Today, the process of choosing this year’s stars in the Chicago restaurant world — the Eater Awards winners for 2019 — continues apace. After fielding many solid ideas from readers during the course of our month-long nomination period, it’s time to narrow the playing field. There are four finalists in three categories: Restaurant of the Year, Design of the Year, and Chef of the Year.
Here they are:
Restaurant of the Year
- Galit: Chicago is home to many Middle Eastern restaurants, but arguably none exalted the range, ingredients, heritage, and overall quality of Israeli cuisine before this smash hit from James Beard Award-winning chef Zach Engel opened this year in Lincoln Park.
- Rooh: The city is in the midst of a golden era of South Asian restaurants, with pedigreed chefs opening many palate-expanding options this year outside Chicago’s longtime Indian hub on Devon Avenue, and the sophisticated, modern food and drink at this San Francisco import makes it arguably the crown jewel of them all along Randolph Restaurant Row.
- Tzuco: Carlos Gaytán, who was the first chef of Mexican descent to earn a Michelin star at his shuttered classic Mexique, triumphantly rejoined the Chicago restaurant scene this year with this Mexican-French triple threat in River North that’s drawing critical and public acclaim for its main restaurant and adjoined all-day bakery, plus a fine dining, tasting-menu room is coming soon.
- Virtue: This Hyde Park star from longtime acclaimed chef Erick Williams is already one of Eater’s best new restaurants of the year, expanding many diners’s beliefs in what’s possible with Southern comfort food, unpretentious hospitality, and unexpected ingredients.
Design of the Year
- Kumiko/Kikko: Already one of Chicago’s essential cocktail bars, Kumiko packs sophisticated-yet-unpretentious design elements into this inconspicuous Japanese-influenced stalwart that includes a subterranean omakase den. The West Loop space features panels designed by a Japanese firm. Local firm Brokenpress Design worked on mid-century-influenced custom millwork furnishings.
- Tzuco: Gaytán’s Mexican-French hit feels like he picked up a museum of his hometown of Huitzuco, Mexico and placed it in downtown Chicago: the space is full of personal items, plant life, kitchen utensils, and more transported and displayed in every nook and cranny, and also integrates the main restaurant, adjoined bakery, and coming-soon fine dining room under one roof.
- Utopian Tailgate: As Chicago’s rooftop bar boom shows no signs of slowing down, the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group took a different design approach, focusing on fun and whimsical features such as bright psychedelic colors, zany games, and more quirky features in nearly every corner of this massive indoor-outdoor venue above the treasured Second City comedy club in Old Town.
- Wherewithall: The follow-up to one of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants — Michelin-starred Parachute in Avondale — turns a former auto body shop into a cozy neighborhood spot that oozes understated creativity in features including felt light fixtures, counter seats in the small bar room that look into the kitchen, and a quaint courtyard that leads to a private-dining room in a separate building.
Chef of the Year
- Mari Katsumura (Yugen): The chef of this newly-Michelin-starred Japanese-influenced restaurant rises to a massive challenge — helming the West Loop restaurant that replaced three-Michelin-starred Grace — with food that’s wowing critics, diners, and Michelin inspectors.
- Dave Park (Jeong): After earning an Eater Young Gun award and an Eater 38 inclusion at a small food stall in the suburbs, Dave Park’s first full restaurant in the city has somehow topped that hype, offering a symphony of creative Korean flavors in West Town.
- Otto Phan (Kyōten): The plethora of new upscale omakase restaurants are one of the top trends in Chicago dining this year, yet the one that didn’t get a Michelin star — the Logan Square spot from this uber-talented, talkative sushi chef — is the most critically-acclaimed locally.
- Erick Williams (Virtue): Williams turned years of fine-dining experience into beloved Southern food at one of the country’s best new restaurants, working magic by pushing boundaries of dishes that most diners thought they already knew the limits.
All of these finalists have either opened or come into their own in a new way since we declared the winners last year. All of them were key contributors to making 2019 a great year of eating in Chicago. So please, take a moment to give these brave finalists a round of applause. Winners will be crowned, with much fanfare, on December 10, 2019.