1 Bad Hunter
While vegetables are all the rage, no other place in Chicago comes close to celebrating the delicious possibilities the green kingdom offers as this West Loop restaurant. Inside the light- and plant-filled space, chef Dan Snowden uses his experience at Nico Osteria and The Publican to create nonmeat dishes that even the most devout carnivore would approve, including a 'Bolognese' pasta dish made with root vegetables. There's a smattering of terrific meat, chicken and fish dishes should the desire present itself, although we've never felt the need to go there. INSIDER'S TIP Beverage Director Michael McAvena is one of the city's natural wine pioneers. Let your server know to take advantage of his expertise. 802 W. Randolph St.
2 El Che Bar
When John Manion went looking for someone to create his napkin drawing of the wood-burning hearth of his dreams, he knew just the person to call: a motorcycle builder. "I went to a bunch of steel guys," he says, "but no one was as into it as I wanted them to be." That passion and clear vision is all over Manion's second restaurant, which, like his first, heads to South America for inspiration. That hearth does amazing things to oysters, spiced quail and sweetbreads, but Manion's gnocchi with a romesco is terrific too. In other words: He's on fire. INSIDER'S TIP Book the chef's counter, and you'll get a 10-course tasting menu and an up-close view of all the fiery action. 845 W. Washington Blvd.
There's a lot to love about this modern American restaurant beyond its name, which means love in Danish. The synergy of husband-and-wife chefs David and Anna Posey—he handles the savory and she the sweet—can be seen in the harmony of the West Loop spot's Scandinavian-inspired interior design and on its beautiful, constantly changing plates, which might include soft scrambled eggs with confit chicken thighs and kaffir-lime custard with sunchokes. A plant-filled outdoor courtyard with a fireplace and inviting benches adds to its charm. Ain't love grand? INSIDER'S TIP In addition to its a la carte offerings, Elske offers a perfectly portioned eight-course tasting menu. 1350 W. Randolph St.
You might assume its limited menu makes ordering easy at this casual Lakeview spot from restaurant vet Ty Fujimura (Arami). Instead, the 11 or so savory items from chef Brian Fisher's (Schwa) changing menu—perhaps a cool riff on a wedge salad beautifully plated in a circular pattern, housemade fettuccine with maitake, and lobster in green curry with fermented coconut—are all must-orders. The three dreamy desserts from pastry chef Mari Katsumura (Acadia, Grace) make it even tougher. Our suggestion? Come hungry and bring friends. INSIDER'S TIP Entente keeps the creativity going with its mocktails, which feature ingredients such as English pea, mint and cocoa nib. 3056 N. Lincoln Ave.
Despite what its name might lead you to believe, Logan Square restaurant Giant is anything but. What this 44-seat spot lacks in size, it more than makes up for in charm and wonderfully flavorful food from chefs Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader. Their time together at beloved Nightwood is all over this unpretentious spot and its menu, which ranges from an uni shooter (deep-fried goodness at its best) and sweet-and-sour eggplant to Sortallini, the duo's playful twist on tortellini with guanciale, pine nuts and a light tomato broth. INSIDER'S TIP It's not easy creating a wine list that can nimbly go from Chinese spices to barbecue ribs, but the one here from Avec alum Josh Perlman does just that. 3209 W. Armitage Ave.
6 GT Prime
Given his stellar resume, including at Charlie Trotter's, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Italian-born chef Giuseppe Tentori is, as he puts it, "a huge meat-and-potatoes kind of guy." But it makes total sense once you eat at his chic River North steakhouse, which cleverly features perfectly cooked meaty offerings in 4- and 8-ounce portions. That leaves plenty of room for his noncarnivore dishes, including our new favorite version of kale, here in a twist on a Caesar salad with brioche croutons. INSIDER'S TIP Book the second-floor private dining room, and you'll not only get a great view of the open kitchen below but of the beautiful restaurant itself, designed by Karen Herold of Studio K. 707 N. Wells St.
Visually, this West Loop restaurant, set inside a former machine shop, exudes a laid-back, come-as-you-are vibe. On the other hand, though, tables are adorned with white tablecloths, the housemade bread is served warm and service is more akin to what you find in a fine-dining restaurant. Then there's the Mediterranean-leaning food from chef Charles Welch (Sepia), which deliciously wanders from spit-roasted cauliflower and a grilled romaine Caesar to seafood tagliatelle. Multiple personalities never tasted so good. INSIDER'S TIP The Hive, located on the second floor and accessible via a staircase in the Honey's vestibule, is one of Chicago's hippest new intimate lounges. 1111 W. Lake St.
8 LeÑa Brava
If anyone knows a thing or two about cooking with live fire, it's Rick Bayless, who's been doing just that for years at Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco. At his newest spot, husband-and-wife chefs Fred and Lisa Despres make good use of a wood-fired hearth turning out dishes such as grilled striped bass and octopus "carnitas." Beautiful ceviches and seafood cocktails are must-orders, too, at this lively ode to the cuisine of Baja California. The fiesta vibe is accented with some terrific cocktails, Mexican wines and one of the city's best selection of mezcals. INSIDER'S TIP Forgot to make a reservation? No problemo. Head next door to Bayless' Cruz Blanca and cool your heels with one of the brewed-on-site beers. 900 W. Randolph St.
Think the team behind fine-dining restaurant Alinea can't do casual? This West Loop spot, with its lively vibe, laid-back service and tasty food, says otherwise. The bustling open kitchen is your first clue they're on a different path. The boozy amuse-bouches and T-shirt-clad servers are others. But perhaps it's the food of chef Andrew Brochu that does the most to prove the point, with dishes that range from aged cheddar rillettes and Yukon fries to A5 Japanese wagyu. Brochu's whole chicken done three delicious ways is the stuff of poultry dreams. INSIDER'S TIP Snagging a dinner reservation is tough, but not so at lunch when you have the added bonus of ordering the stellar fried chicken sandwich. 951 W. Fulton Market
It takes guts to end an eight-course meal with a bowl of dried vegetables. But this tasting-menu restaurant isn’t afraid to nudge diners out of their comfort zones. The POV of husband-and-wife chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields—who met working at Charlie Trotter's—permeates the beautiful, spacious West Loop spot. But as pretty as the room is, your attention will quickly turn to the open kitchen and the stunning food coming out of it, which might include Dungeness crab and foie gras with a Japanese-style custard, and a savory brioche doughnut. INSIDER'S TIP The restaurant's superseasonal focus gets help from a local farm, which grows a variety of produce exclusively for the restaurant. 177 N. Ada St.