When it comes to best food cities in America, New York and Los Angeles have always been pitted against each other, vying for our culinary attention, our money, our stomach space. But between all the which-coast-is-the-best-coast skirmishes and friendly face-offs, a culinary renaissance has been taking shape smack in the middle of it all, in Chicago.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this culinary resurgence began. 2015 seems notable, since that’s the year the James Beard Foundation transplanted its illustrious awards—arguably the Oscars of the food world—from New York to Chicago; the penultimate vote of confidence for an aspiring dining destination to compete on the national and international stage. Or was it ten years prior, in 2005, when the pinnacle of molecular gastronomy took shape in the form of Alinea? And then, of course, there was 2017, when Bon Appétit awarded Chicago the “best restaurant city in America” accolade.
Indeed it appears that the “spark” imbuing Chicago’s gastronomic scene—the je ne sais quoi that has acclaimed chefs and sommeliers flocking to the city in droves—can’t be pegged to a defining catalyst. It’s been simmering, low and slow, for well over a decade. But it’s 2019, and the pot is now up to a fierce boil.
It’s high time the world got a taste for what’s been cooking.
As award-winning sommelier Belinda Chang will tell you, it all starts with the ingredients.
“Some people think we’re missing something by not being adjacent to an ocean,” explains Chang. “But being in the Midwest, we have pretty amazing natural resources with original artisan farms and plenty in our lakes. We’re on the corn belt, the grain belt, the beef belt, the pork belt… it’s a really great place to be a chef.”
And a sommelier, too.
Chang, who once famously managed the 26,000-bottle cellar at the (now defunct) Charlie Trotter’s before spending time in New York at Danny Meyer’s The Modern and returning to Chicago to spearhead the approachable wine program at the otherwise splashy steakhouse, Maple & Ash, also had a brief stint in San Francisco running the whole front-of-house at Fifth Floor, which has since transitioned to the more casual concept, Dirty Habit.
Compared to San Franciscans, who Chang claimed all had a wine maker neighbor or friend (or grew their own vines themselves), Chicagoans are far more open-minded because they “don’t just need to support the home team.”
“It’s less prejudicial drinking in some ways,” posits Chang, who herself prefers the garden at Elske for its environment—one that’s uniquely conducive to the enjoyment of a glass of wine: no interfering aromas, just warming fireplaces, furs to wrap yourself in if there’s a chill, an extensive wine list and canapés, of course.
The menu of small plates at Elske, which means love in Danish, is reflective of chef David Posey’s Scandinavian affinities—his mother was Danish and he got engaged to wife and fellow chef Anna Posey in Copenhagen (the two are nominated in this year’s Best Chef: Great Lakes category). With offerings like cured hamachi with crispy potato and dill pickles, or charred leeks with kohlrabi, farmers cheese and smoked trout roe, it’s easy to see why this one-Michelin star spot has so-charmed Chang.
And she’s not alone. John Ross, co-founder of B. Hospitality Co. (under which lives The Bristol, Formento’s, Nonna’s, Swift and Sons and Cold Storage), is drawn to the “really cool, different and fun things” that Posey is doing. That, plus its affordability.
“It’s always good, and it’s actually very reasonably priced for a finer dining-sort of meal. I don’t think there’s an à la carte entrée over $25,” Ross tells us.
Although Chang is “really into canapés” at the moment, if she is craving something more substantial, she can almost always be found at the bar at Monteverde, marveling at chef Sarah Grueneberg’s work and sipping wine while watching the chefs hand-roll pasta.
“She’s one of my favorite chefs in the universe,” Chang says, about Grueneberg, who’s nominated in this year’s Outstanding Chef category. “And the Italian wine program at Monteverde is incredible. It's hands-down one of the best Mediterranean Italian restaurants in Chicago.”
When Caleb Ganzer, a Chicago-native, Eleven Madison Park alum-sommelier and current managing partner at New York’s Compagnie des Vins Surnaturel, visits home, he always finds time to sneak up to the Cherry Circle Room in the Chicago Athletic Club. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance, the wine list there is stocked with what Ganzer tells us are otherwise difficult vintages to find… “and they’re just sitting there!”
The reason? It’s a difficult market to sell fine wines compared to what he’s become accustomed to in New York.
“There are people who know and love those wines there, but it’s a smaller percentage of the wine-drinking population,” Ganzer explains. “So they have things that nobody has in New York City—by which I mean really coveted, highly allocated wines that everyone gets a set allocation for. Here in New York, either the somms drink them or they sell immediately and never sit around. And you go to Chicago and they’re on the list, and they have back vintages and the prices are totally reasonable, which is great for people who go back often. You just pluck ‘em.”
Natural resources, open-minded clientele and coveted wines may draw chefs and sommeliers alike to the city, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to succeed there. In fact, according to Chang...
...Chicagoans have to work harder to compete with their ocean-adjacent counterparts.
“You have to be better and more on your game to be on the same level as your peers in cities like Los Angeles or New York,” Chang explains, “but we’re absolutely competitive.”
Grit is the first adjective chef Beverly Kim would use to describe Chicago’s ethos, too.
Kim, a former Top Chef contestant and one-half of the husband-and-wife-nominated duo behind the Korean-American hotspot Parachute, famously spoke out about the precarious double standard of being a woman in a culinary leadership capacity long before the Me Too movement gained traction. Today, she and her husband Johnny Clark are busy opening a new, highly-anticipated restaurant in the same Avondale neighborhood, less than a block south of Parachute. Having grown up in the Chicago area, working in the restaurant industry since age 16, Kim has weathered her fair share of rough Chicago winters—something that, she tells us, contributes to this very sense of uniquely Midwestern fortitude that sets Chicago apart.
“If the weather’s not awesome, we still shove to work on time and we don’t complain, because we take our craft seriously. The diners come out in really cold weather, and it creates this interesting camaraderie because we all go through these extreme conditions together and there’s this down-to-earth nature that you have to have about it. Hospitality can be cold, but here it has to be very warm.”
And if it isn’t, well, people will hear about it. Depending on who you ask, that can be a positive or negative byproduct of being what Kim refers to as a “very small big city.” You have to play nice.
“I find it to be an embracing city, but it’s also a tough city,” explains Andrew Brochu, a Chicago transplant who moved in 2005 to work at Alinea before transitioning to Kith & Kin in Lincoln Park, and eventually making his way back to the group to helm the kitchen at Roister. Having since departed to open his own, yet-to-be-disclosed, restaurant concept, Brochu tells us that the competition stems from Chicago slowly coming into its own as a growing, aggressive area.
“I’ve got a lot of tight-knit friends who are competitors but also my best friends in the world. There’s a lot of patting each other on the back when something’s going well, but there’s a lot of friendly competition, too.”
On the rare nights when Brochu gets the chance to escape the kitchen and eat out, he opts for casual. Monteverde is a neighborhood go-to for him, so he may very well brush shoulders with Chang. Or he’s at Virtue, a Hyde Park establishment dishing out Southern fare at its comforting, stick-to-your-ribs finest. Gumbo with andouille, fried chicken and rice; biscuits with a fried egg and smoked turkey gravy; beef short ribs with creamed spinach; the requisite shrimp and grits.
“Everything’s just really tasty and comes from a place of hospitality more than ego, which is why I like it,” explains Brochu. “You can go with 4-6 people, order a plethora of things and just have a good time. The dining experience there is second to none.”
For a good cocktail, Brochu veers towards Lost Lake, a tropical tiki bar and three-time James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program (and nominee this year). If anything can be an antidote to the harsh Chicago winters, it's "Salty in all the Right Places"—a bright and bold cocktail that comes together with rhum agricole, Overproof Jamaican rum, papaya, coconut, lime, salt and absinthe.
And for a glass of wine? The Press Room, an unassuming wine bar nestled underneath a hair salon, in a century-old building that was once a holography museum, casket factory and Free Methodist Publishing House—not all at once. With a stocked roster of by-the-glass pours, Brochu tells us that The Press Room is not a secret per se, but “it’s not quite discovered yet.”
Chicago’s size is not the only geographical influence on its culinary culture. According to Kim, layout plays a role as well.
As a sprawling city with a handful of little, nondescript neighborhoods, there’s a unique runway for creativity—for taking risks without the as-formidable pressure of making ends meet that exists in the downtown.
“People can take a little more of a risk in select neighborhoods and do something authentic to who they are instead of having to appeal to the masses,” argues Kim. “And people will definitely get in their car and travel for good food. They’ll venture out of their own neighborhoods—whether it be Logan Square, Wicker Park, Andersonville, or River North—because of the vibe, the food, the overall experience—and not just for special occasions.”
One spot chefs from all around Chicago are getting into their car to travel to is Galit, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Lincoln Park that just opened its doors in spring 2019. Owned and operated by Andrés Clavero and James Beard 2017 Rising Chef Of The Year for Shaya, Zach Engel, Galit dishes out everything from lamb with crispy saffron crust, golden raisins and almonds, to crispy chicken thighs with celery root, medjool dates and hand-rolled couscous. The standard mezze make an appearance (think labneh with sumac and sesame, and Turkish tomatoes), along with four variations of hummus—the Tehina version doctored up with sumac, Nana mint and “way too much olive oil” caught our eye.
“Everyone I know has been going and just loves it so much,” says Meg Galus, executive pastry chef of Boka and Somerset and a 2019 James Beard nominee for the category. “It’s well executed, and it’s easy to go and share a lot of things. Definitely one of the city's best new restaurants.”
Galus being a dessert aficionado, it stands to reason that she’d travel for the sweets, especially when it comes to pastry programs that strike the perfect balance between refinement and approachability at a finer dining level—something that, she tells us, is an ongoing challenge as a pastry chef in a city with a sweet spot, no pun intended, for comfort foods.
“I try and come up with things where people can look at the menu and immediately say, OMG I need to have that chocolate and peanut butter, for example. There needs to be something familiar that grabs them, and then it’s my job to layer surprise and refinement on top of that,” says Galus.
So when she saw former colleague, pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky’s menu at Bellemore, Galus didn’t just get in her car to taste it. She brought her whole team along for the ride.
“We went and just tore through her whole menu,” Galus says, laughing. “And she had this cashew tart that just blew me away,” she tells us, referring to Omilinsky’s cashew caramel tart with farro verde ice cream, sorghum aigre doux, bergamot and puffed grains.
Another restaurant that chefs from every corner of the city flock to religiously? Smyth and The Loyalist. This dual-concept space in the West Loop features a farm-to-table fine-dining tasting menu experience on the first floor with a more casual bar/lounge below. All produce is sourced from their proprietary, 20-acre farm, which sits an hour south of the city—with ample preservation techniques like fermenting, pickling and curing embraced by husband-and-wife chef duo John Shields and Karen Urie Shields to extend the seasons; to exist as “inherently rooted in the Midwest but never limited by it.”
“It’s fun to see a chef’s mind and creativity come to life,” says Stephanie Izard—the first female to win Top Chef who later went on to open Girl & The Goat in 2010 and, just last month, Cabra, a Peruvian spot on the roof of the Hoxton Hotel—when asked about Smyth. “It's such a cool way to look at food.”
Brochu agrees, and while he gravitates towards the “neighborhood vibe” of The Loyalist for a good burger (which also happens to have a stellar lineup of cocktails with ingredients like farm pine honey, persimmon, pistachio and chamomile), if he were to opt for fine dining, it’d invariably be Smyth. “I’ve been there a couple of times,” he tells us, “and I just think it’s spectacular.”
For Ross, the unexpected combination of flavors and composition of dishes you’ll find at Smyth almost borders on molecular gastronomy—with Shields’ signature Brioche Doughnut With Aged Beef Au Jus a perfect example.
“He does crazy, crazy things,” says Ross. “And they work. He’s doing stuff that nobody is doing; he’s just really talented.”
If Smyth hovers somewhere close to molecular gastronomy, Alinea hits it smack in the center.
Founded in 2005 by chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Alinea features a single, seasonally-driven tasting menu of 18-22 courses—the likes of which include dishes as conceptually-titled as "Scallop, Citrus Aroma, Fourteen Textures" or "Binchotan, Tokyo Inspiration."
But for all the times the phrase “molecular gastronomy” is spewed in reference to this bonafide Chicago institution and its trailblazing culinary artistry, very few can define what that means at all.
“It was a title that was added to something from people outside of the industry,” Brochu argues. “People who have been a part of it or worked in places that are considered that style of restaurant have a hard time pinpointing it as well. For me, though, it’s just about being more creative than your everyday place.”
For Kokonas, the task at hand is less about explaining what molecular gastronomy is and more about clarifying what it is not.
“The press almost never gets this correct,” Kokonas tells us. “It is NOT molecular in the scientific meaning of the word. It’s molecular in the artistic sense of breaking down complex works to their component parts. Unfortunately, it’s come to mean ‘science-y cooking’ and that’s not it.”
And anyway, in his mind, Alinea isn’t anything but “progressive” by way of using food as a proxy for a holistic, emotional experience that focuses more on the composition than on any singular technique.
Winner of the Best Restaurant in America award three times over and the only restaurant in Chicago (and one of only 12 in the US) to earn the coveted 3-star Michelin rating, Alinea is revered as what Ganzer refers to as “the Noma of Chicago”—an apt descriptor for a restaurant that Journy cofounder Leiti Hsu argues, “elevates everything in the city.”
"Yes, the price point is elevated, but fine dining wouldn’t be profitable otherwise,” explains Hsu. “It needs room to do edgy things. And while it's nice and all that a restaurant is good, there are restaurants that are important, restaurants that have changed minds and inspired and impacted far more people than the few who have stepped foot inside the dining room and the kitchen—restaurants like Noma, Osteria Francescana and Alinea."
And yet, as a large fish in a small pond, Alinea has become so tightly synonymized with Chicago dining, spawning what some have not-so-affectionately coined an “Alineage”—one in which you have to artfully dance around. Remember, Chicago is a very small big city.
Would the concept succeed if it were transplanted to a big big city like New York? It’s hard to say. Some, like Ganzer, point to the fall of Paul Liebrandt’s Atlas and Papillon as a clear indicator that the style “is too avant-garde for New Yorkers;” however, Kokonas is of the mindset that Alinea would have done just fine in the Big Apple.
“It is true that the NYC rent stifles risk-taking at the outset,” he concedes, “but a properly ambitious avant-garde restaurant that has everything put together would kill it in NYC.”
While we’ll be the first to defend the merits of Alinea—Journy founder Susan Ho has been twice and calls it “incredible”—we’d never let its stars eclipse the countless other notable Chicago restaurants worth your culinary attention, your time, your stomach space. And neither would Galus.
In fact, Chicago's lack of pretention is one of the qualities she loves most about the city.
“What’s lovely about Chicago, and what truly makes our dining scene, is that we have really well done food at every level of cuisine—from taco trucks and takeout to Alinea,” Galus explains. “And there’s no sense in the industry that Alinea is better than a smaller restaurant serving excellent food just by nature of its three Michelin-star status. People here are looking for a variety of experiences, and we provide them. And we can all exist and be in harmony and be friends.”
Like Daisies, for example, which Galus gravitates towards as much for its “really beautifully, well done, handmade pasta” as its laid-back atmosphere. “It’s an easy place to go to on a night out—to not have to get really dressed up or being super formal,” she tells us.
Or Café Marie-Jeanne, a Humboldt Park hole-in-the-wall which Kim loves for its “hearty, French undertones which still have a little Chicago in there.” Run by husband-wife team Michael Simmons and Val Szafranski, this small, neighborhood gem offers a handful of standard French classics like steak tartare and boudin noir, in addition to dishes that fall somewhere between French-ish and fusion: bacon habanero biscuits, ham and Comté croissant and ham, butter and pickles sandwich.
And because we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention pizza in the world of casual Chicago dining, there’s Lou Malnati’s, by now a household name, at least for Ganzer, Brochu and Galus.
It has everything you’d expect from an award-winning slice of deep dish hearty enough to warrant a fork and knife: slices of mozzarella placed directly on the dough (the recipe for which is a highly coveted Malnati family secret), add-ons (like sausage, onions and mushrooms) spread on top of the cheese and fresh tomato sauce generously dolled out on top. Another dusting of cheese follows, finished by a sprinkling of spices.
“You just eat one slice and you’re totally full,” Ganzer adds, laughing. “Some New Yorkers hate it and say ‘that’s not even pizza,’ but there’s just something I love about it—all the cheese, the sauce and the buttery crust.”
It seems you can’t go wrong with Lou Malnati’s…unless, that is, you order it for delivery and don’t ask for it uncut. “It changes once it's cut,” Galus tells us, “so you always have to cut it at home. Always.”
While not all Chicago chefs agree on the best slice of deep dish (cue the turf war between Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East and Pequod's), there is somewhat of a consensus that, however beloved the style is, it is not Chicago-style pizza. What it is, is tourist pizza.
“True Chicago pizza is actually tavern-style, super thin cracker crust,” says Kokonas, who points to Vito & Nick’s for a genuine slice. Among the handful of thin-crust-but-not-exactly-Chicago-style pizza sits Pizzeria Bebu, beloved not only by Kokonas but also Ross and Galus.
Husband-and-wife owners Zach and Rachel Smith, along with chef Jeff Lutzow, are inflecting a new spirit into the Chicago pizza scene courtesy of their crispy, gently charred crust and inventive, market-driven toppings: Calabrian honey, wild-forest mushrooms, jalapeño, pickled Fresno chiles.
“It’s somewhere between Neapolitan and a NY slice,” says Ross.
For a New Haven-style slice (think lots of tomato sauce with a generous drizzle of olive oil and Parmesan, but no mozzarella), Izard heads to Piece Brewery & Pizzeria which, she admits, is pretty much her “go-to favorite thing to eat. Any time of day.”
Sitting side-by-side with pizza on the list of Chicago’s casual dining scene are hot dogs—piled high with yellow mustard, white onions, sweet pickle relish, tomato slices, celery salt… essentially everything you’d want nestled inside a poppy seed bun... except ketchup.
For Kim and Ganzer, the spot to be is Portillo’s (which has outposts across Illinois and the broader Midwest), while Galus swears by SuperDawg and Wrigley Field—the latter by virtue of its nostalgia factor more than anything else.
For most of its recent history, Chicago has been synonymous with these casual, quintessentially Midwestern classics. After all, as Ganzer argues, “it’s more of a humble town [compared to New York]. Chicagoans are much more supportive and curious and less concerned with status and doing things the right way.”
Yet the tides seem to be changing—at least for Kim.
The city is expanding, and the more local, balanced flavors are drawing in tourists from around the world for no other reason than to eat.
“At Parachute, 30% of our diners are from out of town,” says Kim. “It’s different from how it was ten years ago, and there’s a lot more on the horizon.”
And if you ask Chang, there’s absolutely no doubt that Chicago’s dining scene is up there with the likes of New York and Los Angeles.
“Chicagoans are smart, sophisticated, well-traveled,” she says. “We want to win all the awards; we want to be number one.”
And indeed it seems that they are.
Thinking about a trip to Chicago? Leave the planning to Journy—we'll snag those hard-to-get reservations and incorporate them into the perfect itinerary, built from scratch just for you.
To get a taste of what it's like to travel with us, check out this special, James Beard-inspired "food crawl" sample itinerary we put together with a handful of our favorite spots—from breakfast to brunch, lunch to dinner, drinks to dessert.
Hope you're hungry.
For more on Chicago's best restaurants (Oriole, Avec and Fat Rice included), hear what these James Beard-nominated chefs had to say at the 2019 awards.