Best Restaurant Openings of 2016: 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 tasting menu restaurants to sprawling food halls, 2016 saw it all. As we near the culmination, here's our roundup of some of the best openings for each month this year:
January: In regards to rolled foods, 2016 started off on a high note thanks to the month’s biggest openings. Half Acre Taproom added to its portfolio of crowd-pleasing beers by bringing on chef Nick LaCasse to spearhead a burrito-centric kitchen menu (formerly, Half Acre was BYOFood). Far from your typical burritos, these are some novel creations too, like a chicken noodle burrito for example.
Towards the end of the month, Chicago welcomed one of the best new sushi restaurants in years. Naoki debuted behind Intro in Lincoln Park, hidden away through the kitchen. It’s a fun, clandestine dining experience, and eating here feels like being part of a secret sushi club or something. It’s worth seeking out, because this is some of the freshest fish you’ll find in town, diligently prepared, sliced and beautifully presented as nigiri, sashimi and maki. They’ve also got some interesting menu originals, like edamame guacamole and a miso Old Fashioned cocktail.
February: Right before 2016 amped up with an onslaught of huge openings, we eased in with a couple comforting new entries in February. 3 Greens Market marked the latest from powerhouse restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff, bringing together a hit list of favorite dishes from some of his other concepts, plus a killer salad bar setup during the day. The space itself is comfortable, relaxing and stylish, a great environment in which to enjoy Doughnut Vault donuts, Small Cheval burgers or pastrami sandwiches from his bygone and beloved Dillman’s.
After ravishing diners and drinkers in 2015, GreenRiver decided to expand their repertoire with a new cocktail bar tucked away on the same floor of their Streeterville high rise. Called Annex, it’s a much more concise and cozy space than the sprawling GreenRiver on the other side of the floor. Here, the focus is on a seasonally changing cocktail list, featuring drinks printed on cards arranged in boxes instead of typical menus. The cocktails are extremely intricate and impressive too.
March: This is the month where everything exploded. Some of the year’s most anticipated openings took place in March, including Stephanie Izard’s hotly anticipated Chinese restaurant, Duck Duck Goat. It’s still one of the hottest tickets in town, all these months later, with diners lining up and filling reservation lines for the chef’s innovative, playful take on traditional Chinese fare.
Elsewhere in the West Loop, Oriole opened and would go on to become one of the year’s best and most well-received new restaurants. The fine dining endeavor from Noah and Cara Sandoval and Genie Kwon adopts a comfortable approach to the form, beckoning guests in through an unmarked door on a quiet street, then through an elevator shaft into a homey, lofty dining room. The wide open kitchen reveals chefs dutifully plating and perfecting technique, churning out dish after show-stopping dish.
This was also the month that MONEYGUN opened abruptly, incidentally in the same building as Oriole. The bar took a refreshing approach, focused on a bevy of classic cocktails without any pretense. The space is fun, dark and lively, and the lineup of cocktails are all executed perfectly.
Elsewhere in Chicago, il Porcellino brought a fresh, dynamic take on Italian cuisine to River North, featuring an impressive cocktail program, a roving dessert cart, addictive stuffed mushrooms and garlic bread, and a fun ambience reminiscent of the Rat Pack-era.
Then there’s The Northman, the looooooong anticipated cider pub in North Center. When it finally opened, it became Chicago’s first cider bar, complete with a hugely extensive drink list and cider-friendly food that bounced all over the map from ploughman’s platters and patty melts to escargots.
April: Roister was such a big opening that it dominated the month of April all by itself. The latest venture from the Alinea Group marked their most casual effort to date, offering a fun, lighthearted dining space with unabashedly loud music to counter the precision coming out of the open kitchen. "Casual" by Roister standards isn't probably the casual most people are used to, though. Here, that means hearth-baked lasagne with tomato gravy, maple-poached salmon and a dessert of foie gras with black walnuts, pretzel and marshmallow. The dishes Roister quickly became best known for were their chicken offerings, which at dinner means a platter of whole chicken served braised, poached, fried and accented with chamomile. At lunch, that means a fried chicken sandwich with sunchoke hot sauce and chamomile mayo.
In Bridgeport, longstanding staple Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar converted its adjoining space into a new restaurant; one that would turn out to be one of the more unique additions to Chicago’s dining scene this year. Kimski is a fusion of Polish and Korean flavors, represented through sausages, dumplings, poutine and more. The dining room is super cool too, accessed through Maria’s. It feels like a sprawling, artsy garage space, outfitted with a long bar and modular booths and tables.
May: The biggest arrivals of the month, though, came from Rick Bayless. The acclaimed chef doubled down with two additions to Restaurant Row, Cruz Blanca and Leña Brava. The former is a nano-brewery focused on Mexican-style beers, complete with a small bar for margaritas and the like, and a taqueria kitchen for customizable taco platters. Right next door is Leña Brava, the more upscale of the two. Here, the focus is on Baja-style seafood, and lots of it. From whole fish to “Mexican-style sushi,” the menu is impressive, complimented by a mezcal-heavy beverage program.
June: This was a huge month for the Loop. Gone are the days when the downtown neighborhood was regarded as a ghost town after work hours, thanks to an onslaught of hot new additions this year. This includes the glorious LondonHouse hotel, likely the biggest hotel opening of the year, outfitted with the hottest rooftop bar of the year. Dubbed LH, the rooftop area on the 23rd floor features some incredible views of the skyline and the Chicago River, easily earning the prize as the most Instagrammed destination of the summer. The bar program is quite impressive too, featuring drinks like a bottled cocktail containing Scotch, white wine and edible charcoal.
Elsewhere in the Loop, The Dearborn became an instant crowd-pleasing hit. Situated centrally in the Block 37 building and right in the heart of the Theatre District and shopping districts, the restaurant smartly features a mix of Midwestern classics and contemporary twists. Guests can get a perfect plate of fish & chips, or they can opt for something more distinct, like beef tongue carpaccio.
AceBounce was another fun Loop addition. Courtesy of a company called Bounce from London, the subterranean space is part ping pong club, part bar and part restaurant, with talented chef Rick Gresh manning the menus. The space is super cool and stylish, especially when the lights go down to reveal a colorful cornucopia of graffiti-style neon art all over the ceilings and walls.
July: Inevitably, Logan Square was due for its own month to explode with big arrivals. July was that month, starting with one of the biggest openings of the year: Giant. The modestly sized restaurant is from Jason Vincent of Nightwood fame, featuring a new take on modern Midwestern cuisine. It’s refreshingly simple and deeply delicious, with dishes that don’t take themselves too seriously but still exhibit a serious commitment to craft and technique (for instance, gourmet “waffle fries” with crab salad).
In bar news, one of the biggest bar groups in Chicago expanded in the neighborhood with Estereo. Courtesy of Heisler Hospitality, the lush corner bar features Latin-style drinks in a cool, tropical space.
Another big addition for Logan Square this month came courtesy of the folks behind Fat Rice, easily one of the neighborhood’s most popular restaurants. They essentially took over their entire block by expanding down the street with a bakery and a clandestine cocktail bar. The former, aptly dubbed The Bakery at Fat Rice, features playful Chinese- and Portuguese-style pastries and buns, like a Mai Tai bun flavored like the cocktail, and a Chicago-style hot dog bun. Just past the bakery, available via reservation-only, is The Ladies’ Room, a hidden cocktail lounge with only a few seats and some of the most creative cocktails currently being served in Chicago. Everything from housemade Malort to housemade “Dr. Pepper” lend themselves to libations here, in a crimson-hued space that feels like being transported to a secret Chinese drinking den.
August: In August, attention shifted back to the Loop, with some big openings happening a couple blocks apart from one another in the Financial District. There’s Revival Food Hall, which would quickly go on to become the best food hall this city has ever seen, stocked with a who’s-who of local restaurateurs and vendors like Antique Taco, Furious Spoon, Black Dog Gelato and Smoque BBQ, to name a few. It’s rightfully packed to the gills during the week especially, as Loop lunch-goers fill out the space and line up for food and drinks.
Just around the corner, the Kimpton hotels brand expanded their local footprint with the Gray hotel. Housed in a historic building, the gorgeous, elegant property features a lavish rooftop restaurant called Boleo and a chic lobby bar called Vol. 39. Upstairs, the focus is on Latin American cuisine, with dishes as flavorful as they are colorful. It’s also got a stellar beverage program, with plenty of options both contemporary and classic. Downstairs on the second floor is Vol. 39, a space that resembles a library parlor from the board game Clue. It’s a dream lobby bar, with a deep drink list of martinis, Old Fashioneds, and lots more, plus caviar, deviled eggs, and dessert carts.
September: Things got meaty in September, with the opening of one of the hottest restaurants of the year and the expansion of one of Chicago’s most beloved bar/restaurants. GT Prime was met with deserved fanfare for its novel approach to steakhouse cuisine, offering portions of beef by the ounce to encourage sharing and sampling of different styles. The rest of the menu is true to form for Giuseppe Tentori, one of the most inventive and talented chefs in town. Whether it’s duck or gnocchi or tartare, he manages to infuse any dish—classic or otherwise—with his own distinct style. The River North restaurant also happens to be strikingly gorgeous, shrouded in dark hues and a fairy tale forest vibe.
Then there’s Bangers & Lace, which expanded its local presence to Roscoe Village for their latest (and most ambitious) location to date. The location feels like a cozy woodland lodge, outfitted with the brand’s signature taxidermy touches and lots of wood accents. There’s craft beer aplenty of course, along with some tasty cocktails. The food program is really special too. Along with several sausages and sausage-infused dishes, the Roscoe Village outpost features a full-fledged baking and pastry program, so expect to see (and taste) lots of unique buns, breads and baked sweets.
October: This was a month of opposites, as two of the biggest openings focused on vegetables and steak. First was Bad Hunter, the latest beautiful addition to Restaurant Row from the minds at Heisler Hospitality. The vegetable-driven restaurant puts produce front-and-center, using meat as an accent (if at all). The result is a wholly unique dining experience with some of the prettiest food to hit Chicago all year.
Up in Lincoln Square, however, things were notably meatier. Knife became the latest steakhouse to open in Chicago, from the folks behind nearby Fork restaurant. They adopted a casual, neighborhood-oriented approach to the steakhouse template, outfitting their restaurant with comfortable, welcoming fixtures and filling their menu with contemporary versions of classic items like shrimp de Jonghe and wedge salads.
November: Revered restaurateurs added to their portfolios this month in two very different ways. First came The Barn, a meat-focused homage in Evanston from Amy Morton of the Morton’s The Steakhouse family. While her other Evanston restaurant, Found, features shareable plates and a more eclectic approach, The Barn is unabashedly beefy, tucked away in a clandestine locale that once housed an actual barn. Nicole Pederson does double duty as chef at both restaurants.
In downtown Chicago, world-renowned chef Richard Sandoval expanded his footprint locally with his crown jewel restaurant in the brand new Conrad Chicago Hotel off Michigan Avenue. Dubbed Baptiste & Bottle, the restaurant on the 20th floor of the hotel is an ode to all things whiskey and bourbon, decked out like a glamorous modern saloon. There’s fancy table side cocktails and even whiskey lockers for guests who would like to purchase full bottles and store them on-site for return visits. The food is designed to match the beverage program, featuring a diverse contemporary menu of seasonal ingredients and stylings.