Steak/seafood houses and sushi bars are the hottest trends in Chicago, but the appetite for Asian-fusion, Mediterranean-American, Nuevo Latino, Italian trattoria and French bistro continues unabated, and new restaurants seem to open weekly. A few high-profile spots have closed in the last year, too. The biggest news was Jean Banchet's February decision to retire and sell his fabled Le Francais, and it will be fascinating to see how it evolves under chef Don Yamauchi, formerly of Carlos' and Gordon.
The scene is better than ever in the suburbs, but for convenience, every place listed here is downtown or a short cab ride away. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however -- so explore and be sure to call ahead for hours, dress code, credit cards accepted and reservations.
TOP SPECIAL-OCCASION SPOTS
Ambria (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773/472-5959). The elegant Art Nouveau decor and chef/co-owner Gabino Sotelino's imaginative French- and Spanish-inspired cuisine help keep this one of the city's top-rated restaurants, though service can be a bit stuffy. Several degustations supplement an a la carte menu featuring such delights as foie gras terrine, squab salad and mallard breast with roasted pear and wild rice. Desserts sparkle. Wide-ranging wine list.
Everest (One Financial Place; 440 S. LaSalle St.; 312/663-8920). Chef Jean Joho's 40th-floor financial district aerie with dramatic views and an urbane safari decor offers meals that are simultaneously rustic and refined, often elevating humble ingredients or pairing unusual ones, such as crispy fried pork cheeks with duck foie gras. Lobster, truffle oil and other luxuries also abound. Exquisite desserts include a five-part chocolate fantasy. Degustation and early menu; largest Alsatian wine list in North America.
Nomi (Park Hyatt Hotel, 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/239-4030). Stunning views of the Water Tower and Lake Michigan from this seventh-floor dining room in the new Park Hyatt and an exuberant yet soothing design set the stage for chef Sandro Gamba's blend of global (especially Asian) flavors and French techniques. Appetizers range from sushi to a seafood napoleon, entrees from roasted halibut in black truffle beurre blanc to beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms. Small portions, high prices. Sleek wine room/lounge harbors 3,000 bottles; spacious outdoor deck in warm weather.
The Pump Room (Omni Ambassador East Hotel, 1301 N. State Pkwy.; 773/266-0360). This Chicago legend, restored to its opulent glory a few years ago, installed new chef J. Andrew Coates this spring. His seasonal menus draw on the expected indulgences and an international larder to yield everything from sauteed quail with couscous and dried fruit in fig sauce to Provimi veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and asiago cheese. Wine list and service are improving.
Ritz-Carlton Dining Room (160 E. Pearson St.; 312/523-5223). Genuinely ritzy, from the plush booths to the crystal chandeliers, this blissfully quiet old-fashioned room is an apt setting for chef Sarah Stegner's contemporary yet tradition-rooted cooking. Wild game, such as venison with black truffles, sparkles, as do shellfish preparations. The cheese cart is the best in town. Delicious desserts; excellent wine list and picks by the glass. Degustation and vegetarian degustation. Service is attentive and not at all snooty.
Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage Ave.; 773/248-6228). This townhouse has become a destination for adventurous international diners because of Trotter's often brilliant, beautifully crafted meals. The nightly menu, American-French with Asian influences, is limited to degustations -- grand, vegetarian and Charlie's (for guests at the kitchen table) -- using everything from lobster and foie gras to buckwheat groats and stinging nettles, often in unexpected ways. World-class wine list, with a section at the back recapping all $75-or-less bottles, as well as predictably fine service.
Tru (676 N. St. Clair St.; 312/202-0001). Truly a sensation, chef/partners Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand's collaboration with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises' Rich Melman combines a stylishly simple, serenely lit, smoke-free setting with spectacularly presented "progressive French cuisine" that has a sense of humor. Whether you opt for a three-course prix fixe meal or a "collection" -- vegetarian, seafood, grand, chef's -- you get lots of extras and surprises. The glass caviar staircase (with four caviars and as many condiments) is a signature opener, and Ms. Gand's desserts, such as pineapple "carpaccio" with buttermilk sorbet, are renowned. A terrific wine list and top-notch service complete the picture. Plan on three or four hours for dinner.
Zealous (419 W. Superior St.; 312/475-9112). Chef Michael Taus' austere yet striking conversion of a River North warehouse provides a backdrop for his ambitious global menu offering everything from potato samosas with salad in pomegranate-cumin dressing to lamb loin paprikash with roasted spaghetti squash. However, preparations aren't always at their peak, and prices are high considering the portion sizes. Nightly degustations may differ from one table to the next and can be paired with wines from the extensive, interesting list.
AMERICAN FAVORITES AND RISING STARS
Bin 36 (339 N. Dearborn St.; 312/755-9463). A snazzy industrial-chic sprawl with a small retail section, a big see-and-be-seen oval bar and two dining areas -- the casual Tavern and the semiformal Cellar -- this complex is dedicated to making wine accessible to novices. A 50-wine list that's organized into four- and five-taste "flights" -- Alsatian varietals to world reds -- with each wine also being available by the glass complements globally inspired menus listing wine suggestions for each dish. There's also a leather-bound bottle book for oenophiles.
Crofton on Wells (535 N. Wells St.; 312/755-1790). A chic storefront done in tones of taupe with black accents and well-spaced tables showcases owner/chef Suzy Crofton's inventive cooking. Artful salads, such as prosciutto-wrapped greens with fresh figs, and Southern flavors like barbecued pork loin with smoked apple chutney are among the highlights. Carefully chosen wines, scrumptious desserts and knowledgeable service.
437 Rush (437 N. Rush St.; 312/222-0101). The legendary press hangout, Riccardo's, has become a stronghold for politicos, thanks to an attractive makeover by restaurateur Phil Stefani and visits by President Clinton before he left office. Trencherman-size steaks, chops and seafood are the mainstays, preceded by the likes of lobster cocktails and classic tomato-onion-blue cheese salads and followed by sinfully rich desserts.
Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (60 E. Grand Ave.; 312/379-5637). The first result of ICON, Rich Melman's partnership plan for expanding restaurant icons, this offshoot of the famous Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach has been packed since it opened in October. Besides the precracked crab claws in various sizes -- flown in already cooked -- it serves predictable seafood and steaks in retro-clubby surroundings brightened by photos of the original Joe's employees and customers. Creamy crab bisque and the vegetable chopped salad stand out; dessert is pie and more pie, naturally including Key lime.
Mod (1520 N. Damen Ave.; 773/252-1500). This noisy Wicker Park hit, done in vivid colors, resembles a postmodern retro playroom with curving orange-plastic walls and swivel pod chairs, but there's nothing childish about chef/partner Kelly Courtney's contemporary American cooking. She was named one of "Food and Wine's" 10 best new chefs for 2001, and names of artisanal producers pepper her menu: Half Moon Bay beets with Capriole Farms goat cheese, mussels with Meyer lemon butter, pasta with smoked Gunthrope Farms chicken and mushrooms. Novel takes on classic American desserts, boutique wines, and creative cocktails, too.
Naha (500 N. Clark St.; 312/321-6242). Carrie Nahabedian (20 years ago, the first woman to cook at Le Francais, and a veteran of several Four Seasons Hotels) has teamed up with her cousin, Michael Nahabedian, to turn the former Gordon space into a sophisticated haven done in muted tones, enhanced by natural fabrics and modern art. Her lush Mediterranean-inspired American creations range from mustard-glazed smoked Tasmanian salmon with French lentils and Savoy cabbage to roasted breast of guinea hen with morels and salsify puree. Desserts don't equal the rest, but the wine selection is excellent, and service, though sometimes slow, is considerate.
Onesixty blue (160 N. Loomis St.; 312/850-0303). An old pickle factory transformed by New York designer Adam D. Tihany into a couch-comfy bar and handsome dining room, this people-watching paradise has generated a lot of buzz because of Michael Jordan's involvement. New chef Martial Noguier (formerly of the Pump Room) and his crew are on view in an open kitchen, whipping up a peekytoe crab "sandwich," a tian of lamb, rack of venison with chestnut dumplings and roasted duck breast with pickled ginger, foie gras and mango sauce.
Petterino's (150 N. Dearborn St.; 312/422-0150). Opened in February in the Goodman Theatre building, Chicago's answer to New York's Sardi's honors Arturo Petterino, long-time Pump Room maitre'd-to-the-stars, and dishes up supper-club staples such as shrimp de Jonghe and steak Diane, some of them nicely updated. "Chopped salad Irv Kupcinet" and a couple of others pay homage to celebs whose caricatures plaster the walls -- and who sometimes can be found sipping old-fashioned cocktails at the bar or eating in the red-accented dining room. Feather-light New York-style cheesecake and a free refill on espresso or cappuccino deserve applause.
Rhapsody (65 E. Adams St.; 312/786-9911). Meals have been well orchestrated since culinary director Roland Liccioni, co-owner of Les Nomades and former chef at Le Francais, brought his finely tuned contemporary global cooking to this spacious Symphony Center restaurant. Expect everything from foie gras and carefully composed salads to Asian riffs like Thai chicken in coconut broth, not to mention a rhapsody of sorbets and a three-movement symphony of chocolate. The wine list is worth singing about, as is service (sometimes).
Rushmore (1023 W. Lake St.; 312/421-8845). This stylishly austere newcomer, under the gritty El tracks a block from happening Randolph Street, cannily blends homey and hip. Tuna tartare, a beautifully composed grilled chicken Cobb salad, the aptly named "ultimate macaroni," buttermilk fried chicken and braised short ribs with baby root vegetables are typical of the menu. "Big Ed's" banana cake with a brulee top and tropical fruits stands out among the desserts. The wine list harbors many finds.
Zinfandel (59 W. Grand Ave.; 312-527-1818). Contemporary American folk art complements American cooking that embraces everything from Dungeness crab spring rolls to pot roast with mashed potatoes. Monthly regional menus (Creole, Pacific Northwest, etc.) and daily specials supplement the regular menu. Rich devil's food cake and homey pies are among the nostalgia-inducing desserts. Zinfandels loom large on the wine list, which offers bottles, glasses and flights.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Brasserie Jo (59 W. Hubbard St.; 312/595-0800). Chicago's bustling counterpart to Paris's La Coupole is picture-perfect, from the zinc bar and French furniture to the Alsatian onion tarts, coq au vin, choucroute (sauerkraut with cured meats and sausages) and profiteroles. Affordable regional French wine list; custom-brewed beers. Servers can be harried.
Chez Joel (1119 W. Taylor St.; 312-226-6479). A tiny taste of France in Little Italy, this bistro turns out good renditions of staples such as braised lamb shank and steak frites, as well as lovely openers, among them a duo of marinated and smoked salmon. Wines are well priced, and beautiful desserts are worthy of the land of Degas. Quieter at lunch, when the patio seems especially lovely.
La Sardine (111 N. Carpenter St.; 312/421-2800). A traditional bistro built within an industrial space, Jean Claude Poilevey's spot across from Oprah's studios is less sardine-like than his Bucktown Le Bouchon. The fairly priced menu focuses on classics like leek and bacon tart, rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes and hearty stews. Interesting French wines. Souffles for two are among the desserts.
Gioco (1312 S. Wabash Ave.; 312-939-3870). A pioneer on a run-down South Loop stretch, restaurateur-designer Jerry Kleiner's contemporary take on an old speakeasy serves rustic-style modern Italian food: spicy sausage and shiitake mushroom pizza, black-pepper cavatelli with porcinis, and ricotta salata. Some hits, some misses. Interesting wines; uneven service.
Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan Ave.; 312/280-2750). Done in cool tones of taupe and gray, the tiered dining room overlooking the Mag Mile is a great place to entertain on an expense account. Original chef Tony Mantuano returned last summer, and his revised menu features enticements such as a lamb duo of roasted chops and braised shoulder, as well as sophisticated pastas and wood-grilled meats and fish. If you just want to have fun, go across the hall to the bemuraled Cafe Spiaggia to enjoy similar dishes at lower prices. In either, save room for bittersweet semifreddo (like a mousse cake) and other desserts. Outstanding list of Italian wines and American clones.
Trattoria Parma (400 N. Clark St.; 312/245-9933). Chef/owner Paul LoDuca's country cooking soars at this modestly priced, faux-rustic place. Parma ham and eggplant parmigiana are on hand, of course, along with appealing pastas, roasted lamb shank and quivering panna cotta. Wines are chosen to go with the food. Generally professional service.
Vivere (71 W. Monroe St.; 312/332-4040). Designer Jordan Mozer's dazzling fantasy of mosaics, glass and exaggerated Art Nouveau furniture is the main draw, but the Northern Italian food is solid, and the mind-boggling wine list is one of the biggest in the country. It's also the list for the two other dining rooms in the 70-year-old Italian Village complex, the aptly named Italian Village upstairs and La Cantina on the lower level.
Heat (1507 N. Sedgwick St.; 312/397-9818). Of all the trendy sushi bars to open in the last year or so, this Art Nouveau-meets-Zen miniature really pushes the envelope with whole-fish sashimi that arrives at the table still flapping, live shrimp and sea urchins, exotic sushi and esoteric cooked delicacies at prices that range from high to astronomical. Unusual ice creams (lychee, black sesame seed) and sorbets for dessert. Close to two dozen cold sakes; wines are chosen to go well with the food. Reservations are essential.
Penang (2201 S. Wentworth Ave.; 312/326-6888). This garishly decorated Chinatown spot, the first Midwest branch of an East Coast mini-chain, has a huge Malaysian menu (plus sushi), and most of the food is as outstanding as it is unusual. Be sure to try barbecued stingray wrapped in a banana leaf, sauteed convolus (hollow-stemmed spinach) with Malaysian shrimp paste ,and creamy Buddhist-style tofu. Finish with coconut pudding served in a coconut shell. Bank on terrible service.
Red Light (820 W. Randolph St.; 312/733-8880). This glitzy, noisy melange of swirling mosaics and undulating surfaces serves a trendy blend of Chinese and Southeast Asian fare. Appetizers like delicate steamed dumplings and sweet and sticky spare ribs shine. Wai Chee's duck with plum sauce and Taiwanese whole crispy catfish are top-notch entrees. Blood-orange tart with delicate five-spice ice cream may be among the imaginative desserts. Lots of cocktails, wines, boutique beers and teas. Uneven service.
Vong (6 W. Hubbard St.; 312-644-8664). Chicly understated, Chicago's outpost of New York celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Thai-French empire offers signatures ranging from the Black Plate appetizer sampler to the White Plate dessert combo -- at East Coast prices. Specialty cocktails and exotic teas are among the beverages. Cooking can be careless and the service can be slow.
Cafe Iberico (739 N. LaSalle St.; 312/573-1510). Sip a reasonably priced Rioja or Ribera del Duero and nibble tapas at the bar, or come with a group, sit in one of the sprawling dining rooms and share tortilla espanola, grilled octopus, pisto manchego and other dishes that will transport you to Spain. Skip the entrees. Warning: Too noisy to hear your own conversations.
Costa's (340 S. Halsted St.; 312/263-9700). One of the better Greektown spots is a source for such mainstays as taramosalata, kebabs and seafood, as well as some surprises. End with Greek coffee and rice pudding or caramel custard. Piano music many nights.
Fado (100 W. Grand Ave.; 312/836-0066). Tri-level pub traces Irish history and culture in six distinct areas that would make Hollywood envious. Most stunning is the Victorian bar, but every square inch is plastered with collectibles. The rib-sticking food is satisfying, especially the all-day Irish breakfast. Great for a post-conference Guinness or whiskey. Live Irish music some nights.
Cru Cafe & Wine Bar (29 E. Delaware St.; 312-337-4001). A serious wine list and elegant light fare -- caviar, lobster and beef tenderloin club sandwich, cheeses -- make this laid-back Gold Coast spot a winner, though the comfy couches and chairs all are in the smoking area.
Narcisse Champagne Salon & Caviar Bar (710 N. Clark St.; 312/787-2675). This smart little salon specializes in an impressive range of champagnes from several of the major houses, various caviars with traditional accompaniments, and an appealing array of light dishes and entrees chosen to go with the bubbly.
The Tasting Room (1415 W. Randolph St.; 312-942-1313). Open late, this wine bar -- with a loft-look second floor that resembles an oversize living room (great views of downtown) -- is a fine place to end the evening with dessert or a snack of cheeses and charcuterie. About 100 of the 200 or so wines are available by the taste or glass.