With only two days this winter for a city getaway, one can’t do much better than Chicago. Whether you spend hours boutiquing on Oak Street, sipping champagne in the spa at the Peninsula Hotel, scanning mummies at the Oriental Institute, touring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, or rubbernecking in the Willis Tower’s glass veranda—everyone has their own Chicago to-do list. Where we all come together is to sleep and eat, the two mainstays of travel. And Chicago is never at a loss for exciting new hotels and restaurants. Here are our picks for a winter weekend to suit all tastes and budgets.
Chicago’s ever-creative restaurant scene is experiencing some growing pains. Some very delicious growing pains. Big-name chefs are going downscale, luxury hotels are dialing back, and diners can once again wear jeans pretty much anywhere. Yet the food has never been better: Something in the water seems to be stretching the imagination of Chicago’s chefs, even the ones going back to basics. Six prime examples:
The Empty Bottle ruled Ukrainian Village long before the scene kids did, but the indie-rock mecca’s neighboring restaurant, Bite, was never any great shakes. Then the owner, Bruce Finkelman, followed his success at gastropub Longman & Eagle by hipifying the space, the brand, and the menu—now it’s a destination for more than just the tattooed-and-bearded set. These days, cheapo versions of smart dishes such as crispy pork shank, arugula salad, and pickled onions and peppers, or late-night alcohol-absorbers such as poutine with smoked bacon gravy, make as much noise as the bands next door. 1039 Western Ave. N., 773-395-2483, bitecafechicago.com
Guess the 28th time is the charm. Scott Harris, the brains behind the Mia Francesca trattorias that have annexed every corner of Chicagoland—plus countless other concepts residing around town or in his noggin—finally has his tour de force in Davanti, in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood south of downtown. The rustic gold-toned space is irresistible, and the communal vibe is pure fun. Reasonable wine prices don’t hurt, nor does a terrific menu packed with cheese, salumi, pasta, and obscure crowd-pleasers such as focaccia di recco, a thin, flaky Ligurian-style focaccia stuffed with creamy melted crescenza cheese. Davanti doesn’t take reservations, so squeeze in at the bar, split a mascarpone polenta with pork cheek ragù, and enjoy the happiest restaurant in town. 1359 W. Taylor St., 312-226-5550, davantichicago.com
A few things are automatic in Chicago: The Cubs lose, politicians lie, and Tuesday through Saturday morning people line up outside Doughnut Vault in River North. The lucky few leave the walk-up window with boxes of ginormous beauties. The buttermilk, gingerbread, chocolate-glazed, and chestnut varieties are as good as any in town, and people even go nuts for goofy gourmet flavors such as lemon chiffon. It’s cash-only and expensive ($2 to $3 per doughnut), and you’d be smart to bring a friend—only a dozen doughnuts are allowed per person. And while everyone has theories on how to beat the line, none seem to work. 401-1/2 Franklin St., phone: a mystery, thedoughnutvault.tumblr.com
Grant Achatz’s shape-shifting juggernaut (and followup to the acclaimed Alinea) is more event than restaurant. From the endlessly creative food to the online ticketing system that crashes the website’s server whenever tables become available, everything about Next captures the imagination. The stunning Fulton Market space west of downtown opened as a brilliant homage to the rich delicacies of Escoffier-era France (think truffled egg custard with salted cod served in an eggshell); three months later it morphed into a raucous party dedicated to the flavors of Thailand (beef cheek with a coconut-lemongrass-peanut-nutmeg curry). Next: an inscrutable-sounding menu simply called “Childhood.” What this means is anyone’s guess, but it’s bound to be interesting. 953 W. Fulton Market, 312-226-0858, nextrestaurant.com
Like the little engine that could, this tiny, no-reservation BYOB has risen to great heights by sheer force of will. Its striking décor makes use of old leather jackets, seat belts, and wood from old school desks, and it includes the coolest bathroom in Chicago. Per Se veteran Edward Kim turns out clever dishes such as avocado toast and a “clam bake” with sake broth and lap cheong sausage. It’s all intoxicating enough that in August 2011, Bon Appétit named it one of the top 10 new restaurants in America—an honor that surprised everyone but the ambitious folks at Ruxbin. 851 Ashland Ave. N., 312-624-8509, ruxbinchicago.com
Comprising the entire Dutch restaurant landscape in Chicago, this amiable North Side bistro represents the Netherlands admirably. Joncarl Lachmann, the executive chef/co-owner, manages to do it with uncompromising fare such as zaansemosterdsoep (mustard soup with crab salad, smeerkaas cheese spread, and tarragon pesto) and a maatjesharing shot (genever gin, pickled herring, and pickle slices). These dishes challenge the tongue in more ways than one. For the less adventurous, Vincent boasts five different versions of moules frites, and for the more adventurous: snert, a thick pea soup. 1475 Balmoral Ave. W., 773-334-7168, vincentchicago.com