By Jacky Runice
Chicago, food town extraordinaire, saw its share of brand new eateries in 2012, but can there be anything more subjective than favoring one restaurant over another when trying to choose the top newbies? After scouring countless reviews, from critics to consumers, having a taste or two and finally quizzing Chicago chefs and restaurant staff, it’s a sure thing – snag a table at any of these shiny new spots and a singularly stellar meal is a cinch.
La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
John Manion’s Midwestern food by way of South America is luring locals and lots of local chefs to the West Loop, well, like a cagey mermaid (hence, the name). The empanada of the day might be packed with venison, goat cheese and mushrooms, lamb sausage or wild boar and pork and at $3, you can afford to order more. Everyone seems to be loving swordfish ceviche, coconut cilantro risotto, hangar steak with chimichurri sauce, pork Milanese and whole fried or grilled fish as well as a nice handful of daily specials. The no-reservation policy at the 40-table spot means a wait unless you hit it at off hours. But whatever time you show up, do try at least one of the inventive cocktails. A righteous pisco sour or sturdy caipirinha will start a samba in your soul.
800 W. Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60607
Yet another no-reservation policy signals early arrival or an inevitable wait, but wait they do for the burgers, fried bologna sandwiches, bone marrow with toasted bread, matzo ball soup and the offal union of duck heart gravy and crisp potato hash at this American diner with a European personality. Yes, it sounds like an update on what your great granny prepared during WWII but the hipsters seem to love the simplicity. You can also order 21st-century style raw salads, simply prepared fish and fried chicken. Don’t ho-hum the burger, either – foodie bible Bon Appetit magazine called it “the best new burger in America,” hence the long wait to get into the densely packed, dark space. The diner feeling is fostered by the open kitchen dynamic which guests can observe from all corners of the restaurant. How many diners do in-house charcuterie, their own pickling, craft cocktails and have 36 international beers on draft? Au Cheval’s website features many of the burgers and not much else, but land on this site before your visit to see what beers are on tap that day.
Related: Best Craft Beer Bars in Chicago
1421 W. Taylor St.
Chicago, IL 60607
Little Italy has more than Al’s Beef, Italian ice stands and UIC students milling about now that Urban Union has arrived. Chef/owner Michael Shrader whisks you to Europe through unfussy, rustic flavors, especially those emerging from the specialty wood oven. Oak, cherry and apple woods infuse a fragrant sensation to everything from duck breast and whole fish to olives and vegetables. The menu changes every month so it may feel like you’re dining on the Spanish coast one visit and in Italy or France on the next. Always count on grand shellfish platters, bracingly cold and briny oysters, around eight inventive salads and items from the ocean and pasture. “Day of” dishes, like Kobe burgers and cassoulet, are available until they’re not. The small-plates concept allows to you graze among crispy pork schnitzel, grilled baby octopus, housemade herb gnocchi with trumpet mushrooms and rich duck leg confit. Among the sides, garlic fries speckled with parsley and sea salt waiting to surf through aioli are too good to be legal. Urban Union also offers an extensive and mostly European wine list with affordable prices, a state-of-the-art wine tap system and 90 percent of the spirits list hails from craft and boutique producers.
1700 W. Division St.
Chicago, IL 60622
If you’ve had the opportunity to visit South Carolina and sample low country cuisine, it forever holds a sweet spot in your foodie memories. She crab soup, shrimp and grits and countless oysters are among the dishes that make one smile. Cancel the flights to Savannah or Charleston and just point the vehicle towards Wicker Park for soulful southern food courtesy of Carriage House. Chef Mark Steuer offers simply but perfectly executed fare as only a Charleston, South Carolina native could. His classic southern dishes sport a contemporary flare and little disappointment. Highlights include sumptuous she crab soup, skillets of hot corn bread, low country boil, cider-steamed clams, pork and beans featuring a ham hock, oyster roast and shrimp and grits. Drinks ring of the South from whiskey- and bourbon-centered libations to classic Charleston punches and lovely teas like Magnolia Blossom Oolong. The only thing not low country are the prices, but it’s one of the few places in the 312 to get a spot-on taste of southern coastal cuisine. So close your eyes, fan your face and envision garlands of Spanish moss hanging from majestic Southern Live Oaks.
2039 W. North Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647
Who would have guessed that a menu that goes from pickle tots and Japanese sweet potatoes with miso cream to fried chopped liver and milk-braised pork shoulder would set foodies hearts aflutter? But here you have it at Wicker Park’s Trenchermen. Brothers Michael and Patrick Sheerin serve as co-chefs turning out experimental, Midwestern farm-to-table cuisine in a stunning space – Chicago’s historic North Avenue Bath House. At Trenchermen, your surprise is in the juxtaposition of ingredients and deep flavors like fried chicken thighs escorted by popcorn grits and mushrooms with a dash of hot sauce, aged Peking duck plated with pastrami sausage and rye spaetzle, cider donuts paired with “Delirium” ice cream and pumpkin seed brittle. It’s like the Midwest – a lot of different personalities who just seem to get along.
Jacky Runice has been a columnist with the Daily Herald Chicago since grunge music and flannel was the new black. Her fingers and gray matter have been busy as travel editor of Reunions Magazine; penning a column that was syndicated around the nation via Tribune Media Services. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.