We can’t decide if 2021 lasted six months, or a million years. Either way, plenty of new restaurants opened in Chicago in that warped timeframe, and we ate at as many of them as possible.
One thing that definitely took longer than ever before was booking a table. 2021 was the Year Of Trying To Get Reservations—and these restaurants are the places that made all of the table-hunting, app notifications, and 11pm dinners worth it. They’re the new favorites we’re always hoping to find. Like a busy Croatian spot that’s worth waiting in line for with dozens of others, and a tiny Logan Square restaurant with a burger that should probably file a restraining order against us.
Most of our Best New Restaurants are dine-in spots that take reservations, but there’s more to this list than just those types of places—from a taqueria with transcendent al pastor to a carryout-only restaurant with life-changing jerk chicken. In other words, whether you book a table or designate a seat on your couch, you have some very enjoyable eating ahead of you.
All restaurants featured on The Infatuation are selected by our editorial team. The Best New Restaurants Of 2021 is presented by Chase Sapphire. Adventure awaits with Sapphire. You deserve premium travel perks for your journeys near and far, exclusive dining rewards, and flexible benefits that let you make more of every experience. Learn More.
If we tell you to spend $200 on a 12-15 course tasting menu, you can count on getting goosebumps at least once during the meal. And if you’re in the market for an upscale and memorable dining experience, you’ll find it at Esme. We certainly did—this fine-dining spot in Lincoln Park has everything we look for in a meal designed to make us feel as fancy as the Fancy Feast cat. The three-hour dinner never drags, courses flow together seamlessly, and (most importantly) each experiential dish is fun without being too whimsical. A singular charred rib with banana caramel, for instance, comes wrapped around a ceramic “bone” you eat like a Flintstone. There’s also savory sweet potato ice cream topped with caviar, and a canapé that tastes like a Cheeto from the future. Plus, the magician that did the restaurant’s lighting made sure everyone looks like they’re wandering around just naturally FaceTuned.
Ever since placing our first order at this taqueria, not a day has gone by where we haven’t found ourselves scrolling through Taqueria Chingón’s online menu like it’s taco Zillow, fantasizing about theoretical orders. And after trying all the tacos at this counter-service Logan Square spot, each one has impressed us. They’re all made with chewy handmade corn tortillas, with your choice of a variety of flavorful fillings—like the morcilla (made with blood, bread, onion, and apples before getting topped with brown butter salsa macha), campechano, and tender al pastor. Whatever your fantasy order is, just consider placing it for lunch—they run out of food quickly.
En Passant in Logan Square originally piqued our interest because its chef opened Au Cheval (ever heard of it?), and Au Cheval has a ton of great dishes other than that damn cheeseburger. Turns out En Passant is also full of tasty things. The space is charming, with vintage touches (like crystal chandeliers and flickering candles), and has an indie-pop playlist that seems to understand just what we need. So does the European-inspired food—the escolar topped with black garlic honey is one of our favorite crudos in recent memory, and the creamy risotto ignited our current love affair with tarragon. Also worth mentioning is that En Passant makes an incredible burger with only three components other than the brioche bun: beef, marie rose sauce, and balsamic onions. And, yes, it is better than Au Cheval’s.
We waited three months for our first reservation at this Croatian spot in the West Loop. Rose Mary has been booked since before it even opened, which isn’t surprising considering this place is from a popular Top Chef winner and in a popular neighborhood. But what did surprise us is that this hyped-up spot is also a great restaurant. You’ll find dishes like crni rizot that tastes like the risotto was made with stock from the tears of a hundred lobsters (that’s a compliment), a plate of cevapi with sausages that are perfect for sharing, and incredible pastas. And despite every table being filled, you won’t get seated 45 minutes past your reservation time, feel rushed through your dinner, or need to form a search party to find your server when you’re ready to leave. Which, by your last course, will be never.
Between great food and contagiously friendly service, we’ve yet to visit Dr. Bird’s and not leave happier than when we walked in. And speaking of just walking in, we’ve never had to wait for a table at this Wicker Park restaurant—something we appreciate this year more than ever. Sitting down at this cheerful, colorful spot feels like finally riding in a comfy air-conditioned car after a hot day waiting in line at Six Flags. The specialty at Dr. Bird’s is Jamaican patties, but the menu also has juicy jerk chicken and outstanding sides—including must-order coco rice that’s sweet and savory, fluffy coco bread that’s perfect for enfolding your patty, and festivals that complement the smoky jerk seasoning. Bird’s also has a long list of fresh juices and rum cocktails, which are also valid antidotes to staring at your pallid reflection in a darkened computer screen all day. Basically, if you like being in a good mood, head here immediately.
When we need a leisurely spot to commiserate with friends, or discuss important topics like Aaron Rodgers’ engagement and/or vaccination status, we book a table at Dear Margaret in Lincoln Park. This charming French Canadian restaurant has rich dishes like foie gras terrine with fluffy milk bread, duck breast with lentils, plus a friendly team who will leave you alone while you get to the bottom of how exactly Aaron and Shailene met. It’s the kind of place where we always decide to order that after-dinner coffee, dessert, followed by an extra dessert, and more coffee before finally going home to confront our laundry. And yes, “laundry” is a metaphor for existential dread.
We’re fans of Amaru, a Latin American restaurant with an amazing vegan tacu tacu. So we were excited to hear that the same chef opened a vegan restaurant in Wicker Park. And our instincts were correct—Bloom’s long menu is full of complex, vegetable-focused hits. Like the banana blossom-filled tamal topped with a rich mole, mushroom asada tacos, and yucca gnocchi we’re in a custody battle over with our former dining companion. There’s a long list of vegan cocktails (the pisco sour uses soy protein instead of egg white), and all the plant-based dishes are gluten-free. And the restaurant is full of groups laughing and having what appears to be a great time. You should head here even if your only dietary requirement is “must be fun and taste incredible.”
How does a salumeria specializing in house-cured meats end up on a Best New Restaurants list? By studying hard and tapping nepotistic connections, of course. Just kidding, they did it by putting those meats to good use. Lardon’s sandwiches—including an incredible reuben made with the best pastrami in Chicago—are marvels of engineering. And their elaborate meat and cheese boards come with housemade accoutrements like onion jam, crackers, and smoked almonds. This cozy spot is ideal for spending an afternoon relaxing with wine and cheese, but Lardon also serves dinner on the weekend—where you can get dishes like crispy duck leg confit and trotter croquettes.
When we ate the birria at this casual Mexican spot in Humboldt Park the restaurant dissolved around us like pixels in The Matrix and nothing existed besides the truth of braised meat and flavorful red consomé. While birria is the specialty, the menu also includes fantastic chilaquiles, possibly the best rice and fried beans in Chicago, and quesabirria made from handmade tortillas that can withstand repeated broth dunkings without disintegrating. There’s a short beer menu, and there are always some free tables for a walk-in group dinner. Plus, it’s decorated with a large pop art mural that’s colorful enough to pull us back into reality—though we’re not holding that against it.
How long are you willing to wait for pizza and a plate of chicken parmesan? The answer should be two months once you realize how great the food is at Alla Vita. This busy Italian restaurant is designed to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s in the former Bellemore space (which is huge), cutely decorated with hanging plants and fabric wave ceiling, and always buzzing. And while the menu isn’t going to blow your mind with creativity (it’s mainly pizza, pasta, and a handful of entrees) what’s on it is delicious. The pizza’s chewy crust is our new favorite in the city, and that chicken parmesan stays crispy even while sitting in a rich tomato sauce. Reservations are few and far between, so plan on booking months in advance. Or better yet, just snag a seat in the large bar area right when they open.
We fell in love with this Afro-Caribbean spot after our first bite of smoky jerk chicken. But we became even more enamored after hearing its origin story. The owner, Niquenya Collins, is a business development coach who decided to take her own advice and turn her love of cooking into her own restaurant. Clearly, it was a great decision, because everything we’ve ordered from this takeout and delivery-only spot in Garfield Park has been delicious. The citrusy Sengalese poulet yassa is bright and full of lemongrass, and the chili con carne makes us mad at all the versions we’ve ever tried to make for the Super Bowl. And while eating Cocoa Chili on our couch while watching football is a near-perfect experience, we’ll be first in line if she decides to open a brick and mortar.