Chicago has always been on the shortlist of America’s great food cities, and this reputation has become stronger than ever. Much of this has to do with Chicago being
a city made up of many small neighbourhoods. In addition to the local staples of steakhouses and Italian and French restaurants, some of the most innovative dining spots are based on the cuisine of countries such as Mexico, Thailand, Argentina, Vietnam and Nigeria.
That innovation has led to many new smaller restaurants and more imaginative approaches to the dining experience, resulting in far more exciting wine programmes, not only in the trendier dining spots but even with more established restaurants. Wine lists at steakhouses are still dominated by powerful reds from Napa Valley and Bordeaux. Still, a few creative wine directors at these dining rooms now feature lesser-known reds and whites, be they from France, Italian regions like Abruzzo or Campania, or places such as Greece and Georgia.
Another factor in a more diverse wine scene in Chicago today is the emergence of BYOB restaurants – there are more than 150. The largest assortment of these offer sushi and Thai cuisine – perfect for pairing with sparkling wine, aromatic whites or lighter-bodied reds, which are also starting to appear on wine lists by the glass and bottle, as consumers are more comfortable today with these wines.
More wines by the glass are available at a variety of restaurants; Langhe Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir are popular choices, while pizzerie, for too long a haven for cheap wines, now offer complex Italian reds such as Pallagrello Nero and Aglianico as well as premium Italian rosés.
The wine scene in Chicago, once dominated by the usual selections, has become quite happily unpredictable.
Maple & Ash
8 W Maple Street IL 60610
Dinner only, plus Sunday brunch
When Amy Mundwiler took over as wine director at Maple & Ash, she was challenged to create the best wine list in Chicago. Having assembled more than 2,000 selections, I’d say she met her goal. At this visually stunning steakhouse just off N State Street, you will find the usual Napa Valley Cabernets and classified Bordeaux, but that’s only part of this impressive list. ‘We don’t follow the steakhouse status quo,’ Mundwiler remarks. To that end, there are numerous red and white Burgundies (including several verticals), along with several Alsatian, German and California whites and even nine rosés from around the world, listed by the principal variety – a nice touch.
71 W Monroe Street, IL 60603
Open for lunch and dinner
Reservations are strongly recommended
Owned and managed by the Capitanini family since 1927, Italian Village is a Chicago dining institution that is home to one of the country’s most exhaustive Italian wine lists. Current wine director Jared Gelband inherited an impressive wine programme in 2016 and has since expanded the overall selection to include lesser- known Italian regions, as well as beefing up the French and California categories; there are currently 1,500 labels and more than 13,000 bottles in stock. He loves vertical collections and has amassed multiple entries, including nine vintages of Solaia and 18 different years of Sassicaia; there are also 19 Gaja wines, including five vintages of Sorì Tildìn. Service is impeccable and, overall, pricing is extremely fair.
avec river north
141 W Erie Street IL 60654
Dinner from 5pm every evening
As many restaurants turn to small plates for their dining selections, wine directors at these locales love to create eclectic lists, some of which are a bit of a mish-mash. That’s undoubtedly not the case at avec river north, where Bret Heiar has assembled a first-class, distinctive wine list with more than 75 selections by the bottle and another 20 by the glass. The selections represent a wine insider’s dream, including lesser-known gems from Jura, Chinon, Portugal, Slovakia and Georgia (a personal favourite of Heiar’s). There are seven orange wines by the bottle, four rosés, and several other wines that pair well with foods such as the mortadella pizza with pickled sweet peppers or roasted salmon with sumac.
300 W Hubbard Street, IL 60654
Reservations strongly recommended
An essential Italian restaurant that opened in 1992, Coco Pazzo offers a 300-bottle list with a clear emphasis on Tuscan wines, and especially Brunello di Montalcino. Wine director Tamra Presley Weiss, who is also the proprietor along with her husband Jack Weiss, has an excellent feel for the robust Tuscan reds favoured by her loyal customers; prices for the Brunellos on her list range from $125 to $900 per bottle. She also has several Barolos listed, along with reds from other Italian regions, while her selection of whites features such gems as Andrea Felici’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Large parties of 12 or more are routine here, so Weiss offers 17 magnums and even four double magnums that sell quite well.
2456 N California Avenue, IL 60647
In 2014 Aldo Zaninotto opened Osteria Langhe, a faithful tribute to the food and wine of Piedmont, and received instant acclaim. Today, this osteria in the Logan Square neighbourhood of Chicago is praised as one of the country’s finest and most authentic Italian restaurants.
Zaninotto continues his love of Italian cuisine with Testaccio, his version of a Roman trattoria. Here the wine list takes in a wider geographical area, with reasonably priced selections from Italian regions including Lazio, Campania, Puglia and Marche. The list also includes a small section called Ancestrale, which features amphora-aged wines from Lazio, Calabria and Sicily, each displaying a distinctive structure and priced at less than $70 per bottle.
Pops for Champagne
601 N State Street, IL 60654
Open mid-afternoon until midnight
Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins welcome
When it comes to Champagne bars in America, Pops for Champagne stands alone. Opened at another location in Chicago by previous owners in 1982, Pops is the oldest wine bar in the US dedicated to Champagne. Wine director Michael Seward, who has been with Pops for 25 years, is as knowledgeable about Champagne as anyone I’ve ever met. They have 170 bottles on the list, with 10 by the glass. If you’re a lover of artisan Champagne, you have multiple options, including such difficult-to-find producers as Suenen and Pertois-Lebrun. There are also cuvées from Jacques Selosse, and even six offerings of Coteaux Champenois.
661 W Walnut Street, IL 60661
Reservations are a must and are released on a 90-day rolling calendar
At Oriole, a Michelin two-star located in the West Loop, Emily Rosenfeld has constructed a thorough selection to accompany the tasting menus with an Asian influence. There are more than 25 Champagnes, many priced at $115-$200, while the selection of French whites, including a number from Alsace, Loire and Rhône – and several dozen from Burgundy – is well organised. Italy, Austria and Germany are also well represented with distinctive whites, while the red wine selection covers Bordeaux, Italy, Spain, the US and even Germany, Argentina and Australia; the offerings of Rhône valley reds, in particular, are especially impressive. Finally, the after-dinner wine list, ranging from Brachetto d’Acqui to Boal Madeira, is one of the best you’ll ever encounter.
1620 North Damen Avenue, IL 60647
Brunch from 10am-3pm
Dinner from 4pm-9pm
Described by the owners as an ‘all day café’, Pompette is one of Chicago’s finest wine bars, open only a few months. It is known for its wine selection and food. Located in the trendy Bucktown neighbourhood on the city’s north side, there are three partners, one of whom worked in the kitchen of the nearby Michelin three-star restaurant Alinea. Small plates are a speciality (the salumi assortment is outstanding), while black sea bass is an excellent main course. As for the wine selection, there are 15 offerings by the glass, divided among wines from France, Italy, Spain and Greece, while there are 50 bottle choices, including several Chenin Blancs from the Loire, along with multiple offerings of Beaujolais. The space itself is attractive, functional and comfortable.