Once again, the James Beard Foundation Awards is preparing to take place in Chicago, with the best and brightest culinary talents from across the country descending upon the city for the biggest night in food. Often billed as the “Oscars of the food world,” the event will be held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on May 6, but in case you don’t have several hundred dollars to spare to buy a gown and attend, you can still celebrate in your own way by visiting the nominated bars and restaurants. Chicago is well represented this year, and once again the city totally dominates the Best Chef: Great Lakes category (sorry, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio). Without further ado, here are this year’s nominees up for gold:
Nomination: Restaurant Design Award, 76 Seats and Over
It’s a bit of a pleasant surprise that this sunny Logan Square bar and restaurant snagged a design nod this year, considering how casual the vibe is. But there’s something so lush and inviting about the modern Tex-Mex motif, with lots of light pinks, greens, and cacti strewn throughout the dining room, bar, and roof deck. I don’t say this lightly, but Lonesome Rose is one of my favorite restaurants. I’m obsessed with its margaritas, slushies, tacos, and nachos, but most of all, I love its wonderful and whimsical Wes Anderson–esque design scheme, and I wish them well. The design firm Land and Sea Dept. is no stranger to this category either. It took home this same award a few years ago for Cherry Circle Room in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel.
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Nomination: Restaurant Design Award, 76 Seats and Over
Of the three restaurants nominated in this category, two are in Chicago. This crowd-pleasing, critical darling is definitely the heavy hitter of the bunch, and probably the most likely to win. It has racked up design accolades and endless write-ups since it opened last year, and the buzz for this chic, California-inspired River North sensation shows no signs of slowing.
Publican Quality Bread
Nomination: Outstanding Baker
Greg Wade has been nominated in this category for a few years now, and each time his odds become greater and greater. Especially considering the unparalleled breads and pastries hitting the shelves at Publican Quality Meats (and its sister restaurants). There are few bakers at Wade’s level here in Chicago—or anywhere in the nation, for that matter. He’s like a one-man Tartine Manufactory, and a win is inevitable. If not this year, then soon.
Nomination: Outstanding Bar Program
At last! Chicago’s beloved tiki bar has ascended from semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar category to finalist, and it’s a well-earned nomination indeed. Head mixologist Paul McGee is one of the most revered in his field, and for good reason. His tropical drinks at this Logan Square oasis are masterfully balanced, colorful, dynamic, and wildly inventive, served up in a space that feels like an alluring beachside cave. On any given night, Lost Lake is among Chicago’s busiest bars, with a reputation that endears it to tiki drinkers across the country.
Nomination: Outstanding Pastry Chef
Another repeat nominee, this could be the year that Meg Galus snags her deserved award as outstanding pastry chef. She has been a frequent fixture in Chicago’s dessert scene for quite some time now, but she didn’t rocket into the national spotlight until she took on the role as pastry chef at Boka. She, along with executive chef Lee Wolen, keeps the enduring Lincoln Park restaurant at the forefront of the culinary conversation as to what makes Chicago such a world-class dining city. Her confections are as intricate and delicious as they are beautiful and Insta-ready, and they’re the perfect exclamation point to a tasting menu of lavish seasonal cuisine.
Boka Restaurant Group
Nomination: Outstanding Restaurateur
Year after year, Boka Restaurant Group represents stunningly well among Chicago’s nominated eateries and chefs. And it’s no fluke coincidence either. A lot of people like to scoff at the group and its owners, Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, for building somewhat of a monopoly with their ever-expanding portfolio, but you can’t chide them for fostering sheer talent, designing beautiful dining rooms, and offering hospitality that’s warm, memorable, and sure to keep guests coming back time and again. It’s been true of their namesake restaurant, Boka, for years. And it’s true today with their other juggernaut hits, which run the gamut from Girl & the Goat (needs no introduction), Somerset, and Bellemore to GT Fish & Oyster and Momotaro. Their latest effort is a trifecta of concepts in the brand-new Hoxton Hotel: a Peruvian rooftop restaurant called Cabra from Stephanie Izard, the Mediterranean-minded Cira, and a basement cocktail bar named Lazy Bird. What can’t these guys do?
Nomination: Outstanding Wine Program
One of the O.G. fine-dining restaurants in Chicago, Spiaggia is as coveted today as it was decades ago. The elegant Italian spot reigns supreme from its thronelike location at the northern tip of the Magnificent Mile, and Tony Mantuano’s award-winning, Obama-approved food is worthy of its ritzy locale. The same is true of its wine program, overseen by beverage director Rachael Lowe, who has a knack for matching Mantuano’s masterful cuisine with boutique bottles from throughout Italy.
Nomination: Rising Star Chef of the Year
It’s a great surprise to see Lakeview’s adored mfk rise up the ranks to snag a major nomination this year, and it’s thanks to the talents of promising chef Alisha Elenz. When she took over kitchen duty, she kept the Spanish-accented restaurant in tune with its roots, while also applying her own style. Today diners clamor over her mussels escabeche, ham croquettes, crunchy prawn heads, albondigas, and tortilla española, among other convivial small plates. If you haven’t been to mfk lately, or at all, now is prime time to pay this place a visit.
The other restaurants nominated this year all comprise the Best Chef: Great Lakes category, ensuring a victory for one of these local chefs. This year’s roster includes Diana Dávila of Mi Tocaya Antojeria, Jason Hammel of Logan Square’s farm-to-table pioneer Lula Cafe, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Avondale’s Korean-inspired Parachute, David and Anna Posey of Elske, Noah Sandoval of Oriole, and Lee Wolen of Boka. It’s a majorly stacked category, and each and every one of these chefs is totally deserving, so it will be interesting to see who the award goes to.
Best of luck to all of this year’s nominees!