Chicago’s new restaurant outlook for this winter offers variety and some unlikely surprises. The city’s iconic Willis Tower is in the midst of a major renovation which has already begot a few new food options. A tourist attraction opening new restaurants to capitalize on crowds isn’t surprising, but winter 2020 will also bring an improbable debut: the entrepreneurs behind Cards Against Humanity are opening their own cafe.
A second surprise comes from Pilsen and its upcoming concert venue, Radius. It will feature a full-service restaurant and bar, and it’s the only project on the list south of Roosevelt Road. A pair of delayed projects that have appeared on previous previews — RPM Seafood and Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar — also should debut soon, according to reps.
Read on below for winter’s most anticipated restaurant openings. The list is sorted alphabetically.
Address: Willis Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, Loop
Key players: EQ Office, Urbanspace, Rick Bayless, Jollibee, Roberta’s, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Footman Hospitality, and more.
There’s a big effort to modernize one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions. Catalog is the over-arching name for new dining renovations inside the Willis Tower, and those improvements include a bevy of new food options highlighted by a new Mexican restaurant chain from chef Rick Bayless that’s funded by the company behind Filipino fast-food powerhouse Jollibee. It’s slated to open in January. The first-floor already has debuted a Shake Shack, Brown Bag Seafood Company, and Do-Rite Donuts. Sweetgreen opened this week, and Lettuce Entertain You’s Sushi-san is pegged for a February opening, according to a rep. A second level will feature a food hall opening in early 2020 from New York’s Urbanspace. Just this week, Urbanspace announced Chicago’s Footman Hospitality (Bangers & Lace, Sparrow) will operate its bar. Urbanspace, which will first open a Loop food hall, promises a lineup of New York favorites, such as Roberta’s — the hip Brooklyn pizzeria — and local chefs.
Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar
Address: 2165 N. Western Avenue, Bucktown
Key players: Jason Vincent, Josh Perlman, Ben Lustbader, Chase Bracamontes, Tom Scodari, Aaron Kabot
Chicagoans have been patiently waiting for James Beard Award-nominated chef Jason Vincent’s American-Chinese restaurant and bar since January 2019. Chef’s Special will be a throwback to Chinese-American restaurants of the ‘80s, the kind of places that introduced many Americans to Chinese food through plates like Mongolian beef and General Tso’s chicken. There’ll also a bar with fancy drinks. Vincent’s team opened the highly-acclaimed Eater 38 restaurant Giant in 2016 in Logan Square and also oversees the culinary program at the Ace Hotel in Fulton Market. A rep said construction is nearly complete for Chef’s Special, and they’ll start to train workers after January 1 while gearing for a mid-January opening.
Chicago Board Game Cafe
Address: 1965 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Key players: Cards Against Humanity, Max Temkin, Aaron McKay
The team behind ever-popular cheeky card game Cards Against Humanity are getting into the restaurant game with this new multi-prong project near the Bucktown/Logan Square border. Chicago Board Game Cafe will include a full-service restaurant and bar, a game library, a shop full of Cards Against Humanity stuff, and even two escape rooms. The food, from pedigreed chefs Aaron McKay (Schwa, NoMi) and Evan Behmer (Mercat a la Planxa, North Pond), will focus on Spanish, Vietnamese, and Mexican street food influences. It’s slated to open on January 10 and reservations are already available.
Koval Distillery Tasting Room
Address: 4241 W. Ravenswood Avenue, Ravenswood
Key players: Sonat Birnecker Hart, Robert Birnecker
One of Chicago’s most popular craft distillers is finally close to opening its long-planned tasting room off the city’s burgeoning Malt Row on the North Side. For the last 11 years, Koval has specialized in organic spirits. The company has a tasting room, but it’s a little cramped for tour groups. Koval will stretch out its legs at a new 40,000-square-foot facility that’s about 10 minutes away from the current 11,000-square-foot HQ. Expect a cold kitchen with snacks, a patio, and more space to learn about Koval’s offerings. A rep said they’re planning on a February opening.
Address: 2943 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Avondale
Key players: TJ Lynch, Richard Knapp, James Metze, Nick Pfannerstill, Toby Maloney
Boozy milkshakes and Tecate beer cans spiked with Cholula hot sauce are among the drinks coming to Mother’s Ruin Chicago, the Avondale location of a New York bar that opened in 2011. The atmosphere there is casual, but can allegedly get rowdy. The New York team has anointed Toby Maloney as its local partner. Maloney is known for his work at the Violet Hour in Wicker Park, helping make that bar one of the most influential in Chicago. A rep said it’s slated for a February opening.
Address: 1935 N. Lincoln Park West, Lincoln Park
Key players: Baligh and Moe Abu-Taleb, Ross Henke, Trista Baker
Mundano is about more than fusion food. It’s about a new approach to hospitality from chef Ross Henke who starred at Logan Square Mexican restaurant Quiote. Henke is working with front-of-house manager Trista Baker, a former colleague at Quiote, who founded a not for profit, Restaurant Culture Association, which works toward improving life for restaurant industry workers in a world of #MeToo and debate about wages and tipping. She’ll use that experience in working with Henke to develop best practices to make restaurants better places for workers. Mundano’s menu will represent more than Mexico, dipping into Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East for inspiration. Sample dishes include a bread and oil/chips and salsa service with baguettes with salsa macha and grated pecorino, plus crispy pig ears and salsa. Lamb dan dan noodles with fermented kale, “mexicracha,” lime, and peanuts; fried rock shrimp, cheese curds, escabeche/escalivada, mayo, and lime; delicata squash, salsa roja, labneh, and zaatar.
Address: 640 W. Cermak Road, Pilsen
Key players: Nick Karounos, Henry Hill
The owners of Radius, an upcoming 55,000-square-foot entertainment venue, kept their plans under the radar until this week after lining up acts including Lil Wayne and Alkaline Trio/Bad Religion for the 3,800-capacity music hall component, dubbed Cermak Hall. A rep later revealed that Radius will contain a full-service restaurant. Details are scant, but in a bit of serendipity, chef Henry Hill will develop the menu. Hill worked at Dusek’s, another Pilsen restaurant that comes attached to a music venue (Thalia Hall). Hill helped bring Dusek’s to Michelin-star status while he worked in the kitchen. Slated to open in February, Radius represents the only major project south of Roosevelt Road on this list.
Address: 317 N. Clark Street, River North
Key players: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Bill and Giuliana Rancic
The main component of an ambitious project along the Chicago River, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises plans on opening the new seafood restaurant in January. There’s a bit of an unknown with the controversial departure of chef/partner Doug Psaltis, but it appears construction is the culprit behind the delay. Pizzeria Portofino opened in August inside the riverside building. A private event space, RPM on the Water, opened in the fall. For those wanting a sneak peek, Lettuce Entertain You is offering a New Year’s Eve event where attendees can watch fireworks off the restaurant’s private terrace. Celebrity couple Giuliana and Bill Rancic — also partners in the RPM restaurants — will be in attendance. RPM Seafood should open in mid- to late-January, according to a LEYE rep.