Customers come to a restaurant for more than food and drink. Atmosphere and design are keys to a memorable dining experience. 2019 brought an exciting series of openings with impeccably designed spaces, from an acclaimed chef’s triumphant return to Chicago to an airy, sleek Middle Eastern neighborhood spot. The following restaurants seized the opportunity to experiment with color, texture, and design to great effect, earning the accolade of prettiest restaurants of the year.
The first of three components in Carlos Gaytán’s burgeoning Chicago empire, Tzuco earned Eater Chicago’s Design of the Year award thanks to the efforts of designer Ignacio Cadena. He transformed the spacious River North restaurant into an entrancing museum of cooking utensils, plants, and decorative objects secured in glass cases, immersing diners in the sights and colors of Gaytán’s hometown of Huitzuco, Mexico. Tuzuco’s design philosophy is perhaps best represented by a beloved comal, a circular griddle used to make tortillas, that hangs above a booth near the kitchen. It belongs to the chef himself, who used it to make his first tortilla. A primarily utilitarian object, the comal becomes art inside Tzuco, representing both where Gaytán began and the rich culinary heritage he carries into the future.
Bespoke cocktails unquestionably win the day at Kumiko, the West Loop bar and restaurant from bartender Julia Momose (the Aviary, GreenRiver), chef Mariya Russell, and Noah and Cara Sandoval (Oriole). The space’s elegant Japanese-influenced design is a master class in thoughtful subtlety. Momose and Brokenpress Design + Fabrication’s Alex Dunham integrated mid-century furniture pieces and woodwork from Japanese firm Tanihata Co., smoothly mixing modern and ancient aesthetics in the 1,700-square-foot space. A few slim vases, textural bowls, and leafy sprigs dot the space, but are sequestered into built-in shelves that seamlessly tie the objects in with their surroundings.
James Beard Award-winning chef Zach Engel has already made a big splash in the months since his restaurant Galit debuted in April. His take on modern Israeli and Middle Eastern fare has brought in diners from across the city into the bright, airy Lincoln Park restaurant. Designed by Chicago-based Blue Star, the space is spare but an open kitchen and hearth where patrons can watch chefs bake fluffy, cloud-soft pitas provides built-in entertainment. Shades of blue run through the space, from the teal tiles lining the counter to decorative deep blue glass room dividers, and exposed brick adds an industrial feel. Almost always packed with diners, the restaurant creates the feeling of a festive dinner party that everyone wants to attend. There’s no sign that the space formerly housed a neighborhood pizzeria.
The seemingly unstoppable husband-and-wife duo behind Korean-American critical darling Parachute opened their second Avondale restaurant, Wherewithall, this year, and garnered attention for featuring a changing prix-fixe dinner menu in a casual, neighborhood restaurant. The aesthetic, courtesy of designer Charles Vinz, mirrors the laid-back atmosphere but stimulates interest with a variety of textures. These include unfinished brick walls — remnants of the auto repair shop that previously occupied the space — as well as salvaged red pine, felted light fixtures, and an original pressed tin ceiling. It’s quirky, rich with character, and a welcoming departure from over-designed, gimmicky venues.
Another Vinz design, Logan Square’s contemporary Indian restaurant Superkhana International shows off the colors, fabrics, and lights of the subcontinent. Pops of neon on the walls are a fun nod to the bright, beautiful world of Bollywood, and the windows are draped with colorful fabric sourced from stores along Devon. Pink, purple, and red lights bring a playful spark to white painted brick walls, and customers can cozy up to a geometric wooden bar. It also houses a private dining room and courtyard in the back with outdoor fans.