The Windy City has become a prime destination for dining as well as the arts, and several of the most talked-about new restaurants are near downtown theaters and concert halls.
The season's hottest spot is Girl & the Goat (809 W Randolph St.; (312) 492-6262 or girlandthegoat.com), opened a couple of months ago by Top Chef Season Four winner Stephanie Izard. The industrial loft-look space with charred-cedar columns, wood tables flanked by benches and some communal seating matches her rustic contemporary cooking, and most of the small plates coming from the big open kitchen live up to the hype.
Izard likes mixing meat and seafood, sweet and savory, so expect everything from grilled baby octopus accented by crispy Serrano ham to a dessert of potato dumplings with lemon-poached eggplant. Naturally, there's goat, for example, a smoked goat pizza with apple soffrito, black kale, cipollini onions and house-made ricotta. You'll also find variety cuts like wood-oven-roasted "pig face" with sunny-side egg and braised beef tongue with masa and salsa verde. Vegetables tend to be rich, among them kabocha squash ravioli with creamy mushroom ragout and roasted beets with green beans and anchovy in avocado creme fraiche. Daily specials — breads (worth the $4), oysters, "animals" — augment the ever-changing lineup. Well-chosen wines and craft beers are among the beverages.
Weekend reservations need to be made months in advance, but if you walk in for a pre-theater dinner around opening time (4:30 p.m.), you often can get a table, sit at the bar or in the small lounge. The room also is quietest then; it's unbearably noisy when full.
Just a few blocks from Symphony Center, the Auditorium Theatre and the Bank of America Theatre, the serene Henri (18 S Michigan Ave.; (312) 578-0763 or henrichicago.com) is the antithesis of its next-door sister, the Gage. Executive chef Dirk Flanigan oversees both the boisterous Gage tavern (elevated comfort food; excellent fish and chips) and the elegant Henri, done in a palette of chocolate and sea-foam green. French-inspired creations include a vegetable Napoleon and beef Wellington, reconceived as a trio of little pastries stuffed with lobster morsels, greens and foie gras. We were happiest with fresh chilled oysters set off by tomato sorbet, honey-glazed duck breast with confit-stuffed Swiss chard, and moist wild boar with chanterelles, the game of the day.
Among the perks: intriguing a la carte sides such as amaranth prepared as a nutty porridge, mostly biodynamic wines and a deeply decadent chocolate tart with Chantilly cream. The downside is that prices are high ($22 to $38 for entrees). The name, by the way, pays tribute to architect Louis Henri Sullivan, who designed the building's terra cotta frieze.
Upscale steak houses are ubiquitous in Chicago, but Chicago Cut Steakhouse (300 N LaSalle St.; (312) 329-1800 or www.chicagocutsteakhouse.com) offers a few extras that make it a cut above. Among the perks are Chicago River views, seasoned owners in Rosebud restaurant group vets David Flom and Matthew Moore, and the latest gimmick in interactive dining, a 600-bottle iPad wine list. Steaks are dry-aged for up to 30 days, and our rib-eye, ordered rare, really was. We also enjoyed perfectly broiled whitefish, an a la carte side of buttery whipped potatoes, and house-made carrot cake big enough for four people to share. The openers — house salad, tomato-basil soup of the day, pretty but bland tuna tartare — not as much. Though most steaks are in the $25 to $50 range, the skirt steak is less and a burger is $10, not bad considering the posh surroundings (wood paneling, red plush) and attentive service.
Eatt (6 W Hubbard St.; (312) 494-3288), the latest from the Rosebud group, is open until the wee hours and has a retro vibe — think Edward Hopper's Nighthawks with a 1940s look and a row of red-leather booths along the windows. It's ideal for a post-theater snack, whether or not you continue the evening at the clubs nearby. Huge portions and high-ish prices are the rule: Burgers weigh in at 10 ounces, and the popular seared ahi tuna BLT on multigrain toast is so thick, it's almost impossible to get your mouth around it. Deli mainstays such as corned beef, pastrami, whitefish salad and a lox platter vie for attention on the something-for-everyone menu with a roasted turkey wrap, Kobe beef hot dog, barbecued baby back ribs and rotisserie chicken. Or go for something sweet, like the six-layer cake: a mile-high concoction of chocolate cake, mousse, graham crackers and fluffy marshmallow that conjures campfire s'mores.
Not quite as new but still in the spotlight:
• The Purple Pig (500 N Michigan Ave., entrance on Illinois Street; (312) 464-1744 or thepurplepigchicago.com). This convivial take on a Spanish tapas bar/Italian enoteca celebrates snout-to-tail cooking. House-made charcuterie, cheeses and smears (try bone marrow) are among the other specialties. Well-chosen wines.
• The Publican (837 W Fulton Market; (312) 733-9555 or thepublicanrestaurant.com). This sprawling, woody bastion of oysters, pork and beer boasts one of the city's foremost beer experts and lots of other good stuff, including fresh grilled sardines.
• Sable Kitchen & Bar (505 N State St.; (312) 755-9704 or sablechicago.com). A creative cocktail program and a lineup of small and large plates are among the draws at the bustling lounge and dining room next to the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Chicago. Order the bison short rib sliders and sweet corn creme brulee.
• Xoco (449 N Clark St.; (312) 334-3688 or xocochicago.com). Star chef Rick Bayless' short-order spot dishes up Mexican breakfasts, tortas and caldos (meal-sized soups; after 3 p.m.) to eager crowds willing to wait in line. Come at an off hour and have hot chocolate made with freshly roasted cacao beans ground on the premises. Churros, too.
Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer based in Chicago.