It's been almost impossible to keep track of Chicago restaurant openings in 2012, with a new spot popping up what seems like every other second. There are (at least) dozens of new places, and almost all of them are impressive and noteworthy. I plowed through as many as my schedule and my wallet would allow, eventually surfacing with three distinguished favorites. Though there are many more fabulous new restaurants, these three in particular are stand-out venues that can really be considered triple threats: memorable food, outrageous cocktails and unique decor.
Throughout childhood, bologna sandwiches were standard favorites. And though one of the most delicious items on Au Cheval's menu is in fact a bologna sandwich, it's house made, fried, delicious and not even a little bit comparable to the packaged Oscar Mayer version we once knew. But that's just what you'll find at the upscale diner concept from Gilt Bar's Brendan Sodikoff: comfort food favorites kicked up to a notch you never imagined possible. Because really, where else can you top pretty much every menu item with a perfectly cooked fried egg? With the matzo ball soup, as with most of Au Cheval's dishes, you're suddenly slapped with a feeling of nostalgia, though these revamped dishes are arguably better than any in original form. With more than 30 international beers on tap behind the beautiful, wooden bar, it's worth the potentially long wait (they don't take reservations) just to sample a few cold ones that you can find few other places in the city. And the fact that "Strong Drinks" is the title of the cocktail menu? Well, that pretty much ensures that you're in for a good time.
Sitting in Balena, you immediately forget that you're in bustling Lincoln Park. In fact, at moments it truly seems as though you've been transported to Tuscany. There were decor pieces that I actually wanted to steal, to grab candlesticks off of the scattered, mirrored buffets and beautiful wooden tables and stuff them into my purse. And the menu, like the decor, is anything but bland and simple. The Balena is an amazing platter filled with meats, cheeses and the restaurant's homemade bread, including the chocolate cherry sourdough which really belongs on the dessert menu (though I was glad it wasn't). The pastas are light, yet robust, filled with sea urchin, succulent crab meat and juicy pork. Each pizza has completely different ingredients, making it difficult to choose between the spicy salami and tomato and the mortadella and pistachio pesto. Everything on the menu is absolutely perfect, but what really sets Balena apart from the other Italian restaurants in the city is the cocktail list: drinks are ranked on a scale from one to 10 based on bitterness, and the wine list is equipped with a map of Italy as a table of contents, with each page outlining a different region. When you can't get all the way to Italy, a trip to Balena will definitely suffice.
Yes, the space is a little big and the actual location can be hard to find (the venue is actually untitled, with no entrance signage), but Untitled has absolutely managed to capture the vibe of the Prohibition Era. A self-proclaimed speakeasy, Untitled has three sprawling dining rooms, each large enough to be a restaurant on its own. An array of live music -- jazz, blues, classic rock -- blasts through the walls of each dining room nearly every evening, while the main room and stage transform into a late-night hot spot with an exclusive VIP section. Untitled touts the largest selection of American whiskey in the world, with the list available for viewing and all the bottles on display in the Library. Though the options are great, try the Bitter Bonnie, a staff favorite, or the Wisteria, shaken with a traditional egg white. And the food is seasonal and exceptional, very clearly inspired by developing tastes during the early 20th century. If there ever was a modern-day speakeasy in Chicago, this is definitely it.
The West Loop is set to host another handful of openings in the next few months, so be sure to check out these stand-outs soon before there are even more restaurants to choose from. Still on my list? Trencherman, Belly Q and the highly anticipated Little Goat, set to open next month.