Phil Vettel used to publish a top 50 restaurants listicle, which served as a pretty good proxy for the conventional wisdom of mainstream restaurant reviewers—although after a certain point, I’m not sure who else counted as a mainstream reviewer; he was pretty much the last man standing. Anyway, the equivalent of that for his successors, Louisa Chu and Nick Kindelsperger, is this week’s listicle of the 25 Best New Restaurants in Chicago:

While their predecessor, Phil Vettel, could build off his existing Phil’s 50 list and decades of dining, our critics recognized how extensively the pandemic has reshaped experiences at nearly every restaurant, not just in Chicago, but globally. It wouldn’t be fair to judge based on pre-2020 experiences, before social distancing rules, smaller staffs and soaring food costs affected everyone, from humble hot dog stands to fine-dining institutions.

So, they said, we’ll start from scratch. If it makes the list, we will have visited it in the After Times. Everybody gets a clean slate.

If anything, this seems a little unfair to the current reviewers, suggesting that they’re inevitably playing catch-up to Vettel—when each have their own variety of expertise on our food scene, even if it’s not as much of the business dinner type. So what’s on their list? Well, some places that you’d expect—no way this list wouldn’t have Kasama or Dear Margaret or Obelix, and though Ever seems an old vet by now, it actually opened during a moment when lockdown relaxed in 2020, so it’s there too. Then we get into what’s trendy—both Milly’s Pizza in the Pan and Kim’s Uncle Pizza make it to represent the new varieties of pizza, and Cambodian is surely the only cuisine to see 100% of its local practitioners (Hermosa and Khmai) make the list.

As with Vettel, one downside of this list is that it looks a lot like “Here’s most of what I reviewed in the past year.” Nothing against most of them for that, but besides overfamiliarity for regular readers, it does mean we wind up calling equal attention to Kasama or Andros Taverna, busy places at least open five days a week or more, and to some places that made for interesting novelties in the course of weekly reviewing but aren’t really significant enough, to me, to warrant landing on a list of top restaurants. No, KennyZ, there isn’t some artisan bagel place only open one day a week, but we do get Funeral Potatoes (order on Sunday for delivery later that week), and the very mixed, infrequently open Sugar Moon Bakery (among recent bakeries, I’d have easily selected Mindy’s or Aya over that, assuming Kasama was already on the list). In any case, I feel like a list of restaurants ought to be, in the main, restaurants, that is, places you can go, sit down, and be served a meal. I’m all for the other kind of thing, I order takeout plenty, God knows, but… restaurants. They’re a specific thing.

Or maybe they’re not; after a year-plus of bags of food in deli cups, assembly required, who’s to say what a restaurant is now? Who knows anything any more? The most discussion I’ve seen of this list so far has come from Friend of Fooditor Matthew Mirapaul, admittedly a tough crowd—he dislikes things that have impressed me on first visit, but I like hearing contrary opinions like his before my own settle. And he’s sure got that. At Instagram:

I’ve had food from 15 of the 25 winners and I’m happy to acknowledge that four of the entries range from really good (Holu and Soul & Smoke) to superb (Milly’s and Hermosa).

But the remaining 11 restaurants range from the merely competent to the truly dreadful — no, I’m not naming names — and I don’t know what to make of that…

Or has the city’s dining scene been so decimated by the pandemic that it doesn’t have the creative moxie, technical expertise or human resources to put out great — or at least interesting — food right now?

John Kessler, who will no doubt have to do his own best new restaurants list sometime next spring, responds:

I don’t mind the choices so much, though I agree that the popup/virtual restaurant part seems superficial based on the omissions. But I don’t question their tastes, even if I disagree. My editor and I felt that Andros Taverna and Rose Mary weren’t worthy of the Best New Restaurants list we published last year based on meals we ate separately, though many people like those places far better than we did, and their successes make me think I should revisit both. Likewise, based on your comment above, I know that I liked Obelix and Kasama far better than you did. They are both restaurants I’ve been to multiple times, and I am confident of my opinion.

Kessler also questions the placement of, say, Bronzeville Winery on the list when the review comes from before the exit of chef Whitney McMorris. I think Vettel would not have felt like he could rely on an obviously outdated review like that. But more interesting to me is the other issue Mirapaul raised—is there really that much to be excited about, a year or so after restaurants reopened? Or is everybody just opening Italian restaurants because they know they’re safe and they’ll survive, and we’re still a year or more away from returning to the daring and imagination that, say, marked our scene in the mid-2010s? (The new Italian spots—from Alla Vita and Elina’s to Segnatore and Peanut Park Trattoria—are distinctly absent from Louisa and Nick’s listicle, though African-American-owned Provare makes it.) At Facebook, where Mirapaul’s comment was also posted, Friend of Fooditor Lou Stejskal has some interesting thoughts, which I’m not qualified to firmly validate or dispute:

i was in LA 2 weeks ago and NYC last week and actually had some of these thoughts but more along the lines of technical skills. and for when i tell friends to jump on a plane to dine here, where will i send them.

culinary training in europe is very technically refined and they start much younger so their muscle memory is more developed. also the proximity to other countries food gives an expansive portfolio of trying and cooking many styles/ regions.

let’s not forget their mentors. chefs there work well into their 70s. you don’t see many chefs here work past their 60s, let alone are there any at any of chicago’s “hot spots?”

we don’t have many european cooks/chefs in chicago either. they all seem to land in NYC, some CA. the ones from abroad are mostly in hotels.

but my point is, i feel this plays a part of where chicago learns, grows, evolves and is influenced/inspired. and results in how we are “in comparison” to other food cities around the world. cooks can only learn from what they’re exposed to and who will mentor them.

I’m not 100% convinced, but I find it an interesting question—if, especially after COVID, we just don’t have the depth of institutional knowledge being passed down that we once had. I’m sensitive to this notion because I’ve been writing for my book about the time period when we had the Banchets and Fernand Gutierrezes (Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton) who plainly mentored the next generation of Chicago chefs in classical French technique. It’s unfair to look at a long stretch of time (60s to 80s, at least) and compare it to the current moment, as if everything was Charlie Trotter then—any era has good and bad, and memory tends to erase the latter. There’s no doubt we’ve had great mentors here more recently—Tony Mantuano, Rick Bayless, Chris Pandel—but maybe something has been lost and is still not recovered, and the Trib’s list inadvertently points to that.

Nick and Steve Dolinsky talk to WBEZ’s Reset about what’s new.

In any case, if there’s anything we do have, it’s lists! Compare with Time Out’s version, The 15 Best New Restaurants in Chicago (though I don’t see how renovating the interior of Parachute and making the menu more Korean makes it a new restaurant), and here’s one from The Infatuation (I swear, there are more people touting Khmai Fine Dining than that place has had capacity since it opened). Opinions—let the fun begin and the fur fly!


Best lists are dropping on us this week like the first snow… Esquire has its best new restaurants issue and Chicago lands two places on it. The first is no surprise, at #7:

“Have you been to Kasama?” Everyone in Chicago asked me this when I asked them what restaurants they were excited about. “Only for breakfast,” I said, to which they replied: “You need to go for dinner.”

More surprising is Indienne—not that it’s not a worthy choice (I’ll find out next week), but it hardly seems to have been open long enough to have been discovered by a national publication:

While French-techniques applied to Indian cuisine (or any cuisine) is nothing new, that combination here is from chef Sujan Sarkar, is potent and unexpected. The galouti, an Indian kebab traditionally made with lamb is transformed into an eclair with foie gras and chicken liver and an inviting spice. The malai tikka is served not as a skewer, but as a terrine topped with truffles for good measure.


The real list that matters, to some people, is the one represented by Restaurant Business’ 100 top-grossing restaurants list. Eater Chicago sums up the Chicago side of it: the highest-grossing Chicago restaurant is Maple & Ash at #4 nationwide, followed by Alinea at #6, but the top-grossing upscale restaurant chain is plainly the Gibsons group with Gibson’s Italia at #16, Gibson’s Oakbrook and Viagra Triangle at #24 and #26, Gibson’s Rosemont at #54, and Hugo’s Frog Bar at #91. Not doing too shabby is Lettuce Entertain You (Joe’s Seafood at #17, RPM Steak at #27, Shaw’s at #42), same for Boka Group with Swift & Sons (#45) and Girl and the Goat (#81). You can see why no matter how they start, chains wind up doing a steakhouse sooner or later.


John Kessler says Erick Williams Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern does New Orleans, Chicago-style:

As at Virtue, Williams brings a Chicagoan’s perspective to the menu. Daisy’s isn’t so much a trip to New Orleans as an ode to it. As befits our cold climate, the soups and gravies are thicker, the condiments are slathered on with more abandon, and while the seafood is good, the meats are better. But after two visits, I can attest that Williams also brings the unmanipulated delicious.

That last phrase isn’t clunky writing, it’s a quote from Williams about what he’s aiming for in all his ventures.


Time Out’s Jeffy Mai visits Indienne and finds it an advance on Chef Sujan Sarkar’s Rooh:

At Indienne, Sarkar pushes the envelope even further. The restaurant debuted in September with two tasting menus—vegetarian and non-vegetarian—that reimagine classic Indian recipes through a progressive lens (an a la carte menu has since been added). In a surprise, both set options are priced at $90, a relative bargain considering the River North location. On a recent visit, my non-vegetarian experience began with canapes. A passion fruit pani puri packing a tart punch cleansed the palate for a mushroom éclair crowned with goat cheese and shaved truffle.

But Emma Krupp was less impressed with Alpana Singh’s eponymous restaurant:

Alpana’s palate-driven philosophy lends a slightly all-over-the-place quality to the dinner menu, bouncing from elote corn to French onion soup to a double cheeseburger alongside more buttoned-up options like squid ink campanelle and steak au poivre. Some diners might appreciate Alpana’s commitment to variety; I might’ve, too, if the food weren’t so frequently lackluster. During a recent visit, a lemony tagliatelle dish, which came studded with morsels of broccolini and fried garlic, offered acidic punch but swam in a thin, overly-salted sauce, and the Faroe Island salmon, though crispy-skinned and tender, sat on a bed of vegetables stewed in sickeningly sweet agrodolce jus. You can see Singh’s flavor ethos reflected in each selection—a bright pop of citrus here, a bit of tangy sweetness there—and yet the execution falls short, especially for a restaurant with Gold Coast price points. Could a pairing swoop in to save the day? I sipped my glass of pinot noir and hoped for a palate awakening, but no such revelation arrived.


Nine Bar is one of those things that turns up on lists at the moment, like the Trib one above; Titus Ruscitti went and here’s what he had to say about the Chinatown craft cocktail bar:

Nine Bar seems to be one of the few local neighborhood openings of late. It’s ran the family behind Moon Palace which has been a neighborhood fixture for over five decades. I didn’t realize it until I walked in but Moon Palace’s dining room has been replaced by the bar, you can still order food from what’s now called Moon Palace Express which is a pickup booth in the front room which you enter before going into the bar. The bar itself has nice lighting that isn’t too dark or too bright with a colorful backdrop and Asian inspired cocktails plus foreign and local beers and bar food too. I don’t get out for cocktails as much as I used to but the two I had from here were both really good. The first was a very well mixed Mai Tai, a fav of mine. I followed that up with a drink called ‘Paradise Lost’ that mixes clarified, novo fogo prata, rhine hall mango, ube extract, pineapple, thai coconut milk. Fantastic.

Meanwhile, nobody’s talking about a place called Restaurant Ecuador—in fact, to judge by his photo, it’s the epitome of the restaurant hiding in plain sight, with its generic yellow sign and, heck, just being Ecuadoran, one of the more common but least seen cuisines in town:

Restaurant Ecuador has been serving a taste of home to Chicago area Ecuadorians since 1984. Whenever I visit an Ecuadorian spot such as this I have to get an empanada to start. Specifically an Empanada de viento (fried cheese). These are a very traditional variety that can be enjoyed as an appetizer or a dessert. I prefer the former bc you can use one of the best condiments in town for dipping. An Ecuadorian meal served up in a restaurant will almost always include a bowl of aji sauce to be used as a condiment. Aji refers to both a species of chili known as Capsicum Baccatum that’s native to South America and it’s also a word used to mean chili pepper. The aji sauce in Ecuadorian restaurants will most always be a homemade variety so the recipes can very in both ingredients and heat.

There’s more to Ecuadoran than just empanadas—read it all and maybe you won’t whiz by it on Diversey next time.


Steve Dolinsky talks about the biryanis at a place in Schaumburg called Bawarchi Biryanis, which I can attest to the excellence of—I went with Nick Kindelsperger back when he did a roundup of suburban Indian spots. Anyway:

Hearty dishes, slow-cooked in seasoned gravies and traditional vegetarian platters attract all sorts of diners at Bawarchi Biryanis, one outpost of an international chain, located in a Schaumburg strip mall. The namesake is a rice dish, utterly complex and blessed with a depth of flavor, as well-seasoned as anything from the Indian kitchen.


Ragadan is a new place doing sort of artisanal middle eastern food, from a chef named Daniel Sweis. First, Nick Kindelsperger in the Trib:

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m confident that Ragadan is Chicago’s only restaurant that purposefully combines the food of Jordan and Oklahoma. While the Middle Eastern country and the southern state might seem to have little in common, for owner Daniel Sweis, the two make perfect sense together. “I’m an Arabic dude who grew up in Oklahoma,” Sweis said. “The menu reflects me.”

This means you can swing by Ragadan and pick up a platter of hummus with falafel, while also scoring a double cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake. All of it will be great.

As I read Michael Nagrant’s latest review I wondered what it was actually about—getting a shot in the eyeball (something I know about), the late Jimmy McFarland, and finally, again, Ragadan:

Sweis is not old, but he is not young. This falafel is a culmination of his accumulated knowledge which includes “fancy” restaurant work for KDK and Gibson’s, Quartino, and Tesori. Sweis could have opened a high-end place, but he opted instead for a Chicago-style corner joint to deliver the delicious memories of his Jordanian and Oklahoman heritage to everyone.


Dennis Lee recommends the chicken wraps at Cermak market. I admire the thing of loving good food wherever you find it, but have to say I’m only going to eat a grocery store wrap on the day that I feel nostalgia for a lunch meeting at the long-gone dot com I used to work for.


Hollywood keeps making works about restaurants—and they turn to Chicago for inspiration (take that, all you large clubby East Coast food organizations/publications who shut Chicago writers out—we’re the land of the stars!) Interesting piece at the Reader by Marah Eakin about the new movie The Menu, with Ralph Fiennes as an increasingly ominous chef; turns out it was written by a couple of The Onion vets (back when it was based here), Will Tracy and Seth Reiss, who were inspired by places you’ve probably been to, like this one:

Before each course, he comes out to wax rhapsodic about what diners are about to enjoy, a move that Reiss says they first saw while dining at Phillip Foss’s EL Ideas in Chicago.

“Will and I went to EL Ideas, and afterwards, Phillip Foss wanted to come and hang out at The Onion to see how we put it all together,” Reiss explains. “Will is more of a foodie than I am, but that made me start thinking about the chef as an artist who just wanted to see how another group of people put together this artistic thing.”

Here’s a review of the film at Plate, by chef Richie Nakano.

Meanwhile, Love, Charlie, the documentary about Charlie Trotter, is available to rent on Amazon and Apple TV, as well as playing this week at the Music Box. Here’s part of what I said about it when it played the Chicago Film Festival last fall:

We get good insight into how he got to the top from people he worked for, like Carrie Nahabedian and Norman Van Aken, who warmly remember him and what he achieved. (Both were at the premiere.) That is the feelgood part, that tells you why you’re watching a movie about this guy. But I felt the lack of interviews into the later years, from people who worked for him—other than Grant Achatz, who’s quite wise about how Trotter must have felt about him. To me one of the mysteries is how they could operate with a kitchen table if Trotter was such a tyrant in the kitchen; he basically installed the witnesses who made that impossible during service. I’d love to have explored that dynamic more. (And since I’m writing a book and have interviewed many of the same people, I guess I will.)

All of which is to say that a 90-minute documentary, like any biography, can only take you close to many of the mysteries about someone of great accomplishments—and contradictions. It’s interesting to me that even as we’re coming out of a phase where being an original and demanding chef came close to being original sin, there will always be a need to admire and follow chefs who fly close to the sun, like Trotter—and expect people to follow them regardless, and often at personal cost. The desire to be part of greatness is out of fashion at the moment, but it never goes away for long.

Trib movie reviewer Michael Phillips talks to Nick Kindelsperger about the movie—though it winds up being kind of more of a discussion about who can actually afford to eat meals like that (not journalists, by and large). Hey, I went there twice—but once as a guest of a law firm recruiting my wife, and once as Trotter’s guest because I shot video of one of his farewell dinners. That one, by the way, retailed at $2500 a plate.

And Netflix’s Taco Chronicles comes to Chicago in the new season; Nick Kindelsperger (that guy again!) speculates on what might be included when the new season launches on November 23.


WBEZ looks at how a business like Manny’s gets along when food prices are shooting up but your customer base is sensitive to pricing:

The restaurants hardest hit are mid-scale family establishments, like Manny’s, that don’t serve alcohol.

For [co-owner Dan] Raskin, raising prices is a tightrope. People have less disposable income than they did a year ago. And they have less patience too.

He tells a story of a customer who bought a 12-ounce sandwich and complained that she thought there wasn’t the proper amount of meat on it.

“It’s got three-quarters of a pound of cooked meat on it, but you could tell she was frustrated,” Raskin said.


Speaking of Whitney McMorris, chef of Bronzeville Winery who was lured to Venteux in whatever the hotel in the Carbide and Carbon Building is called right now, NewCity has a piece on her approach to French food… just in time for the announcement that she’s no longer with the restaurant (or hotel, or carbide, or whatever it is she’s no longer with).


Here’s a different list: the best Chicagoans of the year at Chicago magazine. The food one is John Kessler on chef Tony Priolo in regards to his Ukrainian adventure earlier this year, which started when he contacted a former employee now back home in Ukraine:

He tracked down his former employee on Instagram. “Are you okay?” he messaged during the first wave of bombardments. “Not really,” she responded. “My mom and my dog and I are hiding in the subway.”

That exchange provided the extra push for Priolo to keep going. Along with chefs Giuseppe Tentori of Boka Catering Group and Paul Kahan of One Off Hospitality, he traveled to Przemysl, Poland, in April to help World Central Kitchen feed the 20,000 to 30,000 Ukrainian refugees who had massed along the border.

Meanwhile, Chefsgiving is the name of an event in its seventh year, organized by Bill Kim and Cornerstone Restaurant Group, in which chefs make Thanksgiving meals at Inspiration Kitchens in East Garfield Park and for delivery by Caviar and DoorDash around the city to Chicagoans experiencing poverty and homelessness. About 40 chefs are participating, including Lee Wolen, Chris Pandel, Kevin Hickey, Doug Psaltis, Diana Davila and, who else, Tony Priolo. To see the full list and make a donation to assist, go here.


Kimchi Kids podcast talks to Paul Virant (Vie, Gaijin).


One thing that Friend of Fooditor M. Mirapaul mentioned that he liked, but was probably too new for the Trib list, was Valhalla, the new restaurant from Stephen Gillanders (S.K.Y., Apollonia) on the second floor of Time Out Market. (Valhalla is of course the Viking afterlife, so fellow guest Frank Sennett immediately dubbed it “Heaven on Two.”) I went to a media preview, originally set for October but delayed a month while the menu was partly reconcepted. As Gillanders explained in an opening Q&A (conducted by Time Out Chicago editor Emma Krupp, in case you wondered about the separation of church and state there), S.K.Y. is strongly Asian influenced, Apollonia more European, but Valhalla started with the idea of being a tasting menu but now basically has a tasting menu and a more conventional dining experience, with only a little overlap between the different experiences on offer.

Well, sort of; I’m not saying I would recognize the food as Gillanders’ instantly, but if you told me it was from a name chef in Chicago, I’d have gotten to the guy who made foie bibimbop and lobster wontons fairly quickly. The tasting menu had lots of things sized just to fit the same egg cup that served as a platform for the opening course—an oyster topped with caviar, delicate chawanmushi with more caviar, toast with beef tartare, a deep fried shishito pepper with a cheesy sauce to dip it in. Small luxe ingredient bites, inventive and a lot of fun—though I will say that I kind of wanted a substantial course by the time we were finishing up, so when I go back it will be to see how Gillanders’ style here works with a more standard menu. How was dining on, basically, the balcony of the Time Out Market? Not so loud it felt like a big hall, not so quiet it felt like an enclosed restaurant—at the moment the strings of holiday lights made a kind of wall for the restaurant so that you don’t feel like you were in a mall.

Buzz List will be off for the Thanksgiving weekend. See you on 12/5.