JAMES BEARD AWARD WINNERS
Chicago has a rich history with the James Beard Foundation, delivering winners in 23 out of 24 years.
Grant Achatz is one of the country's most-awarded chefs, and his flagship kitchen, Alinea, has been called the Best Restaurant in the World (Elite Traveler, 2015). Achatz's passionate and curious nature ensures that every meal is a profoundly sensuous experience; the 18- to 20-course tasting menu has been known to elicit tears of joy. His talents are also on display at Next, which reimagines dinner as a ticketed, themed event, and Aviary (pictured above), where high-concept cocktails add to the overall experience.
Rick Bayless has been an unstoppable force on the Chicago culinary scene since he opened Frontera Grill in 1987. A meal at the Grill - or its sister restaurant, Topolobampo (pictured above), which shares the front door - has become part of the quintessential Chicago experience, with fresh interpretations of traditional Mexican cuisine in lavish preparations. Less involved (but no less delicious) is XOCO, the chef's take on Mexican street food - and his new West Loop brewery, Cruz Blanca, is slated to open this spring.
Stephanie Izard first made a name for herself as the Top Chef Season 4 winner in 2008, but it's her homey West Loop restaurant The Girl and the Goat that put her on the James Beard map. An extensive family-style menu with global influences and a rotating selection of top-shelf local craft beers draw crowds. Izard's Little Goat Diner & Bakery serves expertly crafted casual meals, and her Chinese concept, Duck Duck Goat, is set to open this spring.
Paul Kahan has built an eater's empire over nearly two decades, with seven restaurants winning accolades all over the city. Since its opening in 2008, The Publican has gradually redefined Midwestern cuisine, with an emphasis on pork and beer. Avec (pictured above) borrows heavily from Mediterranean flavors, occasionally venturing deliciously into the Middle East; reservations are not accepted, so plan to grab a drink while you wait. Dove's Luncheonette is also a highlight, serving Kahan's unique version of Tex-Mex in a charmingly re-engineered midcentury diner.
PEOPLE + PLACES TO WATCH
Matthias Merges has been creating culinary art in Chicago for most of the past 20 years. Experience the flavors of Tokyo street food at his popular restaurant Yusho, swank American food and drink at Billy Sunday or unforgettable French-Italian fusion at A10 (now closed).
Brendan Sodikoff has experienced a meteoric rise since opening his first restaurant, Gilt Bar, in 2010. Today his Hogsalt Hospitality group contains a variety of Chicago mandatories, with offerings that are literally all over the map - including 3 Arts Club Café, Au Cheval, Bavette's, High 5 Ramen and more.
NEW & NOT-TO-BE-MISSED
Take your pick: traditional Italian at Monteverde, intimate Korean-American eats at Parachute, inventive dim-sum at Imperial Lamian, Dutch/Indonesian comfort food at De Quay, and reimagined Mexican at Dos Urban Cantina.
TREND WATCH: FOOD HALLS
The "food hall" concept has really taken off in Chicago. Eataly (pictured above) was one of the first to combine a bustling European-style market with a high-end food court. With multiple locations around the world, co-owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, Chicago's is the largest in the U.S. Richard Sandoval's Latinicity draws curious and hungry shoppers to Block 37, with diverse offerings from Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Chicago French Market brings together more than 30 individual specialty vendors, including grab-and-go meals as well as exotic ingredients for cooking at home. Local Foods is exactly what you'd expect: expertly curated meats, produce and baked goods, with incredible cooking classes to boot.
RARE OPPORTUNITY: STEAKHOUSE TOURS
Immerse yourself in meat-packing industry history with a three-hour Chicago Steakhouse Tour, complete with luxury tasting menus at each stop. Ticketed tours depart River North daily.