8 Chicago restaurants to build the perfect meal from small plates

By Kat Odell

Though most restaurants offer plates of varying sizes, sometimes there’s no better approach than staying small and building a meal from a variety of dishes in lesser portions. These eight Chicago eateries offer a roster of appetizers and small plates that will make you forget about ordering an entrée.

This past summer, Michelin-starred chef Andrew Zimmerman threw open the doors to a far more contemporary concept in comparison to his stalwart fine dining institution, Sepia. Proxi’s menu spans from Thailand to Mexico, celebrating classic and creative global street food in plates both small and large. Don’t miss the modest-sounding tempura elotes—tempura battered and deep-fried corn cakes dusted with chile-lime salt.
Neighborhood: West Loop MAP

Beloved Lula chef Jason Hammel and chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage are the minds behind Marisol, the quaint Mediterranean-Italian addition within Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Famed English artist Chris Ofili designed a central mural, which enlivens the modest space and serves as a spunky backdrop for appetizer plates of fried quail with cashew butter, pictured above, and a totally excellent riff on hummus. In this case, Hammel and Rinkavage bring out a creamy sunflower seed iteration fortified with artichokes, plated alongside expert and perfectly crisp flax and sunflower seed crackers.
Neighborhood: Streeterville MAP

Black Bull
You can undeniably never go wrong with jamon Iberico, and proprietor Daniel Alonso’s Spanish number Black Bull is one of the city’s top haunts for the pricey cured ham. Thanks to Spain’s affinity for tapas, Black Bull is an excellent option for a small plate night. To go with that jamon you’ll probably want some pan con tomate, perhaps alongside several conservas, like squid or sardines preserved in oil or mussels in Escabeche. For slightly more substantial small plates, there’s the Iberico croquettes and tataki de atun, plus a less traditional tortilla Espanola dressed with uni aïoli.
Neighborhood: Wicker Park MAP

Centered around Midwestern fare, chefs Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader’s Giant—which has received a slew of awards, including Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant last year—is a great place to go heavy on apps. There’s also a hefty dose of influence from Japan; grab a banquette seat for deep-fried uni balls served beside a mini cucumber salad, and a tangle of nori-flecked soba noodles studded with scallops and finished with furikake. For snacky bites to pair with booze, try the chile salt and Parmesan onion rings, or the waffle fries served beside a mound of Jonah crab salad.
Neighborhood: Logan Square MAP

Oysters at The Loyalist (Galdones Photography)

The Loyalist
Chef John Shields’ The Loyalist celebrates the same ingredient-focused, seasonal ideals as its sibling tasting-menu haunt upstairs — Smyth — but with a more low-key neighborhood restaurant feel. In place of Smyth’s comfortably elegant dining room, The Loyalist is a neighborhood hang equipped with elevated bar classics like chicken wings (plus liver mousse and hot sauce) and shrimp cocktail, in addition to fancier numbers like a foie gras éclair with lavender honey and several oyster preps.
Neighborhood: West Loop MAP

Parachute’s potato bing bread, which is basically like a hearty scallion pancake that includes potato, is a strong way to start at chefs Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s hip Korean eatery. Within the cozy boite, the husband and wife team successfully repackage classic Korean flavors into contemporary plates that don’t skimp on umami. Try the kampachi with uni and beef fat, or the entirely addictive steamed-egg custard laced with poached foie gras.
Neighborhood: Avondale MAP

Oyster pie at Bellemore (photo: Anthony Tahlier)

The two-bite app that Bellemore consistently sells out of is chef Jimmy Papadopoulos’ oyster pie. The spendy snack runs $65 for two mini quarters of a tart filled with oyster custard, which is generously garnished with Osetra caviar, plus a bit of crème fraîche and green apple. On the side you’ll also nab two glasses of 2009 vintage Moët Champagne. Clearly this alone won’t fill you up, so from there move on to a pretty plate of hamachi cured in calamansi vinegar, and fried razor clams with celery root remoulade.
Neighborhood: West Loop MAP

The Alinea Group’s most casual dining engagement is Roister—chef Andrew Brochu’s Southern-leaning homage to American cuisine. But you’ll actually find influences from all around the globe here, like the soy dust and bonito flakes which crown his bowl of fries—a must-order dish. To start, there’s a great take on hot-and-sour soup in a lighter broth than you’d expect, and a number of plates with flavors more representative of home turf, like a wedge salad and black truffle–spiked aged Cheddar rillettes beside puffy flatbread.
Neighborhood: West Loop MAP

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