Nothing beats a lively setting paired with an exceptional meal. That setup sounds simple, yet only a handful of the best new restaurants around town manage to get it right when the evening calls for a clubbier atmosphere to complement chef-driven fare. The ones that do, however, are a welcome addition to Chicago’s dining and nightlife scene, delivering an all-in-one experience so you can relax and have fun without having to travel from a restaurant to a nightclub or lounge. We counted them–eight to be exact–and in 2014, these bar-staurants were the life of the party.
The follow-up to Takito Kitchen in Wicker Park, Bar Takito (201 N. Morgan St.) is its carefree cousin. Located in a very busy section of the West Loop that also includes The Aviary, La Sirena Clandestina and Next, this vibrant, Mexican-focused bar attracts a great after-work crowd looking to avoid the madness of River North. That might have something to do with the fact that the El is located just outside its door. Then again, it has everything to do with the generous bar spanning half the room. Guests may order the entire menu, which includes one of the best tacos I’ve eaten all year. Chef David Dworshak’s crispy brunkow cheese taco gets a punch of flavor with aji peanut sauce, pickled jicama, and avocado. The herb-infused tortilla is house-made.
When it comes to sex appeal, no new spot exudes it more than Bordel (1721 W. Division St.), the Spanish-inspired speakeasy atop Black Bull. The cabaret’s as dark and mysterious as you’d want such a place to be, and the titillating images of scantily dressed women are artistic, not sleazy. They’ve also managed to uncover solid entertaiment in the form of flamenco dancers and burlesque performers, which helps to bring in the type of crowd not typically found on this Wicker Park strip. Plus, Spanish-born chef Marcos Campos’ menu of authentic pintxos is a nice addition to help satiate those appetites indulging in the punch program. His empanadas are filled with tuna, roasted peppers and onions, while ‘huevos rotos” combines julienne potatoes, farm-fresh eggs, jamon seranno and truffle.
Each floor in Celeste (111 W. Hubbard St.) feels like a completely different concept. The ground level feels like your typical River North tavern, as well-dressed singles mingle as they consume craft cocktails paired with small plates. During the summer, the outdoor terrace was one of the city’s most undiscovered treasures with its hidden garden vibe. But it’s the Deco Room on the second floor that had us sold immediately when Celeste opened last winter. Reminiscent of a 1920s supper club, it just feels like you should be dressed your best even if you’re settled into the bar. The music is groovy, soulful and at just the right level where you can still carry on in conversation. Chef Aaron Lirette’s menu works well with the seasonal, complex cocktail list that’s only found on this floor. The menu changes regularly, but you can always find the roasted cobia topped with a creamy lobster sauce.
Brendan Sodikoff’s only Italian restaurant is a stunner in River North. Cocello (354 W. Hubbard St.) may resemble his other vintage-meets-modern concepts (Gilt Bar, Green Street Meats, Maude’s Liquor Bar) physically, but that’s where the comparisons end. The Northern Italian-inspired menu offers offbeat selections like truffle risotto and a handmade pasta featuring roasted tomato with artisan pork cheek bacon, Calabrese chili and parmigiano Reggiano. If that’s not enough juiciness to get your mouth watering, the cocktail menu is just as impressive. It features four different ways to have a Negroni: classic (gin), white (cocchi, strawberry), rye or cognac.
Fulton Market Kitchen
The team behind Bordel is also responsible for Fulton Market Kitchen (311 N. Sangamon St.), an art-focused eatery in the Warehouse District. We were a little skeptical at first about this project because it’s been attempted so many times. But FMK is a work of sheer sophistication, seamlessly blending street and high-concept art without making them spectacles. Each of the several dining and cocktail rooms is like a miniature art gallery–with the work curated by a professional. Chef Kyle Peterson’s food is as artistic as what’s on the walls. His “goldfish for two” especially stood out as a beautiful presentation of whole fried red snapper accompanied by three spicy sauces.
Speaking of sensational seafood presentations, Kinmont (419 W. Superior St.) is on the next level with its sustainable seafood program. Much of its product and produce are sourced from the Midwest and you can certainly tell by the taste. The dining room’s adjacent tavern even feels a bit nautical and vintage without going overboard. After work, it’s usually jumping around these parts, but you can always find respite in a quiet corner. Chef Duncan Biddulph’s Sunday Dinner Series is one of the city’s most imaginative menus where his team improvises a four-course feast from a box of produce that arrives that morning.
Original Boka Restaurant Group partners Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm worked extensively in nightclubs and restaurants respectively, so it never comes as a surprise that they’ve managed to turn each of their projects into a successful bar-staurant. Momotaro (820 W. Lake St.), the group’s hot modern Japanese concept, is their most impressive-looking space to date and it demonstrates just how far they’ve come. The subtarranean Izakaya has a separate entrance and menu than the upstairs dining room. At its center is a four-sided bar, built around the weighty timber columns of the old warehouse building, with joinery details from tradition Japanese architecture. Chef Mark Hellyar’s menu in Izakaya showcases his flair with the fare with 10 types of robata-grilled meat, seafood and vegetarian items. We were particularly fond of the tender gyutan, an Iowan Wagyu beef tongue accompanied by karashi and smoked peppercorn.
The year 2014 really happened for Hyde Park. With the opening of a few significant places such as Promontory (5311 South Lake Park Avenue West), the neighborhood finally became a destination for nightlife. The corner venue is spacious, yes, and its live-music programming rivals the likes of House of Blues and Schubas with shows from James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker and jazz great Roy Ayers. Promontory is three venues under one roof, with the music hall on the top, and dining room and lounge on the first floor. Michelin-starred chef Jared Wentworth keeps the menu simple in that you’ll find pastas and burgers on the menu, but accents like brown butter vinaigrette, bourbon maple glaze and braised chestnut filling keep diners intrigued.