and karaoke bar 2Fun upstairs, we were first in line. The downstairs, lidded with red Chinese lanterns, turns out Sichuan staples like mouth-tingling mapo tofu and superbly toothy, spicy dandan noodles. Plus: potent, tangy cocktails to match. The pisco-tinged strawberry daiquiri is a must. Upstairs, the karaoke/dim sum lounge maintains more of the industrial feel of its former inhabitant (J.P. Graziano’s wholesale arm), anchored by a massive cube-shaped bar. Karaoke happens on Tuesdays; navy-strength old fashioneds make for good liquid courage.
Photo: Alexi Bouvet-Boisclair
The eighth spot from Team Fifty/50, this cocktail lounge perched just above the posh Berkshire Room at the ACME Hotel takes a more laid-back tact than its chic first-floor sibling — something River North could use more of. Bodega’s throwback living-room layout matches its retro cocktail menu, inspired by corner-store ingredients. Expect spiked soda pops, boozy brown cocktails served in grab-and-go glass flasks and those dangerously downable (pink!) negroni coladas. Soak up the booze with pastries from Fifty/50’s West Town Bakery.
Photo: Ben Macri
Back to the West Loop again, you ask? If it means Latin American and Caribbean fare from ex-Rural Society chef Cory Morris plus rum-soaked cocktails and the potential for a Dwyane Wade sighting, then sí, claro. Morris flexes his culinary muscle with an exceptional tour of south-of-the-border flavors. Standouts include cured beef “matambre” with hardboiled eggs and chimichurri emulsion, and a stunning whole-fried snapper with coconut-cola rice that recalls owner Nils Westlind’s favorite Colombian beach fare. There are no wrong decisions on the lengthy cocktail list, though consider instead sipping one of 80 hand-selected rums over ice. Partiers, take note: there’s a forthcoming, reservation-only speakeasy upstairs, complete with clandestine entry, live music and copper swans full of large-format pisco sours.
Main Photo: Elske/Galdones Photography