Rising above the hype when it comes to a restaurant is more difficult than ever in Chicago. The city remains one of the best in the restaurant world, but more and more pretenders are pumping out flashy marketing content to capitalize on the goodwill of Chicago’s most forgiving diners. As a result, many times the dining experience doesn’t match what was promised on social media.
That’s what makes this batch of Eater Award winners special. Their menus are exceptional. And while no waitstaff is perfect, each is committed to keeping customers happy — which often means keeping their workers happy, too. And, when it comes to marketing, these spots prefer to let their actions do the talking.
The 2023 cohort includes a scrappy underdog that moved to a new space, transforming it into one of the city’s best all-around restaurants. It also includes a trio of chefs who found support through adversity to create a brash late-night restaurant that appeals to them, even if it doesn’t please the masses. Then there’s the Korean American who painstakingly carries the spirit of her mother-in-law’s recipes from Kerala, India, to Chicago. Also amongst the year’s standouts: A Filipino American veteran chef-turned-juggernaut pushing Pinoy food culture forward locally after years of relative anonymity in kitchens across Chicago. Finally, while Chicago heals from the pandemic, its bars awoke from their slumber, and a Logan Square drinking den stakes its claim as one of the places for a cocktail in the city.
With these stories in mind, Eater Chicago proudly presents the 2023 Eater Awards. — Ashok Selvam, editor
Restaurant of the Year: Daisies
In its short time in its new space, Daisies has established itself as a community beacon. During the day, customers of all backgrounds crowd the restaurant, sipping on coffee, eating Leigh Omilinsky’s pastries while conversing or pounding on their laptops. Chef Joe Frillman was an early adopter of service fees so the restaurant could offer strong salaries and benefits. Recently, Daisies also received a Michelin Green Star, which recognizes its sustainability efforts.
For dinner, this might be the hardest reservation in town because most customers don’t have to save up to dine at Daisies like many tasting menu restaurants. It’s not bargain basement either — the labor to make noodles by hand or procure produce (even if it’s from the farm Frillman’s brother, Tim, owns) isn’t cheap. This family-friendly restaurant is sophisticated enough for dates or celebrations, but comfortable enough to eat at multiple times a month. Daisies also recently brought back lunch, which makes it the most complete restaurant in Chicago. This isn’t a case of being a jack-of-all-trades yet a master of none. Daisies has gone from underdog status to a role model that Chicago restaurant owners aspire to replicate. And for all of this, Daisies is Eater Chicago’s Restaurant of the Year. — Ashok Selvam, editor
Chefs of the Year: Margaret Pak and Jolly Nelliparambil for Thattu
For a country with more than 1.3 billion people, Indian cuisine fits a narrow sieve of expectations in America (especially in Chicago where Devon Avenue is the only point of reference for many when it comes to the country’s food). India’s diversity is often invisible to the Western gaze, and sometimes it takes a new perspective to crack that code. Margaret Pak left her job in finance and worked at Kimski in Bridgeport to learn the restaurant business. But her main teacher lives overseas in Kerala, where her husband was born. Pak’s mother-in-law, Jolly Nelliparambil, passed along recipes to Pak, exposing her to the world of South Indian cuisine, the building blocks that formed Thattu, an Avondale restaurant that’s earned national attention. The unlikely duo of a Korean American paired with a Keralan has given Chicagoans delightful beef fry, appam, and more. But Pak isn’t parroting what she learns. She’s applied her own twists in creating a singular Indian dining experience in America. And while they don’t work together on a regular basis, Pak and Nelliparambil are deserving of Eater Chicago’s Chef of the Year title. — Ashok Selvam, editor
Bar of the Year: Meadowlark
Meadowlark fearlessly leaped into Chicago’s formidable neighborhood bar scene with a convivial atmosphere and cutting-edge creativity since opening in September 2022. The final element in a trio of spots from business partners Steve Lewis and chef Chris Thompson who are also behind neighboring all-day salumeria Lardon and modern gastropub Union, Meadowlark earned near-instant praise for its drinks created by Abe Vucekovich, who gained valuable experience working at Wicker Park’s influential Violet Hour. Exacting yet unpretentious, the compelling concoctions are presented in an illustrated menu carefully designed to resemble antique ornithological texts — a welcome relief for many who have grown weary of QR codes, utterly devoid of character.
Despite the fanfare over his bird beverages, Vucekovich was willing to once more go out on a limb. In June, he unveiled an entirely new drink menu that’s arguably even more ambitious than the original: a tribute to Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, just in time for the landmark event’s 130th anniversary. Presented once again in a charming bound book that guides patrons through the sprawling fairgrounds, it manages to translate unusual inspiration like the Fisheries Building and a Ferris Wheel into potable form. While Vucekovich has stepped away from day-to-day operations, which allows him to take on other projects, his work at Meadowlark gives drinkers hope. While the bar industry’s future, both in Chicago and across the country, remains an open question, if drinkers are lucky, it will look a lot like Meadowlark. — Naomi Waxman, reporter
Biggest Dining Surprise: Warlord
A trio of veteran chefs — Emily Kraszyk (Farmhouse), John Lupton (Kasama), and Trevor Fleming (Rootstock) — allied Avondale to build a late-night beacon where folks don’t need reservations. Visitors will often see open flames dance in the small kitchen behind the bar. There’s a dry-aging cooler in the front where folks can see beef and salmon develop rich umami.
In many ways, Warlord is a brash throwback to pre-pandemic times — an evening spot dedicated to those yearning for more than late-night Taco Bell. Still, there are complaints that the music is too loud or that the lines are too long — why can’t they be on OpenTable or Resy?
Warlord is the antidote to the mundane, the proof that independents can thrive in a sea of restaurant groups. It’s for folks who understand that not all Chicago restaurants need to be the same and that folks working late deserve a great meal beyond hot dogs and burritos. If it’s not for you, move on. — Ashok Selvam, editor
Reboot of the Year: Boonie’s Filipino Restaurant
The comparisons are inevitable. Kasama wowed diners, but it’s not based 100 percent on Filipino food. But in the shadow of a Michelin-starred heavyweight, is there room for another? Of course there is, and Joe Fontelera’s Boonie’s proves it. A destination on a quiet North Side block, Boonie’s has gone through multiple reinventions. After leaving Arami, one of the city’s premier sushi spots, Fontelera opened a food stall at Revival Food Hall in 2020. And in 2023, he moved up to the Big Leagues with his restaurant in North Center.
The eggplant with sunflower butter is a revelation. If that hasn’t been expressed enough, try it. Chef Fonterlera is often a one-man show serving up soulful renditions of Filipino food and an atmosphere where it’s okay to get a little wild despite the fact that it still lacks a liquor license. And the changes the chef has made to ensure its success merit recognition. — Ashok Selvam, editor