Considering the mile-a-minute pace that restaurants and bars have been opening so far this year, there are bound to be some flubs. While certain spots more than lived up to the hype, others floundered. Then there are those sleeper hits that quickly cemented themselves as neighborhood icons. These are 11 of Chicago’s most visible hits and misses so far in 2016.
Hit: Duck Duck Goat
Perhaps no chef commands a ravenous fan base like Stephanie Izard, a woman who keeps guests buzzing like the Beyhive awaiting new visual albums. When Izard introduced her Chinese venture, Duck Duck Goat, earlier this year, reservations filled up for months. But does the food live up to the hype? Indeed it does, as Izard smartly eschews tackling straight-up traditional Chinese cuisine (and the risks of being compared to authentic Chinatown restaurants) for a menu that showcases her penchant for novel flavor combinations and vibrant presentation. At Duck Duck Goat, shrimp wontons come in blueberry shrimp broth, goat fried rice arrives with pickled quail eggs and potstickers contain beef short ribs and bone marrow. It all makes for an adventurous dining experience, presenting Chinese food in a way that’s wholly unique and ultimately, memorable.
857 W. Fulton Market; 312-902-3825
Maybe it had something to do with Greektown’s famous Parthenon being shut down for health code violations right after opening a new restaurant, but dining at Aviva leaves a bit of a sour taste. And not in a good way. A departure from the typical Greek cuisine at its longstanding institution, Aviva stretches itself thin with a menu that’s too eclectic for its own good. Some items seem Italian, others Middle Eastern. Pizza comes topped with chorizo and saffron tomato sauce. There’s a selection of burgers and flourless chocolate cake for dessert. What's going on here?
310 S. Halsted St.; 312-655-1150
Hit: Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca
Chicago’s patron saint of Mexican cooking has had a big year so far. Marking his first standalone original concepts since XOCO, Rick Bayless opened two dining and drinking spots in the red-hot West Loop. Both two stories and next door to one another, Cruz Blanca is a nano brewery focused on Mexican-accented beers — complete with a casual taqueria, smoky margaritas and more. Next door there’s Leña Brava, the seafood-oriented, Baja-inspired restaurant with Mexican renditions of sushi, whole fish preparations and one of the largest mezcal collections anywhere outside Oaxaca. Any other chef might struggle to keep a handle on everything and assure consistent quality, but Bayless isn’t your typical chef. The seasoned pro has everything finely tuned and well oiled, offering two exciting, delicious and fresh additions to Chicago’s Restaurant Row.
Miss: Broken English Taco Pub
While Bayless makes two massive Mexican undertakings look easy, other spots show that it’s not as seamless for everyone. One of the latest ventures from burgeoning duo Adolfo Garcia and Phil Stefani, who have worked together on MAD Social and forthcoming Flamingo Rum Club, Broken English Taco Pub is better for tourists looking for a quick bite or drink along Michigan Avenue than Chicagoans seeking a special dining experience. The space is colorful and fun, but unfortunately the food comes out a lot more watered down than the menu might suggest. It sets expectations too high for the kitchen to meet them, and while tacos fair better than most you’d be able to find in the Loop, they’re still not destination-worthy by any stretch of the imagination, nor worth paying $8 for.
75 E. Lake St.; 312-929-3601
Hit: Cafe Marie-Jeanne
A modest opening compared to the spate of juggernauts that have dominated news cycles this year (Duck Duck Goat and Leña Brava being two examples), Cafe Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park is no less extraordinary. This is the cozy, convivial bistro every neighborhood dreams of but so rarely can pull off. The casual cafe by day, restaurant by night vibe calls to mind shades of Lula Cafe, the crowd-pleasing sensation that helped set the pace for Logan Square years ago. From the concise stock of grocery items and the fresh baked pastries, to the natural wine and the customer checks that read “we love you soooooooo much,” there’s plenty to adore about this place.
1001 N. California Ave.; 773-904-7660
Miss: The General
Opening a Mexican restaurant in taco-saturated Logan Square, especially a stone’s throw from the likes of L’Patron and Masa Azul, is a risky gambit. It doesn’t really help your chances if you’re going to peddle state fair-caliber crazy food like fried chicken “tacos” in waffle cones, or decorate your dining room like a Cracker Barrel honky tonk. Kudos for going big and bold, but The General is a niche that never needed filling.
2528 N. California Ave.; 773-698-8754
Hit: The Northman
Chicago waited a long time for its first cider pub. Years after The Northman first announced it was opening, in fact. Expectations were high. So it’s especially impressive that the North Center tavern was able to not only meet expectations, but exceed them with its incredibly deep and unique cider program and accompanying food from chef Sean Sanders. The space is like a rustic, cottage-y dream out of a Roald Dahl book, providing a comfortable spot to linger and sample your way through The Northman’s house cider and others brewed with the likes of coffee, rosemary, cherries and lots more. The food is equally intriguing, running the gamut from doner kebabs and ploughman’s platters to fish 'n' chips and cider-steamed mussels.
4337 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-935-2255
Miss: The Happy Camper
The on-site camper and obnoxious illuminated wall art have been Instagram catnip for diners at The Happy Camper, but the food and experience at this Old Town pizza bar are just… fine. Some of the combinations actually sound and taste delicious, like the Peter with pepperoni, blackened chicken and barbecue sauce, but the fact that the motif and menu section headers (e.g. “Happytizers”) all come off like a drunk, grown-up Pizza Hut kind of spoils the overall experience.
1209 N. Wells St.; 312-344-1634
Let’s face it, the stakes are high if you’re some of the most prominent restaurateurs in the world and you’ve set the bar as high as Alinea. They’re especially high when your next endeavor flies in the face of everything else you’ve done, forgoing subdued elegance and meticulous, opulent dining rooms in favor of loud, in-your-face and unabashedly raucous. It’s almost as if Roister is daring diners to scoff, pushing them to step outside their comfort zone. But once you do take that step, you’ll find that you’re in for a great time.
Because raucous by Roister standards means an action-packed open kitchen churning out accessible food with considerable flair. Even items as simple as bread and butter, here consisting of puffed brioche chips with rosemary butter, are elevated to a new echelon. Re-imagining the restaurant template, Roister’s Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas meld the dining room with the kitchen through their innovative design, and concoct novel dishes that enliven everything from salad (made with romaine stems and leaf purée) to buttered pasta (with green chile ragout and clams).
951 W. Fulton Market
Miss: Whiskey Business
Bars with cloying puns need to at least back it up with some quality drinks. Alas, Whiskey Business peddles overly sweet, gaudy drinks with equally gimmicky names. The result is the kind of bar you’d expect to patronize as a last resort at a theme park. Considering the boozy neighborhood, the food at least makes sense with its emphasis on stuffed burgers, chili, mac 'n' cheese and other greasy comforts. But it’s nothing to write home about, and certainly not worth braving the bright neon blue-hued dining space.
1367 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-698-7362
The idea of “fusion cuisine” elicits more eye rolls than excitement these days, so it takes some special finesse to make sure it works. This is particularly true if said fusion involves a mash-up of Polish and Korean food. The folks behind beloved Bridgeport staple Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar hit it out of the park with Kimski, their casual adjoining restaurant that boasts some of the most original cooking we’ve seen in a while. There’s an excellent sausage dressed with soju mustard and sauerkraut, scallion potato pancakes with pork shoulder, smoked soy sauce and kimchi and poutine with kimchi beer gravy, cheese curds and sesame seeds, to name a few standouts. Order in the front, walk through Maria’s and find a seat in Kimski’s “warped space beer hall” dining room, an area equally as wonky and wonderful as the food.
960 W. 31st St.; 773-890-0588