How the Gold Coast Became One of Chicago's Hottest Dining Districts
Compared to other restaurant-filled neighborhoods like the West Loop and Logan Square, the Gold Coast hasn't always been quite known for its dining and drinking landscape. Sure, it's a meat Mecca for some of Chicago's best steakhouses (Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Morton’s The Steakhouse and Tavern on Rush, among them), but beyond that niche, the neighborhood has been pretty slim until recent years. As of late, the Gold Coast has taken shape as a destination-worthy enclave for dining across a pretty wide spectrum of cuisines and styles. Here’s where you should be eating and drinking in the Gold Coast these days, plus some exciting news for what’s to come.
One of the biggest harbingers of change in the Gold Coast has been Maple & Ash, a buzz-worthy steakhouse that emerged at the corner of Maple and State late last year. Even though that direct area has plenty of steakhouses already, this restaurant promised to really differentiate itself, and differentiate it did. First of all, the talent is seriously top-tier, including acclaimed chef Danny Grant and star sommelier Belinda Chang. The multi-story wood-fired steakhouse boasts a 12-foot wood and coal hearth and an opulent space designed by renowned Karen Herold of Studio K. A far cry from your typical steakhouse fare, the menu at Maple & Ash is full of surprises, starting with appetizers like Sauternes-soaked foie gras, coal-baked French onion soup and lamb ribs. There's also caviar service, oysters, roasted seafood towers, and crab legs. Heftier items include roasted bass, grilled Skuna Bay salmon, whole branzino, and braised beef short ribs. Then there's the steaks and chops: filet mignon, NY strip, dry-aged rib-eye, rack of lamb, surf & turf, and plenty more.
On the complete opposite end of the fine dining spectrum, another popular entry in the 'hood has been drawing lines down the block. The Halal Guys originated as a street cart in New York City, quickly amassing renown for their chicken, gyro, and falafel platters. With the brand branching out with brick and mortar locales outside NYC, they've put down roots in the Gold Coast for their first Chicago outpost (another one recently opened in the Loop). Positioned on the stretch of Division surrounded by bars, the move has proven wise for The Halal Guys, serving up quick and cheap food to bar-goers late into the night. Be sure and ask for extra of that addictive white sauce.
While one eatery hails from New York, the Gold Coast welcomed another from Paris in the form of Amorino. The elegant French gelato import is famed for their signature flower petal-shaped scoops. The inaugural Chicago location on State Street (with another outpost in the Water Tower Place mall) is a sleek, polished gelato machine, serving up lustrous cones to the masses. Flavor-wise, there's everything from banana and cherry to chocolate, caramel, passion fruit, and hazelnut.
Another brand new Gold Coast spot is The Little Beet Table, another New York City-based concept that recently took shape in the neighborhood. The clean-eating and vegetable-driven restaurant is the masterwork of chef Franklin Becker, who amassed acclaim for his inaugural Little Beet Table in Manhattan a couple years ago. With a menu that is 100% gluten-free and aimed at healthy fats, the restaurant brings something refreshingly new to the table in an area long known more for red meat and Manhattans. Expect beautiful dishes like chickpea Caesar salads, sweet pea guacamole, cauliflower hummus, black sea bass with spaghetti squash and herb-roasted chicken with honey-glazed carrots and yogurt ranch.
Of course, one can’t discuss the Gold Coast dining renaissance without tipping your cap to Nico Osteria. The stunner of a restaurant inside the Thompson Hotel hails from One Off Hospitality Group, with a focus on Italian seafood. The upscale restaurant, coupled with its glorious bar/lounge area, makes for one of the finest dining experiences in the whole downtown area, with a seasonally rotating menu of antipasto, bruschetta, housemade pasta, whole fish and desserts. Current standouts for fall include Brussels sprouts bruschetta with lemon honey and hazelnut, stuffed pappardelle with milk-braised pork, carrot and black truffle and whole salt-crusted branzino with aqua pazza verde, pickled shallots and pesto butter. Desserts are not to be missed either, especially when options include a pistachio torte, apple mille-feuille and butter-braised pineapple with crisp meringue, rum, and coconut-pineapple-rum sorbetto.
In regards to the Gold Coast’s cocktail scene, the folks behind Footman Hospitality (The Betty, Bangers & Lace) put their stamp on the ‘hood with one of the most beautiful bars in town. Inspired by the bygone lobby bars of Chicago yore, Sparrow is housed in a building constructed in 1927, during the height of Prohibition. During this time, the U.S. smuggled alcohol from the Caribbean, hence the eventual surfeit of rum drinks flooding into the country. As such, the crux of Sparrow's beverage program maintains a focus on rum. Drinks include the El Presidente, made with Gold Rum, Bianco Vermouth, Curacao, and grenadine; and the Santiago Daisy with American rum, lime, Yellow Chartreuse, seltzer and crushed ice. There’s even a riff on the classic dessert-y Grasshopper, here made with Sparrow rum cream, creme de menthe, creme de cocoa, and mint.
Still to come, one of the biggest and most multifaceted restaurant groups in Chicago just announced plans to open a new restaurant in the Gold Coast’s forthcoming Viceroy Hotel. While details are sparse at the moment, it’s safe to assume the upcoming concept from Boka Restaurant Group is going to be unique for the neighborhood, and fantastic.
- Matt Kirouac