Insider’s guide to Chicago’s hottest foodie ‘hood

Chicago CNN  — 

Dodging a forklift is getting less and less likely in Chicago’s trendy West Loop neighborhood.

The once-ubiquitous vehicles whizzing around with pallets of raw meat, vegetables and dry goods in this historic meatpacking and wholesale market district have almost completely given way to cranes, construction crews and restaurants – lots of them.

Goat empanadas, Roman lamb ravioli, craft cocktails and expensive real estate are what’s for sale now in this neighborhood west of Chicago’s downtown Loop.

In the past nine or ten years, the area west of the Kennedy Expressway has seen a who’s who of Chicago chefs open new spots along Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row and on streets a few blocks to the north and south.

Sarah Grueneberg, the James Beard Foundation’s 2017 Best Chef of the Great Lakes, fits right into this neighborhood with a very high concentration of very good eating.

“It’s a neighborhood that has a lot of roots and history and is also now kind of being reborn into the new restaurant epicenter of Chicago,” said Grueneberg.

Sarah Grueneberg opened Monteverde in 2015 in Chicago's West Loop.

Along with business partner Meg Sahs, Grueneberg opened Italian restaurant Monteverde in 2015 on West Madison Street, where sleek condo buildings have sprouted on sites once occupied by restaurant supply stores.

National acclaim for Grueneberg’s lovingly crafted pastas and inventive small plates came quickly, and diners won’t be disappointed.

Behind Monteverde’s bar, a pasta-making station outfitted with a mirror reflects hands hard at work on ravioli and tortelli verdi, showing the attention to detail that sets these pastas apart. Add ingredients from roasted white miso to crispy artichoke and candied lemon, and you have dishes as nuanced as they are delicious.

We spent a day with Grueneberg in the West Loop and asked her to point us toward some of the tasty neighborhood spots she frequents when she’s off work.

On Randolph’s Restaurant Row

It wouldn’t be a West Loop dining tour without a stop at one of celebrity chef Stephanie Izard’s restaurants.

Izard was the first woman to win “Top Chef” in 2008, and Grueneberg competed with her on “Iron Chef Gauntlet” in 2017. Izard won Iron Chef status, knocking her friend out of the running in an egg challenge. (Grueneberg was a finalist in 2012 on a different season of “Top Chef.”)

The 2010 opening of Izard’s lauded Girl & the Goat spurred a restaurant renaissance on West Randolph Street.

Touting “bold foods with global influence,” Girl & the Goat lives up to its name with a section of the menu devoted to goat – from goat carpaccio to goat liver mousse. Preparations throughout the menu highlight Izard’s skill in layering flavors, brightness and crunch.

Across the street, Izard’s light and spacious Little Goat Diner delivers that same layering all day long with dishes such as This Little Piggy Went to China, a sesame cheddar biscuit topped with fried eggs, Szechuan pork sausage and chili garlic chive sauce, served with berries on the side.

“It’s like the best complete breakfast you could ever want or have,” said Grueneberg.

Izard is amazed at how the neighborhood has grown and changed. “On a Thursday or Friday or Saturday night going out onto the street, I don’t feel cool enough to be here,” she said.

Izard’s restaurants are Randolph Street anchors, but there are many more to sample along the corridor.

Patrons mill around all day waiting for seats at dark and cozy Au Cheval, where the cheeseburgers have earned national raves.

At Bad Hunter, cocktails like rhubarb-infused Mermaid Water are served at a bar topped with Midwest river rocks. The fresh, local flourish fits right in with the veggie-focused menu, a welcome counterpoint to the neighborhood’s many carnivorous choices.

A neighborhood classic

Despite the influx of new businesses, there are still a few places to get a taste of the old neighborhood.

A couple of blocks from Girl & the Goat, J.P. Graziano is an 81-year-old wholesale Italian grocery that got into the sandwich game more than a decade ago.

The top-selling sandwich, the Mr. G – a pile of Italian meats and imported provolone topped with marinated artichokes and a truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette – is named after fourth-generation owner Jim Graziano’s late father.

The secret art of a J.P. Graziano sandwich
01:40 - Source: CNN

Graziano’s sister also works in the shop and his mother sits behind an old-fashioned cashier’s window, ringing customers up as their sandwich toppings are sliced to order and piled onto local D’Amato’s Italian bread. Pro tip: Ask for a side of spicy giardiniera, a typical Chicago pickled vegetable condiment.

Graziano has been working on Randolph Street for more than 25 years, since he was a kid. He’s seen the transformation of the neighborhood from market to foodie haven firsthand, and for his part, he’s OK with it.

“The heart of the neighborhood has stayed with the people who have come into it, and that’s the one thing I was a little anxious about,” he said.

Culinary mentoring

At the far end of West Randolph is Urban Belly, chef Bill Kim’s casual noodle and dumpling spot that adjoins his Asian barbecue restaurant bellyQ.

“I owe a lot of who I am as a chef now to chef Bill Kim,” Grueneberg said. Kim helped Grueneberg prepare for her 2012 “Top Chef” finale by taking her to Asian markets across the city, giving her a better understanding of the kinship between noodles and pasta.

Grueneberg likes to have business meetings on Urban Belly’s funky patio over savory noodle and rice bowls.

“It’s really one of the most fun patios in the West Loop. You can sit out there and see really what the West Loop has become,” she said.

Endings and rebirth

Nowhere is the West Loop’s metamorphosis more apparent than on West Fulton Market Street, the neighborhood’s former meatpacking hub.

A converted cold storage facility now houses Google’s Midwest headquarters, looming over former meatpacking warehouses and a lot of mixed-use construction. On the ground floor is aptly named seafood and raw bar Cold Storage, as well as Swift & Sons, an updated take on the classic Chicago steakhouse.

The last meatpacker on the corridor, Nealey Foods, moved out of the neighborhood in 2017 with the forklifts that used to whip around with cases of raw chicken and pork.

But meat will always play a huge role in the neighborhood.

Pork-focused The Publican on West Fulton Market has been drawing meat lovers since 2008. Chef Paul Kahan, who has longstanding restaurants on the east side of the Kennedy Expressway, planted a culinary flag on the west side of the highway even before Izard with The Publican.

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Grant Achatz’s Alinea Group has several spots in the Fulton Market area, including The Aviary, a bar where the molecular gastronomy superstar has created cocktail theater. The dimly lit seating area is serene and relaxing, allowing drinks such as In the Rocks – a cocktail-filled ball of ice that patrons whack and shatter with a custom slingshot – to shine.

The lounge requires prepaid reservations, and it would be a mistake not to get there early to watch a line of cocktail magicians wield blow-torches, fill plastic bags with oat-infused air and otherwise push the boundaries of cocktail complexity.

The scene is a far cry from the neighborhood’s meatpacking and market days, and spending a day in the West Loop with chef Grueneberg made its new identity very apparent.

Along the way Grueneberg ran into fellow chefs, fans and farmers who provide some of her restaurant’s seasonal ingredients – all members of the food community that’s defining the neighborhood today.

Where to stay

The West Loop is also in the throes of a boutique hotel boom.

The Ace Hotel Chicago and The Publishing House Bed & Breakfast both opened in 2017.

Also in the works: A Nobu Hotel and a Hoxton Hotel.

Soho House Chicago has been welcoming guests on North Green Street since 2014.

First published in 2017, this story was updated in July 2018.