World-renowned for its bold, cutting-edge cuisine, Chicago is a place where top talent is cultivated and established chefs come to hone their craft. Some of the city’s brand-name chefs have served big-name celebrities. Others have found fame in the world of competitive television. Still others have built their entire career in town. What all share is an ability to transcend the merely great by using the freshest ingredients possible, taking the utmost care in preparation, and thinking outside the box on everything from goat to hot cocoa to molecular gastronomy. Here are our picks for the best Chicago spots to get starstruck in.
When Izard won the fourth season of Bravo’s wildly successful Top Chef, she became the first woman to ever earn the honor. Add to that a spotless resume that includes Le Cordon Bleu training and time spent at a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant, and it’s no wonder foodies travel from far and wide to dine at her signature restaurant. The regularly changing menu is particularly well-known for superb cocktails and dishes that elevate goat to new heights, including confit goat belly with bourbon butter, lobster and crab, and goat empanadas with marinated sheep feta. This girl’s got it, and so does the goat.
On his popular PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time, Bayless guides viewers through the spicy cuisine of the Baja Peninsula. It’s a style of cooking he knows well: Bayless’ fresh approach to Mexican fare has made him a culinary luminary with cookbooks, TV shows and several restaurants to his name. At Frontera, he serves up Mexican classics (guacamole, ceviche, enchiladas) with a twist, as well as more unusual dishes such as duck in green-peanut mole and albondigas, pork meatballs loaded with grilled white onions. Of course, no meal is complete without trying a signature margarita, including one spiked with brut champagne.
Unlike many other celeb chefs, Achatz hasn’t appeared on any hit television shows, and he has produced just one coffee table cookbook. Instead, his star power is derived from accolades racked up while at Alinea, including a James Beard award for "Outstanding Chef of the Year" and coveted three Michelin stars. Alinea’s cutting-edge menu focuses on high-quality fish and meat prepped with minimal fixings, plus a touch of trendy molecular gastronomy—an item called "balloon" comes with the ingredient list "helium, green apple." Go in with an open mind and discover what the well-earned fuss is about.
A word to the wise: Make sure to wear loose pants to this acclaimed restaurant where Southern fare comes deep-fried and buttered-up. Smith, perhaps best-known as the former personal chef for Chicago native Oprah Winfrey, doesn’t mess around with a menu that includes buttermilk fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and fried catfish with ham, maitake mushrooms, white corn grits and crispy okra. Do it up right by pairing your meal with a flight of Kentucky bourbon. Need culinary inspiration when the meal is done? Check out Smith’s monthly food column on Oprah.com.
When it comes to sweets, Segal reigns supreme. Her confections have earned "best of" honors from the likes of Chicago Magazine, Time Out Chicago and the James Beard Foundation. So while this restaurant serves high-quality seafood, burgers, sandwiches and more, it’s really all about the sugary treats. As the name suggests, hot chocolate is the house specialty, and it’s anything but ordinary: flavorings include peppermint, caramel, cinnamon and cayenne, and house-made marshmallows are used as a topper. Sip the cocoa beverage while eating brioche donuts with hot fudge and caramel corn, or the peanut and jelly graham cracker cream pie. A sugar buzz never felt so good.