If you are up for a culinary adventure, the three Michelin-starred Alinea is surely one of the most exciting restaurants in the country. Chef Grant Achatz, previously of the French Laundry, combines haute cuisine, science and art in set menus that change frequently and come in three different "experiences." The most casual boasts 10-12 courses, while the most exclusive is a meal at the Kitchen Table, for six guests only. The ingredients may be unfamiliar, the flavor combinations unconventional—butterscotch and bacon, quince and foie gras, soy and chocolate—but the result is simply delicious and wholly unforgettable. And the presentations are so exquisite, they’re almost too pretty to eat.
The decor is elegant and the service warm and incredibly precise; at one point at a neighboring table, six servers worked in tandem to make sure the six diners were served simultaneously. Allow two to three hours for dinner, come hungry, and reserve at least two months in advance.
Oowned by Paul Kahan, Avec is a local favorite for its creative cuisine. It’s also tiny, narrow and cramped, with wooden tables packed together and a communal atmosphere (and, due to its no-reservations policy, a reliably lengthy wait list). Open for weekday lunch, Sunday brunch and until late for dinner, it offers a choice of mouthwatering small plates (burrata with smoked persimmon and a walnut-anchovy vinaigrette; chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates) or large ones (braised lamb neck with charred brussels sprouts; roasted mushroom pizza with butternut-squash pesto and arugula) prepared by chef Perry Hendrix. There’s also a wide selection of wines and eight artisanal cheeses.
This farm-to-table institution is beloved by locals and took inspiration from Chez Panisse for its seasonally driven fare. Though the dishes are of the same caliber as Chicago heavy-hitters Avec or Sepia, the ambiance (and pricing) are of a relaxed neighborhood eatery. The menu changes constantly but has included ocean trout with brandade-stuffed peppers and short ribs with cauliflower three ways. Staples like the satisfying pasta “yiayia” (bucatini, cinnamon, feta, garlic and brown butter) and beet bruschetta remain year-round. Note that this no-reservations joint is perpetually mobbed on the weekend, but makes a peaceful venue for a weekday lunch.
Opened in late 2015, former Spiaggia chef Sarah Grueneberg’s long-awaited restaurant is one of Chicago’s hottest eateries (just try making a last-minute reservation). The Top Chef runner-up puts a personal twist on Italian classics, and pastas are the heart of her menu, with the noodle offerings divided into two sections: Atipica and Tipica. The latter includes such sublime dishes as corzetti discs in a rich duck ragu, while the former boasts untraditional dishes like wok-fried orecchiette and cacio e pepe augmented with creamy whey and four types of peppercorns. If you sit at the bar, you’ll witness pasta-makers crafting pappardelle, tortelli and the like for your own enjoyment.
Because of its off-the-beaten-path location—not only is it in Lincoln Park, but you actually have to walk through the grounds to get there—locals consider North Pond a beloved hidden gem. Its rustic Arts and Crafts design and lake view make it a romantic spot on a summer evening. Chef-partner Bruce Sherman, a native Chicagoan, prepares market-driven cuisine that makes the most of unusual ingredients: shaved foie gras with cocoa-beet jam, for instance, and cider-brined pheasant with rainbow chard, pear and sweet potato rosti. The spot is fitting for an intimate date, and also serves a delicious Sunday brunch.
Opened in July 2007 by Emmanuel Nony, a charming Frenchman who looks a little like Sting, Sepia is still buzzing. The charming restaurant, housed in a restored 1890s print shop, has a warm ambiance, with exposed brick walls, custom Art Nouveau tile floors and communal tables. “We tried to keep a lot of the original architectural details,” Nony explains. “Like the setting, the cuisine is inspired by tradition and craftsmanship; it’s rustic and simple but prepared with the best materials.”
The contemporary American menu is constantly changing, but you might start with fresh scallops with grapefruit and pig ears, and progress to the delicious duck breast with apricots and mushrooms. The cocktail program turns out tempting homemade specialties, like the well-balanced Ginger Ninja (George Dickel whiskey with fresh ginger).
Modeled after a European beer hall, The Publican boasts rustic décor and a farmhouse-inspired menu that changes daily. The menu is focused on oysters, hearty meat dishes and beers from around the world.
The Purple Pig
At this crowded spot on the Magnificent Mile, diners are welcomed by the following words: “Cheese, Swine & Wine.” With a menu light on green items and teeming with adventurous plates (crunchy pig’s ear, anyone?), the tag line is fitting. The meaty delicacies attract nose-to-tail fanatics, but also young couples, groups of friends and post-shopping ladies who happily lunch at the communal tables. Sadly, The Purple Pig doesn’t accept reservations, and wait times can stretch beyond two hours.
The adjoining sister restaurant to Rick Bayless’s casual Frontera Grill, Topolobampo offers a more elegant dining experience. The atmosphere is a touch more refined, though still funky, with walls covered in museum-quality Mexican artwork in eye-popping colors. The menu, which guests choose from to create three-, five- or seven-course tasting menus, features elegant Mexican cuisine such as chayote salad with Oaxacan chiles and enchiladas with black truffles, roasted organic vegetables and huitlacoche. Always available is an impressive selection of ceviches such as lime-marinated Hawaiian blue marlin with jicama) and the Sopa Azteca, a heavenly chicken soup with pasilla chiles, avocado and grilled chicken.
Bayless is a strong proponent of organic and sustainably raised ingredients and Mexican regional specialties, and the gracious, informed waiters are happy to talk about the meticulous sourcing that goes into different dishes. You can learn how the frothy hot cocoa on the dessert menu uses dark-roasted chocolate made by hand by a family in Oaxaca—or you can just lean back and savor the rich, spicy, sublime flavors with a sigh.