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In a food-media world where 90 percent of what's written are listicles and the remaining ten percent seems to be Dennis Lee making us sorry we asked, there's one list that still has the solemnity of tradition to lend it a certain amount of gravitas. Of course I mean Eater's "The 21 Hottest Burgers in Chicago 2015"! Alas, the article wasn't quite what I expected ("With a surface temperature of ten million degrees and the gravitational pull of Saturn, Oxheart & Truncheon's Plasma State burger is capable of reversing the flow of time and proving that P ≠ NP"). So let's talk instead about Chicago magazine's annual best restaurants list.
The piece—credited alphabetically to Carly Boers, Penny Pollack, Jeff Ruby and Carrie Schedler—always begins by sussing out a trend that sums it all up. Last year it was the death of the tablecloth, and this year it appears to be the death of the standard entree on that tablecloth:
Chicago has officially reached Peak Artisan. Everyone who opened a restaurant around here in the past year seemed to be emphasizing snout-to-tail or farm-to-table, handmade this or craft that.
This appears to be a bad thing, at least a little, though why it was better when every menu ran through the livestock portion of the animal kingdom in the same order isn't clear (and in any case, for people who preferred that world, RPM Steak is on the list). But OK, I can see that it can get a little monotonous when there are so many places serving Odd Pork Part With 30 Percent Pork Fat. And the list does a credible job of arguing that there's way more to Chicago than "bourbon and pork in dark rooms," as MFK's Scott Worsham put it—there's Japanese (Momotaro) and Korean (Parachute) at number one and two, respectively, tapas (Mfk and Salero) at numbers three and four, an experimental venue (Intro) at five, two places to get a steak (RPM Steak and Community Tavern) at six and seven, and two pork-fat places (Boltwood and Tete Charcuterie) surrounding a Mexican diner (Dove's Luncheonette) at the end of the list. That's a nicely eclectic scene.
And yes, that really is the end of the list. In past years, the list has had somewhere between 15 and 20 choices, and the second half of the list tended to make you think that it was the annual list of every restaurant with PR representation to open in the last year. This year, there are definitely some high-profile names that didn't make it—Italian in the form of Formento's, Acanto, Charlatan, or Osteria Langhe is nowhere to be found; River Roast and Rural Society are not where to get red meat, apparently; there's no love so far for Kevin Hickey raising the level of Rockit Ranch at Bottlefork and Duck Inn—and no sign of the ramen craze that has overtaken every other food outlet in town. (Twitter props to Joe Campagna and Melissa McEwen for helping me think of absentees.) Two choices help fulfill the magazine's need to acknowledge the places where its subscribers actually live, but the one suburban choice (Boltwood) and the one far-from-downtown choice (Community Tavern) are respectable.
In short, it's a solid, thoughtful list full of places I'd recommend—so why does it feel a little thin? Part of it is that in some ways it's seemed like a year that was aiming for doubles and triples at best. That's not fair to Momotaro, certainly, which comes off like a Disney-size gamble on importing someone else's culture lock, stock, and barrel, and in some ways it's probably not fair to places that were big gambles for their small owners, like Parachute or Tete, but nothing feels to be shooting for the moon the way an El Ideas or a Grace or a 42 Grams did in recent past years.
And maybe the list seems a little thin because it is a little thin once you get past the top ten—there aren't a lot of side items next to the main feature, nothing bringing in barbecue joints or quirky anecdotes or anything. I don't have a long list of more off-the-beaten path things to try—though I sure recommend eating these or going here, for starters. But hopefully the year ahead will bring more things to feed us on the days when we can't live on cutting-edge Korean or authentic tapas, and we just don't feel hot enough ourselves to have one of the hottest burgers in town.