Best Openings of 2015: A Month-by-Month Guide
There's no doubt this year was filled to the brim with stellar openings for restaurants and bars in Chicago. From envelope-pushing cocktails spots to sprawling food halls, 2015 saw it all. As we near the culmination, here's our roundup of some of the best openings for each month this year:
January: A new bar from cocktail wunderkind Paul McGee would be a welcome treat any time of year, but there's just something especially fitting about a new tiki bar in January. At a time when Chicagoans need a tropical respite, McGee swooped in to the rescue, dropping Lost Lake along the border of Logan Square and Avondale. The new tiki temple features an adjoining Chinese takeout spot called Thank You. (from which Lost Lake customers can order food), a cool, relaxed beachy vibe. If you're lucky, you'll get seated in the far back room with cave-like walls and a blowfish chandelier. Then of course there's the cocktails. The menu keeps things fresh with a dynamic assortment of colorful cocktails, each served in a distinct cup or mug outfitted with exotic garnishes and swizzle sticks. Basically, this place is a tropical dream.
In the West Loop, B. Hospitality Co. (The Bristol, Balena) expanded its breadth with a savorous homage to Italian red sauce cooking lore. Although elegant and upscale, Formento's has homey, familial fare at the heart, presided over by chef Tony Quartaro. Deeply comfortable and welcoming, the sprawling, immaculate restaurant feels like something out of another era; one where Tony Soprano might reign. One where meatball salads and giant slices of chocolate cake and marinara-packed pastas are the order of the day.
February: It feels like Intro has been a part of our lives for years, when in fact the groundbreaking restaurant from Lettuce Entertain You only debuted last winter. And to much deserved fanfare, I might add. Pivoting the ritzy Lincoln Park space from L20, Lettuce veered in a modern direction with Intro, an ever-evolving concept that features a new chef-in-residence every few months. Each chef has full creative license over the menu and concept, essentially running a months-long, glorified pop-up concept. Chefs come from near and far for residency, starting with Top Chef alum and acclaimed Los Angeles chef CJ Jacobson before moving on to feature the likes of Aaron Martinez and current chef, Stephen Gillanders. Intro keeps things fresh in a bold new way, continuously impressing and dazzling with fully formed new restaurant ideas that take some restaurateurs years to hone. But that's Lettuce Entertain You for you.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a particularly frigid cold spell, one new restaurant in Wicker Park excited people so much that it actually encouraged people to stand in line for hours in subzero temps to get a taste on opening day. That restaurant is Furious Spoon, a hearty and fresh new ramen joint from chef Shin Thompson and the folks behind Takito Kitchen and Bar Takito. One of the biggest smash hits in the increasingly crowded ramen circuit, Furious Spoon succeeds on all cylinders, from the hip and bustling Tokyo-style space to the gigantic cans of Japanese beer and the even more enormous bowls of piping hot noodles. This is Thompson at his finest, clearly cooking food he knows inside and out. It's at once casual, affordable, and distinctly chef-driven; and it's the rare restaurant that hits everything out of the park.
March: 2015 was a particularly stellar year for steak in Chicago, with several new steakhouses taking shape over the course of several months. One of the earlier entries was Rural Society, an Argentine-accented restaurant from chef Jose Garces (Mercat a la Planxa). Located inside the new Loews Hotel in Streeterville, Rural Society feels like no other steakhouse in town. Gone are the piano-players and grand staircases and regal throwback photography. In its place is a smoky, energized restaurant that draws inspiration from South American horse stables and farmland. The main dining room is rustic and comfortable, outfitted with thick ropes and a blazing open kitchen that puts the elongated grill front-and-center as dinner entertainment. Chef Cory Morris runs the ship at Rural Society, and he does a damn fine job churning out Latin-tinged cuts of beef, along with an indulgent array of starters, sides, and desserts.
While Rural Society derived inspiration from Argentina, a new Bucktown bar borrowed inspiration from San Francisco. Presidio, named after a famed San Fran park space, is the perfect one-two punch dining and drinking destination that Chicagoans yearn for. So few can excel so handily at both. Presidio pulls it off seamlessly, with bar talent culled from some of the best spots in town, and the type of bar food menu you could easily make a snacky meal out of while perched at the front bar, mingling with some of the friendliest staffers in the industry. Cocktails change seasonally, offering something unique and vigorous throughout the year.
April: Two of my favorite restaurants made their debuts in April, both offering something wholly unique in unexpected locales. First came Sink|Swim, the first restaurant concept from the esteemed Scofflaw Group (Scofflaw, Slippery Slope). Located further down Armitage in West Logan Square, Sink|Swim offers a fun, contemporary take on seafood from chef Matt Danko. The space is slick and nautical without feeling too garish, decorated like a well-furnished captain's quarters. The enormous bar is a nice place to sit for a cocktail, while the rest of the restaurant offers booths and tables for comfortably tucking into beef and oyster tartare, shrimp toast, fish & chips, and pan-roasted grouper. At meal's end, the check comes in a folded up menu designed to look like a boat, complete with saltwater taffy. I'm in love.
Another new steakhouse this year also happened to be the most unique of the bunch. Boeufhaus, located on an obscure stretch of Western Avenue in Ukrainian Village, presents the steakhouse formula in a new way, with a German-French accent. The space is much smaller and narrower than most steakhouse temples. It's dark and dimly lit, with a small bar lining the southern wall. The focus here is all about getting cozy and getting lost in a good meal. At lunch, this means some of the best meaty sandwiches you'll find in Chicago, like a killer Reuben or a modernized cheesesteak. At dinner, the decadence reigns supreme with options like pastrami croquettes, short rib beignets, beef tartare, and a handful of pristine steak cuts. Think filet mignon, NY strip, and a 35-day dry-aged rib-eye.
May: This month was unquestionably all about the Chicago Athletic Association hotel, an opulent property that sat defunct for decades across from Millennium Park before getting thoroughly refurbished and reimagined as the year's best new hotel. The property is also home to what I would argue is the best new collection of bars and restaurants of 2015. The incredibly buzzy bunch includes a Shake Shack on the ground floor, numerous properties operated by Land and Sea Dept. (Longman & Eagle, Parson's Chicken & Fish) on the second floor, and Cindy's rooftop, with glam cocktails and some of the best rooftop terrace views downtown. My favorite outlets are those on the second floor, where Land and Sea hits home run after home run. Game Room is a fun and playful den outfitted with free billiard games and a sprawling bar focused on classic cocktails. Once again, Paul McGee is behind the stick for these properties, making 2015 quite the year for the cocktail savant. The food at Game Room skews modernized classic, with upscale takes on hot dogs, fried pickles, popcorn, and more. Behind Game Room is Cherry Circle Room, one of the prettiest dining spaces in the city. It feels like a slice of Mad Men-era Americana; the type of dimly lit, well-appointed restaurant where cocktails and food are both prepared and/or served table side. It's just the right amount of pomp and circumstance, and it's perfectly in tune with the grandiose property. The newest spot in the hotel is Milk Room, a pint-sized outpost on the second floor that serves as coffeeshop by day and elevated cocktail bar by night. With only a few seats available, it's quite the prize drinking destination, especially considering McGee is working with some of the rarest spirits in the world and composing cocktails so high-end and special that you can expect to pay upwards of $40 a pop.
Another big steakhouse entry this year was Prime & Provisions, an opulent new addition to the Loop’s dining scene courtesy of DineAmic Group. The 12,000 square foot behemoth is is a pretty massive, ambitious endeavor, so the stakes couldn’t be higher (pun intended). But all that ambition has proved to pay off for the restaurant, which packs the house on the regular with customers salivating over all that prime beef, not to mention one of the most immersive and expansive steakhouse menus in town, which runs the gamut from thick-cut slabs of bacon to shellfish towers, craft cocktails, fried chicken, pickled purple cauliflower, clam chowder, and a whole lot more.
June: This proved to be another unique month for openings in Chicago, both in terms of location and concept. Via Lima brought Peruvian fare to North Center, featuring an assortment of Pisco cocktails and some of the most lustrous South American dishes in the city. Seafood, potatoes, meats, and sweets all get due diligence at this comfortable new entry, which served to up the ante on neighborhood dining in the northwest side neighborhood.
Then there's The Heavy Feather, another newcomer from the Scofflaw people. This one is located upstairs from Slippery Slope, accessed via a staircase in the club. While Slope is undoubtedly a boisterous club, complete with skeeball, bottled cocktails, and a dance floor, The Heavy Feather is quite the opposite. It's quiet, illuminated, and polished, like a glamorous bar out of the Liberace era. A lounge space towards the front provides a comfortable space to lounge, but the best seats in the house are the seats lining the long bar. Here you'll get to chat with the adept bartenders, who preside over a menu of bygone retro classics.
July: Located in an unassuming warehouse area between Bucktown and Lincoln Park is a Mecca of seasonal, locally sourced foods. The aptly named Local Foods brought something new to Chicago, essentially operating as an indoor, year-round, glorified farmers' market for the masses. Products come exclusively from the Midwest at this slick, sunny market, featuring all the essential provisions along with prepared foods at on-site cafe, Stock. This is also the new home for The Butcher & Larder, which uprooted its operations in Noble Square to move here and expand its repertoire.
In recent years, French food hasn't gotten the love and attention it deserves. Sure there are enduring stalwarts around town, but in terms of new entrants, they're few and far between. This year saw the refreshing opening of The Blanchard, a new French eatery in Lincoln Park from seasoned chef Jason Paskewitz. The smart chef presents French fare in an approachable new way, eschewing high-end and overpriced options for vivifying new takes on essentials like moules mariniere, duck leg confit, roast chicken, dover sole meuniere, steak frites, and cassoulet. Oh, and there's a whole menu section devoted to foie gras.
August: Things got casual in August. But casual is not at all to suggest a lack of quality or novelty. In fact, quite the opposite. In Logan Square, Sarah Jordan revived one of the neighborhood's most prized gems, the longstanding Johnny's Grill at the corner of Logan and Kedzie. As the area rapidly gentrified around it, the divey staple fell into relative obscurity, eventually succumbing and closing. But rather than take over the space and replace it with something ritzy, Jordan breathed fresh new life into the timeworn diner. Now Johnny's Grill 2.0 is up and running, offering a slice of nostalgia along with a slice of elevated diner cookery. The main diner has the same look and feel that Logan Square denizens have come to know and love, but the food is palpably improved. Here you'll find some of the best fish & chips and diner burgers in Chicago, along with hulking stacks of johnny cakes, sundaes with Fernet chocolate sauce, and meaty Irish breakfast plates—Jordan is Irish after all. Right next door, Jordan also expanded into a previously adjoining flower shop to create the aptly dubbed Flower Shop Bar, a haven for classic, straightforward cocktails, beers, and shareable punches.
Even more casual than Johnny's Grill is The Halal Guys. The gyro and chicken operation has established a cult following in New York City, where the concept grew from street vendor to full-fledged empire. As the company sought to expand nationally, it's first non-NYC outpost landed in the Gold Coast, in the heart of the raucous Division Street bar cluster. A more perfect eating establishment for that area I can't imagine. The concept at Halal Guys is straightforward and easy. Customer shimmy through the brisk line, ordering chicken, gyro, or falafel either as a wrap or a bowl. The white sauce that accompanies every order is fully deserving of its universal obsession.
September: Ultimately, some of the biggest and most widely praised openings of the year took place in September, from a sprawling new contemporary American concept from world-renowned New York City restaurateur to a modern neighborhood Mexican fixture in Andersonville. The former is GreenRiver, a collaboration between NYC restaurant titan Danny Meyer and the talent behind NYC's revered bar, The Dead Rabbit. For GreenRiver, the team took over the 18th floor of a Streeterville high rise owned by Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The odd locale gives way to some of the most exciting dining and drinking downtown, complete with an enormous terrace affording killer skyline and lake views. The food is bracing and novel, courtesy of Celeste and Acadia alum Aaron Lirette, but it's the cocktails that are especially memorable. Each cocktail on the encyclopedic list is named for a famous Irish-American Chicagoan, complete with a fairly elaborate story. The book-like menu is divvied into sections by spirits, offering something new for everyone.
Up north in Andersonville, Cantina 1910 has proved to be one of the best reviewed newcomers on the local dining scene. In a city renowned for killer Mexican food, which can be found throughout the city, it's really saying something that Cantina 1910 has been able to stand on its own merits and do something different. It's an updated approach to traditional Mexican fare, courtesy of chef Diana Davila. She gives Mexican cuisine a local accent with a heavy emphasis on local sourcing, including an impending rooftop garden, and a wide library of preserves. The all-day restaurants operates as a cafe by weekday, with daily dinner, cocktails, and weekend brunch. The impressively ambitious menus offer everything from churros and flan carrot cake to squid ink black rice, braised oxtail tortillas, nachos with pig's blood chili, and a mezcal-splashed Old Fashioned.
October: Of all the steakhouse openings this year, October was the month of steak. Of the new openings, of which there were at least three notable ones, two of the biggest and splashiest were STK and Swift & Sons. Each one is in a different neighborhood, with totally different vibes, clientele, and spins on the steakhouse template. It just goes to prove how dynamic and multifaceted a steakhouse can be. First up was STK, a popular brand in other cities like Las Vegas, New York City, and Miami. For its Chicago debut, the restaurant group put an emphasis on the social setting, establishing a massive bar in the center of the space, with huge rounded booths throughout the rear of the dining room, and a DJ spinning tunes through the evening. The colors, the design, and the layout all lend themselves well to socialization and mingling, which the brand really wanted to hone. But don't mingle too much, because the food is still just as deserving of your attention, thanks to a kitchen that turns out succulent steaks, mini burgers, monkey bread. charred asparagus, banana pudding, and plentiful other items. The cocktails are particularly strong here too.
While STK skews towards River North's nightlife set, Swift & Sons is decidedly more burly, more subdued, and more American classic. Housed in the new Google building in Fulton Market, the enormous new restaurant is the masterwork of Boka Restaurant Group and B. Hospitality Co. For the companies' second collaboration, they're going big. Not just in size and scope, but with memorable flavors, executed by executive chef Chris Pandel and pastry chef Meg Galus. It's expensive, but that's all part of the Swift & Sons charm, which serves as a gorgeous throwback to Americana steakhouse heyday. Diners here can expect to feast like kings on shellfish platters, king crab legs, Caesar salads, roast chicken, citrus-poached lobster, fried Brussels sprouts, creamed spinach, and of course, steaks galore. Said steaks include superlative cuts like a 16-oz. boot steak, a 14-oz. bone-in filet, a 34-oz. porterhouse, a Chilean Wagyu rib-eye, and a 36-oz. dry-aged long-bone rib chop.
November: Thus brings us to another jam-packed month of restaurant and bar openings, filled with exciting new offerings from chefs and mixologists. One of the biggest openings of the year, hands down, was Latinicity, which bowed in November on the third floor of Block 37 in the Loop. Borrowing a page from the Eataly playbook, world-renowned chef Richard Sandoval cooked up a sprawling food hall concept that meanders around food court-style. The prominent D.C. chef partnered with Jose Garces for Latinicity, which roves around past various counter-service eateries designed to resemble street food carts in Latin American countries. Offerings include a hamburguesa spot, a salad spot, a Latin sushi spot, a stir-fried rice spot, a soup spot, a taqueria, and others. There's also a full bar, a full-service restaurant, a market, an art gallery, a coffeeshop, and an all-day grab-and-go option on the downstairs pedway of Block 37. It's ambitious, huge, and packed with offerings unlike anything seen in the Loop. Sandoval and Garces have created a real gamechanger in the downtown dining scene with this one.
Then there's Sparrow, the latest from Footman Hospitality (Bangers & Lace, The Betty). The bar group is expanding rapidly, proving their mettle with each exciting new venture. One of the coolest new bars of 2015, Sparrow is an homage to glamorous lobby bars of Chicago lore, featuring a rum-heavy cocktail program curated by Peter Vestinos. The rum focus comes from the era in which Sparrow is striving to highlight. The bar is housed in an apartment building in the Gold Coast constructed in 1927, a time when Prohibition resulted in crafty booze-lovers sneaking rum from the Caribbean into the U.S. The space does a spiffy job of echoing that time period, complete with fern plants, a working phone booth, and upscale lounge seating in the very back.