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). Let's get it.
Moody Tongue Tasting Room
Ever since culinary-minded brewer Jared Rouben opened his Moody Tongue microbrewery in 2014, we’ve heard whispers of a tasting room to follow. Well, gents, it’s here, and it’s pretty: an implausibly airy-yet-intimate space with a fireplace, walnut dining tables and crescent-shaped leather booths surrounding a pristine 25-seat marble bar. On tap are four staple and eight limited-release, chef-driven beers, which you’ll sip from delicate bespoke stemware. In a deliciously Marie Antoinette-esque nod, your only two food choices are a rotating selection of fresh-shucked oysters and a pound-and-a-half slab of 12-layer German chocolate cake. Why? Because those are Rouben’s two favorite beer pairings. And, more importantly, why the f*ck not?
Baptiste & Bottle
You may not think Chicago was necessarily starved for another whiskey bar. But then along came Baptiste & Bottle — perched on the 20th floor of the shiny new Conrad Hotel — with its tableside-made cocktails and a lengthy list of rare spirits and house-infused bourbons. At the time of writing, your correspondent is sipping on the Huntsman, a smoky concoction of Glenfiddich 14yr Scotch, Giffard Apricot, Punt e Mes and Rooibos Smoke. Get that. Throw in a menu twice as bold with dishes like tasso-spiced pork rinds and spaetzle with duck confit, plated up all sexy-like by executive chef James Lintelmann, and your must-hit list of whiskey bars just got longer.
Sensing Wicker Park needed something homier than the offshoot of his tourist-haven sandwich joint Xoco, Rick Bayless has morphed Xoco Bistro into a spot inspired by the casual eateries (“fondas”) of Mexico City. The space and holdout tortas on the menu may look similar, but Fonda Frontera is all about wood-fired cooking, seafood and — fittingly for this boozy stretch of Milwaukee — the bar. Expect everything from the chicken to housemade masa to get kissed by a flame, and don’t skip the super-fresh ceviche from chef John Sullivan’s raw seafood bar. With a hefty list of tequilas, mezcals and local-leaning craft beers, you could make a night of it (till 11 p.m. on weekends anyway). No matter how long you linger, make the smoky mezcal negroni your last good decision.
If you, like us, sometimes long for an era when small plates were simply appetizers and entrees were never shareable, the Barn embodies old-school dining sans stuffiness. Hidden down an alley in downtown Evanston, the latest spot from Found’s Amy Morton beautifully melds old (restored brick walls) and new (oxblood leather booths and a whimsical gossamer chandelier). It’s a theme that extends to chef Nicole Pederson’s menu. Think seared calf liver with bacon, leeks and red wine alongside hulking ribeyes on the bone with succulent bone marrow butter, nodding to Morton’s dad Arnie Morton — yes, of the iconic steakhouse Morton. The espresso-drowned affogato is a fitting ender, particularly if you accept the option to douse it in PX sherry — aka grandma’s favorite aperitif.
Those mourning the loss of beloved Logan Square Cajun spot Analogue will find a delectable salve in Fifolet, a New Orleans-style joint in the bygone Division St. Ale House space. Named for the mystical blue lights floating above the Louisiana bayou, Fifolet pays homage to the Big Easy’s food and drink in a festive space adorned with mardi gras masks and antique mirrors. Executive chef Kevin Crouse lets his Cajun/Creole roots shine via blackened shrimp creole, fried alligator tails smothered in crawfish etoufee and all manner of po’boys. Sip on a classic sazerac, or for something more festive, a few deceptively potent frozen hurricanes. Then wander out onto WP’s own mini Bourbon St. Just remember: unlike NOLA, you can’t take these hurricanes with you.