For all their differences in cuisine, style and environs, the restaurant openings of the past year betrayed what’s become a common theme: that Chicago is a Second City when it comes to dining.
No more. Just ask Bon Appetit, which named us Restaurant City of the Year.
Among the standouts in this banner year, two long-awaited solo ventures dazzled us with soulful, confident cooking from Vietnam and Mexico. A respected culinary figure finally debuted his second restaurant — a stunningly architectural spot with toothsome, globetrotting shareables.
Elsewhere, the minds behind the city’s most important farm-to-table restaurant tried their hand at modernist, veg-forward cooking at the Museum of Contemporary Art, with gorgeous results.
The most surprising entrant of the year? An unassuming storefront west of Chinatown that’s slinging some of the city’s most authentic (read: lip-tingling) Sichuan street fare.
All this and more awaits as we present our 10 favorite openings of the year.
Mi Tocaya Antojeria
Daring Mexican food for the soul
Beyond being one of the most celebrated openings of the year, Diana Dávila’s utterly delicious Mexican shared-plates joint in Logan Square may also be its most significant. Mi Tocaya, meaning “my namesake,” reflects the deeply personal nature of Dávila’s first solo venture, where she cooks regionally-inspired dishes that have been passed down through her family and reimagined through her singular lens. That means seared cubes of beef tongue painted with peanut chile salsa. Or mussels and pozole in smoky pork and chile broth. Also nopal stew topped with creamy burrata. The bright, bustling spot fills up fast, so book ahead or prepare to wait over a few draft sangriscos (pisco, grapefruit and fortified wine), which — fair warning — go down dangerously easy. If the drinks don’t go to your head, the vibe surely will.
New York vibes and global small plates sans cliche
On first read, you’d be forgiven if the descriptor “globally influenced small plates” provokes an eye roll. But Proxi transcends the oft-muddled fusion category in the capable hands of chef Andrew Zimmerman (of next-door older sibling Sepia). Zimmerman churns out inspired, cravable street fare from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in a bustling, architectural brasserie with consistently excellent service. He had us at the tempura elotes — the confoundingly crunchy yet pliant sweet corn cakes laced with chile and drizzled with crema that we reordered on (three!) subsequent visits. Succulent fried fish collar in a pool of habit-forming Thai-chili garlic sauce has a similar effect — particularly when washed down with Don’t Chouette It, an effervescent aperol and blood orange sipper that intensifies as its champagne ice cubes melt. Like everything here, it’ll leave you wanting more.
A Place by Damao
Authentic, like seriously authentic, Sichuan street food
Every once in awhile, a restaurant comes along that pushes the conversation forward about a certain cuisine. The spot? A Place by Damao, an unassuming little storefront in a strip mall on south Halsted. The cuisine? Sichuan — more specifically, the simple, spicy dishes you’d find all over the streets of Chengdu, China. Chef Aishan “Damao” Zhong takes us to her home via toothsome hand-cut noodles with roasted peanuts, braised duck necks, fatty roasted pig trotters and supple, garlicky pork dumplings — all doused in house-made chili oil, dusted with numbing Sichuan peppercorns or some combo thereof. It’s unapologetic (though staff are extra diligent on water refills) and impactful — not least of all in that slow Sichuan pepper burn that stays on your lips long after the meal ends.
Contemplative, veg-centric dishes from Team Lula
With vibrant jewel-tones, immersive artwork from British figurative artist Chris Ofili and vaulted ceilings, Marisol certainly looks the part of the in-house restaurant at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Foodwise, the inventive, fleeting menu from Lula Cafe’s Jason Hammel and Sarah Rinkavage more than lives up to its locale. These longtime agents of plants’ creative potential approach Marisol’s menu with a similarly artistic touch, coating sweet roasted winter squash in heady sherry nduja vinaigrette and giving octopus the boquerones treatment via vinegar curing and an aromatic oil marinade. Cocktails are decidedly funky and low octane, as barman Brian Case plays with one of the city’s best arsenals of aperitivos and vermouths. Much like the works surrounding Marisol, you can contemplate each bite and sip, or just sit back and appreciate the beauty of a well-executed meal.
A whimsical Japanese pub with a forager's ethos
Leave it to chef Iliana Regan (Elizabeth) to create the kind of neighborhood restaurant that manages to surprise and comfort in equal measure. Kitsune produces technically faithful renditions of small and large Japanese plates using a mostly Midwestern larder. Meaning: silky, Midwestern “tofu” made from buttermilk and cream and English pea miso — lovingly described by servers who temper enthusiasm with polite restraint (in such a cozy 24-seater, you appreciate those boundaries). We fell hard on our first visit for the donburi (rice bowl) laced with chicken thighs and soft scrambled eggs, dutifully washed down with sake. Each visit has unearthed new delights: a hubcap-sized savory pancake (okonomiyaki) laced with braised greens and ginger, and creamy gomae with skipjack katsuobushi. Yet every meal here starts the same: slathering rafts of koji porridge bread with house-cultured butter, which betrays Regan’s bread-baking abilities (RIP, Bunny). In short, Kitsune sets the standard for what the corner joint can and should be.
A taste of Vintage Paris at the palatial Waldorf
Award-winning chef/prolific restaurateur Michael Mina finally made his Windy City debut this year, and we were pleasantly surprised that Margeaux Brasserie brought as much substance as style to its showy Waldorf Astoria digs. Dressed in marble with black and gold accents, this sultry boite has date night written all over it. Start with a Hemingway-inspired cocktail in the handsome lounge, then feast on exec chef Brent Balika’s vintage Paris classics, like tender mussels and lardons in vermouth-scented broth, Provencal tomato tart tatin and impeccable charred strip steak and frites. Because you’re already splurging, don’t skip Ashley Torto’s showstopping desserts — specifically, the bonkers banana tarte tatin with citrus caramel and honey ice cream. It may not live in the realm of bootstrapping independents that define Chicago, but it’s a damn special place to occupy on an occasion-worthy eve.
A Midwestern reclamation of pasta
In a year that saw plenty of plant-forward openings, few were more earnest in their execution than pasta-centric Daisies, where Ex-Balena and Perennial Virant chef Joe Frillman uses meat more often as seasoning than centerpiece. At this charming Logan Square spot, earthly delights — sourced when possible from Frillman’s brother’s farm — are coaxed to their most flavorful, as in carrot rillettes cooked in duck fat and raw shaved butternut squash with pecans, brown butter and herbs. Co-starring are a half-dozen expertly delicate pastas, like tortellini with lentils, kale and pork sausage and — our favorite — garlicky tajarin ribbons with pole beans and chicken cracklins’ standing in for breadcrumbs. The narrow space feels crowded, but the vibe is casual enough, and the pastas mesmerizing enough, that you won’t care.
Craveable Vietnamese by way of Pilsen
Not only was HaiSous one of our favorite openings of the year, it was by far the most feel-good. After husband-and-wife duo Thai and Danielle Dang endured an ugly divorce with now-shuttered Embeya, they set out to bring authentic Vietnamese fare to historic Pilsen. The comeback of the year was well worth the wait — a genial wood and brick eatery churning out a mix of unfussy dishes plucked from chef Thai’s family tree and sampled by the Dangs on the streets of Hanoi. Don’t leave without trying the Hến Xúc Bánh Đa, chopped clams imbued with Thai basil and lime juice, or the fried chicken wings lacquered with caramelized fish sauce. For your banh mi fix, adjacent cafe Cà Phê Dá peddles said sandwiches, coffee and cocktails morning through the wee hours.
New American, dripping with luxury
Often when “best of the year” list planning begins, we keep one or two late-in-the-year openers on our radar. Enter Bellemore: the powerhouse duo of Boka Group’s world-class hospitality and chef Jimmy Papadopoulos’ inspired culinary talent. Here, Papadopoulos — best known for making Czech food sexy at Bohemian House — takes soulful, seasonal flavor combinations to cerebral places. Think shaved foie gras with smoked raisin marmalade and cinnamon-raisin toast and skate wing with wild black trumpet mushrooms, braised celery and uni butter-infused lobster broth. Bellemore’s handsome environs, with its brass chandeliers and dark leather banquettes, suit the decadent menu, and — with neighboring Proxi, Sepia, Salero, Blackbird and Avec — rounds out a formidable stretch of West Loop restaurants east of the Kennedy Expressway. Be warned: this isn’t the kind of place you pop into for snacks (we see you, $65 savory oyster pie slathered in caviar) — this is commital fine dining, in the best way.
Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar
Your everyday neighborhood caviar joint
We’ll admit we had our doubts about this newcomer in the bygone Bar Marta space; the notion of a caviar bar in Humboldt Park had the familiar “there goes the neighborhood” ring of an organic juice bar. But this immigrant-homaging corner barstaurant is recasting caviar from a status symbol of the rich to an affordable nosh to wind down with after work with a stiff drink. It’s a trend we’re pleased to see taking hold all over town — at rad upscale deli Steingold’s, cult-fave Cafe Marie-Jeanne and newish wine bar the Press Room, to name a few. At Heritage, start with a customary shot of house-infused vodka with brown bread and pickle chaser, and let friendly staff guide you to cured roe bliss. We’d suggest a platter on your first visit, which gets you buttered slabs of Russian black rye toast, seasonal pickled goodies, house-fried chips and all the tiny chopped accoutrements required to build your ideal bite (plus bonus tobiko and Michigan roe). Round things out with a few toothsome, beef heart pelmeni (Russian dumplings), and watch the day’s woes drift away.