I’ll be out of town as this week’s newsletter comes out, but there’s one item in the news I wanted to talk about in depth immediately, anyway. Enjoy this special edition of Buzz List, and it’ll be back in full next week.


Some get excited when Michelin’s list comes out. To me that’s for tourists, and I have issues with those people, how they judge our world. For me the one to watch for every year is Chicago mag’s annual Best New Restaurants list. Not that I agree with it 100% either, but I find it more informative because it helps set the stage every year for what we Chicagoans collectively consider important on our food scene. I’ve argued with it some years—in the past it often seemed too focused on upscale dining out and ignored other kinds of food experiences that are so big on our scene; I have often pointed to 2006’s list, which had a couple of places that have proven to be of lasting importance—Alinea and Schwa—but also lots of expense account places that came and went long ago (like the New York import Il Mulino). But you know who it didn’t feature that year that has proven to be one of the most influential restaurants of its time? Spacca Napoli, the ur-Neapolitan pizzeria of Chicago. At best places like that, doing something reasonably priced on a very high level, got a sidebar mention, but they were not to be taken entirely seriously—not the way a glitzy New York chain restaurant import was.

Well, that was then; in recent years the list has gotten steadily better at calling out a wider variety of food types all around town (though Chinatown has remained the most overlooked part of the city). I was particularly interested to see what this year’s picks would be, because we’re in our first full year after the end of COVID lockdown, and we’ve seen big money poured into the restaurant scene, by people ranging from Boka Group and Lettuce Entertain You to Gibsons Group and Jose Andres. At the same time, much of what’s opened has seemed—fairly understandably—on the safe side, a lot of Italian and Greek restaurants and steaks; the sort of thing you open when it wasn’t that long ago that your whole world was in doubt.

But a reviewer’s job isn’t to judge the wisest investments for restaurant groups’ money, it’s to spot the best choices for diners with their own money. So if last year’s list was full of the places that opened right in the face of lockdown, cut their teeth on carryout, and only got to be full-service restaurants again after some months—the world that Kasama, Ever and Dear Margaret, last year’s top three, were born into—this is our chance to see what people who went through COVID chose to open once past it. I’ve been curious to see what the folks in charge—reviewer John Kessler and dining editor Amy Cavanaugh—would say about the restaurants of this new, post-deli-cup era, and what that would tell us about what our post-COVID dining scene would be like in the next few years.

Here’s the list of eleven best new restaurants. To talk about it, I met up with John Kessler, and here’s our conversation:

FOODITOR: What are you looking for in a candidate for the list?

JOHN KESSLER: Um… a place that has some personality, that seems like it will last. That I liked enough to want to go back to. A place where I could just feel that thing where it was working well. Where you really want to go to have a good time. And there ain’t no better time right now than Obelix [#1 on the list]. Thank God for that place.

What did you find least interesting about the scene right now?

Oh man… it was a hard year. It felt like people were opening big restaurants, but a little nervously. Everything seems a little too… test-marketed. It just seemed like there were a lot of big places in the West Loop, that required a fair amount of money to go and research, that were fiiiiiiine, but uneven and so expensive that it just didn’t seem to make sense.

I remember going to Nisos and to Lyra, both big Greek restaurants in the West Loop, and there were okay things at both. It seemed like there were some good ideas in the food, and it was fun, but the experience and the money just didn’t add up to me. So what I saw a lot of was stuff being really expensive in a way that blew my mind. That’s what’s weird about what we do, we spend so much money to not write about places.

So what was expensive, but actually worth the money to you?

Honestly, I thought Valhalla was great. I way overspent researching that place, but I really liked the feeling I got from—it’s an intangible thing, but I liked the team there. It seemed like everyone was working really well together and they all were sort of sharing the same idea of what they wanted to do. And I thought the food was just so layered and interesting. I just kept wanting to go back and try other things—like when my kids are in town, I want to grab one of them and take them and go eat at the bar. It really excited me, so that felt worth the money.

Another place I spent a lot of money was Bazaar Meat, which is on the list, and which I liked. But boy, it’s so expensive to try and figure out what to get there. I spent a lot of money on this ishiyaki, you know,  really expensive Wagyu beef cooked on a stone. They bring a hot stone and they cook it at the table and it was like the stone wasn’t hot enough and the whole thing wasn’t done right. And that seemed like a big waste. But then once you start eating all those cool appetizers and drink the good wine they have, have a nice piece of meat, I really felt like I could get into the rhythm of the place. If I could go back three times, I’d have a much better cheat sheet for people. But mine right now is the typical one, which is skip the huge ticket items and get the secreto pork there, that shoulder cut, which was great.

So last year was the year of Italian food, and this year was Greek food, and you weren’t wowed by either one.

Yeah, it was a visit to each, and it just felt like the disconnect between how interesting it was and how much it cost was a lot for me. At Nisos I love the fact that they have a big fish display up front. I’d love to see more of those. It’s such a great Mediterranean way of eating—we were just on vacation in Egypt and ate at a restaurant like that. You just go pick out the fish and they grill it. There’s a lot that goes into the theater of it there, burning embers and all sorts of stuff happening. And then at Lyra, I thought it was good. But again, it’s just, they have that nice dish that I think they call lamb souvlaki,  some really nice, well-cooked lamb with, you know, pita bread and things. But it was like a fancy taco platter. I wasn’t feeling Greece, you know?

And yet you did like going to the Turkish import, Meat Moot, and seeing their Salt Bae do his thing.

Yeah, ’cause I loved it. That was a place that was so cool to see the community, to see it just to be a super safe fun space for Muslim families who don’t drink, want to bring their kids, and they know everyone in the neighborhood. There’s just so many people going from table to table there. So I love that feeling of discovering the hot new place in a community. And I think the meat was delicious. Smoky and salty and spice. It was just so much fun being there.

That’s what’s weird about what we do, we spend so much money to not write about places.

I liked that you were out in the neighborhoods there [Burbank in the southwest suburbs]. And in Chinatown—which never used to make the list. Like it was too big a job for the list—scouting out what’s best in Chinatown would be a full year’s job on its own.

I had a weird Chinatown pick [Yao Yao hotpot]. I mean, there are a couple of really super expensive high end hotpot places that have gone in there, but this place just passed that test where the food was really good. It was a fun environment. The service was great. And I went there with my family, and we were all like, totally would go back again in a heartbeat.

I know you’re not a fan of hotpot, but this might take the hotpot curmudgeon out of you because it isn’t one of those endlessly boiling things. There’s no robot servers and it’s not all the different cuts—it’s basically one dish. It’s a fish stew, and it’s delicious.

A lot of people have been talking up these new pizza places—Milly’s, and George’s, and Kim’s Uncle Pizza. But none of them made your list.

Amy did George’s, but I did go to Milly’s, and I liked it. But it wasn’t gonna get me to love deep dish no matter what. And one of our only rules was that it had to be an actual working restaurant where people would go and sit down. There’s seats at Milly’s, but nobody sits and eats there.

It can’t be a pop-up. We thought about Sueños at Soho House, but it was about to close, and so we figured when it becomes a permanent restaurant, we can deal with it then. There was a place I spent some money at, the Frida Room, which was like this pop-up in a breakfast place in Pilsen. It was really fun, but then they stopped doing it because they just didn’t get enough traction.

What else are you conscious of leaving off the list?

There are almost 30 restaurants we went to, that we did not include. We didn’t put on Second Generation, which you and I talked about that you really liked. I went twice and I like the vibe, I like what it’s about. It’s such a great local neighbor. But just very subjectively, none of the food was anything I’d want to go back to. So it’s my palate, but I just thought some things were too sweet or the textures felt off to me. I spent $400 there so it’s not like I didn’t give them a fair shot.

Art Smith’s Reunion got a nice review in the Tribune, I’ve had his fried chicken before, it’s good. But that place just ain’t ready for prime time. Most of the food we tried was actually pretty bad. It needed somebody in the kitchen making sure it was executed better. I mean, the fried stuff was so greasy, a lot of it was just kind of sad.  There was this catfish that was just not good quality fish. I mean there’s such great catfish like you can get now, like at Daisy’s Po’Boy which was great.

Everybody, not just in Chicago but nationally, has Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining on their list as a top new restaurant. But not you.

Man, I tried to like that restaurant, and the food can be very good. The owners have a very compelling story. My experience with them was twice making reservations in good time to go out on weekend nights and twice being called an hour before I was supposed to show up there that, we’re sorry, we can’t have you in tonight for x&y reason. Then finally getting there and the kitchen was in the weeds, the service staff was in the weeds and our friends we went with had been there once before and said it was the same thing. We ordered a bunch of food, and about half of it came. I wish them well, but I feel like telling our readers to go won’t help them at all. They already have enough business for what they can handle.

Let’s talk about things you did like. The most casual place on the list was Loaf Lounge.

It seemed like there was a huge spate of bakery cafes opening, and all day cafes, and it really felt like that was the best of the bunch. It didn’t swing for the rafters, it’s a pretty small place, but I think what they do, they do really well. I mean, it really said Chicago to me in a way.

It also seems like the future right now. Prognostication is not my best thing, but all day cafes, and places that are usable all day by neighborhoods, like Pompette, I think there will be more of those.

At the same time, you have a sidebar, saying enough with the tasting menus already.

There’s so many of them. And so much of the food scene here is for this cabal of the super-rich and other people in the industry. And I get it. I talk about money a lot, because I just feel like, I’ve got to, because it’s so ridiculous how expensive everything has become. I mean, being able to actually get to know a restaurant at all is hard when you’re talking a thousand bucks for two people.

Yeah, 85 bucks was the magic price point for tasting menus a few years ago. And now you’re praising Indienne for being so reasonable at like 105.

And they have to go after an increasingly smaller number of people in order to make their numbers work. Like at one point, you know, Esme went down to three nights a week. I think they’re back up now, but I bet you the tasting menu economy is gonna blow up at some point.

What do you think you’re going to get the most shit for?

Maybe for putting in some foreign chain restaurants [Meat Moot, Yao Yao] and leaving off some local independents.

Yeah, but it’s not like you named a Denny’s. It’s part of being in a city like Chicago that there’s room for a Turkish chain to come here and appeal to a mostly Muslim audience. That’s pretty cool.

To change the subject, I know how you mostly eat out when we meet up. We’re sitting here talking about $1000 tasting menus over $2 pupusas at a Salvadoran place on Laramie [Olocuilta Pupuseria]. Was there any temptation to put a true immigrant hole in the wall like this on the list? I kind of expected to see, say, Madhura Cafe on the list.

Yeah, I mean, for sure. I wouldn’t not consider them. But to consider it, it would have to be something so good I’d tell friends I gotta take you to it, I really want you to try it. For instance, Madhura Cafe which is this like, very bare bones Indian snack shop in Deerfield that I really like, because I think it’s so hard to get good South Indian food in Chicago. It’s a place where it’s very much dependent on one or two people in the kitchen. It’s what they can do that day.

In Atlanta when I was doing this, we had our annual 50 best restaurants and I put on an Indian sweet shop that made amazing samosas because I just kept turning people on to the samosas and they were like, I’ve never had samosas so good. But that was out of 50, not 11. I’d love to see more small mom and pop but international restaurants on the list. Those are always the best. So why aren’t they on the list? I don’t think any of the ones I tried that were best restaurant material were new. A lot of those restaurants don’t find their greatness until they’ve been around a while. They grow into it.