"Chicago's culinary scene is continuing to expand," says Tim Zagat, co-founder of Zagat Survey. "From fresh fusions to small plates, chefs are raising the bar with unique menu offerings and adventurous food preparations." Zagat recently served as a guest diner in the finale episode of Bravo's Top Chef Chicago, and along with his wife and Zagat Survey co-founder, Nina, will be present at the Taste of Chicago's opening ceremony.
The survey results, containing signature ratings and reviews of 1,089 eateries, are based on the experiences of more than 5,370 food-savvy residents. The guide also includes ratings and reviews of the best restaurants in Milwaukee.
On average, the Zagat surveyors dined out 3.1 meals per week; thus, this year's ratings and reviews are gleaned from roughly 860,000 annual meals worth of experience. Although the average meal cost in Chicago rose about 2 percent annually to $35.17, compared to $33.75 two years ago, 81 percent percent of Chicagoans say that they are eating out as much as or more than they did two years ago. Chicagoans are also tipping more than ever, giving 19.1 percent, which is slightly above the national average of 19 percent.
Favorites: The surveyors indicated that they enjoy new fusion and small plate menus, but by a 26 percent plurality prefer Italian food. American at 16 percent, French at 12 percent, and Mexican and Japanese each at 11 percent followed as favorite cuisines.
Surveyors chose Wildfire, Frontera Grill, and Tru as their top three most popular restaurants. Charlie Trotter's dropped from the number one favorite last year to the number four place, followed by Gibson's Steakhouse. As for food ratings, Alinea jumped from fifth place last year to first place. Tallgrass came in second, Carlos' third, Les Nomades fourth, and Topolobampo fifth.
Newcomers: Among this year's newcomers, in order of food ranking, Old Town Brasserie came in first, followed by TABLE 52, Otom, Sepia, and Bluprint. In the works are venues from a number of celebrity chefs including Terrance Brennan, Alain Ducasse, Todd English, Gordon Ramsay, Joel Robuchon, and Marcus Samuelsson.
Not surprisingly, this year’s winners tend to be on the pricey side, however the guide also includes 80 best buys, led in order by Potbelly Sandwich, Superdawg, Hot Doug's, Hannah's Bretzel, and Margie's Candies.
Greening and Health-Consciousness: Following a national pattern, 64 percent of Chicagoans indicate that they consider eating locally grown food to be important. Likewise, 65 percent say they are voting for more low-carb, low-fat, heart-healthy menu items. As for trans fats, 56 percent feel they should be banned entirely from restaurants' preparation. A majority are so concerned about issues of this kind, they are willing to "pay more" for food that is sustainably raised or organic.
Irritants: As elsewhere in the country, service is by far the biggest complaint among diners. In Chicago this year, 78 percent of surveyors cite service as the most irritating part of dining out, while cumulatively all other complaints, including noise, food, prices, and traffic, amount to only 22 percent of complaints. Nina Zagat, co-chair of Zagat Survey, says that service is clearly "the biggest problem facing the restaurant industry today."
Milwaukee: Just a car ride across the Wisconsin border, Milwaukee's culinary scene is flourishing with unique, high-quality dining options. Residents voted Sanford's New American cuisine an all-around Top Food favorite while Ristorante Bartolotta, The Riversite, Dream Dance, and Mangia followed closely behind. In a perfect trifecta, Sanford also received highest honors for Service and Decor.
The guide features expansive ratings and reviews of the best restaurants in Chicago and Milwaukee, broken out by location, cuisine, and special features, including Singles Scenes, Quick Bites, Outdoor Dining, Child-Friendly, and Celebrity Chefs. The guide also contains useful neighborhood maps for both cities and a convenient wine chart.