Ed. note - We would have come up with the best Chicago restaurants from the past decade, but the truth is…we don’t really go to restaurants that aren’t California Pizza Kitchen.‚ So we are handing over the blog reigns to Steve Dolinsky, 12-time James Beard award winner and ABC 7 Food reporter. Steve breaks down the best restaurants from each year. Take it away, Steve!
2000 - Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
By the time we figured out Y2K was just a reason to hire additional computer consultants to fend off a threat that was never really there, the internet bubble was about to hit. No matter.‚ By then, the planning for a second location for the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab had been well under way. Lettuce Entertain You Founder Rich Melman had established the Icon Group to translate the vision and the message of the vaunted brand, and so at the turn of the century — when expense accounts were still generous and people still drank at lunch - Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab opened its doors at the corner of Grand and Rush.‚ The longer title was a result of the limited season: while the owners eventually figured out a way to preserve the seasonal stone crab harvest, at first, they knew they wouldn’t be able to serve stone crabs year round. The placement of the words “Seafood” and “Prime Steak” were on purpose. They sent the subtle message that this was a restaurant with a deeper bench than the Miami Beach mothership.‚ But when you finally got past the tuxedoed host, made your way to the large table and placed your order (preferably after mid-October), the sight of those Florida stone crabs, Joe’s mustard sauce, hashed browns and freshly-made coleslaw was, and continues to be, a delicious reminder of how far the industry has come (thanks to FedEx). In the 10 years since, recession and all, the place is perpetually jammed; not just with tourists and conventioneers, but with locals hungry for the freshest Alaskan king crab, prime-grade steaks and homemade pies that would rival anyone’s memories of what grandma did way back when.
2001 - Hot Doug’s (part 2)
Ever since Doug Sohn opened his tiny encased meats emporium in Roscoe Village, he’s had his fan base.‚ An unfortunate fire in the adjacent space destroyed his little monopoly on exotic sausages, gourmet toppings and duck fat fries (Friday and Saturday only) — but only temporarily.‚ In 2004, Doug re-opened on a corner that can generously be described as inconvenient (unless you work for Midway Games or ComEd).‚ Suddenly, the lines started forming around the block at California and Roscoe, and Doug’s reputation — and media exposure — grew exponentially.‚ It wasn’t just the duck fat fries and the exotic sausages, Doug made his own silent protest to the city’s ban on foie gras, by serving one of his dogs with foie butter.‚ A stiff fine from city officials only cemented his place as a true sausage rebel.‚ Regulars may complain about the ridiculous lines these days (we know better than to attempt to go on a Saturday afternoon, unless we don’t mind waiting two friggin’ hours) but Doug has maintained a consistently delicious product.‚ A result, no doubt, of keeping much of his staff around.‚ True, most of the attention comes as a result of his more esoteric creations, but he still serves up one of the best Chicago dogs in town.
2002 - Opera
Yes, I’m going to highlight a Jerry Kleiner restaurant, gargantuan red curtains, over-sized fabric shades, velvet-backed chairs and all.‚ Before he started turning out predictable Italian/Mediterranean joints (Room 21, Via Ventuno, Park 52, Il Poggiolo) with similar menus, soundtracks and eye candy leaning to the botox/Viagra set, Kleiner was a revolutionary.‚ He almost single-handedly (with the help of Howard Davis) transformed sleepy, semi-dangerous areas into hot restaurant rows that attracted other businesses and the attention of concierges (see Randolph Street and South Wabash).‚ It was no surprise, since Kleiner is a food adventurer like few others.‚ Talk to the guy for 10 minutes and you’re knee-deep in a discussion about ribs and fried chicken in Northwest Indiana or the best tamale joint on the South Side.‚ In 2002, Kleiner and Co. promoted a young, ambitious chef named Paul Wildermuth to head the kitchen at Opera, the first upscale Chinese restaurant of its kind in Chicago.‚ This was Chinese food imagined by Ian Schrager: sexy, modern and bold.‚ I loved the omnipresent candles, the music and the vibe.‚ Here we were, just a mile or so North of Chinatown - where people were slurping noodles beneath fluorescent lights — dining on crispy duck, chow fun noodles and lobster, all in a dining room that was its own form of foreplay. ‚ When Buddakan opened in New York City years later, I remember thinking to myself, “yeah, it’s slick, but I’ve seen this before in the South Loop.”
2003 - Avec
I remember having a conversation with chef Paul Kahan after the James Beard Awards party in New York City in ‘02.‚ We were at a sliver of a place called Bar Veloce on 2nd Avenue, which was so tiny, it made The Matchbox look positively spacious.‚ He was telling me how he and his partners were in the process of planning a place kind of like this one: small, kind of narrow, with a broad wine list from the Mediterranean and a small plates menu executed by his rising star, Koren Grieveson.‚ Koren was going to be spending time with Mario Batali’s team in New York, learning how to make salumi, and she was already getting pumped to put the new Australian-made, wood-burning ovens to the test.‚ The place was going to be called Avec (“with”) because they wanted people to share conversation, food and wine together at communal tables.‚ Their “deluxe” focaccia has already become legendary — sliced in half lengthwise, shmeared with taleggio and a drizzle of white truffle oil — as have the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates.‚ Current nose-to-tail players Old Town Social and The Bristol can thank Avec for paving the way. The late menu is yet another reason to love it: while all of the drunk kids wolf down cheap tacos at some nameless dive at 2 a.m., more civilized folk on West Randolph are sipping obscure Spanish verdejo while nibbling on seasonal crostinis and roasted chicken thighs.
2004 - Moto
One of the reasons Chicago is mentioned as a center for culinary innovation these days is because of Moto. In 2004, Charlie Trotter alum Homaru Cantu set out with a scientist’s approach to food: employing the use of new equipment, new techniques and ideas.‚ Why not poach a fish in its own polymer box on the table, so diners can see it cook while they nibble on edible paper? Cantu is probably the only chef with a class IV laser on hand, and without question, he has begun to turn many of our preconceived ideas about “dining” on their heads. Like his colleagues Bowles, Achatz and Dufresne, he treats the kitchen as much as a lab of ideas as a place to prepare food to be consumed by humans.‚ But how much pleasure can be derived from this experience? You certainly have to go in with an open mind, and those of us in the food profession are game to try anything. But I recall one meal I had there with Tom Sietsema, Restaurant Critic from the Washington Post. After five bizarre, inventive, out-of-the-box creations (notice the omission of the word “delicious”) they proved more unsatisfying than anything else. We had felt like lab rats, being experimented on, rather than coddled and taken care of, as other diners were no doubt feeling that night at places like Topolobampo, North Pond and 160 Blue (and for about the same amount of money). The solution? Head over to Avec for a few more satisfying courses.
2005 - Alinea, Schwa
Moto’s ability to get diners to think differently about their meals — and how food can be prepared — was certainly influenced by culinary giants such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.‚ But where Moto seemed to be spending more effort on eye-popping creations, Grant Achatz and Michael Carlson (Alinea and Schwa, respectively) were actually thinking more about flavor combinations.‚ Both look to masters such as Thomas Keller and Adria as mentors or influences, and having that baseline of flavor as a guide, has helped them create stunning, one-of-a-kind dining destinations.‚ At Alinea, Achatz (rhymes with rackets) is just a block South of his former (brief) employer, Mr. Trotter.‚ The food couldn’t be more different.‚ Achatz has created entirely different means to consume food, be they customized utensils or high-tech cooking/non-cooking equipment.‚ You can choose to do a 13-course tasting for $150 or a 25-plus course “tour” for $225; wine is extra.‚ But oh, the places your palate will go!‚ Meanwhile, Carlson’s Schwa (which has since closed abruptly, and then re-opened) is the slacker younger brother to Achatz’s more refined operation.‚ Where Alinea has a reservationist, Carlson has none (he often answers the phone himself, if at all, and when I tried to walk-in one afternoon and make a reservation, they told me I had to call in).‚ Where Achatz has a stellar line-up of versatile wines suited to his meticulous menu, Schwa is still BYOB.‚ You’ll still eat well here, but it won’t be quite as formal — there are just a handful of tables — and you’ll probably end up hanging out with the kitchen staff, since they often serve the plates themselves.
2006 - Marigold
I’ve always loved Indian food. When I first moved to Chicago in 1992, I would drag my friends to the buffet at Sher-a-Punjab on Devon or the Star of India on Sheffield. I was always impressed with the depth of flavor achieved by sampling a few dishes: tikka masala, dal, saag paneer and a couple of chutneys. A trip to India in 2003 only solidified my love and respect for the cuisine. So when Marigold opened in Uptown in 2006, I was excited, because for the first time, Indian food was being served in a more refined environment — to the masses. What Tiffin had been doing for a few years on Devon — serving a more refined version of Northern Indian food to both Indians and Caucasians — Marigold was now doing with a dynamic wine list to boot. Their recipes were straight out of some Indian grandma’s recipe book, but they were served with an eye on presentation. The depth of flavor remained, and the complexity was still there, but now, at last, they were elevating the food way beyond the all-you-can-eat buffets along Devon. Marigold’s success did not go unnoticed: Veerasway on West Randolph has recently made the same attempt to bring Indian spices and flavor combinations to a larger audience. Here’s hoping both continue to thrive.
2007 – Smoque, The Violet Hour
The Violet Hour
Technically, Smoque opened on Dec. 18, 2006, but the restaurant didn’t really make an impact until 2007, after a few notable stories in the local press that February and March.‚ Quite simply, Smoque was a game-changer.‚ Until early 2007, Chicagoans somehow felt that ribs were supposed to be loose and flabby, “falling-off the bone” as they would boast at Twin Anchors. Usually boiled or slow-roasted and buried beneath a thick layer of sweet sauce, these ribs were anything but true barbeque. Hadn’t customers been to Memphis, or North Carolina or even Kansas City?‚ Didn’t they know what true, slow-smoked ribs should look and taste like? Even South Side joints like Lem’s and Barbara Ann’s were doing better ribs than anything on the North Side.‚ Problem was, there was nowhere to sit — they both served their product through a revolving bullet-proof glass window, and you had to either take them home or eat them on the hood of your car. But Smoque changed all of that.‚ The first sign was the manifesto they wrote, declaring a firm position on where they stood on such important matters as dry rub, smoking time and type of wood that should be used to smoke. They believed in serving sauce on the side (unless you asked for it on top); they believed that if you wanted something to fall off of the bone, you probably shouldn’t order something that comes on the bone; they believed in 18-hour smoked brisket — sliced or chopped — as well as impeccable sides of coleslaw, mac and cheese and baked beans that were as good as anything you could have in the hills of Lexington or Johnson City or Kansas City. Best of all, you could enjoy this food in a casual, comfortable setting, provided you didn’t mind waiting a bit to place your order. I have to admit, since The Violet Hour opened in Wicker Park, on Damen Avenue, I’ve been secretly amassing a collection of spirits and liquors. I’ve read the works of Dale DeGroff, talked with Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders and picked the brain of Tobey Maloney.‚ I’ve got a bottle of Yellow Chartreuse in my cabinet; what does that say about me? The Violet Hour was a few years behind the coasts of course — New York City already had The Pegu Club and The Flatiron, but having our own speakeasy, the kind of place where they cared about fresh juices, bitters and the history of the cocktail has impacted beverage lists around Chicago. You can now find great cocktails at The Bar at the Sofitel, The Drawing Room, Otom and Sepia. I would like to think The Violet Hour has made this possible, and for the most part, widely accepted. The Whistler in Logan Square is a testament to that spirit. Could the days of Bacardi’s monopoly be over?‚ Unlikely. But at least we’re hearing more about Flor de Caƒ±a 7 yr. and Gossling’s Dark, and we’re having more options at the bar than we did before.
2008 - The Publican, Mado, Great Lake
This was a truly exciting year for dining in Chicago. The team behind Avec and Blackbird spent what seemed like years to finally open The Publican — a beer-focused American gastropub where nose-to-tail eating is as important as the impeccable assortment of oysters.‚ The emphasis is on all things pork, and while this protein is certainly enjoying its moment in the culinary spotlight, The Publican is anything but trendy. The city’s first Beer Sommelier will help steer you to just the right Belgian or German or domestic microbrew; while a menu encompassing all of the key food groups: ribs, belly and shoulder, keeps an eye on the delicate balance between fatty, acid, sweet and bitter, in a way only the most skilled chef can accommodate. Mado is The Publican’s sibling, at least in spirit. A simple storefront, a simple, unfussy menu and a chalkboard of daily specials, with a heavy emphasis on whatever looks good at the Green City Market drives the husband-and-wife team of Rob and Allie Leavitt everyday. Rob relishes a chance to break down an entire animal, such as lamb or pig, while Alison is just as happy baking delicate shortbread or utilizing peak-of-season strawberries from the Nichols Farm in June. Mado’s ascendancy on the Chicago food scene has helped pave the way for other lesser-known operations such as Chalkboard, Browntrout and Kith & Kin. I’m not even going to invite debate on the subject, because there really isn’t any. As far as this writer is concerned, the best pizza in Chicago is created, baked and served at Great Lake in Andersonville. I know many of you are throwing up your hands in disgust right now, about to spill your coffee all over your computer screens as you scream with vitriol, “what about Vito and Nick’s?” “Hey, Spacca Napoli makes true Neapolitan pizza!” and a few will even lament the absence of Lou Malnati’s, Paisano’s, Pizza D.O.C. and probably even Uno (yikes). But for an artisanal pie the likes of which I had never seen in Chicago since I had the ethereal pies at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Pizzeria Mozza in L.A., or even the coal-fired beauties at Sally’s in New Haven, CT, you have to make the pilgrimage to Great Lake on Balmoral, where Nick Lessins and his wife Lydia make what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful pizza anywhere.‚ The key — along with great toppings from the farmer’s market and homemade mozzarella — is Nick’s dough. I don’t know how long it ferments or what kind of moisture content he has going on, but I do know there is nothing like that chew, that complexity and tang and balance of salt and oil and char that is plainly absent from every other pie in town.
2009 - Downscale for high-end chefs: Xoco, DMK, Belly Shack, Big Star
Tacos from Big Star
Thank you, oh Great Recession of 2009, for speeding up the plans of high-profile, three-star chefs, as they continued to offer downscale versions of the very types of food that created their stardom in the first place. Rick Bayless rode the wave of his “Top Chef Masters” win to open the casual street-inspired Xoco right next door to Topolobampo; creating three types of homemade chocolate, fresh churros and a full complement of oven-roasted tortas with a laundry list of sustainable and organic ingredients — all at very fair prices. Michael Kornick (mk) opened DMK Burger Bar with his childhood friend David Morton (yes, that Morton) offering a grass-fed only menu of thin-pressed burgers, plus a few lamb, turkey and veggie offerings. Fries are fresh-cut, onion strings are delicate and a full bar offers not only domestic microbrews, but an impressive list of hand-crafted cocktails, bourbons and ryes. Bill Kim’s sophomore effort — after establishing Urban Belly in the Avondale neighborhood as a BYOB destination with great noodles and dumplings — is Belly Shack: an ethnically fused sandwich joint beneath the Western Ave. Blue Line stop. What do you get when you combine his Korean roots with his wife’s Puerto Rican heritage and a great Iraqi bread source from West Rogers Park? An intriguing little destination where the soft serve ice cream is well worth a visit, topped as it is with an assortment of Mindy Segal’s (HotChocolate) homemade sweets. The last addition to the class of 2009 comes from that slacker team behind Avec, Blackbird and The Publican. They bought the old Pontiac Cafƒ© space on Damen Ave. in Wicker Park, gutted it, added on a cooler so they could hang whole goat carcasses, and created Big Star — a neighborhood taqueria with an impressive list of tequilas, bourbons and beers. The menu is compact, and the homemade tacos are good for just $2 a piece (al pastor, goat, pork belly) but it’s the notion that you can take something so familiar — a taqueria — that has been somewhat stereotyped as a place for late-night, alcohol-soaking food, and turn it into something with a little refinement, a little more class and yet keep it totally casual. Maybe that’s where we’re headed in 2010. Either way, I’m sure it’s going to be a delicious year.