Chicago's Top Restaurant Imports
No doubt, the past several years has seen an enormous surge in restaurant arrivals from restaurateurs and restaurant groups outside of Chicago. Not only does this speak to Chicago's incredible pull as a world-class dining city, but it increases our already multifaceted restaurant landscape, dotted with a myriad of styles, philosophies, and cuisines from our sea of distinct restaurant mavens. Incoming restaurants from other cities are simply a boon. In some cases, a massive boon. In light of the recent spate of arrivals, from Dolce Italian to Good Stuff Eatery, let's sift through the fray to determine some of the very best. Herewith, the top 10 restaurant imports in Chicago.
Eataly: I'd be remiss in discussing the topic of restaurant imports without giving Eataly its due diligence. This Titanic of a dining complex is unarguably the biggest import to date, and by quite a large margin. Not only is it physically herculean at 63,000 square feet over two floors, but the multi-tiered scope of the space — from fine dining Baffo to a freaking cooking school — is astounding. Only the second Eataly in the U.S. (and the largest of the two by a long shot), this Italy-based brand marked the first Chicago endeavor for Mario Batali and Joe and Lidia Bastianich, a trifecta of juggernaut restaurateurs in New York City. Altogether, coupled with their Chicago partners, they teamed to bring Chicago an Italian wonderland filled with coffee, a Nutella bar, a soft-serve gelato bar, a chocolate shop, a grocery store, a micro-brewery, a pizzeria, a seafood restaurant, and more.
Shake Shack: After the tidal wave of press and fanaticism died down from Eataly, the second-most buzzed about import in Chicago was Shake Shake, a New York City-based burger joint that lives up to the hype. Located across the street from Eataly, making Ohio Street in River North quite the power scene, Shake Shake became Danny Meyer's first foray into the Chicago dining scene; Meyer of course being one of NYC's most prominent restaurateurs. His casual and universally famed Shake Shack models itself as an ode to Americana, with cheesy burgers heaped on buttery buns, adjoined by crinkle-cut fries, and dense frozen custards. It's a simple, honest formula, refined to a tee. The slick, modern garage-y space assists with the comforting nostalgia twangs. A second Chicago Shake Shack just opened along Michigan Avenue across from Millennium Park, with another planned for Skokie. And this won't be Meyer's only entry into Chicago's dining scene either. The restaurant titan just announced he's teaming up with some other New York City restaurateurs for an Irish-American restaurant and bar called GreenRiver, due this summer.
Mercadito: There once was a time when incoming restaurants, especially from New York City, were maligned and mocked. Most attempts at supplanting restaurants here were flops, closing almost as quickly as they were announced. This was a dark era, but it wasn't eternal. One of the restaurants/bars to break the curse was Mercadito. As feverishly popular as the day it opened, this modern Mexican hangout in River North came by way of New York City and Miami. Not only has it been successful here, but it's been so well received that the restaurant group actually moved their base of operations here and opened new concepts such as Mercadito Counter, Double A below Mercadito, and Tippling Hall. The food and drink at Mercadito are not wildly novel, just crafted with a surprising amount of diligence and imagination. The tortillas for the tacos are handmade, while the drinks far exceed the call of margarita duty with seasonal infusions and housemade ingredients.
Dylan's Candy Bar: Several years ago, Dylan's Candy Bar was the confectionary equivalent of Soho House, with the prestige of a ritzy hot spot and the endorsement of celebrities. This New York City-based sweets shop seems to have ebbed a bit in recent years, but that doesn't diminish the popularity of its first Chicago outpost, which premiered on Michigan Avenue right next to the Tribune building. Perfectly befitting its tourist-y confines, this lustrous emporium is a playground for those with sweet tooths, decked to the nines with candies in all shapes, sizes, colors, and styles. There's even a special old-school candy nostalgia room in the back, and a newly opened cafe with more composed dishes and drinks. Considering Chicago's lack of full-fledged candy stores, especially to this degree, Dylan's was a welcome addition to the Magnificent Mile.
Sprinkles: Remember when cupcakes were a big deal? Lol! We have pop culture to blame/thank for that, due to appearances on popular shows like Sex & the City, wherein Carrie and Miranda ate Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, igniting a shitstorm of hoopla over buttercream frosting. Although New York City's Magnolia Bakery opened up shop here a few years ago too in the Loop, my favorite cupcake import is still Sprinkles. This Los Angeles-based bake shop is still wildly popular, oftentimes drawing lines out the door of its diminutive Gold Coast confines. What's to love about Sprinkles? It's a straightforward business model, but with an elevated approach to simplicity. The cakes, available in a wide array of flavors from traditional to contemporary, come topped with an expertly frosted buttercream or cream cheese frosting. They're not too sweet, not too dense, and not too hefty (looking at you, Crumbs). As Goldilocks would say, these are just right.
III Forks Prime Steakhouse: For people who don't live in Texas, the honky tonk state is the butt of a lot of jokes. But if there's one thin Texas knows how to do better than most, it's meat. From barbecue to big, burly steaks, Texas has proven its meaty mettle, which is what makes Texas-based III Forks Prime Steakhouse such a stellar addition to Chicago's already incredible steakhouse scene. From the stunning setting in Lakeshore East, complete with one of the best rooftop patios in town, to the masterfully curated menu, III Forks deserves a place among the upper echelons of Chicago's steakhouse pantheon.
Amorino: Say "bonjour" to your new summer habit. Despite how cold it gets here in the winter, Chicago isn't lacking for ice cream, gelato, milkshakes, and other chilly confections. Places like Black Dog Gelato, Scooter's Frozen Custard, Margie's Candies, and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams have us more than covered, but then along comes a unique concept like Amorino, proving there's always room for more ice cream. Or in this case, flower-shaped scoops of gelato. This Paris-based gelato shop just opened up its first Chicago locale in the Gold Coast, and not only are the flavors precise and potent, but they're some of the prettiest versions I've ever seen. What sets Amorino apart is its distinct petal-shaped scoop, as each flavor of gelato is layered into a cone in a floral arrangement, making each one as gorgeous as it is delicious. Now that's definitely something to scream for.
Le Pain Quotidien: On paper, Le Pain Quotidien sounds like exactly what Chicago doesn't need. This casual cafe, with locations scattered around the East Coast, seems like the cafe/coffee shop/restaurant hybrid we've seen time and time again. But upon further exploration, you'll find that Le Pain Quotidien is indeed exemplary and wholly unique. In case the dozens upon dozens of locations on the East Coast aren't proof enough, just look at its rapid expansion in Chicago. Within the past year, the company opened its debut location in the West Loop, followed by Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, and Millennium Park, with an Old Town locale on the way. That fast-paced success can be attested to the quality of ingredients and preparation at Le Pain Quotidien, with breads baked daily at the West Loop location and locally sourced seasonal ingredients lending themselves to a bracingly fresh, ever-changing menu of composed dishes that go well beyond the cafe norm.
Broken Shaker: When one of the most popular cocktail bars in the country announces it's expanding to Chicago, you take notice. The award-winning Broken Shaker is one of Miami's most esteemed bars, renowned for its outre creations and offbeat infusions, featuring everything from chorizo and Cocoa Puffs to papaya bread milk. Broken Shaker's Chicago debut came via the Freehand, a hotel/hostel in River North's bygone Tokyo Hotel space. The Miami-esque space is dark, dim, cozy, and warm, featuring one of the most interesting cocktail menus in town, with page after page of mixology masterwork.
Nando's Peri Peri: The latest and greatest restaurant import comes to us all the way from South Africa. Now that the fried chicken craze has died down a bit, it's time for grilled, rotisserie, and roasted chicken to step into the spotlight, and it does so with a shiny, sprawling new restaurant on Restaurant Row. Nando's Peri Peri started off as a South African chicken restaurant, which eventually flew to D.C. to launch a slew of locations. Now it's onto Chicago for its first location outside the East Coast. For the West Loop, it's a welcome casual addition on a street known for its sceney and pricey dining experiences. The space is lively, fun, and hip, with a zesty menu of chicken and other fixins to match. Two more Nando's locations are in the works in Lakeview and Lincoln Park.
- Matt Kirouac