If there were a Chicago food "establishment," its debutantes' ball would be the list of the best restaurants published by Chicago magazine around this time each year, trotting out the latest all-dressed-up progeny from distinguished families such as the Mergeses and the Nahabedians, the One Off Hospitalitys and the Element Collectives. Of course, we really live in a Mad Max world of anarchic Internet food commentary, but those mostly remain the restaurants everybody talks about anyway. The theme of this year's issue is that high and low have become one, as Chicago says in introducing its best restaurant of the year, Dusek's:
Not long ago, a place like Dusek’s would have registered as little more than a blip on the radar. "Serious" diners wouldn’t have paid much mind to a casual, beer-focused neighborhood establishment that served things such as ham and cheese sandwiches and lobster rolls, much less one that did so in a relic of a building in Pilsen.
Well . . . there's casual like Dusek's, and there's casual like passing a sack of barbecue through bulletproof plexiglass. Chicago's beat remains the highish end, even if the high end gets lowdown these days, and that's fine. I mostly agree with what I've tried of their list so far, especially closer to the top (17 choices start to seem like every high-end place that opened in 12 months, though I'm sure that's not the case). But it is only sit-down restaurants (I'd say white-tablecloth ones, but one of their points is that tablecloths are passe), with one neighborhood ethnic spot (Gogi), one upscale pizza spot (Stella Barra), but no bakeries, no ice cream stands, no breakfast joints, not even upscale cheffy doughnuts.
For me, other things matter at least as much, get eaten at least as much, and define the city just as much. And when I think of what openings really mattered on the scene over the past decade, sure, some high-end places are on the list—but so are Smoque, Spacca Napoli, Hoosier Mama, Pasticceria Natalina, the Butcher & Larder, Publican Quality Meats, and Scooter's.
So I thought I'd jot down some places that I think contribute overall to the city being what it is. Are these the best restaurants of the past year based on a study of the subject as rigorously conducted as Chicago magazine's? Did I just write a listicle? Yes, I did, but no to the first question. It's just a list I threw together of some things I was happy to see open in the past year. But if the scene wouldn't be what it is without Chicago magazine picks like Dusek's, Nico Osteria, and 42 Grams, all of which I'd happily endorse, it wouldn't be Chicago without these other kinds of newcomers either. If there's anything you think I should have included, please feel free to add it in the comments.
• Smalls Smoke Shack: Besides a great you-never-knew-what-you-were-missing concept (Texas barbecue with Filipino sauces and sides), this is the place I would compare every best restaurant candidate to and say, "But is it really better than Smalls?"
• Analogue: I'm not, as yet, as big a fan as some of this Logan Square bar's Cajun food, but kitchen ambition with a rare cuisine alone makes it a more than usually interesting addition to the cocktail scene.
• Honey Butter Fried Chicken: More here.
• Chengdu Impression: Genuinely funky Chinese food being delivered in Lincoln Park and points northwest. That's news.
• Bartoli's: When was the last time a new-deep dish pizza place opened? This one descends, somehow, from a family involved with Gino's, and does both thick and thin with a relatively delicate hand.
• Red Hot Ranch (Ashland): Not that long ago you had to go to the far south side to get a freshly-ground burger. Now they're everywhere (praise Edzo's) and this one does a great In-N-Out imitation.
• Cookies & Carnitas: From Trotter's and Tru to making sustainable tacos in Edgewater. More on that here.
• Bad Wolf Coffee: Marvels of French pastry from a no-seats, heavy metal-blasting coffee shop. More on that here.
• Cellar Door Provisions: There's a certain Portlandia feel to this earnest bakery/sandwich shop right now, but with the crusty bread and flaky pastries, it sure seems to be on a fast track to wonderful.
• Chill Cafe: An incredible amount of skilled scratch cooking and baking comes out of this largely unheralded Russian cabbie joint (h/t Abe Conlon and Julia Kramer).
• El Pollo Real: Now trending on the Mexican south side: grilled chicken over live charcoal (h/t Titus Ruscitti).
• Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams: Yeah, I know it's a chain from Ohio—I've had it there. It's still great to finally have here.