For years, if you really wanted to be wowed at the dinner table on a trip to Chicago, Alinea was it. The Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant, under the helm of chef Grant Achatz since its opening in 2005, drew acclaim for its fixed menu of nearly two dozen courses spanning several hours, culminating with a hands-on dessert literally smeared all over the table. Alinea is still a tough reservation to get, but a lot has changed in Chicago in the years since it opened.
While the city’s kitchens are still serving up some of the country’s most creative food, many of the new power players in town impress not just with originality but also with their relaxed, welcoming dining rooms. At Achtaz’ Next (even harder to book than Alinea), diners try to score tickets to themed dinners that rotate every few months, sometimes sharing tables with strangers just for the chance to try the menus (which have ranged from Kyoto to Sicily and everywhere in between). Now, the question on the lips of the discerning diners has shifted from “How do I score reservations at Alinea?” to “How do I narrow down my options?” Here are three picks to help answer that question.
Opened just before the 2012 holiday seasons, the West Loop’s Grace has been earning a solid reputation ever since. At the helm is chef Curtis Duffy, an Alinea alum who secured his stellar standing at the now closed Avenues at the Five-Star Peninsula Chicago. Grace is Duffy’s first restaurant of his own, and much like Alinea, it’s a cool, clean-lined space with little to distract from the main focus: what’s on the plate in front of you.
The restaurant offers two coursed menus—Flora and Fauna—and each focuses on vegetables and meats, respectively, though both are multi-dimensional. Textures are an ever-present theme—heirloom tomato and creamy burrata are plated in context with a crunchy vegetal ice; an artichoke dish walks through every possible complement, from dandelion to Sicilian pistachio, delicately laid on the plate—and portions are designed to take the diner through approximately three hours of delicious morsels. Each menu is $185 per person, with uncannily perfect wine pairings an additional $125 per person.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Grace in almost every respect is Elizabeth, which celebrates its one-year anniversary next month. This decidedly different dining experience is in the hands of chef-owner Iliana Regan, who earned her reputation hosting stunning underground dinners from her home. Elizabeth aims to translate the cozy factor of those wow-worthy private dinners to a casual, offbeat storefront in Lincoln Square. Seats are booked via a ticketing system that allows for quite a bit of flexibility (per-person dinner ranges from $65 to $175 with wine pairings for $100), and the small dining room allows for incredibly intimate service.
We recently spent about four hours consuming the quixotic 20-course menu, which is divided into four parts focused on freshly foraged ingredients in cleverly named categories: Farm; Ponds, Lakes and Seas; Woodlands; and Sweets. Each section begins with a tiny amuse-bouche and builds depth and volume until moving onto the next. Like everything else about Elizabeth, the approach to fine dining is nontraditional, but one that many members of the culinary elite will find appealing.
The most comfortable new dining room in Chicago is Travelle at The Langham Chicago, the city’s just-opened luxury hotel located in a landmark Mies van der Rohe–designed skyscraper in River North. Van der Rohe’s grandson, local architect Dirk Lohan, was brought in to do the restaurant’s tastefully stylish design work, while the menu was created by chef Tim Graham, who has worked at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Tru and the ultra-trendy Paris Club. Among the dinner highlights is a curated Seafood Elevation, which will take you through three fresh-from-the-sea courses ($110), with three varietals of caviar to enhance the experience. The list of entrées and pairings at Travelle goes on and on, offering everything from heavyweight porterhouse steaks for two to soups and salads perfect for coursing.
Photos Courtesy of Derek Richmond, Grace Restaurant and Elizabeth Restaurant