The 11 Most Exciting Restaurant Openings Of 2016

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 22, 2016 8:40PM

2016 has been a very, very busy year for restaurant openings. I've reviewed many of them, but even with my capacious appetite, I couldn't get to every single noteworthy spot. At least there's next year!

However, amongst the crowd, there were some real standout openings in 2016. Here are my 11 favorite openings of 2016. Note that a few late-2016 entries (including places like Elske, Income Tax and Publican Anker) opened too late in the year to make this list. Don't worry, we won't forget them.

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via Oriole

Oriole

Oriole is definitely at the top of my list of the new fine dining spots to open in 2016. At a moment when the tasting menu format seems to be at its peak again, Oriole is at the front of the pack. Chef Noah Sandoval, who was wonderful at Senza, has found his true niche at Oriole, and has created an environment where people can eat some of the most elevated food in America and yet feel completely comfortable, relaxed and happy. That by itself is an achievement that should put him and his restaurant at the top of this list.

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The dining room at Steadfast. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Steadfast

This Loop restaurant, the first real attempt at fine dining from the Fifty/50 restaurant group, has inspired some mild controversy (not everyone thinks its as great as I do), but I give them enormous credit for taking the risk. They opened a gorgeous, challenging spot in what is often a dead zone for dining, and it means that instead of yet another chicken caesar or boring steak, office dwellers and date night patrons alike can have some of the best charcuterie and bread service in the city, accompanied by some amazing cocktails.

The Northman

It's been a slightly rough start for The Northman, as they took a million years longer to open than they should have and lost two different chefs in short order. But they are doing things with cider and calvados that literally no other restaurant in the nation is doing, and they're doing it in what is a serious contender for the prettiest new restaurant of 2016. I've always had good luck with the food (to the point where it's becoming a lunchtime standard for me), and their chips with malt vinegar spray, combined with a glass of their house cider, may be one my most memorable and comforting bites of the year.

Naoki

I'd kind of forgotten that Naoki came in 2016, until it was time to make this list, because I like it so much that it sort of faded into the background of permanent Chicago spots. This tiny sushi lounge hidden behind Intro is not exactly what you'd expect from restaurant giant Lettuce Entertain You, but its level of freshness and innovation easily matches any sushi spot in town. My favorite raw bite (from their sea urchin special) of the year came from here, and while it's not exactly a cheap date, if you love Japanese food it's a must-do.

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Dining room at Bad Hunter(Peter Tsai)

Bad Hunter

It makes me almost indescribably happy that our dining scene has evolved to the point where Bad Hunter not only exists, but is popular and located in the middle of a dense restaurant neighborhood. This veg-focused restaurant is neither obnoxious about their principles nor even totally vegetarian, and constantly reminds me of Jeffrey Steingarten's maxim: American vegetarians are vegetarian because they hate meat, while European vegetarians do it because they love vegetables. Bad Hunter is a place to make you love vegetables.

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(Kaitlyn McQuaid)

Revival Food Hall

There's not that much to say about Revival that I haven't already said in my exhaustive review, but if you haven't been, you're missing out. It's not, strictly speaking, one restaurant, but it took one overarching restaurant group, 16″ On Center, to have the vision and guts to make it happen. I couldn't come close to touching all the great things to eat there, but if you haven't had Budlong chicken and Danke sandwiches yet, you haven't done 2016 right.

Roister

I confess, I haven't been to Roister yet. But I include it on my list because practically every eater that I respect has raved about it to a level not usually found amongst cynical Chicago food snobs. The first attempt at casual dining from Alinea/Grant Achatz/Nick Kokonas, Roister has inspired some controversy because of its supposedly (but not really) overpriced chicken sandwich, and, more problematically, because the dining room is reputed to be so loud that it could seriously interfere with your well being. But it's definitely at the top of my early-2017 personal dining list.

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The interior of GT Prime. Photo via Facebook.

GT Prime

How could GT Prime not make this list? It's my new favorite steakhouse! But seriously, I admire GT Prime because it took possibly the most archetypical Chicago dining genre and turned it on its head. A leatherbound, masculine room is filled with tiny jokes and touches to make you smile, giant hunks of meat are replaced with perfectly cooked 4-ounce pieces of delicious venison and bison, and instead of being a high-calorie afterthought, the sides and starters are actually the name of the game. Giuseppe Tentori has done it again, and I suspect this will continue to be a hot ticket restaurant well into 2017.

Giant

If I had to pick a single great meal in 2016, the time I dined at Giant might be it. Every dish sang, simple things like broccoli and onion rings were given new life, and even the over-crowded and loud dining room couldn't take away from my happiness. Every critic seems to agree: despite its tiny footprint, Giant lives up to its name, and is a fitting return for the always-awesome Jason Vincent.

El Che Bar

I'll be honest; on my first visit, I was not impressed by El Che Bar. It was possible that my expectations were too high, as Chef John Manion's other restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina, is one of my perennial favorites. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood. Whatever the reason, my first impression was wrong, as several subsequent visits have moved El Che to near the top of my list. Whether it's the dramatic dining room (with leaping flames in the distance), the grilled oysters (which are something of an addiction for me) or the smoky charred quail, this is definitely a don't-miss restaurant of this year.

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Smyth, via Smyth

Smyth

Another spot I didn't manage to make it to this year (I had to cancel two separate visits because of conflicts), but that is at the absolute top of my list for January. John and Karen Shields are the forefront of the fine dining upswing in Chicago, and smartly bifurcated their talents between Smyth (the tasting menu fancy spot) and The Loyalist (which some argue gives Au Cheval a run for its burger game). Phil Vettel says they have "monster talent" and Mike Sula calls their work "wonderful and occasionally weird." If that doesn't convince you, nothing I say can.