The dead of winter is a notoriously slow time for the restaurant business. The big holidays are over, and with them the office and family parties, special meals with visiting relatives and kids home from college, and generally all festivities. Valentine’s Day — always chaotic, a one-day winter doldrums reprieve — is on the horizon, but otherwise January and February stretch out like the Great Plains, mostly barren.
Thus was born Chicago Restaurant Week (now stretched to 14 days of potential Bacchanalian overload), this year Jan. 26 to Feb. 8, a time for restaurants both big and small to lure in patrons with special prix fixe menus. More than 370 restaurants are participating in 2018, contributing 3-course menus priced at $22 for brunch or lunch, and $33 or $44 for dinner (all prices quoted are non-inclusive of beverages, tax, and gratuity).
This year, in addition to a wonderful meal, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in an Instagram contest. To enter, follow Restaurant Week organizer @ChooseChicago. Shoot snaps of your experience and post on Instagram, making sure to tag with #CRWContest, and you could win American Airlines AAdvantage miles, OpenTable gift certificates, concert tickets, and more.
It’s time to book a table … or three! For the full list of participating restaurants, visit Choose Chicago and make a reservation at that hot West Loop, Wicker Park, or Logan Square restaurant that you’ve been hearing about but haven’t yet had a chance to visit. Here are some 2018 Chicago Restaurant Week spots to consider.
This Lakeview cheese paradise is dishing up brunch ($22) and dinner ($33) during restaurant week (as is their Andersonville sister restaurant, Appellation). Highlights of the dinner menu include Roast Carrot Salad with arugula, grapes, and wasabi goat cheese; Braised Short Rib with soy-ginger glaze and cauliflower puree; and Plum Galette.
Part of the DineAmic Group mini empire, this relative newbie in River North offers a three-course lunch ($22), two-course brunch ($22), and three-course dinner for Restaurant Week. “Top Chef” alum Chef Katsuji Tanabe surprises with inventive takes on Mexican fusion cuisine. Look for the Forest Mushroom Tacos with white truffle-garlic crema and cotija and Gruyère cheeses; Roasted Sweet Potato Guacamole with candied bacon, cranberries, and goat cheese; and the cinnamon-chocolate fudge Churros with salted caramel to launch a full-flavored attack on your taste buds.
My favorite Gold Coast bistro pays homage to the great Jacques Pepin with their special prix fixe menu, inspired by the recipes (complete with page numbers!) in Pepin’s “Heart & Soul in the Kitchen.” Lunch and brunch ($22), dinner ($33), all three courses from which to choose, with a number of vegetarian options. Try the Black Lentil Salad with poached farm egg; Fish Tartare with Niçoise olives, watermelon radish, and bagel chips; Braised and Confit Duck Leg with toasted hazelnuts and arugula salad; and the Coffee Panna Cotta.
It’s lunch only ($22) for Restaurant Week, but what better view than overlooking Millennium Park and Lake Michigan while the sun is out? The house-made Falafel with harissa and roasted cauliflower; Fried Gunthorp Farm Chicken Sandwich with bread and butter pickles and coleslaw; and chocolate-centric dessert are a good way to go.
Chef Jason Vincent (Giant) hits it out of the park a second time at this West Loop hot spot in the Ace Hotel Chicago. Pastas are always a hit here, so don’t miss the Goat Cheese Malfati with smoked rutabaga and charred onion butter, available on both the lunch ($22) and dinner ($33) menus. House Cornbread with parmesan butter and prosciutto cotto and the Skrei Cod with giant white beans and little gem lettuce both sound delicious, and I’m excited that at some point this month, that Chocolate Date Cake will be set in front of me. I’ll be ready.
Dinner ($33) is served at this muy delicioso Logan Square spot, helmed by husband and wife team Bryan Enyart and Jennifer Jones, vets of Rick Bayless’ restaurant kitchens. You’ll be quite pleased with your Mashed Potato Flautas with habañero-passion fruit salsa; Roasted Cauliflower in Arbol-Pepita Sauce; and a crazy-delicious Coconut Tres Leches Cake with gooey coconut pudding and crispy Mezcal Meringue. It’s bonkers in just the right way.
This Lakeview boite is inspired by global flavors. If you’re here for the brunch ($22), it’ll take a stronger person than me to pass up the Bakery Board (croissant, housemade everything bagel, local pastries) and the Eggs Benedict with bacon and spicy harissa hollandaise. At dinner ($33), I’m opting for the Salt-Roasted Carrots with Za’atar; Burger au Poivre with St. André Triple Crème cheese; and the Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and espresso chocolate sauce.
Chicago’s first steakhouse is still worth your time, because they’ve been perfecting their game for more than 75 years. Both the River North and Rosemont locations are participating this year. Lunch ($22) and dinner ($44) will be served, and you can get your steak (you know that’s what you came for!) in a sandwich with caramelized onions and melted provolone at lunch, or as a 10-ounce NY Strip with black truffle butter at dinner. Happily, the Chocolate Bread Pudding and Tuxedo Mousse Cheesecake are available at either meal.
Head down to Pilsen for some of the best Vietnamese food in town. The two-course brunch menu ($22) is built around Chef Thai Dang’s family recipe for Beef Pho, or there are two different dinner options, three courses ($33) or four ($44). Highlights include Sweet & Sour Braised Spareribs; Mussels cooked in coconut broth; or Grilled Whole Squid marinated with garlic and Thai chili. Finish strong with a Vietnamese Coffee Cream Puff.
This River North spot has proved so popular that they’ve already opened a second in Burr Ridge, with Streeterville and South Barrington locations due to open in 2018. Everything’s easy-breezy here — the nautical theme, the menu filled with shore favorites. Three-course brunch, lunch (both $22), and dinner ($33) are options. Warm Sea Salt & Vinegar Chips with caramelized onion dip followed by Grilled Mahi Mahi Tacos loaded with spicy slaw and avocado would be the perfect lunch plan, while dinner calls for Clam Chowder, Buttermilk-Marinated Fried Chicken, or Cedar-Plank Salmon with a sweet and sour mustard glaze. Obviously you’re getting the Key Lime Pie with toasted coconut whipped cream. Not up for discussion.
The beautiful McCormick Mansion is home to this legendary Chicago restaurant, where the salad is always spinning, and the roast beef is ready when you are. Your dinner ($44) includes their famous Spinning Bowl Salad, a 6-ounce California cut of Prime Rib of Beef with mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, whipped cream horseradish, and creamed spinach (or corn). Non-meat eaters that you drag here with you will enjoy the Honey-Balsamic Glazed Salmon or the Wild Mushroom Risotto. Dessert options include Sticky Toffee Pudding or CC Brown’s Sundae.
Edgewater happily welcomed Chef Marisa Paolillo and her contemporary Indian bistro to the neighborhood, and you will, too. The dinner menu ($33) includes cocktail bites (chickpea-battered fried onions and kale with chutney), two savory courses (perhaps the Five Lentil Stew, and the Tandoori-Spiced Salmon or Clay Pot Chicken) followed by the sweet ending of Crème Brûlée with tamarind and jaggery. An optional pairing of a signature cocktail, like the Bollywood Old Fashioned, is an additional $12.
One of my favorite finds of last year, this pizza place just south of North Avenue is somewhere between River West and Lincoln Park, but the pizza is out of this world. Lunch and brunch here (both $22) mean a choice of a 10-inch personal pizza, half a salad, and a cannoli; dinner ($33) is a 14-inch full-size pizza, a salad, and a cannoli. Salads include Roasted Beets with tahina, feta, arugula, and mint; Kale Caesar; Chopped Salad with pancetta and a soft-boiled egg; or the Little Gem with fennel, radish, and pecorino. Pie-wise, we loved the Little Neck Clam with panna, garlic, parsley, and lemon; likewise the Bebu Meatball with giardiniera and ricotta cheese.
I’m here for Takashi Yagihashi’s full-flavored Tonkotsu Ramen, whether I make it in for the lunch ($22) or dinner ($33) menu. And, ahem, the Duck Fat Fried Chicken. You’re throwing in a Spicy Tuna Roll? If I must. Toss me one of those Coconut or Green Tea Cream Puffs, too, please and thank you.
Wicker Park scored big when this BBQ favorite moved in. All of their meats are smoked in house, and the three-course lunch ($22) and dinner ($33) menus show them off effectively. You’ll want to start with the Pimento Cheese Hush Puppies with green chile jam to counteract the pile of meat coming at you. Chicken? Ribs? Brisket? It’s all happening. Granny’s Banana Pudding wraps it up nicely. Brunch ($22) starts with Iron Skillet Blueberry Cornbread, with your choice of a Brisket Breakfast Skillet or Pulled Pork Benedict. The third course? A brunch cocktail!
Whether you head in for the brunch ($22) or the five-course dinner ($44), you’ll be choosing from one of two menus inspired by two seminal ‘90s sitcoms — “Seinfeld” or “Friends.” Each dish is informed by a specific episode of the long-running shows, like Rachel’s Trifle (“The One Where Ross Got High”), a buttermilk biscuit with cream sauce and beef sautéed with peas and onions; or Crab Bisque with Oyster Crackers (“The Soup Nazi”). Chef Zoe Schor has a great sense of humor, and clearly flawless taste in TV. I’m all in.
Paul Virant’s flagship restaurant in Western Springs is a quick jaunt on the Metra from downtown. It’s easily worth the trip for his impeccable farm-to-table cuisine. The four-course dinner ($44), with an optional wine pairing ($22), is an amazing bargain, and it’s what Chicago Restaurant Week is all about. If pressed, I’d choose to start with the Crispy Grit and Cheese Curd Cake with kimchi and grilled leeks, then I’d do the Split Pea Soup with giardiniera and ham hock (because, winter) and then the Wood-Grilled Trout with basmati rice and curry pickled summer squash buerre blanc. I’d order the Chocolate Panna Cotta with pickled sweet cherries and bourbon meringue, but I’d eat half of my husband’s Carrot Cake Donut with Cream Cheese Frosting Ice Cream when his back was turned. All is fair in love and restaurants. For a more casual experience, take the Metra an extra stop to Hinsdale, where Virant’s family-friendly, bistro-style restaurant Vistro is also offering a Restaurant Week menu for lunch ($22) and dinner ($33).
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.