I get asked, A LOT, by people I know and people I meet – What’s your favorite restaurant? I answer with a few questions to gauge what they may like or expect in a restaurant and provide them with 3-5 names. In my head, I have a far less polite response.
A friend recently suggested I should make a list of the top restaurants in town, much like The Platt 101 in New York. Little did I know this suggestion would be a very difficult task. I set out seeking a few friends to help and wanted to literally pose the simple question, “What are your top 85 restaurants in Chicago?” No influence, no direction just a personal list from the individual and seeing how their list would relate to other people’s lists.
You would think a number of people would jump at the chance but I actually had a few flat out say, “No thanks.” Others started but never finished. In the end, I compiled a group of six lists, five others and my own. Those who contributed all live in different neighborhoods in Chicago, some are married, a mix of male and female, three are directly connected to the food world in a specific way – in summary the list doesn’t have a inherent bias by neighborhood, gender or marital status. I found the lists fascinating in their similarities and differences.
If you’re wondering, why did I stop the list at 85? Well, I could argue the greatest sports year in Chicago was 1985, Bears, or everyone else does a list with a 100 or 101, perhaps 85 is MORE than enough. But the real reason I stopped at 85 is that in restaurant vernacular eighty-six means “you’ve run out.” Because of that, the list stops at 85.
I took each of the respondents ranking by restaurant and created an average score from the six lists. I then ranked them from lowest to highest and cut the ranking off at 85. From the six lists, I actually got 140 uniquely named restaurants. If one person listed a restaurant but others did not, the score of ‘95’ was entered in each of the varying lists not ranking that restaurant.
For example, I list restaurant A at 60 and no one else has them listed. A score of 95 is listed among the other lists for a total score of 95+95+95+95+95+60 = 535. That is then divided by 6 for a final ranking score of 89.166 I actually went out to the third decimal to try to avoid ties. That final score is then ranked amongst the other 140 restaurants to get our final rankings below.
Note: We excluded restaurants that have had closure announcements or recently had a chef change with no succession plan.
85. Pleasant House
81. Green Zebra
77. Urban Belly
74. The Gage
73. Slurping Turtle
72. L Patron
71. Davanti Enoteca
70. Perennial Virant
69. Belly Q
68. Billy Sunday
63. Big Jones
60. Gilt Bar
59. Les Nomades
58. Mastro's Steakhouse – Mastro's is the highest restaurant ranked on only 3 of the 6 lists.
57. Lillie’s Q
56. Nomi Kitchen
55. Kai Zan
53. Big Star
52. Lula Cafe
51. Ada St
49. Hot Doug’s
48. Carriage House
47. Piccolo Sogno
45. Mott Street
43. Frontera Grill
42. The Purple Pig
41. Cafe Spiaggia
40. Sumi Robata Bar
39. Bavette’s – Bavette’s is the first restaurant ranked on only 4 of the 6 lists.
38. Lao Sze Chuan
34. The Bristol
33. North Pond
32. Au Cheval
27. Topolobampo – Topolobampo is the first restaurant on the list not ranked on all 6 lists.
25. Boka – While a chef change is imminent, the feeling amongst the group was the past history of this restaurant and the incoming chef’s track record warranted it staying on the list.
24. the Publican
14. El Ideas
5. L20 (1)
2. next (2)
1. Alinea (2)
The numbers in parenthesis signify those receiving a vote for the number one restaurant on someone’s list.
- Between the 2, 3, and 4 rankings the point difference was .333 – one of the closest amongst a group of three restaurants
- Restaurant Groups with spots on the list – Boka Group has five, One Off and the Sodikoff group each have four restaurants listed and Lettuce Entertain You has three.
- Highest ranked steakhouse is Bavette’s at 39 – Doesn’t it seem that’s the only thing anyone outside of Chicago ever asks?
- There were 5 ties on the list.
- No restaurant made the list being on only one list.
- Jam, Big and Little and Bar Pastoral all were ranked on 4 lists but did not make the Top 85.
- If you're wondering who was 86? Mitsuwa - only ranked on two lists.
I don’t feel there is an easy answer, like marketing, location, for why certain restaurants are ranked high or low. While some of the more established fine dining spots may not be ranked as conventionally high as others, it could be a function of marketing and PR. I think this also takes in to account where individuals truly like to eat and the value they perceive from those experiences.
Personally, I find just as much joy in a pastor taco at L Patron as I do from a bite of caviar at next. But, that visceral joy of eating varies from person to person. While food is necessary to life, dining out is not. The struggle for restaurants day in and day out is not an easy one and it is never ending. They all try to provide the best experience they can, every day. While one day may not go so well, the next day is another opportunity to get better.
Before you think of trolling the list and complaining, “these people all suck and don’t get it.” I would ask you to first go through the exercise yourself - rank from 1-85 your top restaurants in Chicago. Then get one to two friends to do the same asking that simple question and then compare. You’ll find it isn’t that easy to do and you won’t agree as much as you think. Oh, and if you think the list is biased to the city, you’re probably right and I have my views on that. But, for the record no one made an argument that any suburban restaurant should be included.
I have to give a big thank you to those who helped with my reindeer game – Rebecca Skoch - @RebeccaSkoch, Destiny Thompson - @Dest138, Ari Bendersky - @aribendersky, Eric Chmiel - @echmiel, and Huge Galdones @hugegaldones. You all did a great job. You should follow them on twitter for a variety of entertaining insights not only on food but life.
The next time I get asked, “What’s your favorite restaurant?” does anyone think I can say, “Just read the blog?”
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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