Midwestern restaurants sometimes struggle to get noticed—but not Ardent. The James Beard Foundation recognized the Milwaukee farm-to-table as one of the best new restaurants in the nation in 2014, and the local newspaper called it “the sort of restaurant that food lovers travel to try.” Chef Justin Carlisle creates dishes with simple names—”Milk” is actually pain au lait with muenster cheese and cultured butter—but the flavors are complex, and the presentation is stunning. Insider tip: Try the beef tartare.
Photo courtesy Visit Milwaukee
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Restaurateur Sava Lelcaj owns several restaurants in Ann Arbor, but her newest venture, Aventura, is the hippest of them all. Its specialties are paella and “modern Spanish tapas” such as confit octopus and patatas bravas. And, with 24 hours’ notice, you can try locally sourcedcochinillo—a roasted suckling pig. Grab a seat at the bar, where the specialty is gin with house-made tonic, or request a table near the cozy tiled fireplace.
Photo courtesy Sarah Fennel Photography
Bluebeard takes its name from a novel by Indianapolis native Kurt Vonnegut. The literary influences are everywhere: Antique typewriters are tucked into nooks and crannies, and a Bluebeard quote—“Oh, happy Meat. Oh, happy Soul”—has become the restaurant’s motto. The menu changes daily, but you can’t go wrong with the charcuterie platters, which include bread from the restaurant’s own bakery and meats from the local Smoking Goose Meatery. Other recent dishes included banh mi with head cheese, orecchiette pasta with beef and fennel bolognese, and strip loin served with bruleed miso eggplant.
Photo courtesy Visit Indy
Located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the Bohemian House—BoHo for short—gives new life to old-school dishes like pierogi, schnitzel, and chicken paprikash. Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos draws culinary inspiration from regions of the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria, and there’s a hearty European beer list to match. While you wait, take a closer look at the handcrafted wooden tables. Each one is different, in keeping with BoHo’s eclectic décor.
Photo courtesy Bohemian House
Madison’s Cento—pronounced “chento”—is a skillful mesh of old and new. The décor pairs stained glass from the 1920s and exposed brick walls with steel countertops and sparkling chandeliers. In the kitchen, chef Michael Pruett prepares homey, traditional Italian fare with an appreciation for local ingredients. The primi course features handmade pastas, such as gnocchi with foraged mushrooms and black tagliatelle with lobster and prawns. For the secondi course, try dishes like grilled rabbit saddle, coal-grilled ribeye, and prosciutto-wrapped branzino. You can keep it casual with a gourmet pizza from the wood-burning oven, or you can splurge on a seven-course tasting menu at the chef’s table in the kitchen.
Photo courtesy Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau
For years, in-the-know Indianapolis diners trekked north to tiny Winona Lake, Indiana, to dine at Cerulean, a true farm-to-table gem. Now the artsy new Alexander Hotelhouses an Indianapolis branch of this local favorite. Look for seasonal dishes like white gazpacho, heirloom tomato tartare, local duck breast, and wild salmon. For dessert, try the Sweet Bento Box of sugary nibbles. Afterward, you can head upstairs to Plat 99, a mixology lounge decorated with 99 Instagram-worthy glass chandeliers.
Photo courtesy ImImageBank
Back in 2012, one of Lexington’s top breweries renovated an abandoned Wonder Bread factory on Jefferson Street—and immediately sparked a neighborhood restaurant boom. One of the newest additions is County Club, which is known for its hardwood-smoked meats and house-made jerky. The dinner menu includes chopped pork sandwiches, smoked brisket, poutine, and chicken wings, plus some options with international flair. Case in point: Berkshire pork skewers with Thai nam jim sauce.
Photo courtesy VisitLEX
Death in the Afternoon
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis’s new Death in the Afternoon offers “American-Asian carnival food made from scratch,” says co-owner Adam Frager. The restaurant serves brunch and lunch, balancing high-quality preparations with speedy service. Stuffed cheeseburgers and house-made hot dogs appear on the menu alongside falafel, Japanese steamed buns, and seasonal ramen dishes. For dessert, try the cotton candy flavor of the day, such as watermelon-shiso or cantaloupe. The restaurant—named for a short story by Ernest Hemingway—gets bonus points for its view, which overlooks a park and sculpture garden.
Photo courtesy Death in the Afternoon
Built in 1892, Chicago’s Thalia Hall was the dream of John Dusek, a Bohemian immigrant who wanted to create a gathering place in the Pilsen neighborhood. Modeled on the Prague Opera House, Thalia Hall was a popular entertainment venue for decades, but it closed to the public in the 1960s. Half a century later, two of Chicago’s top restaurateurs have reclaimed the building, opening a restaurant named in Dusek’s honor. Chef Jared Wentworth offers seasonal cuisine, such as roasted blue crab dip with artichoke relish or porchetta with polenta and candied bacon. After dinner, catch a show in the concert hall or head to the basement, where the Punch House serves classic and contemporary punches by the glass, carafe and bowl —or, if you prefer, as a snow cone.
Photo courtesy Clayton Hauck
Located in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood, Endgrain serves up refined interpretations of Southern favorites like fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits. The eatery also does a booming business in craft doughnuts, with flavors like bacon butterscotch and Nutella milkstout. Put Endgrain’s two specialties together, and you get the doughscuit, a doughnut made with biscuit dough. Step aside, cronut.
Photo courtesy Endgrain