Where Tom went:
At chef Grant Achatz’s exquisite, modernist dinner theater, the show might include “spring” (asparagus, begonias, pea tendrils) being served on “concrete” (meringue) that smacks of black truffles, a live fire and dessert balloons filled with helium and tasting of green apple. Next year: a makeover, which Achatz told the Chicago Tribune would encompass the entire experience: “What is the impossible?” he teased.
1723 N. Halsted St.
Turn chefs into bartenders, and this is what you get: layers of pineapple juice, Campari, rum and rum-flavored beads with the bounce of bubble tea (“Jungle Bird”) and a Boulevardier delivered inside an ice cube cracked open with a … slingshot (“In the Rocks”). Insiders know to ask about the Office, a speak-easy within the bar. Does the magic show feel familiar? Aviary comes by way of the owners of the novel Alinea.
955 W. Fulton Market
Raspberry scones, brown-butter custard tarts, almond-strawberry-brulee cake, cookies that look like art: If it’s sweet and elegant, this long-running bakery and pastry shop from the self-taught Judy Contino probably makes it. Can’t wait to eat a purchase? Spring for a cafe table.
1114 W. Belmont Ave.
The mission of this recreational cooking school and retail market in the sprawling Merchandise Mart: “to get the country to cook.” Class topics include knife skills, Korean cooking, gluten-free meals and more. On the shelves: retro aprons, hand-shaped salad tongs, books by local chefs and pre-folded paper napkins. Lincoln Square hosts a smaller location.
222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, #107
Chicago Cut Steakhouse
The new-wave steakhouse’s beef is prime, aged and butchered in-house. The service is sterling, the prime rib is fabulous (and should be, for $64) and so is the Dover sole, sauteed in Plugra brand butter. Spring for the Oreo mint pie. The location is a cut above, too: From your red-velvet chair, you can see the Chicago River.
300 N. LaSalle St.
A Tex-Mex diner with a Southern accent, swivel stools at a winding zinc counter, a jukebox playing blues and soul, and heaping helpings of modernized comfort food. Try the brined, pounded, floured “chicken-fried chicken” showered with peas, lapped with brown gravy and stabbed with an upright steak knife.
1545 N. Damen Ave.
Gene & Georgetti
At this 74-year-old institution -- supposedly built with wood salvaged from the Chicago Fire of 1871 -- the intense heat of its gas broilers gives a beautiful char to the wet-aged sirloin, filet mignon and bone-in rib-eye. Italian American dishes include winy chicken Vesuvio with potato wedges and peas.
500 N. Franklin St.
Green City Market (Outdoor, May - October)
“They pretty much have everything you want,” a visitor tells her companion. Sure enough, May through October, you can spot such finds as stinging nettles, popcorn flour, goat milk gelato, breakfast pizza – plus a fiddler for entertainment and Lake Michigan as backdrop. Pick up inspiration from “The Green City Market Cookbook.”
1817 N. Clark St.
Green City Market (Outdoor, June - October)
Green City Market (Indoor, November - April)
GT Fish & Oyster
Tradition and novelty come together on the small-plates menu and in the sleek dining room. Drop anchor for clam chowder and lobster rolls, but also for a one-bite oyster po' boy slider fired up with kimchi, and an elegant Thai-style seafood soup. The nautical design finds a wall of fish jaws, teakwood floors and a boomerang table in the bar.
531 N. Wells St.
Macanese food borrows from the repertoires of China, Portugal, India and Southeast Asia. The signature dish here is arroz gordo (or "fat rice"): jasmine rice layered in a clay pot with Chinese sausage, Portuguese chicken thighs, prawns, pickles and more, typically served only in homes on special occasions. Try to sit around the open kitchen, where chef Abraham Conlon jams.
2957 W. Diversey Ave.
Fatso's Last Stand
Picking a winner among wieners is impossible, but Fatso’s oozes easy charm. The guy behind the counter sounds a gong after every order of signature dogs. (“Always charred! Never steamed!”) Get yours “wit everything,” and it arrives in its poppy-seed bun with green relish, yellow mustard, chopped onions, “sport” (chili) peppers and a dusting of celery salt.
2258 W. Chicago Ave.
A combination grocery store and dining room, this taqueria uses a charola, a wide circular stove top, for cooking. Go for the two-ply tripe taco, with its agreeable funk and crisp-soft chew. And go easy on the seriously hot salsa, made in-house. Refreshment comes by way of whatever fruit juice is fermenting in a small barrel on the counter.
2500 S. Whipple St.
My favorite Italian restaurant in Chicago, with duck heart sliced over thick garlic toast, superior fritto misto, fried artichokes that bring Rome to mind and roasted turbot as good as it gets. Maestro of the animated open kitchen is Erling Wu-Bower, an alumnus of the popular Avec and Publican Quality Meats.
1015 N. Rush St.
Chef-couple Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim fuse American, Asian and French ideas to come up with a thrillingly original menu – and a groovy design. Order the bing bread, flavored as if it were a loaded baked potato; boudin noir staged with rhubarb, crunchy seeds and raspberry vinaigrette; and bibimbap with Spanish mackerel and preserved lemon.
3500 N. Elston Ave.
“How hungry are you?” asks the no-nonsense host behind the bar of this Polish stalwart. The soup — cabbage with shredded chicken — delivers Old-World comfort; the dumplings topped with buttery onions become my model for pierogis forevermore. “Get the blintz,” an insider insists. How do you say “swoon” in Polish?
1549 W. Division St.
Ich liebe just about everything about this ambitious, upscale German tavern: the house-baked pretzels, the snappy weisswurst, the tangy braised beef, the Bavarian-style clocks on either side of the oak bar, the rows of tables lined up as if for Oktoberfest. Two of the many brews are made exclusively for the Radler.
2375 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Source of some of the city’s best cured meats and sausages. Home in on the pâtés and terrines; pink “pot roast” in a mosaic with carrots is like nothing any mom ever made. The biggest surprise in this former meatpacking operation might be the kitchen’s celebration of vegetables in the seasonal “garden,” staged in a deep pot.
1114 W. Randolph St.
Twenty-five years after Rick Bayless launched "Topolo," this sophisticated companion to Frontera Grill still sets the standard for high-end Mexican cuisine in this country. Lunch is a deal: $25 for three courses that might include a sparkling tuna seviche, rare flank steak draped with a complex mole and a brownie rich with Mexican chocolate. Margaritas, shaken at the table, fuel the most luscious fiesta in town.
445 N. Clark St.
Uncle John’s Barbecue
A no-frills barbecue joint where you order from a cashier behind a glass partition and ought to eat the signature meats on the spot: Fried hot links lose their snap if they travel, and pork tips (the ends of spareribs) lose crustiness. The source: an “aquarium” smoker that helps define Chicago-style barbecue. Ask for the sauce on the side — with extra napkins, of course.
8249 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
Vito and Nick's
Red and green neon glows in the windows, the stools are aqua, and the drill is cash-only and no deliveries. The main attraction is thin-crust pizza adorned with sausage and cheese and cut grid fashion, or “party style.” The crackery, buttery crust nearly upstages the toppings. Fans of local fish come for the Friday night special: all-you-can-eat smelts (plus salad and fries) for $10.
8433 S. Pulaski Rd.
Fast food in the hands of Rick Bayless means three kinds of churros, steaming bowls of chicken posole, and suckling pig packed with black beans and pickled onions into crisp tortas. Xoco (say SHO-ko) means “little sister” in Aztec. Don’t miss the stellar hot chocolate, which uses cacao beans from Tabasco that are roasted and ground in-house.
449 N. Clark St.