From a reluctant gyros restaurant, to a resilient caramel cake bakery, to an exquisite Asian-inspired virtual endeavor, you picked some extraordinary winners for our 11th annual Readers’ Choice Food Awards.
More than 360 readers nominated hundreds of favorite pizzerias, burger stands, taquerias, breweries, cocktail bars, breakfast houses and more around Chicago. We narrowed them down to five finalists in a dozen categories, except for the Best Restaurant category with a deep field of 10 finalists. In the end, more than 5,000 people cast 12,647 votes.
You voted from Pilsen to Logan Square to Brookfield — just to name a few of the neighborhoods and suburbs represented north, south and west.
Our gratitude goes to you for nominating your favorites, and voting the Chicago way: early and often. Congratulations to all who earned the recognition with another year of excellence in food, drink and hospitality through challenging times.
Here are the 12 winners of the 2022 Chicago Tribune Readers’ Choice Food Awards. — Louisa Chu
Chicago’s best new restaurant comes from the husband-and-wife team of Doug Psaltis and Hsing Chen. When we talked days before Andros Taverna opened in Logan Square early last year, the two industry veterans were excited about leaving the downtown dining scene (RPM Steak for Psaltis, The Lobby at the Peninsula Hotel for Chen) and concentrating on a neighborhood-focused project.
But they still couldn’t have predicted how quickly the area would latch on to the Greek-inspired restaurant. “The overwhelming support surprised us,” Psaltis says. “It means so much to see people enjoy the restaurant, and we’ve had a great chance to collaborate with people on our team.”
Which isn’t to say that everything worked out to plan. When asked about what didn’t turn out, Psaltis admits there are hundreds of little things they’ve had to adjust to over the past year. “You have to laugh at how you couldn’t see it at first,” Psaltis says. In fact, one of its most popular dishes, Georgie’s gyros, almost didn’t make the cut. “I wasn’t going to serve gyros, but we started playing around with this recipe a few weeks before opening and decided to add it to the menu,” he says. “Then that took off.”
If you’ve ever tried to visit, you know tables fill up fast for dinner and brunch, where Chen gets to truly show off her pastry prowess. This has left Psaltis feeling extremely grateful for the ride. “People have embraced the seafood program, they’ve noticed the freshness of the vegetables, and they’ve dug the pastries for brunch,” Psaltis says. “It’s been so rewarding.”
2542 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-365-1900, androstaverna.com — Nick Kindelsperger
Best Restaurant runner-up: Lula Cafe
Scofflaw opened in 2012 with a simple goal: “A gin-focused cocktail bar with delicious food,” co-owner Danny Shapiro said.
Simple enough, perhaps, but the idea tapped into something bigger in Chicago at the time: growing interest in “local” and “craft,” similar interest in fresh and inventive cocktails, and an evolution of the city’s neighborhoods that proved top-flight eating and drinking could happen anywhere.
Shapiro opened Scofflaw with three partners — Mandy Tandy, Kris Nagy and Andy Gould — who met in a spirits education class. Their bar was a quick hit. Ten years later, it remains an enduring favorite.
Shapiro drew up the earliest cocktail list, but the quarterly changes have become a group effort among staff. The approach remains “rooted in the classics — we try not to have drinks with too many ingredients,” Shapiro said. But they’re also unafraid to experiment with new flavors and ingredients.
Scofflaw wasn’t the first great modern cocktail bar in Chicago — Violet Hour, Weegee’s Lounge and The Whistler all preceded it — but it’s now firmly in the pantheon as a must-stop site for cocktail lovers.
3201 W. Armitage Ave., 773-252-9700, scofflawchicago.com — Josh Noel
Best Cocktail Menu runner-up: The Aviary
Pequod’s has been serving up pizzas in Morton Grove for more than a half-century and in Chicago since the early 1990s.
Owner Keith Jackson, who bought the Morton Grove location from the legendary Burt Katz in 1986 and brought Pequod’s to the city in 1992, says the pizza itself hasn’t changed much over the decades, though thin-crust pies were added to the menu in the 1980s. (Jackson prefers a pan pizza, which he refers to as such because at Pequod’s, they’re cooked in cast-iron pans.)
“Keeping true to our tradition I think has kept us kind of still relevant today in a retro way,” Jackson says. “It’s almost like it’s a throwback versus a new-age concept.” Over the years, he’s watched the restaurant evolve from a small pizza joint populated by local college kids and young people to “a family restaurant with every type of personality.” Pequod’s, he says, is a “come-on-in-and-eat-your-pizza type restaurant.” Whatever it is, it’s working: in 2020, Pequod’s was named the second-best pizza in the country by The Daily Meal.
In a city of outstanding pizzas, Jackson says, quality is what sets Pequod’s apart. He uses “the best possible product available every day of my life,” he says. Jackson recommends first-timers try a sausage and pepperoni pizza, which he describes as the joint’s most flavorful. He points vegetarians to a pie with garlic, spinach and onions.
Pequod’s, Jackson says, has “really great pizza and really loyal customers.”
“It’s a melting pot of loyal pizza eaters,” he says, “and it’s just fantastic.”
2207 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-327-1512; 8520 Fernald Ave., Morton Grove, 847-470-9161; pequodspizza.com — Talia Soglin
Best Pizza runner-up: Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria
When Brenna and Dan Velcich decided to open Burger Antics in suburban Brookfield, the couple wanted to make sure the project stood out. “Making everything from scratch was a big thing for me,” Brenna Velcich says. “I knew I could make a better product than the stuff that just comes out of a can or a box.” She meant it too. Along with grinding the beef in-house, the kitchen even whips up fresh batches of its own condiments, including mustard and ketchup.
The menu usually has 10 burgers on the menu, though new options are always rotated in. “During our first year, I created a new burger every week as a special,” Brenna Velcich says. “Making new ones up is always the fun part.”
The Standard Issue (which features American cheese, apple wood-smoked bacon and a fried egg) made our list of the best suburban burgers in 2019, but that’s just the start. The current special is the Ukrainian Reaper, which features a house-made kovbasa sausage on top of the beef. ($1 from each one sold also goes to the Ukrainian Red Cross.) One combination that has gone down especially well is a peanut butter and jelly burger. “The jelly works really well with the juiciness of our burgers,” Dan Velcich says. “(Customers) think it’s the weirdest combination, but they always come back for it.”
The couple have been thrilled with the amount of local support, but word has now gotten out about the place. “We have a great community in Brookfield,” Dan Velcich says. “But people come in from all over the area, including the surrounding suburbs and from the city.”
3740 Grand Blvd., Brookfield; 708-255-5182; burgerantics.com — N.K.
Best Burger runner-up: Au Cheval
Walk into Carniceria Maribel, and before you ever make it to the taqueria in the back, it’s hard not to be struck by the welcoming atmosphere. Owner Alejandro Banda credits his grandmother, who took over the business in 1990. “She always made sure to give everyone a good experience,” Banda says. “Sometimes you’re here all day, and if you spend that time miserable, you won’t last very long. I feed off the energy of people coming in.”
As for the tacos, Banda gives credit directly where it’s due. “I don’t want to sound cliché, but it’s all about my employees,” he says. He explains that he cares deeply about the quality of the ingredients and doing things a certain way, even if that means more work. “It’s something we are proud of,” Banda says. “I have confidence in my people.”
Customers have been particularly taken with the carne asada taco, which is both the bestseller and Banda’s favorite taco. “If I have to choose, it’s got to be the carne asada,” Banda says. It’s hard to disagree. The skirt steak is grilled over high heat, chopped into juicy pieces and then loaded onto supple corn tortillas with sprinkling of cilantro and onion. But he’s also a big fan of the al pastor taco and the shrimp taco, which wasn’t originally on the menu. “We started doing shrimp a few years back during Lent,” Banda says. “So many people kept asking for it that we kept the taco on the menu.”
But mostly he’s just happy he has a crew he can depend on. “I’m very fortunate to have had some of those guys for several years now,” Banda says. “It’s really them.”
1801 W. Cermak Road, 773-254-6446, instagram.com/carniceria_maribel — N.K.
Best Tacos runner-up: Taqueria Chingon
While there is no shortage of good breakfast or brunch spots in and around Chicago, there can only be one season’s best. Cracked: The Egg Came First, nestled in Wicker Park, is everything you likely imagine when making brunch plans the night before — a menu so vivacious you don’t know what to pick.
The laid-back approach at this relatively low-profile spot, which opened in October 2019, is a credit to owner Daniel Krause’s first-ever concept for Cracked, which started in 2012 as a grab-and-go food truck at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Now, in his first Chicago brick-and-mortar, customers are encouraged to “stay a little while longer” and indulge in chilaquiles, build-your-own-breakfast bowls, homemade biscuits lavished with chorizo gravy, small bites such as Parmesan truffle tots, and Krause’s personal favorite: a loaded breakfast burrito called the Hungry Chief served with sriracha-spiked sour cream.
While the menu leans heavy on the savory side (six grilled cheeses, anyone?) there is a noteworthy sweet fix unassumingly listed at the end: deep-fried French toast balls covered in cinnamon sugar that could easily be mistaken for beignets.
Being voted the best is something Krause says he doesn’t have the words for. “I grew up eating my way through Chicago, and it has always been a dream of mine just to be a part of the food scene. And to be recognized as part of it is just so humbling,” he says, adding that growing a fledgling business during a pandemic was no small feat — and one he couldn’t do alone.
“My parents have been incredibly supportive and helpful,” he said. “My mom is my hostess for brunch on Sunday, and my dad does my accounting, so major shoutout to them for helping me get to where I am today.”
As far as what he thinks separates breakfast from brunch — if one must — Krause says, “my distinction is that brunch is a little fancier. And you spend some time eating it, and hopefully have a mimosa.”
1359 N. Milwaukee Ave., 312- 989-2247, crackedongreen.com/wicker-park — Zareen Syed
Best Brunch or Breakfast runner-up: Walker Bros. Original Pancake House
Jaye Fong launched Maa Maa Dei in September 2020, within months of being furloughed at the onset of the pandemic.
As she formulated her plans, she knew she wanted the opportunity to explore different flavors that nodded to traditional Chinese meals and treats. The result was her eclectic pop-up on the city’s North Side, where she has been delighting customers with her takes on traditional Asian delicacies punched up with creative flavor combinations and care for every last detail.
“Part of the mission is to honor a lot of traditional foods,” Fong says. “But the other part is an homage to the experience of being a young Asian American growing up eating Asian candies and snacks like pocky,” she said.
The pop-up’s Instagram, where Fong shares colorful photos of picture-perfect cupcakes, cookies and cakes, keeps her customers abreast on where she’ll be next and takes pre-orders via direct messaging.
“I do both sweet and savory things, and I guess the thing that people have come to know me for are the holiday menus,” Fong said.
Her snow skin mooncakes, a traditional Chinese pastry stuffed with either a sweet or savory filling, are a favorite during the Mid-Autumn Festival. For the Lunar New Year, Fong says her top sellers are the Taiwanese pineapple cakes, filled with a sweet pineapple jam — a traditional snack symbolizing good luck and wealth for the new year — and topped with a golden-yellow flower cutout.
And Fong is a big believer in good luck; while each pop-up is a different experience, one constant is her cheerfully waving lucky cat by her side.
“When my family owned restaurants, we always had one to bring good fortune and bring blessings to everybody,” Fong said.
And luckily for fans of Maa Maa Dei, it seems to be working.
instagram.com/maa.maa.dei — Tatyana Turner
Best Virtual Restaurant or Pop-Up runner-up: Brothers BBQ Food Truck
Stephanie Hart lives by an old Greek term used to describe what others may call a labor of love: meraki, “when you put your soul into something and hope that the other person receives it,” she says.
For Hart, whose Brown Sugar Bakery in the city’s Chatham neighborhood has been a cherished favorite for 18 years, says that sentiment is best reflected in her wildly popular carmel cake. “I think it’s the one I had to dig the deepest for,” she says.
Hart says people love this particular cake because it’s creamy, buttery and not trying to be anything else. “We call it carmel. It’s Southern. It’s how we say it. It’s the love — it’s the hang,” she says, describing the way the thick, glossy caramel just gently glides down the top of the cake and settles into a perfect drip halfway. “She is special. And it’s a simple formula, but not an easy thing to do.”
It would serve sweet lovers well to sink their forks into Brown Sugar Bakery’s other dessert creations (which can also be found at the Navy Pier location) as well, from a “super Southern” bread pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie; to a melt-in-your mouth butter cookie-crusted cheesecake, and a pineapple-coconut cake that Hart gets for her own birthday each year.
Since opening up shop in 2004, Brown Sugar Bakery has garnered acclaim from customers and industry critics, including a 2019 nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award. And just last year, Vice President Kamala Harris dropped in to grab a German chocolate cake from the South Side staple during a pit stop in Chicago. Inking in a Reader’s Choice Award is quite literally the icing on Hart’s cake.
“This shows that we’re bigger than our block and we’re bigger than our store. And that we reach a lot of people and a lot of people care,” she says. “This was always designed to put people in the feeling of family and the feeling of good times, I think that’s really why we flourished — people were looking for just a little bit of comfort.”
328 E. 75th St., 773-224-6262; 600 E. Grand Ave., 312-877-5275; brownsugarbakerychicago.com — Z.S.
Best Sweet Treat runner-up: Aya Pastry
For its first 18 months after launching in 2014, Sketchbook Brewing was as under the radar as a brewery could get. Customers had to walk into an alley, find an orange door, push through it, and find another door that reached the back of the brewery, where Sketchbook sold its beer to go.
Though it’s still far from one of the largest breweries in the Chicago area, things have changed a bit since then. Sketchbook opened a small taproom at its original Evanston location, then more than doubled the size of that taproom. It opened a production brewery in Skokie in 2020, followed by a spacious taproom and a welcoming beer garden built last summer, expedited by the pandemic.
Co-founder Cesar Marron doesn’t quibble with the idea that Sketchbook may still be under the radar, though: “There are 300 breweries in Illinois. Most are under the radar.”
But Sketchbook also has its ardent fans, and that’s a result, most likely of a simple combination of factors, none of them particularly trendy or flashy in an industry where trend and flash can pay dividends. Sketchbook simply makes a broad array of beer styles, and it makes them well.
Marron said that was the intention from the start — light and dark, boozy and mild and everything in between — even if he worried that the approach might not resonate with the trendy and flashy corners of modern beer drinking.
But, he said, “that was our own drinking preference.”
“I am happy to see our clientele and their tastes allow us to do that,” he said.
The result is well-made popular styles such as India pale ale, imperial stout and various lagers in addition to red rye ale, a light smoked wheat beer and a new English mild.
The approach, he said, has led to not just the beer, but also the culture he was after: “A community-focused brewery where we provide a space for people to hang out and meet their friends and come in after work.”
That leads to the kinds of regular customers Marron loves to see, such as a couple that always shows up with the woman’s 88-year-old father.
“And he drinks a stout every single time,” Marron said.
821 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-859-9051; 4901 Main St., Skokie, 847-588-0652; sketchbookbrewing.com — J.N.
Best Under-the-Radar Brewery runner-up: Midwest Coast Brewing Company
Tony Priolo, the chef and co-owner at Piccolo Sogno, is waiting for the greens of spring to emerge from the ground.
He’s looking toward nettles and fava beans, artichokes and ramps for the early spring menu at the Fulton River District Italian mainstay. “We’re excited about all the new things that are popping up in the air, popping up in the ground,” said Priolo, who co-owns the restaurant with Ciro Longobardo, who oversees the restaurant’s extensive wine list.
With spring, of course, comes the full-force return of al fresco dining and the sound of laughter to Piccolo Sogno’s idyllic patio. (The restaurant has won national awards both for its patio and for romance, in addition to numerous local accolades.)
“People seem happier when they’re eating outside,” Priolo said. He remembers an unseasonably warm Valentine’s Day lunch service a few years’ back, when it was 65 degrees out with snow still piled in the corner. Piccolo Sogno opened the patio, and diners took their lunches outside.
There’s already been a patio-friendly day or two at Piccolo Sogno this year, Priolo said, but he’s waiting for warmth to come and stay. Eating outdoors “brings normalcy after everything we’ve been through,” he said. “You forget about all the stuff that’s going on in the world.”
Al fresco dining “takes you away,” Priolo said. “Like a little vacation.”
464 N. Halsted St., 312-421-0077, piccolosognorestaurant.com — T.S.
Best Patio/Outdoor Dining runner-up: Aba
Meg Rutledge laughs when she looks back at Revolution Brewing’s opening menu when the doors first opened at its Logan Square brewpub in 2010.
“It was giant — not Cheesecake Factory giant, but giant,” says Rutledge, the brewery’s director of retail operations. “Why did we have 11 pizzas?”
The pandemic led Revolution to do something Rutledge already knew needed to happen: pare that menu down.
“When we first opened, we were thinking gastropub,” she says. “We made the shift to bar food.”
But, she says, “it’s elevated bar food — we make things from scratch, we don’t buy anything frozen, we make our own sauce, grind our meat, get pigs and cows from local farmers and I think you can tell the difference.”
Revolution reopened from pandemic restrictions in April 2021 with a menu about half the size of its earliest days. The high-ticket items that tended not to sell were gone. So were the pizzas.
The focus, Rutledge says, is on making dishes people want and making them well: a handful of sandwiches highlighted by a burger or two, a couple of salads, a few shareable plates and lean menu of rotating specials.
“We’re trying to focus on quality and consistency, and we have that,” she says. “We maybe weren’t always there before, but I never worry about that now. I’m always happy to preach about freshness and greatness of our food because I think it shows.”
Readers apparently agree.
2323 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-227-2739, revbrew.com — J.N.
Best Bar Food runner-up: Cultivate by Forbidden Root
When a customer walks into The Duck Inn, owner Kevin Hickey says it feels like you’re going into a comfortable old place that has been there for decades — with a modern twist.
“I like to say we’re a fine-dining restaurant masquerading as a neighborhood joint,” Hickey says.
The posh pub, nestled in the Bridgeport neighborhood just south of the Chicago River, offers something for just about anyone.
“If you’re looking to have a burger and a beer while sitting at the bar, you’re going to be happy,” Hickey says. “If you’re looking for a culinary experience and a cool cocktail, you’re going to be happy.”
The Duck Inn offers a wide-ranging menu, from its signature rotisserie duck tossed with potatoes glistening with duck fat, and seasonal fruits such as grapefruit, apricot, and tangerines; to the Duck Inn Dog, served Chicago-style and, recently, added to the aisles of a growing line of grocery stores along with the brand’s all-in-one Chicago-style hot dog condiment.
There’s a certain neighborhood air to the way the restaurant functions from week to week. The rotisserie duck and hot dog anchor a seasonal food menu highlighting local produce, plus a bar menu with a little sass — the Up ‘N’ Over burger, for example, is the restaurant’s take on the iconic In-N-Out classic.
The drink menu, curated by beverage director and partner Brandon Phillips, changes on an even more frequent basis.
“You can come in tonight, and by next week, there will be a whole different beer menu,” Hickey said. “Same with the cocktail menu.”
Weekly specials include Dog Nights, featuring collaborations from Chicago-area chefs on specialty hot dogs and cocktails on Wednesdays; pizza nights in the summer are another favorite, with intriguing toppings on pies fired up in the wood oven on the spacious Eden of a back patio.
Hickey describes The Duck Inn as somewhere that is approachable, lively and fun.
On Sundays, customers are welcome to bring their own vinyls to experience a wide range of music spun on the retro turntable — perfect for a neighbor walking over for a bite before the start of another week.
“I really did create the restaurant for the neighborhood,” Hickey said.
2701 S. Eleanor St., 312-724-8811, theduckinnchicago.com — T.T.
Best Neighborhood Mainstay runner-up: Virtue Restaurant
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