The days when deep-dish pizza and dawgs were considered Chicago’s sole contributions to global cuisine are long gone. In fact the city has shot to the top of the country’s food chain in recent years, driven by a fresh crop of on-trend chefs, and its dynamic new restaurants have turned entire Chicago streets into running buffet lines. Where to go now? Consider the following guide a little taste of what’s getting dished up right now.
Best Korean BBQ
Pan-Asian kitchens are popping up everywhere in the city, but BellyQ, a barnlike dining room on West Randolph’s endless restaurant row, is one of the most assured. That’s partly because chef Bill Kim is no novice; his Urbanbelly and Belly Shack restaurants have earned him a devoted fan base. But it’s also because BellyQ’s increasing focus on Korean comfort food, particularly barbecue, makes for a sharply curated meal that balances lusty and refined flavors. Start with fried chicken marinated in sweet chili and lime, which is as good as it sounds. Then move on to either the tea-smoked duck breast or the sweet-meats, smoky baby-back pork ribs roused by homemade hoisin. Order a side of feathery steam buns, so you can bundle up the velvety meat into an unforgettable sandwich.
Best Asian Tapas
If BellyQ serves up a bellyful of food, Sumi Robata Bar, a tiny River North diner, represents the more minimalist Asian approach. If you want the best view of the cooks grilling delicate skewers of asparagus, shiitake, shrimp, wagyu rib-eye, beef tongue and chicken hearts over pressed Japanese white oak, take a seat at the long glossy wood bar (more white oak) and consider the options. The robata salmon is particularly juicy, but the most memorable things on the grill-happy menu may be two outliers: a small but flavor-packed bowl of yakitori don, its poached egg bleeding yellow yolk over slices of smoky chicken; and a two-bite beef tsukune slider dressed with miso mustard that could be Chicago’s best, or at least most elegant, yet.
bottom-dollar top-chef Lunch (or Dinner)
Chicago’s master chefs, a democratic bunch who want to feed the whole city, are prone to opening casual diners once they earn their Michelin stars. That means if you can’t afford much-touted Blackbird on West Randolph’s restaurant row, you can still dine on chef Paul Kahan’s cuisine at Big Star. At this Wicker Park gem, $3 buys you one knockout of a taco al pastor, the marinated, spit-roasted pork shoulder dressed with grilled pineapple and cilantro. For another $3 get the taco de Panza, a little marvel of crispy braised pork belly, tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco; up it to $5 for a squash, corn and black bean tostada. Not enough? Then try Rick Bayless’ Xoco, which sits close to the master chef’s Topolobampo in River North, but drops the price. The café’s crusty tortas fresh from the griddle can be had for under $12 (particularly good: the chicken with pickled jalapeños and tomatillo-avocado salsa).
Best Silver Service Afternoon Tea
The newly opened Langham hotel sits in a 52-story riverside Mies van der Rohe tower that’s a modernist Chicago landmark. But the hotel brand’s own roots are high Victorian English, and that means afternoon tea — in the cream-colored lounge under a shimmering canopy of floating glass pebbles — is one of the most elaborate in town. Battling for space on the silver tiered trays are cranberry scones, pistachio cinnamon chouquette, chocolate caramel petit fours and every iteration of finger sandwich (smoked salmon rillette to coronation chicken). The choice brew? A wild elderflower tea.
Best Classic Standby
A lot of Chicago restaurants have followed the Avec model (the Mediterranean-meets-Heartlandia menu, communal tables, open kitchen and the no-reservation policy, which means you should get here by 5 p.m. or expect a line), but this West Randolph stalwart still sets the gold standard. Despite another shift in chefs — after Erling Wu-Bower (now heading up the soon-to-debut Nico restaurant in the Thompson Chicago hotel) recently handed the baton to Perry Hendrix — things seem more confident than ever in the gleaming cedar-lined dining room. Hendrix maintains tradition (a k a the kitchen’s famous focaccia) and keeps the vegetarian dishes front and center, from a classic burrata cheese paired with charred beets to a plate of oyster mushrooms tossed with roasted artichokes, goat feta and endive. But he adds some remarkable new tastes, such as a pizza topped with spicy coppa, fresh figs and pistachio pesto. Even better: his wood-oven-roasted pork shoulder sitting in a black pot of bomba rice, clams, green beans and oyster mushrooms, turned silky by a scoop of creamy smoked paprika.
The Best of the New
The rush to be Chicago’s freshest culinary face is one tight race. Fat Rice has won a lot of attention for its Macanese cuisine, represented by the eponymous arroz gordo signature dish that comes loaded with everything from Chinese sausage to Portuguese chicken. Curtis Duffy’s haute Grace wins cred as the most extravagant splurge kitchen, for its 10- to 12-course tasting menus; Kai Zan is dishing up serious purist sushi (no overstuffed designer rolls); Tanta Chicago’s Peruvian menu rediscovers a whole gastronomic world; and Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat Diner (sister to her celebrated Girl & the Goat) competes with Antique Taco for title of most buzzed-about cheap eats contender. But the most seductive surprise may be the Carriage House, if only because it eschews global border hopping for All-American Southern regional standbys like shrimp and grits and Charleston she-crab soup (along with updated Low Country inventions, including an oyster roast with buttermilk aioli). Don’t fill up, though. Eataly Chicago, the supersized Mario Batali Italian food court, is about to open its doors.
Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, writes about food and travel at Epicurious.com, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler and other national magazines.