For anyone wondering which sit-down restaurants are currently hot in Chicago right this second, you have arrived at the right figurative Internet place. What does “hot” mean, you ask? Well it’s safe to say that we put on relatively cute outfits to dine at each restaurant below (possibly even eye makeup and our “good deodorant”). A night out at one of these places - whether it’s for a casual catch-up with a friend or an impressive date night - feels overwhelmingly of the current moment.
And, as always, we wouldn’t be recommending any of these restaurants simply for having a memorable scene. We’ve been to each and every spot and loved the food they serve - so you can plan your dinner confidently.
Listening Room At The Exchange
The Listening Room is a new bar and listening cafe in the Loop. What’s a listening cafe, you ask? Taken from their website, it’s “a clubby dining experience with a state-of-the-art audio experience.” And “clubby Loop restaurant” is not something we expected to be putting on this guide. But it turns out it’s not very clubby - it’s more of an upscale cafe that works for a casual date night. Plus, the food is delicious. The menu has dishes like tender chicken thighs with crispy skin, mac and cheese that gets melted raclette poured over it tableside, and some very interesting roasted carrots served with a fluffy coconut mousse and topped with peanuts. The “listening” part really just means that the sound quality is really good, and the music genre changes, so check their Instagram to see what they’re playing before you visit.
Right now Lardon, a Logan Square salumeria, closes at 7pm. That’s definitely getting into Early Bird Special territory, and this isn’t exactly the kind of spot we get dressed up for. But, they’ll be expanding their hours soon, and we find their selection of housemade charcuterie, salumi, and various other meats incredibly exciting. Their pastrami might be (and yes we’re aware of what we’re saying) the best in Chicago. We’re also petitioning to classify the rich truffle lardo as a condiment. The menu has sandwiches, salads, and boards too. But the best way to enjoy this cafe is with a glass of wine and the Chef’s Board, which comes with a wide selection of meat and cheese, along with accouterments like onion jam that are all made in-house. Follow that up with a fantastic Rueben (apparently the best pastrami in Chicago makes for the best Rueben in Chicago), and a few more glasses of wine.
This upscale Italian restaurant in the West Loop is just perfect for people who just want to have a conversation. It’s large without feeling cavernous, tastefully decorated in soothing neutral colors, and the service is on top of everything without being obtrusive. More importantly, the food is good. The focus is on handmade pastas, which include things like a fantastic bucatini cacio e pepe, pici with ragu, and paccheri mancini prepared tableside. And while Gioia is in one of Chicago’s busiest neighborhoods, it’s still easy to book a reservation. Plus, there’s a large bar area that’s great for hanging out after dinner, and a cute sidewalk patio with comfortable tables and chairs that don’t look like they were hastily purchased from a discount garden store.
To be perfectly candid, we didn’t have very high expectations of Jaleo in River North. Chicago is the fifth location of this casual Spanish restaurant that opened in D.C. back in 1993, and at first the brightly lit, busy space gave us definite chain restaurant vibes. But that disappeared as we settled in and experienced the attentive service and great food. The menu includes tapas, paellas, sangrias, and a long list of Spanish wines. And the crowd - while a mixed bag of tourists - is clearly having some fun. It’s contagious, so even if come here in a bad mood, you’ll be joining them soon. It’s a great spot for dinner and drinks before going out downtown, or if you just want to get together with friends and not worry about how loud you’re being.
You’ll find this upscale steakhouse at 88 Marketplace, a very large shopping complex just west of Chinatown. Inspired by Korean BBQ, each table at Holu has a grill where the server (or you, if you like throwing caution to the wind and/or are a control freak) cooks your steak. And the main reason this place is on our Hit List is the incredible quality of the meat. Most of it is aged in-house (you can say hi to the impressive selection displayed in the window while you have a drink at the bar), with everything from ribeye and zabuton, to wagyu tongue and A5 Japanese Kobe. It’s ordered by the ounce, and our suggestion is to get the $75 meat paradise. That allows you to try a portion of everything, along with some banchan-style sides and dessert. Come here with a friend who loves meat, or for a group dinner where everyone at the table digs the idea of having a personal chef for the night.
Do you miss a large dining room and a sea of white tablecloths? How about servers in tuxedo jackets preparing a Caesar salad tableside? Well, you will find all of these things at Adalina, a new upscale Italian restaurant in the Gold Coast. And even though this sounds like the ingredients of a stuffy restaurant, this spot walks the line between fancy and overly formal - both because of the friendly service, and because it’s busy and loud enough that you won’t feel like you’re eating in a library. Plus, the food is really good. The menu has dishes like gnocco fritto with prosciutto, whipped ricotta, and honey (a fantastic starter) housemade pastas like a wonderful ravioli with corn, truffle, and balsamic drizzle, and entrees like a tender bone-in veal parmigiana. So if you’re looking for a celebratory meal but still want the chance to make a joke with the person making your salad, come here.
Rose Mary is a new Croatian spot in the West Loop and reservations are hard to get. But this place is fantastic, so even if you can’t book a table, you should try and get a seat at the first-come-first-served bar. The menu has dishes like a tomato, farro, and asparagus salad, delicious crni rizot topped with grilled squid, and incredible pastas. And service here is great - even if you’re sitting at the bar you’ll get a lot of attention. Plus, they just opened their sidewalk patio. So if you’re looking for a big night out where everything just flows, you’ll probably get it here.
There are a few reasons we think Chikatana in the West Loop is exciting. For one, it’s still new enough that you can actually reserve a table before 11pm. Two, this Mexican restaurant is from a former chef of Mi Tocaya (one of our favorite spots in the city), and makes shareable dishes like cochinita pibil, tlayudas, tuétano, and pato en mole, along with wonderfully chewy tortillas. The big space has large tables perfect for groups, the bar area is ideal for grabbing cocktails with friends (the Paloma is excellent), and they’ll soon be serving a late-night menu till 1am. Midnight tlayudas are never a bad idea.
The Duplex in Logan Square serves food from different chefs and restaurants every six months, and (to us) feels more like a bar with great food than a restaurant. That’s partially because of the great music, long cocktail list, and literal bar which takes up half the (pretty large) restaurant. But also because of how you order the food: you order everything from a QR code at the table, and just close out your tab whenever you’re done eating (and drinking). Right now The Duplex is serving Mexican food from Lime and Radish (the birria taco is great) and excellent fried chicken sandwiches from The Kluckerz. Plus, there’s also a large sidewalk patio.
Unlike a lot of spots on this guide, En Passant isn’t large or crowded or “sceney”. The restaurant is small and dimly lit, with vintage touches (like chandeliers and candles) decorating the space - except it does have a surprisingly good sound system playing music at the optimum level of “able to hear your dinner companions but unable to hear the people around you.” But the great music and lighting make this place a vibe. And the menu is full of delicious things, like escolar topped with black garlic honey, an airy chicken liver mousse, and an incredible burger that only has three ingredients: beef, rose marie sauce, and balsamic onions. Come here for a date night, or just a chill dinner with some friends. And right now they’re BYOB, so plan accordingly.
Mama Delia’s is a Spanish spot that opened in Wicker Park last year. And if you’re familiar with Beatnik, you’ll know what to expect. It’s from the same team, and has a similar atmosphere - meaning loud music and ornate furniture (even on their patio). It’s full of people who are enjoying the long cocktail menu - not by doing a bunch of jello shots, but acting like they just got some great news and/or have the weight of a global pandemic off their shoulders. Come here to catch up with friends over cocktails and share dishes like conservas, tartare, or a cheese plate.
You might already be familiar with S.K.Y in Pilsen, a fantastic restaurant that feels like a sexy basement. But Apolonia, a mostly Mediterranean restaurant in the South Loop, is from the same team. Unlike S.K.Y., Apolonia is bright and airy, with tall windows and high ceilings. But similar to its sibling, the menu is wide-ranging with a bunch of influences. There are dishes like fantastic mussels on toast, a buttery truffle puff bread, and fiorentini topped with a rich pork sugo. This place is definitely more “fun dinner with your responsible coworkers” than “getting messy with friends.” But no matter who you’re here with, dinner will be delicious.
Bar Avec is the rooftop bar on the eighth floor above Avec River North. Along with having an incredible view of downtown, the rooftop itself is beautiful - full of plants and trees, and shaded from the sun. It has a separate Spanish-inspired menu from the restaurant downstairs, but the food is as great as you’d expect from the Avec team. Dishes include small plates like mussels escabeche, crudos, and entrees like fideo noodle paella, a very long wine list, and (thankfully) Avec’s signature chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates.
This upscale Greek restaurant in Logan Square is busy, spacious, has wonderful food, and you can usually get same-day reservations. You’ll find appetizers like the must-order kataifi cheese pie (shredded filo layered with cheese, baked, then topped with honey and pistachios), entrees like prawn saganaki in a rich tomato sauce, and the best spanakopita we’ve ever had. They also have a big patio, which is exactly where we want to spend a summer night eating some baklava froyo.