This year was undoubtedly one of Chicago’s most interesting years in restaurants, with a wave of new and reinvented concepts that continue to shape the city’s reputation as a global dining destination. From the sizzling burgers to the juiciest drama, we look back on what defined Chicago dining in 2011.
New Restaurants: This was an excellent year in Chicago dining, with obvious top accolades going to Grant Achatz’s Next for creating a restaurant that keeps the world clicking obsessively for tickets. Other notable contenders include: GT Fish & Oyster, Doughnut Vault, Maude’s Liquor Bar, Slurping Turtle, Bar Toma, Vera, Telegraph, Roka Akor, Autre Monde, El Ideas, Pleasant House Bakery, Pump Room, Perennial Virant, Goosefoot, Yusho, Acadia, and Paris Club">Paris Club.
The Reconcept: As they say, location is everything. When your real estate is too good to sell, but your concept isn’t reeling the customers in, a few nips and tucks will make everything feel brand new again. The new faces of 2011 included: iNG (formerly Otom), NoMI Kitchen (formerly NoMI), Perennial Virant (formerly Perennial), Paris Club (formerly Brasserie Jo), Pump Room (formerly Pump Room), Bar Toma (formerly Bistro 110), and Grange Hall Burger Bar (formerly Veerasway), with forthcoming concepts Balena (formerly Landmark), Cyrano’s Farm & Kitchen (formerly Cyrano’s Bistrot), and a new scaled down version of Seasons on the way in 2012.
Burger Mania: Whereas cupcakes, bacon, and barbecue joints ruled 2010, burgers launched a full-on onslaught in 2011 with the introduction of The Butcher & Burger, Grange Hall Burger Bar, 25 Degrees, The Burger Philosophy, Burger Joint, Burger Point, plus expanded locations of M Burger and Epic Burger.
Food Trucks: Considering food trucks are still fighting that legality issue, there are still a whole lot of them taking up parking space by the Aon Center every day. Leaving no cuisine untouched, this year, we saw the launch of the Wagyu Wagon, 5411 Empanadas, Sweet Spot Macarons, Lillie’s Q Meat Mobile, Schnitzl King, the dog-themed Fido To Go, and even Big Star flirted with the lines of legality.
Artisanal Markets: Preserves, syrups, baked goods, charcuterie, and other DIY goods started popping up at specialty markets like Dose Market, Logan Square Kitchen, Nite Market, and the growing farmers markets at Lincoln Square and Logan Square. We’re hoping this trend carries on into 2012 and gets even bigger.
Juicy Drama: Maybe it was the hate-fueled comments on a scathing Time Out review or overall poor management that caused two staff walkouts, but punk-fine dining-industry night mess The Black Sheep just couldn’t make it past the three-month mark. We also have to give credit to Tribute for going through three chefs in six months before finally closing (Brandon Baltzley, Lawrence Letrero, Jared Case). And who could forget the revolving door at Evanston Italian restaurant Pensiero, which is still going strong with its sixth chef Wilson Bauer, coincidentally another restaurant connected with Baltzley. In fact, let’s not even get started on the every other day stories about that one.
R.I.P.: Due to concept changes, back of house drama, or just the usual downfall of the economy, we lost a lot of restaurants this year, including: Avenues, Kith & Kin, Earwax Cafe, Bistro 110, Pasticceria Natalina, Red Light, Treat, and Opera.
In The Year 2012: Expect to hear a lot about these names in the upcoming year: Nellcôte, Tavernita, Balena, Grace, Little Goat, Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, Au Cheval, Publican Quality Meats, frog n snail, and Mindy Segal’s new spot. And probably Next, since that changes every three months.