Chicago

What We're Looking Forward to in Chicago in 2021

Things are looking up already.

Courtesy of Nobu Chicago
Courtesy of Nobu Chicago
Courtesy of Nobu Chicago

No matter how you slice it, 2020 was a rough year for the Windy City. We’ve seen cherished businesses from Rogers Park to South Shore shutter their doors for good as the pandemic raged, briefly slowed, and then ranged once again through the region. Festivals were canceled, art openings were postponed, and, on top of all of that, we weren’t even allowed to soothe ourselves with a refreshing dip in the Lake. But with the advent of the coronavirus vaccine and a brand new year finally upon us, there are many-OK, at least six-reasons to look ahead with optimistic anticipation. Here’s the rundown on what we’re looking forward to most in 2021.

Courtesy of Crushed By Giants Brewing
Courtesy of Crushed By Giants Brewing
Courtesy of Crushed By Giants Brewing

2020 restaurant newcomers getting their chance to shine

While the global pandemic was busy squashing once thriving Chicago bars and restaurants, a new crop of culinary wizards were trying with all their might to establish themselves amid the chaos. We’re talking places like French charmer Robert et Fils, cheffy donut specialist Brite, pie emporiums like Pizza Lobo and Sicilian hotspot Pizza Friendly Pizza, game-changing sandwich joints Big Kids and Cat-Su Sando, brewpub wonders Ørkenoy and Crushed by Giants, Nobu Chicago’s swanky debut, the Ace Hotel’s all-day go-to Lovage, South Side throwback Nipseys, West Town’s beloved Tamale Guy-the list literally goes on and on (and on). Here’s hoping the coming year gives this badass class of 2020 all the glory it unwaveringly deserves.

 

The return of live music, both inside and out

Remember slam dancing to obscure midwestern noise metal at the Empty Bottle? Stage hopping your way through Pitchfork, Riot Fest, Windy City Smokeout, or the always epic House Music Festival? How about kicking back to indie melodies at the Hideout or Schuba’s, crushing subterranean shots at Thalia Hall, catching big name headliners at architectural icons like the Chicago Theater and the Riviera, or treating your better half to a jazz quartet performance at the Green Mill? Yeah, us too. Chicago’s a music town through and through, and although the coronavirus has delivered our fair city’s concert calendar a near-fatal blow, we’re looking ahead to a 2021 with a socially distanced pep in our step and shoegaze-inspired bob in our chin. Between promising federal proposals like the Save Our Stages Act, backed by Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, virtual fundraising efforts like Chicago Independent Venue League’s CIVILization, myriad GoFundMe campaigns, and good old fashioned grassroots organizing, Chicagoans have shown unparalleled commitment to getting their favorite juke joints back on track.

Courtesy of Bill's Original Tavern Pizza
Courtesy of Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza
Courtesy of Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza

Sandwiches and slices stealing the show

Scan over a list of 2020’s most successful culinary ventures and two very distinct cuisines immediately emerge as no-brainer victors: pizza and sandwiches. The ultimate in comfort and convenience, these endlessly versatile and markedly take-out friendly crowd-pleasers are poised to maintain their market dominance throughout 2021’s gradual transition back to normalcy. Expect to see even more top chefs throwing their hats into the saucy, cheesy, and foldable ring, joining the likes of Oriole vet Noah Sandoval and 16″ on Center managing partner Bruce Finkelman at Pizza Friendly Pizza, Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream whiz kid Ed Marszewski of Kimski fame, Heisler Hospitality’s Pizza Lobo, and RPM spin-off Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza. On the stuffed and breaded side, a merry troupe of boundary-pushers like ex-Blackbird chef Ryan Pfeiffer and Turkey & the Wolf’s Mason Hereford’s brainchild Big Kids and Japanese-inspired hot shots Cat-Su Sando and Mom’s lead the charge for sandwich-centric pivots like wine mecca Rootstock’s new deli counter and Schwa’s summertime po’boy experiment followed closely by an up-and-coming Jewish(ish) deli revival lead by Jeff & Judes and Rye Deli + Drink.

Courtesy of Lost Lake
Courtesy of Lost Lake
Courtesy of Lost Lake

The continued rise of virtual cocktail bars

When the lockdown first started last March, Chicago barkeeps were at a total loss, unable to dazzle patrons behind the sticks while simultaneously barred from peddling their delicious wares via delivery or take-out due to strict liquor laws. That’s when Kumiko cocktail maven (and Thrillist Local Hero) Julia Mamose stepped up to the plate and spearheaded Cocktails for Hope, her hard fought and ultimately successful campaign to legalize to-go mixed drinks. Thanks to those valiant efforts, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of take-away tipples, with new and retrofitted operations popping up all over the city. Not to be missed: Gin and Juice, a tiki-tinged service fueled by celebrated Three Dots and a Dash beverage director Kevin Beary, Blackbird and Spiaggia alum Derek Mercer’s concept Present Tense, Mamose’s very own lineup at Kumiko, kits from craft cocktail pioneers like the Whistler and Violet Hour, innovative flavor combos from Superkhana International and Be Cordials, plus rare spirits specialist Billy Sunday’s CSC (yes, that’s Community Supported Cocktails) program and tiki titan Lost Lake’s similarly styled Lost Lake at Home, to name just a few.
 

Sports!

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that this city’s sports fandom is a true ride-or-die phenomenon. There have been bubbles, wubbles, and challenge cups, botched seasons, countless injuries, and canceled games, and, for the first time ever, empty stands at Soldier Field, yet loyal Chicagoans continue to show up for their number ones. Fingers crossed, 2021 will have us once again pounding Old Style and exchanging high fives as we bear communal witness to all the exciting lineup changes, fresh new additions (hello Zach Davies!), and explosive talent coursing through the veins of ‘da Bulls and ‘da Bears (not to mention the Cubs, Sox, Sky, Blackhawks, Fire FC, and World Cup champ-laden Red Stars). 
 

Dive bars, full stop.

Oh, Chicago dive bars, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Malort shots and two dollar tall boys, sticky bathroom floors and overflowing pints served with a semi-toothless smile, bear hugs from bouncers and jukeboxes blasting, photo booths crammed full and blinding flashbulbs, spontaneous dance parties and sleepy day drinking, creaky pool tables and happy dogs underfoot-and that’s barely scratching the graffiti-strewn surface. From downtown stalwarts like Old Town Ale House and Rossi’s, to northwest hideaways like Rainbo, Ola’s, J & M Tap, Chipp Inn, Archie’s, Alice’s, Reed’s, and Whirlaway, Lakeview time capsules like Nisei Lounge, and L & L Tavern, and South Side smashes like Skylark, Shinnick’s, and Woodlawn Tap (née Jimmy’s), few locales are more dearly missed-or more eagerly anticipated-as our good old fashioned neighborhood dives. Sleep well, dingey darlings, as thirsty denizens the city over prepare for the welcome back bash of a lifetime. 

Chicago

A Food Expert's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown

Just in time for Lunar New Year.

Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram
Courtesy of Ninja Bar Chicago Instagram

Chicago’s Chinatown, a triangular slice of the Near South Side loosely bordered by Cermak Road, Wentworth Avenue, and a northbound-snaking branch of the Chicago river, has been fueling Grace Wong’s culinary cravings long before she cut her teeth dishing on the city’s vibrant restaurant scene for the Chicago Tribune

“Both my parents are from Shanghai and they immigrated to Naperville, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city,” says the esteemed former dining reporter, recalling her suburban upbringing. “When I was growing up, we’d make this semi-monthly pilgrimage into Chicago, especially Chinatown and the Argyle area, to get supplies because there was no real Asian population where we lived. There were maybe two small Asian grocery stores at the time; when we got an H Mart, it was literally the biggest news of my life. My mom was so hype about it.”

“It was always just a huge deal, piling into the van,” she continues. “We would go for dim sum in the morning and then the entire afternoon we’d be following my mom around to all these different specialty grocery stores so she could get the ingredients she needed to make dishes from her homeland. I remember being a kid and carrying giant plastic buckets around because we would pick up live crabs and live fish, stuff like that.”

Wong now lives on the North Side and although both the pandemic and her recent departure from the Tribune and their centrally located office has made travelling down to Chinatown a bit less convenient, she still manages to pay her favorite establishments a visit every now and then.

“I haven’t gone much since the virus hit but I have made the trip a few times, mostly when I’m just like, ‘I need my Boba fix!'” she says with a laugh. “And then once I get down there I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need barbecue pork from BBQ King House. And I need my roast duck. And I might as well go to Park To Shop because I’m out of like, I don’t know, oyster sauce or whatever.’ It always ends up being an extended time.”

Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram
Courtesy of Grace Wong Instagram

Getting the lay of the land

It might look like one cohesive cityscape at first glance, but according to Wong, Chicago’s Chinatown is actually composed of two distinct, nuanced districts.

“So, there’s new Chinatown and there’s old Chinatown,” Wong explains. “The big plaza with all the Zodiac animals next to it-that’s considered, at least to my parents, new Chinatown. And then old Chinatown is down Wentworth Avenue, south of Cermak. If you look at a map, there’s a little triangle where Archer, Clark, and Cermak meet. Everything south of Archer is more old Chinatown and everything north of Archer is more new Chinatown.”

“Growing up, we spent a lot of time at old Chinatown, mostly because there are a bunch of bakeries there and we would bring home pastries to eat for weeks and weeks,” she says. “As I got older, we started going to new Chinatown more. You’ll see a younger demographic in new Chinatown, trendy places like Bonchon and Mango Mango-that’s more of the vibe. And it’s more touristy in the sense that the people who go into new Chinatown to walk around and spend their day there, they might not necessarily live there. Whereas with old Chinatown, you’re bumping past the old ladies that have lived in that neighborhood forever.”

What makes the neighborhood stand out?

After high school, Wong moved to California to pursue a degree in journalism at USC. And while she enjoyed the years she spent on the (much, much) sunnier West Coast, her experience in Los Angeles only further cemented her devotion to Chicago’s Chinatown.

“I think a lot of Chinatown’s across the country are kind of going away,” she says. I was in LA for like six and a half, seven years, and the actual designated “Chinatown” there is maybe one city block. Here, you can bump into people who straight up just arrived from China or Taiwan one minute then turn around and talk to someone who has lived in the area for generations the next, that’s all they know. I think that’s really cool.”

“Another important thing to note is that Chinatown is not only for the people who live there but also for all the Asian-Americans who in the surrounding suburbs, of which there are so many,” Wong adds. “To be able to go to a place where my parents can just chit chat with whoever without any worries about language, or where I can tell someone my very specific boba order and they’ll get it exactly right without asking me all these questions-I don’t know, it’s just a really special place for everybody.”
 

Grace’s list of can’t-miss Chinatown spots:

Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings
Courtesy of Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings

Qing Xiang Yuan

“One of my favorite places to get dumplings is Qing Xiang Yuan. They also have a location in the Loop. They do a lot of different styles, all handmade, which is really awesome. They’re really playful with the fillings and you can customize if you want them boiled or fried. And they have these really amazing takeout boxes that they designed for themselves-yes, I’m here for that packaging. They’re also pretty new and modern. I don’t know if my parents would love it, per se, because they’d be like, ‘This is a fancy restaurant.’ But it’s just dumplings! Go there and you’ll have a really great time.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Elitea

“Just south of QXY is the entrance to the Richland Center, which is basically a glorified food court. It’s one of the few places where you can get really regional cuisine and it’s also home to Elitea, one my favorite places to get boba. They have this fire brown sugar boba that is just, I mean, incredible.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Hing Kee

“For soup dumplings, I like to go to Hing Kee. Back in the day there were always, like, aunties making dumplings in the window-I loved that. Every now and then I’d go for some other kind of snack, but their soup dumplings are the best.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine
Courtesy of Hello Jasmine

Hello Jasmine 

“Hello Jasmine on Clark Street is really good for Taiwanese snacks and boba. I usually get their roasted oolong, popcorn chicken, and maybe some sausage skewers. They also have this fried chicken sandwich that’s unreal. It was definitely a spur of the moment decision to get it, but it was so good I posted about it on Instagram.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

 

Laojiumen

“For hotpot, there’s this new place called Laojiumen. They basically do ‘fancy hotpot’ and I honestly can’t wait to go there when I feel like it’s safe to do so.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Bingo Tea

“Bingo Tea has the best cheese tea. They were one of the first and the biggest to do it. You know how cheesecake is cheese but not really? Like how it’s sweet but has a touch of like salt to it? Imagine that but whipped. There’s a fruit or loose-leaf tea on the bottom and on top there’s this foam-like latte foam but thicker. The name might be a little bit of a marketing issue, but don’t knock it until you try it!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Lao Sze Chuan

“Lao Sze Chuan is a classic for Sichuan food across the board. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I love their dry chili chicken. People say it’s for tourists, but it’s actually so good!”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine
Courtesy of Minghin Cuisine

MingHin

“Right next to Lao Sze Chuan is MingHin. I’m telling you, no dim sum trip is complete without a stop there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles
Courtesy of Slurp Slurp Noodles

Slurp Slurp Noodles

“Slurp Slurp Noodles is in the old Chinatown area and their hand-shaved noodles are some of my all-time favorites. They’re super bouncy and springy and served in this delicious sauce. And they’re not soupy noodles-more like the dry, tossed-in-a-wok kind. They also make their own mustard greens, which are fire. It’s a solid spot.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

BBQ King

“BBQ King is the absolute go-to for all your barbecue needs. And they’re for sure doing takeout right now, I know that from experience.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

MCCB

“MCCB, they do ridiculous, mouth-numbingly spicy food and it’s fantastic. Their grilled whole fish, it’s just swimming in chilies, and you’re like, ‘I’m going to die and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.’ I love it there.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong
Courtesy of Chef Xiong

Chef Xiong

“Another good place for spicy Sichuan-style food is Chef Xiong. They have a really cute logo with a Panda on it. I don’t know if I have a favorite dish, but I would say just go, sit down, and whatever they tell you to eat, do that. You won’t regret it.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Dolo Restaurant and Bar

“If you want to feel like you’re at a club but also eating Chinese food, Dolo is the spot for you. They also do cocktails and their food is definitely good, but it’s just like, ‘I’m here with my parents in this dark room with this loud music… I don’t know what to say.'” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Feida Bakery

“Barbecue pork buns? Obviously great. Ham and egg buns? Obviously great. Cream horns? Obviously great. Am I missing anything?”
How to order: Call 312-808-1113 to order.

Park To Shop

“You have to check out a grocery store because grocery stores are the best. We love going to Park To Shop-there are two big locations in Chinatown. One is on Archer and one is farther south but both are great.” 
How to order: Click here to order online.

Xi’an Cuisine

“Xi’an Cuisine, they do what people call Chinese hamburgers. I kind of hate that name because it’s a bun that’s been pan fried and stuffed with cumin-spiced meats-to me, that’s not really a hamburger, but I understand the desire to assign it a name you’re familiar with. Either way, they taste great.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Aji Ichiban

“Up near the Richmond Center there’s this little candy specialty store called Aji Ichiban. I love going in there for sweets-they have Japanese candies, Korean candies, Chinese candies, all the candies.”
How to order: Click here to order online. 

Nine Bar

“More recently, there have been a few pop-ups coming from second generation Chinatown kids like this one out of Moon Palace. Pop-ups are such a big COVID thing. I would be remiss not to mention them.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago
Courtesy of Meet Fresh Chicago

Meet Fresh

“Another place for dessert is Meet Fresh-it’s so good. And you will definitely be shell-shocked by a tiny, 90-pound Asian girl eating an entire mountain of ice cream on her own because, yeah, that’s a normal occurrence there. It’s happened to me twice now and I’m shocked every time. I’m talking a mountain of shaved ice and pudding and taro balls-delicious, but you’d need at least four people to eat it. It’s amazing.”
How to order: Click here to order online.

Meredith Heil is originally from St. Louis, now lives in Chicago, and in between has been to all 50 states (that’s feet on the ground, none of that airport BS). She enjoys reading about, thinking about, talking about, writing about, putting on events about and drinking about craft beer.

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