CHICAGO, Ill. --
One of the reasons Chicago steakhouses are so popular, I believe, is that when you say "steakhouse," there are no follow-up questions.
You know what you're getting: top-quality beef, and plenty of it, in doorstop-weight portions. Big cocktails, bigger desserts and a huge wine list heavy on marquee names. No-nonsense service that makes up in efficiency what it might lack in personality. An appetizer list starring shrimp cocktail, crabcakes and a wedge salad; side dishes of creamed spinach, roasted mushrooms and four kinds of potatoes. Seafood towers for the expense-account splurgers. Sinatra on the sound system. And a city-center location that takes advantage of visitors' insatiable need for "a good Chicago steak."
Sounds pretty good, actually.
But in the past 18 months, a half-dozen restaurants have turned the classic steakhouse model on its ear with chef-driven menus, locally sourced beef, creative cocktails, focused wine lists and desserts that would feel at home in any contemporary restaurant in town.
Two restaurants feature culinary dream teams with Michelin-star and James Beard Foundation cred. Another is a River North celebrity magnet that pumps up the glam, and two more established themselves far from the grazing fields of River North and the Gold Coast.
This movement has been more evolution than revolution. These restaurants haven't turned their backs on the classic steakhouse theme — why abandon proven success? — so much as they have refined it with superior service, imaginative appetizers and side dishes, and beyond-the-beef entrees.
Swift & Sons
"Our original idea was to do a really great version of 'the wheel,' as we call it around here," said Chris Pandel, executive chef at Swift & Sons. "We wanted to use our relationships with local farmers, to allow seasonality to play more into the menu than it does in a traditional steakhouse."
Swift & Sons opened in late fall in Fulton Market, an area chock-full of hip and popular restaurants but, oddly, lacking a single steakhouse. Customer reaction was swift indeed — and positive.
"We had the opportunity, as the first steakhouse in the area, for customers to look at us as more of a restaurant," Pandel said. "Ninety percent of steakhouse customers know what they want before they walk in, so it was important for us to give it to them; I'm not trying to discount that comfort factor. But 30 to 40 percent of the menu allows customers to have a different experience, so if they want to take that leap of faith, the opportunity is there."
To that end, appetizer options include spring-vegetable tart, English-pea cappelletti in country ham broth and chilled artichoke stuffed with fennel mousse and basil pistou. Side dishes include broccolini in Calabrian pepper sofrito. And the signature entree technically isn't a steak but a sized-for-two beef Wellington.
Portioning is key to the restaurant's philosophy. The seafood towers (hot and cold) are priced per-person, lowering the size and cost commitment. Desserts, led by a killer deconstructed Boston cream pie, are short as well as sweet. And steaks, though generally hefty, include plenty of smaller cuts.
"We have a fantastic hanger steak with fingerlings crisped in beef fat and a sauce reminiscent of chimichurri," Pandel said. "But the steak is just over 6 ounces, and it's an entree."
Maple & Ash
This Gold Coast wonder might be the only steakhouse in the world that can boast of having a two-Michelin-star chef (Danny Grant, who won that honor at Chicago's late Ria restaurant) and a wine director who ran a James Beard-winning wine program (Belinda Chang, when she was at The Modern in New York). But if you think these two are slumming, think again.
"Our terroir is Chicago," Chang said. "When the owners decided to open on a classic Gold Coast corner, we thought, 'What does this neighborhood want?' Because those are the people who will keep you alive and going. Of course steak was the right thing to do for 8 W. Maple. Steakhouses do well, when they are done well."
And this place is done well. The dining area, broken into several smaller spaces, is luxurious and sultry, offering linen-topped tables, heavy drapery and distressed-wood trim, the sort of atmosphere that invites dress-to-kill attire, even midweek. Guests are offered a complimentary signature cocktail — dubbed an "amuse booze" by the staff — as soon as they sit down.
"We want to get away from that sadomasochistic dining, where you're not sure if you're ever going to get that second beer," Chang said. "We care that you're having a great time."
The menu — almost everything is cooked over fire or coals (even the seafood towers feature hearth-roasted oysters, scallops and the like) — offers plenty of usual suspects in the beef department, augmented by cheffy takes on classic sides and starters, and a handful of nontraditional temptations.
"You give (customers) what they want, make them comfortable and get them to trust us, and then they'll try the ricotta truffle agnolotti," Grant said. "That's a fun thing to see."
"Who's unhappy at a steakhouse?" Chang asked. "That's where you celebrate daily life, where you close the deal on the hot girl. We aim for that sense of celebration and fun and irreverence, while still trying to be a great American restaurant."
The printed menu is full of wink-nudge references to the neighborhood's guys-on-the-prowl reputation, and the chef's-choice option is labeled "I don't give a f*@k." The intended consequence is to convey a certain "we're all having fun here" attitude; the unintended consequence is that everybody wants a souvenir menu.
"I'm pretty sure we reprint menus more frequently than any steakhouse I've ever been to," Chang said. "I feel bad about the trees, but we are recycling."
The R and M of this restaurant's monogram stand for Rancic and Melman, two of the principal owners. The P is for Doug Psaltis, the chef who makes everything happen here.
"I don't know if I'd use 'redefine' to describe what we're doing," he said. "We're a product-driven steakhouse. We pay a lot of attention to our purveyors, and there's a great integrity to the product we bring in. Grass-fed beef, wagyu, dry-aged, we try to find the best of all that."
RPM ups the ante with a bilevel, glitzy dining room designed for people watching, and to attract the sort of people that people-watchers wish to watch. Sitting in the lounge area, one half expects to see a tuxedoed Cary Grant stroll through the door.
To the beefy menu, Psaltis adds such treats as grilled octopus in jalepeno crema, crispy calamari in piri-piri sauce and coal-roasted crab ("Fantastic product," Psaltis says) with lime and coriander. As the weather warms, look for morel risotto, soft-shell crab, corn in chipotle butter and tomato salad, pretty much in that order. The irresistible dessert is the bling-y "14K chocolate cake," a three-layer cake whose chocolate-glace exterior is sprinkled with edible gold.
"But we try not to forget where we came from," Psaltis said. "We want to be a steakhouse, and we are. We're just slightly more elegant."
Owners Jamie Finnegan and chef Brian Ahern weren't thinking steakhouse when they scouted West Side locations.
"We came back to Chicago just as food trucks were starting," Finnegan said. "We were looking for a commissary for our beef sandwiches. But we found this (building), being sold by the owner, and we saw an old-world charm that lent itself to more than our original intentions. Our philosophy was to let the place tell us what it should be."
Thus was born Boeufhaus, a merging of the French word for "beef" and the German for "house," located improbably on Western Avenue, a few doors north of Augusta Boulevard.
"It was a calculated risk," Ahern said of the location, "but we thought we had a pretty good future on this corner, that it would only get better west of Western, and so far, that's proven true."
The restaurant, a sea of oak wood and pressed-tin ceilings, seats just 34, making it more intimate by far than any steakhouse in the city. The menu lists just seven entrees, five of them steaks (the 55-day dry-aged rib-eye is phenomenal). A specials card offers a few more options (when the lamb chops are available, pounce) but is likely to be half-steak as well. What breaks the steakhouse mold, besides the intimate and old-timey atmosphere, are dishes such as cauliflower gratin with Gruyere cheese and bechamel sauce, chickpea-flour cavatelli with merguez sausage (listed as an appetizer but hefty enough to be an entree) and hiramasa crudo with horseradish creme fraiche.
Whether you order steak, be sure to get the beouf-fat fries; they're terrific, but the accompanying malt-vinegar aioli makes them swoon-worthy.
And those beef sandwiches? Still on the menu but only at lunch, which is when Boeufhaus also becomes a part-time butcher shop, selling assorted haus-made sausages, some pates and torchons, beef cuts and more. Walk in, order a beef sandwich, and on the way out, say, "You guys ought to start a food truck," just to see the reaction.
You don't expect to find top-quality steaks this far northwest of downtown, one reason Portage Park's Community Tavern is such a find.
Executive chef Joey Beato (formerly with Quince and Green Zebra) dry-ages his beef in-house and keeps the prices relatively low. The 16-ounce rib-eye has crept up to the $42 mark (it was $39 toward the end of 2015), but that's still a very attractive price for dry-aged beef, and the rest of the steaks and chops hover between $23-$32.
More than half the menu is nonbovine, highlighted by sea scallops and lobster pieces in a sauce Americaine, Parisian gnocchi with vegetables and goat cheese, and a good, garlicky roasted chicken with mushroom ragout. Value is high on the priority list here.
Returning to animal protein, do not miss the charcuterie platter, which is terrific. And desserts, by the formidable Elissa Narow (formerly of Trio, Blackbird, Vie and Perennial Virant), are always a good and sophisticated bet.
Prime & Provisions
Only a year old, this restaurant by the DineAmic Group (Siena Tavern, Bar Siena, et al.) adheres most closely to the traditional steakhouse ideal. I include it for a few reasons: its commitment to humanely raised beef (shared by the other restaurants in this story), fun menu additions such as the maple-chili-glazed bacon with bittersweet chocolate, a superb cocktail program by Adolfo Calderon and Amy Walker Arnold's delightful desserts, of which the Tableside Smores was one of the most delightful sweets I ate last year.