Chicago’s restaurant writers dish on their favorite meals of 2021 as part of Eater’s ongoing tradition of polling the city’s experts for their year-end takes.
Jay Westbrook, local craft beer professional: I know you said meal and here I am talking about a starter, but the bread service at Adalina is otherworldly. From the second your server drops that cast-iron pan filled with rich luxurious four-cheese garlic stuffed awesomeness to the final bite as you contemplate ordering another, you are in for an experience like none other.
Michael Nagrant, michaelnagrant.com: Esme, pre-fixe. The best restaurants are idiosyncratic and Esme is no exception Katrina and Jenner have created an experience where everything from the opening “Cheeto” snacks to the defense and support of their employees to the artistic creation of original serveware is a reflection of their vision to reimagine every aspect of a restaurant.
Mike Zoller, Porch Drinking: I’ll give you two because Joe Flamm’s Rose Mary has to be up there. If they’re on the menu — get the ribs. Trust me. But a group of friends and I also did the omakase at Momotaro that was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had in Chicago. They did a great job of varying up the dishes and I got to try some things I normally wouldn’t have ordered. The grilled octopus... one of the best things I’ve ever had. Were a lot of Old Fashioneds consumed? Yes. Yes, there were.
Amy Cavanaugh, Chicago magazine: Oh my gosh, there were so many good ones. Sepia’s prix fixe is crushing it right now (the crab chawanmushi!). The late-night ham sandwich and warm salted peanut cookies at Oriole’s bar was a special one, as was ordering multiple rounds of the city’s best al pastor tacos at Asian Cuisine Express. Everything about Kasama just does it for me, and between the exceptional pastries and savory dishes, all the meals I’ve had there have been great.
Brenda Storch, Eater Chicago contributor: The smoky and complex ceviche at Leña Brava. Still thinking about it.
Nick Kindelsperger, Chicago Tribune: (Editor’s note: Kindelsperger answered this question in his own Trib piece.)
Sarah Spain, ESPN: On an unseasonably warm late February day my girlfriends and I emerged after a winter cooped up in our houses for one of our first social outings, a boozy lunch on the heated but vented/open-air rooftop at Cabra. We drank them out of their alcohol, ate all the dips, ceviches and empanadas they had and laughed for three straight hours. It was definitely a combination of company and provisions that made it the best.
Janice Scurio, Sports Illustrated and South Side Sox: The combo sandwich from Kasama is the culmination of my food experience as a Filipino-American from Chicago, and also, the best thing I ate in 2021. Longanisa topped with Italian beef, pork adobo, and giardiniera on a Gonnella roll dipped in adobo jus captures my entire cultural identity; it’s the sandwich I get when I need to reconnect with who I am.
It makes me want to belt out some tunes on a videoke machine in front of some strangers at a bar in either Metro Manila or Old Irving Park, it’s so damn good.
Lillian Stone, the Takeout: I finally made it to Taqueria Chingón to try the duck carnitas taco, and I think I actually screamed when I took a bite. It is insanely good.
Titus Ruscitti, ChiBBQKing: In Chicago, I’ll pick an outdoor dinner we did at Andros Taverna one beautiful summer night. It’s one of the years best openings for sure. But outside of Chicago I would have to say either at The Grey in Savannah or The Grocery in Charleston. We visited the Low Country during the spring so it was strawberry and soft-shell crab season.