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2012 bar and restaurant review: Highs, lows and delicious trends

When it comes to adventures in dining and drinking, Chicago definitely delivered this year. Hot chefs expanded their empires with new restaurants. New words made their way into our nightlife vocabulary. And, of course, there were doughnuts. And pie. And then more doughnuts. Here's a look back at 2012 and all the trends, talkers, highs and lows that came with it. Hope you're hungry!

VOCABULARY QUIZ

Barcade
Bar + arcade = barcade. Thanks to Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park and Headquarters Beercade in Lakeview, you can relive your childhood memories of arcade gaming--with a beer in hand.

Nitropubs
Tribune food critic Phil Vettel coined this word—a mix of "nightclub" and "pub"—to describe this year's explosion of "scene-driven restaurants … that still manage to put out serious cuisine." We're not sure how often we'll use it to describe the trendy restaurant-bar hybrid hangouts that inspired its creation—Nellcote, Tavernita, RPM Italian—but these three spots were definitely among the most talked-about of the year.

Latin local
Fulton Market's sultry La Sirena Clandestina taught us that South America and Chicago should play together more often—and that house-made saltines are the best accompaniment to ceviche.

Loose meat sandwich
Hawkeyes already knew all about Maid-Rite, the Iowa-based diner chain that opened a location in Lincoln Park this fall. Now Chicagoans too can wrestle its signature sandwich—a sloppy, crumbly ground beef creation that definitely requires a fork.

Trencherman
By definition, this word means "a person who enjoys food." Chefs (and brothers) Patrick and Michael Sheerin made it plural and adopted it as the name of their Bucktown restaurant, which made a summer debut.

Foraged fare
We credit chef Iliana Regan for putting the word "foraging" on our radar this fall. After years of selling her farmed and foraged goodies at farmers' markets, she opened tiny tickets-only restaurant Elizabeth in Lincoln Square, where she serves what she calls "new gatherer cuisine." Think Queen Anne's lace or wild onion plucked from the ground and dressed up for your plate.

MOST NEIGHBORHOOD ACTION
West Loop wins, hands down. Randolph Street has been called "Restaurant Row" for years, but this strip (and its surrounding blocks) became even more crowded this year with the additions of Nellcote, G.E.B., City Winery, Little Goat, La Sirena Clandestina, Publican Quality Meats, Embeya, RM Champagne Salon, Au Cheval, Vera and Grace.

Honorable mention: Logan Square, for openings such as Fat Rice, Chicago Diner, Reno, Gaslight Coffee Roasters, Ground Control, Suite 25 and Katherine Anne Confections, to name just a few.

EXPANDING CHEF EMPIRES
The recognizable faces behind many beloved restaurants expanded their dining domains this year:

>>Graham Elliot added G.E.B. (Graham Elliot Bistro) to his lineup of namesake spots, which includes counter-service Grahamwich and more formal Graham Elliot.

>>Jared Van Camp satisfied Chicago's charcuterie fix at Old Town Social years ago; in 2012, he brought swanky late-night pizza and pasta to the masses at Nellcote (where he's milling his own flour on-site, BTW).

>>Bill Kim welcomed modern Korean barbecue spot Belly Q into the family alongside Belly Shack and Urban Belly.

>>Brendan Sodikoff, known for Gilt Bar, Maude's Liquor Bar and Doughnut Vault, branched out with indulgent diner Au Cheval and old-timey steakhouse Bavette's Bar & Boeuf.

>>Stephanie Izard followed up Girl & The Goat with a new restaurant across the street called Little Goat. The bakery and coffee shop portion, called Little Goat Bread, opened earlier this month, and the diner is expected to debut before the year's end.

>>Paul Kahan (Blackbird, The Publican, Avec) opened Publican Quality Meats, the city's chic-est butcher shop. Yes, there are cleavers and slicers, but there also are jars of artisanal mustard, craft beers and one heck of a muffuletta.

>>Sprout chef Dale Levitski doubled his restaurant real estate when he debuted French-inspired Frog N Snail.

 

THE RETURN OF OPULENCE
In contrast to the post-recession flood of laid-back burger joints, 2012 saw some seriously opulent restaurants take root. Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, which opened this winter in the spacious, snazzy space (formerly the Esquire Theater in the Gold Coast), is anything but understated with massive chandeliers, a multi-story wine cellar and $89 32-ounce wagyu ribeyes. In River North, Tortoise Club channels a sumptuous old-school supper club, with leather chairs and pheasant-foie gras pot pie. In one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year, former Avenues chef Curtis Duffy is serving luxurious tasting menus to the tune of $185 per person at newly opened Grace. Also, a shout out to two impeccable fine-dining restaurants that opened at the tail end of 2011 and were therefore shut out of last year's wrap-ups: Goosefoot in Lincoln Square and Acadia in the South Loop.

GLUTEN-FREE HAS A MOMENT
Gluten-free foods have been gaining momentum for years now, but 2012 yielded two new Lakeview restaurants dedicated to gluten-free dining: Fine-dining-ish Senza and more casual Bountiful Eatery.

BAR & GRILL BACKLASH
This year, bar owners weren't content to name their new hangouts with the standard designation "bar & grill." See: Fatpour Tapworks, Stout Barrel House & Galley, Municipal Lounge & Dining Company, Old Town Pour House and Chuck's Manufacturing.

RESTAURANTS THAT DIDN'T LAST THE YEAR
African-inspired South Loop restaurant Alain's, "Top Chef" competitor Beverly Kim's reboot of Bonsoiree and Bleeding Heart Bakery & Cafe all opened in 2012 and closed before the year's end.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
New York import City Winery was one of the year's most promising additions, with its cabaret-style concert space, massive patio and wine made right in the building. But its lackluster food, confused service and shrug-worthy music lineup added up to one of the year's biggest fails. A close runner-up is riverside rooftop bar Estate Ultra Bar, where the service falls significantly short of "ultra," and Baume & Brix, where a fleet of Moto and Ing alums haven't yet hit their stride.

LOCAL ROASTERS FIRE UP
Coffee shops Big Shoulders, Bow Truss and Gaslight all have one thing in common: They're staffed by dedicated coffee lovers who are roasting their own beans.

PROOF WE'RE NOT SICK OF SPEAKEASIES 
Believe it or not, it has been five years since The Violet Hour opened. Untitled, a sprawling River North haunt with an unmarked entrance and a 1920s-style vibe, is all the proof we need to admit that apparently, scenesters haven't yet tired of the speakeasy theme.

THE GOOGLE AWARDS
Least Google-able: Two. The name of this West Town restaurant alludes to the second life of the reclaimed materials used to construct it, but its searchability isn't as strong as the story behind it.
Most Google-able: Embeya. Chef Thai Dang's West Loop restaurant is easily searchable because its name isn't actually a real word: It's the phonetic spelling of "em be," which means "baby" or "little one" in Vietnamese.

lmarnett@tribune.comkbernot@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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