A lot of restaurants opened in Chicago in 2016, and, as usual, a lot of them were boring. But a handful of them, particularly the ten listed here, were exciting, fun, and delicious. We're talking the Cubs just won the World Series level excitement. They include sushi in a secretive room, Italian pizza, Argentinian food, and a veggie-focused restaurant we swear is actually great. There are also a couple of fancy tasting menu restaurants that are worth spending all your money at, and a new place from the Alinea crew that's affordable for the average person.
Check out our list of 2016's ten best new restaurants, and work your way through the places that made Chicago a great place to be eating this year.
The Alinea Group came out swinging with another new restaurant this year: Roister. It’s their take on casual, which means it’s still expensive, but it doesn’t cost a whole month’s rent like their other restaurants. For around $150 per person you can go all out, and it’s absolutely worth the price. The menu is all over the place with everything from kimchi to fried chicken to foie gras candy bars, but that’s part of why Roister is so great. There are no rules against making delicious things.
We were high on Giant the first time we ate there. We were even higher on Giant when we ate there two days later for a second time. And we can say with certainty those feelings have only gotten stronger. From fried uni shooters to waffle fries and crab salad to a pasta with jalapeños and bacon that we would live off of permanently, the food at Giant is interesting and always exceptionally good. Add in the stylish but cozy setting in Logan Square, and you have all the attributes of one of the best new restaurants around.
El Che Bar was basically destined to be in the space it now inhabits. It's located in the former Checker Taxi building that still has the old sign out front, but only three letters remain lit up today: CHE. The atmosphere at this West Loop Argentinian spot is fun but not over-the-top, so you’ll actually enjoy hanging out here. And the food is always delicious. Lean heavy on the meats that come from the huge flame grill, and round out your other meal with other great dishes like roasted oysters or gnocchi.
Naoki serves exceptional sushi in a space that's both very unique and very comfortable, and it’s the combination of those factors that make it one of our favorite new spots of the year. The Naoki space was originally the private dining room of L20, a fancy restaurant inside the Belden-Stratford building in Lincoln Park. The main space is now called Intro, while Naoki is accessed by walking through the kitchen. It’s not as formal or fancy as you might expect - it reminds us of the type of high-end but not stuffy sushi experiences common in Tokyo, where you can sit at the bar or one of a handful of tables for an intimate and enjoyable experience. Dinner here is expensive, but all good sushi in this city is, and the price is absolutely worth it for an excellent sushi meal.
Steak. Bacon. Burgers. Truffle. Truffle-bacon-wrapped-steak-burgers. These are the types of things we've gotten used to expecting at exciting new Chicago restaurants. But carrots, radishes, and beet tartare? Not so much. That's what they serve here, and they do a fantastic job at it. The veggie-heavy menu keeps you on your toes and keeps things exciting, and you’ll be happy to eat more plants and less meat in the cool West Loop space. There’s even an excellent veggie burger with the option to add bacon for the best of both worlds.
The Goat empire marched on this year with a take on high-end Chinese in the West Loop. The space looks like GQ gave Chinatown a makeover, and there are also always familiar tunes like Nelly or B.I.G. noticeably playing so the place is always lively and fun. And when it comes to the food, Duck Duck Goat pays tribute to classic Chinese-American dishes, but it does so with its own twists. Expect things like shrimp wonton soup with a blueberry broth and excellent slap noodles with goat.
If we were giving out specific awards for our year end list, we'd call them The Hammies thanks to our new 2016 ham horn logo, and we'd give 3 Greens Market the golden ham for most versatile restaurant. It’s part buffet, part hamburger diner, part coffee shop, and part bar. There are a lot of parts, but 3 Greens excels at being each and every one of these things, which is quite impressive. The Small Cheval replica cheeseburgers are delicious, and there’s never a bad time to hang out here, including for a morning coffee or a cocktail later in the day. There’s nothing else like it, and it’s the only place in town that covers almost all of your needs on a daily basis.
Nobody else is going to tell you Forno Rosso is one of the best new restaurants of the year. We are not everybody else. This is not just another pizza place. This is excellent Neapolitan pizza with high quality salads and antipasti that make for a great meal. It’s a casual spot in the West Loop perfect for a weekday dinner, but it’s also nice enough to turn into an easy date night if you add in a bottle of wine or one of their quality cocktails. You don’t need to be groundbreaking to be best new restaurant worthy, you just have to be damn good at what you do. And when it comes to pizza, Forno Rosso is that good.
Smyth is an upscale tasting menu restaurant that wants you to feel relaxed, as if you were eating at a friend's house. There won't be a giant bowl of peanut M&M's or Doritos sitting on the table, but the husband and wife duo running the place do manage to make it feel homey. But for as comfortable as the ambience is, the the food will keep your head on a swivel. We've been thinking about their tomato mousse concoction for a while, and we hope they never get rid of the rich Dungeness crab and foie gras. If you can handle the cost, the eight ($135) or twelve-course ($195) tasting menus at the Smyth are absolutely a smart move.
Ask a cab driver to take you to Oriole and they'll think you're up to something sketchy in a weird alleyway near the highway and Fulton Market. But hiding on the one random block of Walnut St. is Oriole. It’ll cost you $210 (+125 for a wine pairing), but for special date night or special celebration, this is a special place. There's no shtick at Oriole or focus on one particular cuisine - one second you'll have some nigiri, and the next there's Alaskan king crab or thinly sliced Spanish ham in the mix. The fact that you don't know what's coming is a lot of fun, and they do it in small but cozy 28-seat loft-like environment that has both white tablecloths and visible pipes hanging from the ceiling and exposed brick walls. It's a cool combination, and a key new addition to Chicago's high end tasting menu repertoire.