For those who know the Chicago culinary scene, it is no surprise to see restaurants, bars, and professionals in the food and beverage world named among the best in America by the James Beard Foundation. Known as the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Awards are among the highest honors for those in the food and beverage industry in the U.S., from chefs to food journalists.
The Windy City had no issues blowing the competition out of the water in the “Best Chef: Great Lakes” category with 13 out of 20 individuals named showcasing their work in Chicago. However, the city’s dominance extended far beyond regional success.
Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, of Boka Restaurant Group, made the list of “Best Restaurateurs”.
Michelin-starred Boka was the groups’ first restaurant, opening in 2013. Today, it is one of 19 individually crafted, conceptually unique entities under the group’s umbrella. Also in its impressive portfolio, you’ll find Girl & the Goat (one of the most difficult places to get a reservation in the country—but worth the effort) and GT Fish & Oyster.
Chicago’s culinary scene also saw a couple rising stars make the list of “Best New Restaurants”. Chef Diana Davila brings to life a whirlwind mixture of regional Mexican specialties, Mexican fusion, and established favorites at Mi Tocaya Antojeria. Last year, Eater named Mi Tocaya Antojeria as “the new star of Chicago’s Mexican scene”—and it seems that those handing out awards at the James Beard Foundation were keen to agree.
Also on the list of best new restaurants in the nation was Lost Lake, which plates up a “tropical oasis-meets-flotsam strewn island hut” vibe.
However, it was North Pond, headed by Chef Bruce Sherman, that stepped up to make the list of “Outstanding Restaurants” in this year’s awards. In the middle of Lincoln Park, the restaurant serves dishes inspired by ingredients found in local markets at the height of their season, creating complex, subtle layers of flavor.
Though Chef Sherman’s restaurant might have garnered a prestigious JBA accolade, Chef Tony Mantuano, of Spiaggia, and Chef Carrie Nahabedian, of NAHA, made it on the “Outstanding Chef” list.
Operating Chicago’s only four-star Italian restaurant, Chef Mantuano is no stranger to the receiving a JBA, having secured “Best Chef: Midwest” in 2005. Prior to opening Spiaggia in 1984, Chef Mantuano worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy. Clearly, there really was no surprise to see him among those honored with a JBA this year.
Chef Nahabedian is also no stranger to the James Beard Foundation due to the work she’s put in at the Michelin-starred NAHA restaurant, which celebrates the Chicago native’s Armenian roots. Chef Nahabedian opened NAHA in 2000, after leaving her position as the executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.
The Boka Restaurant Group earned the opportunity to double-dip with a second JBA honoring Pastry Chef Meg Galus, of Boka, the woman behind the restaurant’s decadent malted crème fraîche ice cream with pistachio, gianduja, and dark chocolate.
Also making the cut at the dessert’s table in Chicago is Pastry Chef Jennifer Jones Enyart, of Dos Urban Cantina.
What’s more impressive than accomplishments of any individual finalist in Chicago, is that many more in the industry also made JBA finalist lists—each adding to the depth and breadth of the city’s vibrant culinary scene.
So, if you haven’t already phoned in your reservations for these establishments this year, you’ll be best served to get on the phone and start saving the date for 2019.
Weigh in and tell us what Chicago restaurants and professionals deserve to take the top spots in each category on Twitter @CateringChicago, and we’ll retweet our favorite suggestions.