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Follow That Chef

Where some of the city's top cooking talents are eating now—or would if they ever got a night off.

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"Let's ask the chefs at new restaurants to pick their favorite new restaurants," we said. "With the caveat that they can't pick their own. Wouldn't that be interesting?"

Silly us—chefs in the throes of birthing a new restaurant barely have time for basic hygiene, let alone eating at other people's restaurants. If they get a day off, most said, they'd rather stay home, remember the names of their loved ones, and eat Chinese takeout.

OK, but if by chance the spirit did move them to go out? To a person, the one new place (as in too new for us to review till the end of this month, even) that they all wanted to go was the Publican. Except the Publican's Brian Huston—he wanted to go to Urban Belly.

For good measure, we also put the question to a couple food celebs we thought might get out a little more—Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, who's opening her own restaurant this spring, and Check, Please! host Alpana Singh. Guess where they've been eating.

Rob and Alison Leavitt, Mado

We only get to go out to eat on Mondays, when we're closed, but so is everybody else. So we tend to go to a very small group of the same places. We go to Lula, for the farm dinner, which is the best deal in the city. Or we go to Kuma's Corner, or we go to Avec. And... there's a little Thai place near our house.

It's so hard to choose where you're going to spend your money these days—we know that if we go to Lula or Avec our money is going to be well spent. And we know them. And the reason we know them is that we've had good meal after good meal and have cultivated a relationship with them so we keep going back. It's like the old days when there were only a few good restaurants and you knew you were going to get a good meal, as opposed to trying to check out the new hot thing. We're very anxious to try the Publican, but we haven't been able to go yet.

When we go out to eat we try to go to places that people have recommended to us. A restaurant like Schwa is not a place where on my own I would think, "Oh I have to go there," but a good friend of mine, a chef, whose opinion I respect, said I had to check it out, so I will. Someday. When we get a night off.

Laurent Gras, L20

The thing I love about having just moved to Chicago is that everything is new to me. I went to Blackbird and really enjoyed the experience. (Since we make our butter in-house, we end up with a lot of leftover buttermilk. We offered it to Blackbird. They put it to good use.)

To relax and enjoy the fundamental experience of dining out, I tend to go more casual. All pretense is lost and I can just enjoy a night out with my wife. For inspiration, I tend to go to restaurants completely different than my own—fine dining or casual. I find my senses and creativity are more stimulated when I'm in a foreign environment. It helps me to see cuisine and the dining experience from a different angle.

I know it's not new, but [I want to go to] Gibsons. I want to see what Chicago is famous for—steak!

Kendal Duque, Sepia

Unfortunately I don't get out very much, but I have been to the Bristol three or four times in the last few weeks. They're open late, which is good for us in the industry, and the food they're doing is very cook friendly; I had bone marrow last week. I'm just really enjoying what they're doing there: it's very casual and very neighborhood. And they've got some great beers and wine. I'm sure other people have said Mado; I really enjoy that as well.

I live up in Avondale and I'm definitely dying to go to Urban Belly. And of course I'm trying to get myself to the Publican. We're neighbors and he does wonderful food. And Province, Randy Zweiban's new place. We're also neighbors, and I'm anxious to check them out as well.

Jose Garces, Mercat a la Planxa

My favorite new restaurant in Chicago is Perennial. I'd love to check out L2O, the Publican, and the Bristol. Those are the places that are next on my list.

Bill and Yvonne Kim, Urban Belly

Oh, I'm trying to think—we really haven't gone out to eat that much since the restaurant has opened... let me ask my wife. [Sotto voce:] What's your new favorite restaurant? You can't say us....

We went to the Publican. We loved the communal seating 'cause we have it too, and we definitely support something that's out of the box and not a cookie-cutter kind of place. And we love the meatpacking district and we just love [executive chef] Paul Kahan's cooking.

We definitely like to go to the smaller places, like in Pilsen. And we go to Arlington Heights a lot to have some noodles. A few weeks ago my wife and I and Takashi went to L2O for our birthday—we have the same birthday. But that was the first big restaurant we'd been to in two years.

We'd like to check out Graham Elliot—he's out of the box. He's trying to be himself, and we want to support people who are doing their own thing.

Brian Huston, the Publican chef de cuisine

Next would be Urban Belly—but I haven't been there yet. I haven't been anywhere.

I really, really respect Bill Kim; he was one of my early mentors. He really laid it out for me and kind of explained, like, "This is what you've got to do."

But I didn't have a day off in the last month until last Thursday, and I just spent it at home with my girlfriend and ordered out. We maybe talked about going to Urban Belly that night, but we were like, "No way."

Also, the Bristol just opened up. I've been meaning to go there. I tried once in the last month but then chose home instead.

Stephanie Izard, Top Chef winner

I think it's great that even with the economy so bad all these great restaurants are opening. I really like places like the Publican and the Bristol. They're more casual, which seems like a great new trend. They're the sort of places where I'd want to go with my friends and order a lot of things to share, rather than have one course after another. And they're doing a lot of charcuterie and getting a lot of whole animals and working with those, so it's great to see that Chicago is representing that trend well. My new restaurant is definitely going to be casual like that. It's home-style cooking, so a little more casual than before, and fun.

Also, I've been out of town since it opened but I'm really looking forward to trying Randy Zweiban's new place, Province.

Alpana Singh, Lettuce Entertain You wine and spirits director and Check, Please! host

I haven't been going to a lot of new restaurants because I'm doing Check, Please! right now. The newest restaurant I went to was the Publican. I went last week and checked it out 'cause there's so much buzz around them. You really have to like pork, but everyone at our table did, so it was great. I've been a little more conscientious about where I dine 'cause of the economy, and I think there's something in the air where people want comfort. You want to know what you're getting, and I think that's why the Publican is so hot. People know Blackbird and Avec, and so they sort of trust Paul Kahan.v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on restaurants, see our blog the Food Chain.

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