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Leading the Fine Dining Scene

Ralph Lauren? Chanel? Versace? Like haute couture, fine dining is such a subjective shopping experience. Cue Chicago! Because for creative food aficionados with deep pockets and elevated palates, Chicago is the (secret) Paris of the United States in terms of fine dining choice. A few simple reasons put Chicago at the top of America's fine dining destination wish list.

  • First, diners get more for less. Because real estate is generally cheaper here. That gives chefs and their investors more breathing room to find their perfect location at an affordable price tag, which can translate into a more palatable price tag for diners.
  • Second, the city's rich architectural and industrial heritage is an inspiration for interior designers and owners, who have created a host of award-winning interiors from the raw spaces.
  • Third, the Midwest is a land of milk and honey in terms of "raw material" for that special dish. Getting to know the farmers who supply their restaurants is a creative joy for many chefs.
  • Fourth, Chicago's recent influx of corporate headquarters (Google, McDonald's and Boeing et al) provides a steady clientele willing to support a chef's creative vision.
  • And last but not least, fine dining isn't only a special occasion event for many locals. Chicagoans love good food, whatever that means to them, and many are willing to support their favorite chef's vision at most any cost.

Of course, Grant Achatz has ignited diners' tastebuds and imaginations since 2005 with Alinea, followed by Next and now Roister. One mixologist at Achatz's cocktail bar, The Aviary, knows a subset of foodies who fly in from around the world to experience Chicago's molecular gastronomy.

But with 22 Michelin-starred restaurants going strong, all of Chicago's fine dining restaurants boast a loyal local following. Take down-to-earth North Pond, in Lincoln Park, where many lucky locals have dined several times a week for years. (You'll understand why, when you taste Chef Bruce Sherman's French-inspired Michelin-starred Midwestern cuisine.) But even Maple & Ash in the Gold Coast has a customer who has been in over 100 times since the millennial-focused steak house opened in October, 2015, according to the hot spot's director of wine & spirits.

With variety in mind, here are five of Chicago's mostly Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants, plus two more. In alphabetical order, because there's no way to choose a favorite when the choice is so stylish.

 

Acadia

Acadia Chicago

With a new (second) star in his Michelin pocket, Chef Ryan McCaskey has proven there's a place for serene chic in the South Loop. But serene doesn't trump the Chef's sense of humor. He admits to dancing to the restaurant's cool Indie soundtrack in the kitchen and expresses his love of junk food via riffs on ramen and "Fritos" on your plate. His "pot roast" is not exactly what your mother would have made, either. With five and ten course tasting menus inspired by the natural landscape, atmosphere and tastes of the Northeastern United States and Maine in particular, Acadia is a restorative pause from the craziness of, say, a long week at nearby McCormick Place Convention Center. Comfort food, reinvented.

Brindille

The seared foie will make you swoon. But Chef Carrie Nahabedian's love and respect for French foodways shine through every succulent bite at her "passion project" place, Brindille, in River North where the monthly "Taste of France" five-course menu will have you seeing life through rose colored glasses. Which isn't difficult, considering the Chef's cousin and business partner, Michael, has fashioned a sexy, award-winning interior where dark and light play off each other like a Dutch Master's painting. Definitely a nice instagramming backdrop. The wine list contains one of the best ranges of French wines in Chicago; both deep and broad. And if dinner doesn't sate your appetite, reserve a cooking class with the Chef on Saturday mornings, followed by lunch.

Maple & Ash

Tomahawk steak from Maple & Ash Chicago

It was big news in Chicago fine dining when Maple & Ash opened as a swanky, badass 21st century version of the venerable Chicago steakhouse. In the Gold Coast neighborhood off Mag Mile, it makes sense that Maple & Ash trades in superlatives. Think pink sequined cowboy hats for ladies who order the rib-in steak, caviar "bumps" and champagne super soakers. Plus 650 wines ... by the glass. Downstairs, there's a clubby feel for lunch and libations while upstairs it's a sexy "vampire den,"  in the evenings, according to sommelier Belinda Chang, who heads up the wine and spirits program. Chang also admits that  "our goal is to make guests cry....because they don't want to leave."

North Pond

Maybe it's because Chef Bruce Sherman is a Chicago boy (who happened to study at the prestigious Ecole Ferrandi in Paris), or maybe it's because his staff is just so darn sweet, but dinner at North Pond always feels like going home. If home happens to be a cozy former boat house with a Michelin star on the wall in Chicago's Lincoln Park, that is. The short stroll through the park to North Pond gives a hungry diner time to anticipate Sherman's generous cuisine, where America meets France in the least pretentious way. Warm up by the fireplace in the winter, enjoy the birdsong in summer and appreciate the glowing oak of the Prairie-style decor all year round. With a thoughtful menu that changes with the seasons.

Oriole

Granted, it's not that easy to spot the entrance to Oriole, on the alley side ground floor of a defunct glue factory in the West Loop. But once you realize your GPS is correct, and you see the discreet sign on the black-painted brick, you're in for a treat. First, there's the cinematic entrance to the den-like restaurant via a former freight elevator door. Then, there's that "who me?" feeling of surprise, like you've gotten an exclusive invite to the coolest emerging indie actor's dining room. With only 28 seats and an open kitchen, the feeling is intimate. And every detail, from the soft lighting that shines perfectly on each table to the creamy paper lanterns floating from the ceiling is a zen-like poem of understatement. Because here, the focus is on Chef Noah Sandoval's multi-course tasting menu; an exquisite experience that unfolds in perfect harmony as an ode to American cuisine in all its culturally diverse facets, textures and tastes.

Sepia

Sepia Chicago

In a late 19th-century former print shop not far from Chicago's Ogilvy Transportation Center and Union Station, Sepia has the, well, sepia-toned feel of a classic. Hand-crafted millwork, burnished brass and vintage stemware make an ideal setting for an intimate meal between friends or business colleagues. Chef Andrew Zimmerman's inventive seasonal menu draws on mostly organic ingredients and Sommelier Arthur Han is a gem of a guide to the restaurant's unique wine list. There's also a quick daily lunch option called the "pinto box" — a riff on the traditional Japanese bento box — for dine in or take out.

Spiaggia

Dinner plates at Spiaggia ChicagoA dignified, sleek retreat high above the hustle and bustle of North Michigan Avenue, Spiaggia has been a national beacon for fine Italian cuisine since 1984.  Today, three Spiaggia dining options satisfy most any appetite. There's the bar menu in the lounge for a quick bite, the a la carte menu in the Cafe for elevated homestyle Italian favorites and the refined tasting menu in the stylish, airy dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows over the city. And if you didn't catch founding Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano on season two of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" you'll recognize him in the restaurant by his kind eyes and Italy-meets-Chicago welcome.

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