Contemporary American restaurants: Best New American in Chicago
Whether it's comfort food or new dishes using the best ingredients, these Contemporary American restaurants in Chicago don't disappoint.
New American is basically a term describing food that doesn't fit under one certain category—and that's just fine by us. Just like the people in America (and Chicago), the dishes found at these restaurants are a mix of different nationalities and flavors. Whether it's Belgian-inspired mussels, awesome farm-to-table offerings or top-notch food by Top Chefs, the exciting menu items at these Chicago eateries will keep you coming back for more. All of these contemporary American resturants are must-visit places.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of the best Chicago restaurants
Ada St. Michael Kornick and David Morton (DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar) teamed with chef Zoe Schor (L.A.’s Bouchon and Craft) for this hybrid cocktail bar–restaurant. The room is lovely, and so is the food: Schor’s deep-fried black-eyed peas are the perfect drinking snack, and her light touch with steak (dressed in nothing more than brown butter), salads and even doughnuts makes sense with the food-friendly cocktails coming from behind the bar. 1664 N Ada St (773-697-7069, adastreetchicago.com). Dinner (closed Sun). Average small plate: $8.
avec This nationally acclaimed small-plates spot looks like a sauna, has communal seating, doesn’t take reservations and is loud as hell. But it remains the must-eat spot for foodies in the know. Chef Erling Wu-Bower mostly sticks to the Mediterranean formula that original chef Koren Grieveson put into place (and has wisely held on to her most famous dishes, such as the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and the taleggio-filled foccacia). Is his food a little more involved—a little less simple—than the avec of the past? Sure. But despite the extra elements in his intoxicating squid-ink pasta dishes, or the layered flavors in his salumi plates, Wu-Bower's food is still pure, delicious avec. 615 W Randolph St (312-377-2002, avecrestaurant.com). Dinner. Average small plate: $8, average large plate: $17.
The Bristol After three years, this popular Bucktown restaurant has matured, from its stronger than ever cocktail program, to its desserts, which pastry chef Amanda Rockman is hitting out of the park. We have a hard time moving away from Chris Pandel’s signatures, like the salad of heirloom apples and the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta–filled raviolo, but it’s worth it to try the unusual, always-changing daily specials, from marinated beef tendon salad to cold-smoked salmon with bacon-dill dumplings. 2152 N Damen Ave (773-862-5555, thebristolchicago.com). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $19.
The Cafe at Ikram The ladies who lunch have seriously been holding out on us: This restaurant on the second floor of Chicago’s most exclusive boutique is a gem. Blackbird alum Christopher Sullivan’s dishes are bright and beautiful, from the complimentary olives and bite-size gougéres that begin the meal to the creamy housemade ice creams that complete it. In between, main courses—such as a perfectly cooked salmon set atop snap peas, spring onions, fava beans and radishes in spring—overflow with the bounty of the season. 15 E Huron St (312-587-1000, ikram.com). 10am–6pm (closed Sun). Average main course: $16.
Found Owner Amy Morton (yes, those Mortons) and chef Nicole Pederson (formerly of C-House and Lula Cafe) have given Evanston the restaurant it’s been searching for: a place that’s casual (and relatively affordable) enough for Northwestern students seeking a sandwich and a beer and yet civilized enough for suburbanites wanting a three-course meal. Whether you like the found object–inspired decor is a matter of personal preference, but Pederson’s thoughtful, unfussy food (small plates like juicy lamb meatballs with pistachios, entrées like whole roasted trout with grilled lemon) has universal appeal. 1631 Chicago Ave (847-868-8945, foundkitchen.com). Dinner (closed Mon). Average small plate: $10.
Gilt Bar The service at chef Brendan Sodikoff’s loungey restaurant is at times infuriating and at times, well, serviceable—but either way, it’s the food that will make you a fan of this place or not. Those who stick to the simple stuff may find solace in this menu, which is full of well-cooked renditions of classics such as pot roast, gnocchi, bone marrow and roasted chicken. But the food is so simple that even slightly adventurous eaters may find themselves wanting for more. 230 W Kinzie St (312-464-9544, giltbarchicago.com). Dinner. Average main course: $20.
Girl & the Goat This West Loop restaurant from Top Chef Stephanie Izard is packed to the gills with diners seeking something more than the faddy pork-and-beer route. It’s refreshing that most of her menu goes the other way, with inspired vegetable and seafood dishes (and even desserts) that operate on a lighter, livelier plane. When Izard tops octopus with lemon-pistachio vinaigrette, pairs green beans with a fish sauce vinaigrette and serves bittersweet chocolate toffee alongside a shiitake-caramel gelato for dessert, she’s evolving contemporary Chicago cuisine. 809 W Randolph St (312-492-6262, girlandthegoat.com). Dinner. Average small plate: $15.
Hopleaf Thought this was just a bar to belly up to with a Belgian brew in hand? One bite and you’ll know there’s much more. Our perfect night involves sampling the drafts at the bar while slurping down the famous ale-steamed mussels, but you could also class it up, grab a proper table and dig into seasonal rotations such as wood-roasted spring chicken with morels and favas. Beer geeks know this is the place in town to school their palate on craft brews, and they do come in droves, but the addition of an adjacent space helps keep the place from feeling like a sardine tin. 5148 N Clark St (773-334-9851, hopleaf.com). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $20.
HotChocolate Mindy Segal rehabbed her Bucktown restaurant in the spring of 2012, making it sunnier and adding a huge garage door that opens to let in warm weather. Segal—first and foremost a pastry chef—also rehabbed her approach to desserts: Now, the pastry menu consists of a seasonal cake, pudding, pie, etc. as well as a five-course dessert tasting centered around a seasonal ingredient (Segal calls this a “study”). On the savory side, little has changed. The pretzel, the burger, the mac and cheese—breathe easy, it’s all still there. 1747 N Damen Ave (773-489-1747, hotchocolatechicago.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Wed–Fri), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $19.
Jam Breakfast is dinnery at Jam: It starts with an amuse-bouche, and can continue with sophisticated dishes such as a breakfast sandwich featuring pork shoulder topped with plum preserve. Lunch is also a high-low experience: Homey soups are poured tableside, and what would otherwise be a basic kale salad is elevated by savory bread pudding croutons. Blue Plate specials read like diner staples and for dessert, there’s pie. What’s not to like? 3057 W Logan Blvd (773-292-6011, jamrestaurant.com). Breakfast, brunch, lunch. Average main course: $14.
The Lobby Avenues may be gone, but under the direction of chef Lee Wolen, the Lobby—the most unassuming restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel—has taken over where Avenues left off. Service is as formal and polished as at the best fine dining restaurants, but the food is marvelous in a different way. This is essentially simple food, dressed up and prepared with obsessive perfection: roast chicken stuffed under the skin with brioche, carrots tossed with puffed bulghar, housemade gnocchi with an almost liquid center. Desserts don't hold up their end of the bargain, but even so, the Lobby is a winning bet. Peninsula Hotel, 108 E Superior St (312-573-6760, peninsula.com). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $30.
Longman & Eagle There will be strategically scruffed dudes, waifish women in grandma sweaters, flannel as far as the eye can see. This place is owned in part by the Empty Bottle guys, after all. But these are hipsters who know hospitality and a chef (Jared Wentworth) who knows pub grub: His menu changes often, but we’ve seen him turn the quizzical texture of beef tongue into a hash alternately crisp and fatty and deep-fry clams to perfection. Pastry chef Jeremy Brutzkus (formerly of the defunct Coco Rouge) ends on the kind of indulgent notes best appreciated with a fork in one hand and whiskey in the other (think chocolate ganache terrine with flavors of caramel, espresso and brown butter chestnut). Too full to leave? Inquire about one of the six rooms in the high-design inn upstairs. 2657 N Kedzie Ave (773-276-7110, longmanandeagle.com). Brunch, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $15.
Lula Cafe For more than a decade, “consciously sourced,” “thoughtfully prepared” and “sustainable” have been traits of food that one could fairly describe as being “so Lula.” But these days, Lula’s food is more than that: The gorgeously plated dishes are greater even than the sum of their very great parts. The menu will change before you read this, but rest assured that every dish (sliced flat iron steak with kimchi; pork loin with candied peanuts) is at home in the renovated space, which transformed the cramped entry area into an expansive, light-filled room, the defining feature of which is a gorgeous marble bar. 2537 N Kedzie Blvd (773-489-9554, lulacafe.com). Breakfast, lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $23.
mk Michael Kornick’s initials still emblazon the exterior of this River North stalwart, but chef Erick Williams executes the day-to-day, drawing in newbies and satisfying loyalists with elegant and seasonal contemporary American cuisine. The spacious and tasteful room (think rich architect’s home) is comfortable enough that you can settle in for Williams’s tasting menu, where he’s been known to show off a veal porterhouse grilled over hardwood charcoal with melted leeks and the simplicity of seasonal oysters with a mignonette. 868 N Franklin St (312-482-9179, mkchicago.com). Dinner. Average main course: $38.
Nightwood The consistently successful dishes at this understated Pilsen restaurant from the Lula Cafe crew share two traits: first, that fresh-from-the-garden liveliness that’s garnered Lula its cultish status. (See, e.g., a “stone soup” filled with bright lima beans or a squash salad accented with crunchy purslane.) Second, a distinctive wood-grilled flavor that gives an intoxicating aroma to a juicy half-chicken and earthy cheeseburger. The sweet side of the menu hits all the right notes (think light and simple blueberry cake), but the dining room is so cozy you might just linger with a liquid ending. 2119 S Halsted St (312-526-3385, nightwoodrestaurant.com). Brunch (Sun), dinner (Mon–Sat). Average main course: $20.
North Pond Okay, so technically you’re not eating outside, but when you’re only a few feet from a pond in the middle of Lincoln Park, you’re as close to nature as it gets in the city. Even more so when you sample chef Bruce Sherman’s latest creations, concocted with as much locally grown organic food as he can get his hands on. Sherman’s ever-changing offerings have included English peas with minted goat cheese gnocchi and pickled watermelon radish with crab floating in a ramp soup—perfectly lovely reminders of the time of year in case you can’t get a window table. 2610 N Cannon Dr (773-477-5845, northpondrestaurant.com). Brunch (Sun), dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $35.
Old Town Social The yuppie crowd at this glamorous bar might have other things on its mind, but to come here and not order chef Jared Van Camp's charcuterie is to miss the point: More than a dozen varieties are cured in house, including standouts like the fennel-scented finocchiona. And the kitchen doesn't stop there: Everything from the hot sauce to the hot dogs is made from scratch. 455 W North Ave (312-266-2277, oldtownsocial.com). Mon–Fri 5pm–2am; Sat 10:30am–3am; Sun 10:30am–2am. Average beer: $6.
The Publican Diners come to this megaproject from Paul Kahan and crew for three things: to sample the massive list of brews while basking in the golden-hued, beer hall–like space; run through the current roster of impeccable charcuterie and amazing oysters produced and sourced by chef Brian Huston; or begin their Sundays with arguably the best brunch in town (think housemade ricotta with buttery tea cakes and thick slabs of housemade bacon). 837 W Fulton Market (312-733-9555, thepublicanrestaurant.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), dinner. Average small plate: $15.
Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar The novella-length menu at this low-key alcove contains loving and helpful descriptions of an impressive selection of wines and beers. And thanks to the array of small plates served until 1am, this is the kind of warm, simple neighborhood place you’ll never want—or need—to leave. 954 N California Ave (773-292-1616, rootstockbar.com). Mon–Sat 5pm–2am; Sun 11am–4pm. Average glass of wine: $8.
Ruxbin You’ll see everything from movie-theater seats to apple-juice crates repurposed to turn this teensy BYOB into a glowing, energetic mind-funk. But chef Edward Kim takes a more understated approach to the food, levying subtle tweaks on contemporary American fare: Mussels are topped with togarashi-dusted fries; miso-marinated tofu is sweet and crunchy in a way that even non-vegetarians couldn’t resist; crisp-skinned trout over date-studded bulgur is simple and classic. Check out the upstairs bathroom—if you can figure out how to get into it. 851 N Ashland Ave (312-624-8509, ruxbinchicago.com). Dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $26.
Sepia After operating a few years, Sepia has now become a bonafide West Loop stalwart. The warm and sophisticated room is a destination for dishes like rabbit over buttery biscuits and crispy-skinned trout with smoky bacon—not to mention a cocktail and wine program that sets the bar for Chicago. No time for dinner? Opt for a gingery Sepia Mule cocktail and the sweet-salty-smoky flatbread of fresh peaches, creamy blue cheese and bacon in the lounge. 123 N Jefferson St (312-441-1920, sepiachicago.com). Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner. Average main course: $32.
Telegraph Webster’s owners Tom MacDonald and Jason Normann have narrowed their focus for their second wine bar, which has a prime perch overlooking Logan Square. Sommelier Jeremy Quinn has assembled a list of pretty exciting naturally made old-world wines, and the staff that serves them couldn’t be more easy-going or attentive. Meanwhile, chef John Anderes (ex-Avec) elevates Telegraph into a full-fledged restaurant with a menu that showcases the season (e.g., a grilled baby cucumber salad with Pleasant Ridge cheddar) and sates wine-induced cravings (case in point: a ham-and-coriander-mustard tartine). 2601 N Milwaukee Ave (773-292-9463, telegraphwinebar.com). Mon–Thu 5pm–1am; Fri, Sat 5pm–2am; Sun 5pm–midnight. Average glass of wine: $9.
Trenchermen What sets brothers Mike and Pat Sheerin’s long-awaited restaurant apart from the pack? Their dishes are not mere experiments; they’re proven theories of flavor, from the preserved rhubarb and aged duck breast (genius) to the lush, black olive–coated salmon. Their space, a restored bathhouse in Wicker Park, is a place you just want to hang out in, perhaps because the white-glazed brick wall of the bar room makes it feel a little like being in an Art Deco pool. And this is not only a dining destination but a drinking one as well, where Tona Palomino’s drinks prove, like the Sheerins’ food, to be an uncanny marriage of gumption and discretion. 2039 W North Ave (773-661-1540, trenchermen.com). Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $22.