The Cool List: 14 Restaurants That Aren’t “Hot” But Are Definitely Still Cool guide image


The Cool List: 14 Restaurants That Aren’t “Hot” But Are Definitely Still Cool

New restaurants tend to get slammed for six months, until everyone decides to move on. Let’s not allow that to happen. Here are some spots to revisit.

We regularly get asked about the best brand new restaurants in Chicago, as well as the all-time classics - and those categories are covered in our Hit List and Greatest Hits List.

But what about the places that get blown up for six months, until everyone decides to move onto the next shiny new thing? A lot of those places are still absolutely excellent. Let’s not allow them to become the Gameboy Color you stashed in a drawer once the Gameboy Advance came out. Remember how cool the Gameboy Color was?

With that in mind, we present an updated version of The Cool List, featuring still-excellent restaurants that are no longer “hot,” but definitely still cool.

The Spots

GT Prime

A few years ago, a bunch of new, trendy steakhouses opened in Chicago. GT Prime was one of those spots, and its deal was that it served steak in sliced tasting portions. But now it’s changed and gone full-steakhouse, serving red meat in normal cuts - which means it’s even better than it was when it opened. You’ll find fuzzy bar stools, animal heads on the walls, and the giant leather booths that every downtown Chicago steakhouse must have as required by law. If you do miss the sliced portions of steak, you can always order the “carnivore,” which has 8oz servings of filet, bison, wagyu, and venison for $235.

Marisol is in the Museum of Contemporary Art (although you don’t have to go see any actual art to eat here), and it might not cross your mind as an option unless you’re bringing tourists around, or shopping nearby at Water Tower Place. But the great food here makes this place destination-worthy in its own right. You’ll find things like sunflower seed hummus, housemade pastas, and fried quail with date honey that tastes like fancy chicken and waffles. Come with anyone you want to convince you have hobbies besides watching reruns of Storage Wars.

Elske is a Scandinavian restaurant in the West Loop, and you need to remember it exists if you’re planning a special occasion meal. This place has a relatively reasonably-priced tasting menu - for the neighborhood, at least. It’s $90 for 10 or so courses like a “tea of lightly smoked fruits and vegetables,” or poached hake with clams. (If you don’t want to commit to that, you can also just order a la carte.) The space is bright and airy, and they have an outdoor area with a fireplace that’s great for drinks before or after dinner.

This River North spot is the sister restaurant to Aba (in the West Loop), and both have similar Mediterranean small-plates menus. But where Aba is like Rachel Leigh Cook’s post-makeover character in She’s All That, Ema is like the quieter but still great “before” version. You can keep it simple here with basics like hummus and kefta, or add other dishes like the sweet corn and bulgur risotto or braised lamb shoulder with dates and cherries. Whatever you do, make sure to get extra housemade pita.

It’s impossible to have a bad night at Vincent. This Andersonville spot is consistently busy, but you can still go there and feel like it’s “your” discovery - the atmosphere is casual and approachable rather than overly trendy. Go for dinner, order a bottle of wine, and share some small plates and mussels. Then be glad you aren’t paying $35 for parking, like you’d have to do downtown.

You know how sometimes a movie trailer shows so much of the film that you feel like you don’t need to go see it? That’s kind of what happened with Momotaro. The hype machine went into overdrive with this place before it even opened, but it wasn’t long before nobody seemed to care it existed anymore. So we’re here to remind you about it: this Fulton Market Japanese restaurant is a fun, sceney place with excellent sushi, plus small plates like a tomato tartare that tastes exactly like steak. Don’t let it turn into your The Last Jedi.

There’s Au Cheval, where people can wait several hours for a burger, and Bavette’s, where you need a reservation months in advance. But before both of those, there was Gilt Bar. It opened in 2010, and it’s the template for the dark, speakeasy-like environment those other restaurants (from the same group) have in common. It’s also the first home for a few of their signature dishes, like the tenderloin steak tartare and bone marrow. Unlike the group’s newer spots, though, Gilt Bar is easy to get into - you can often just walk in. Which makes it a convenient backup, since it’s right next door to Bavette’s. Skip the wait, and just plan on coming here for a change.

We all know that everything Rick Bayless touches is as hot as 1,000 suns, but we still want to remind you of Frontera. It’s his flagship restaurant in River North - a neighborhood second only to the West Loop when it comes to chronic new openings. Frontera still has some of Chicago’s best Mexican food, with outstanding guacamole, tacos, and moles. So next time you’re in River North and thinking of trying that new place with an eight-year-old prodigy DJ spinning during dinner, consider coming here instead.

Many of the upscale spots in River North are steakhouses, making them easy default choices when we want to go somewhere nice for dinner in the neighborhood. But there’s also Shaw’s Crab House, which is basically a steakhouse for seafood. It has big red booths, white tablecloths, and servers in jackets. You can’t go wrong with any of the oyster, fish, or crab dishes here, and if you want something less fancy, hit up the oyster bar section next to the main dining room, where you’ll find bar seating and high-top tables - perfect for drinks and a casual dinner.

When Nico Osteria opened up in the Gold Coast, it was accepted right away. It was originally from the same group that owns The Publican and Avec, so it was basically treated like the restaurant version of a Princeton legacy admission. We weren’t that impressed with the original version of Nico, but since opening, it’s only gotten better - with a new chef and menu. We’ve rediscovered it, and you should, too.

When Boeufhaus appeared in West Town, everyone was excited, since it was different from a typical Chicago steakhouse. It’s more of a neighborhood tavern, but with steaks as good as anything you’d eat downtown - and it’s the kind of place you’d visit with a small group of friends or a date, not your corporate card. It’s a worthwhile destination that needs to stay in your rotation if you’re looking for steak but don’t want the usual suspects.

When’s the last time you ate here? It’s understandable if it’s been a while - after all, as mentioned, River North does have about 58 new restaurant openings a week. But you shouldn’t forget about GT Fish & Oyster. This seafood-small-plates spot is casual enough for a weeknight date, but nice enough for a work lunch, too. The menu changes often, but they always have their oyster po’ boy sliders (a must order), clam chowder (another must order) and some kind of fish taco (again - order it).

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photo credit: Sandy Noto

The Cool List: 14 Restaurants That Aren’t “Hot” But Are Definitely Still Cool guide image