Chicago's 10 Most Innovative Restaurants

By Sarah Freeman  |  January 6, 2014

Innovation is a word that is thrown around a lot in the food scene, but what does it mean? An innovator is a person (or restaurant) that not only changes the way diners experience food, but also changes the way other restaurants prepare, present and serve their own culinary creations. Here are 10 of the most innovative restaurants that have pushed the Chicago food scene forward.

  • Credit: Tyler Mallory

    Sunday Dinner Club

    This tried and true underground dining experience leads the pack for pop-ups in Chicago. With humble roots in a Logan Square apartment, chefs Joshua Kulp and Christine Cikowski have grown their small supper club into a regular feast as well as a brick-and-mortar restaurant by the name of Honey Butter Fried Chicken.

    Insider tip: While a lot of things have changed, this rule remains true: the only way to get invited to dinner is via a referral from a member.

    Secret location

  • iNG

    While its sister restaurant, Moto, shines in the field of molecular gastronomy, this one does that with the added parlor trick of miracle berries. The small red berry often ingested in pill or powder form alters the taste buds to make bitter or sour flavors sweet. Chef-owner Homaro Cantu thinks this little red gem can change the face of dining and is even opening a sugar-free coffee shop around it this spring.

    Parlor tricks: A diner’s sense of taste isn’t the only thing that changes inside this restaurant. The entire menu and theme is switched every few months. Currently, it pays tribute to Salvador Dali.

    951 W. Fulton Mkt.; 855-834-6464

  • The Garage

    The food-truck scene was stuck in a bit of a stall until Dan Salls came around. After the City of Chicago passed legislation that allowed trucks to cook on board, Salls not only made his mark as the first to launch a functioning-kitchen taco truck, but also opened a food-truck incubator in the West Loop. The Garage helps other food-truck owners get their wheels in motion and also serves lunch via a walk-up counter and dinner featuring eats from other trucks.

    The lineup: Current trucks rotating in and out of The Garage include Husky Hog BBQ and The Salsa Truck as well as coming-soon trucks like Yum Dum and Hey-Ha.

    116 N. Aberdeen St.

  • Senza

    It's difficult to execute a seamless multicourse meal; it's even more difficult when you slap a dining restriction onto that meal. Chef Noah Sandoval takes on - and dominates - gluten-free food with his five- and 10-course tasting menus, which showcase precise techniques and local ingredients such as hydroponically grown greens.

    Wheat’s End: Craving more gluten-free goodness? The restaurant transforms into a cafe during the day with coffee from Bridgeport Coffee Co. and small-batch gluten-free breads, cookies and pastries.

    2873 N. Broadway Ave.; 773-770-3527

  • Alinea

    No one can deny the reach of Grant Achatz's culinary powerhouse. The Lincoln Park restaurant has been paving the way for fine dining since it opened in 2005, with course after course of imaginative and odd food drawing diners from around the world. At the end of the day, however, the cuisine stays true to classic flavors via modern techniques. It's a role model for both creativity and service - the culinary arts don’t get much more innovative than this.

    Ticket time: The restaurant recently began using the same online ticketing system as Next. This means that tables are released and paid for online.

    1723 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-0110

  • Chicago Cut Steakhouse

    The revolutionary app that brings an entire wine cellar to diners’ fingertips was pioneered by this old-school steakhouse. The restaurant’s iPad menu acts as an archive of every bottle and can be searched via price point, region and tasting notes. Since introducing this technology, other restaurants such as Union Sushi + BBQ Bar and Fleming’s have adopted similar programs for their food and drink menus.

    Somm selection: The app's 600-plus bottle list can still be a bit daunting. Luckily, one of its features is a menu of sommelier-recommended bottles so guests can narrow down the options.

    300 N. Lasalle St.; 312-329-1800

  • Next

    We’re not just referring to the complete change of menu/theme/concept every four months when we call Grant Achatz’s world-renowned restaurant an innovator. We’re also talking about the ticketing system that leads wannabe diners to an online waiting room, where a game of luck and good timing must be played to snag a table months in advance. Since launching the system, it has been adopted by Alinea and The Aviary as well as other fine-dining establishments.

    Beat the system: If you have the luxury of flexibility, same-night tables are the way to go. These tables are released each day via Facebook and Twitter and are rewarded to the first to respond via e-mail.

    953 W. Fulton Mkt.; 312-226-0858

  • Uncommon Ground

    The first certified organic rooftop farm in the country ushered the way for many more urban gardens in Chicago. While few are as extensive as the Edgewater location of Uncommon Ground, several other Chicago restaurants transformed rooftops and patios into gardens to provide a true hyper-local dining experience. In addition to the garden, the restaurant has found new ways to stay green by collaborating with local spirit makers and brewers on organic and sustainable beverages.

    Think green: In addition to the rooftop garden, the restaurant proves its commitment to being environmentally friendly be maintaining a four-star certification from the Green Restaurant Association.

    1401 W. Devon Ave.; 773-465-9801

  • The Violet Hour

    It’s not news that Chicago is saturated with cocktails, especially those of the craft variety, but that wasn’t always the case. In 2009, The Violet Hour set the stage for refined cocktailing with thick velvet curtains, a carefully curated cocktail menu and a secret entrance behind an ever-changing mural. The six-years-later bar is staying on top of the game by tapping local distillers for custom spirits - the first and most popular is a house Malört made by Letherbee.

    House rules: No reservations, no cell phones and dress appropriately are rules that are strictly enforced.

    1520 N. Damen Ave.; 773-252-1500

  • Ruxbin

    The Little Engine That Could of Chicago restaurants is this 32-seat American bistro. It opened in 2010 with the simple goal to “create food that goes back to the etymology of what a restaurant is meant to embody.” This means simple dishes such as grilled octopus and chimichurri-covered hanger steak executed with precision. Sometimes just doing food justice is all the innovation a restaurant needs.

    Wait-less: The restaurant has a strict no-reservation policy except for on Sunday nights, when its coveted tables are open for reservations.

    851 N. Ashland Ave.; 312-624-8509