Chicago’s restaurant writers dish on their biggest surprises of 2020 as part of Eater’s ongoing tradition of polling the city’s experts for their year-end takes.
Mike Sula, Chicago Reader: Jonathan Zaragoza led me on a tour of his menu El Oso, his open-ended residency at the Promontory’s wood-burning hearth. It’s a major flex from a chef who’s never not growing. I’d say it even if he weren’t a pal.
Dennis Lee, the Takeout, Food is Stupid: Since I hadn’t really had a chance to celebrate my new job at the Takeout, we treated ourselves to Thanksgiving from Jeong, and boy, was it spectacular. The kabocha squash soup that was included tasted like it was literally from a different dimension, it was that good. And both variations on mashed potatoes, like the brown butter mashed potatoes and the mashed Korean sweet potatoes, also blew my mind. Shoutout to Machine for being the only restaurant that was doing a-la-carte turkey (everywhere else was doing whole packages), by the way, which was delicious.
Morgan Olsen, Time Out Chicago: Lula Cafe’s Farm Dinner — I’d order it every night if I could. It’s a seriously special carryout experience that makes you feel like you’re actually dining out. Jason Hammel and his team dream up a new menu every week, but I’m still stuck on the lineup I had over the summer: cucumber-peach gazpacho, chickpea panisse with gnocchi and sungold tomatoes, and blueberry-studded cream cheese mousse. Lula’s wine list is stellar, too, making it the perfect option for date night at home.
Audarshia Townsend, WGN Morning News, Esquire contributor: PR Italian Bistro is always a great bet, and my favorite meal of the year was sitting on their patio and eating freshly made pastas, sauces, and breads. This restaurant is one of the best-kept secrets in the city.
Michael Nagrant, michaelnagrant.com: I was lucky enough to sneak in to Ever to celebrate my wedding anniversary before the ban on indoor dining. They served truffles in glass cloche domes and amuse courses in Marilyn Manson-friendly black mass wax sculptures, made skulls out of parsnip, and hollowed out pumpkins with power drills as you do. They paired everything with only two kinds of wine, pinot noir and riesling. Unfettered from the chains of their previous partnership, Mike Muser and Curtis Duffy were pursuing their unique and true voice in a way they yet hadn’t, and it was glorious. Full disclosure, while I booked this meal on Tock and pre-paid, they comped this meal as an anniversary gift. However, if Duffy had overcooked the Wagyu served tableside on a sizzling rock, I’d have screamed about it as if he’d stabbed me in the neck.
Michael Gebert, Fooditor: Well, jeez, I dropped a big wad at Ever, so I kind of have to say that. It was exactly the kind of food that all of us put behind us as we lived on fried chicken sandwiches and short ribs all year. We lived in a new democratic world in which even the high-end joints made comfort food. All hail the common food! But it turns out we still want — well, I still want — daring and artistic ambition and wild overreach. I wanted the big plate with the small amount of food as art object, exquisitely created. I hope we get back to a world in which that silly, crazy thing is there to delight.
As 2020 threw the world a curveball, Eater Chicago this year has expanded its end-of-year panel to include other members of the city’s media.
Janice Scurio, Sports Illustrated and South Side Sox: The Mom’s Burger and Nori fries, from Mom’s, with a side of spam musubi (ed. note: Mom’s is now popping up at Marz Community Brewing). One day I’ll have the appetite for a double or triple, but for now, my frail constitution can only handle the single patty. The greatest meals of 2020 were eaten in my idling car.
Chicago Party Aunt, @ChiPartyAunt: The Gyros Plate Deluxe at Windy City Gyros.
Natalie Moore, WBEZ: Ascione Bistro in Hyde Park, my neighborhood, is the one restaurant I would visit. It had outdoor seating. The best meal was my husband’s brunch birthday with all the children. He declared its chocolate cake is the best he has ever had. The teenagers loved the hamburgers and had never tried tiramisu — of course they loved it. I always got the crab cakes and bottomless mimosas.
Exavier Pope, Forbes, the Athletic, Al Jazeera English: A vegetarian chorizo burrito from Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur with potato cheese in Bucktown. Delicious. A massive menu for vegan authentic Mexican.