Chicago, and Illinois itself, has always been a culinary melting pot. While there are many of the usual standards—French, Indian, Mexican—as of late, the foodie scene has been making itself even more diverse with Argentinian, Jamaican and even Eastern European restaurants popping up from other corners of the globe. One of the most talked about is the South African chain Nando’s Peri-Peri, featuring a trademark chicken cooked with a homemade marinade that has been quite popular since opening last May.
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, sees the trend as further proof of Chicago’s status as a culturally diverse metropolis.
“With more than 26,000 restaurants representing 9 percent of the state’s employment, the continued establishment of international dining venues [adding to that number] solidifies Illinois as an exciting industry leader that can support culinary diversity and growth,” he says.
Illinois Meetings + Events took a tour of four of the must-try global venues that boast both world-class menus and eclectic event space.
Located in Chicago’s West Loop, bellyQ is a stellar event locale with a secluded private dining space and Asian-inspired barbecue.
What sets it apart? First and foremost, an interactive, small-plate style of dining as well as a soundproof karaoke room.
That’s right. Guests can belt out their favorite tunes from Beyoncé and the Backstreet Boys to Billy Joel and The Police in a separate area that plays music videos in conjunction with the selected tracks.
The karaoke room sits within the private dining area—referred to as the Chef’s Quarter— which can hold 40 seated and 60 reception-style, and also has a projector screen and RCA input capabilities as well as a private bathroom.
Sales Manager Kristen Hanes says the space has a “homey feel” enhanced with carpet on the floor, moss along the walls and sliding farm doors that are padded for noise control. She further notes that the restaurant as a whole is available for rent.
While the bellyQ menu has a number of large entrées, it’s geared more towards small-plate, community-style dining—think Spanish tapas with a Korean barbecue twist.
A newly introduced menu tempts with mouthwatering choices such as crab rangoon, lamb bun and a kale and green papaya salad (a private dining menu has also been updated).
“It’s not your typical private dining. It’s interactive and much more fun and exciting than your traditional [meeting] experience,” admits Hanes. “We get really good feedback.”
This River North staple is a journey through Eastern Europe and takes inspiration from the food and customs of the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Austria. The dining experience was designed to make guests feel at home, and according to Dan Powell, a partner in the restaurant with Markus Chwajol, it is truly one of a kind.
“We dined at more than 150 of the best restaurants in Chicago and found that there wasn’t a place that existed that tried to really foster community in the dining scene,” he says. “The Bohemian culture embodies the value of connecting people over a shared meal or drink, and we wanted the restaurant to really reflect that.”
Bohemian House doesn’t have private event space, but all of its 3,000 square feet can accommodate groups up to 100 while buyouts are an option. Menus—featuring Hungarian langos, knackwurst and roasted duck leg—can be customized to fit event needs.
On weekends the restaurant has a special menu, called the Chef’s Cellar, which the culinary team puts together to highlight the best of what’s in season.
Powell credits the influx of new, international restaurants such as his to the everyday search of something different: “People are always looking for the next thing,” he says. “I’d like to think that we were ahead of the curve with our central European-inspired concept.”
It used to be that every Sunday John Ross’ extended family would gather for a big Italian dinner, which always featured home-made pasta, meatballs and other delicacies, all made by his grandma. The experience made such an impact on Ross that he decided to open a dining spot with the same concept in mind.
“I always wanted to do a restaurant that was an homage to my family,” Ross says of Formento’s, the West Loop spot that bears his grandmother’s maiden name and serves up “nonna’s meatballs,” as well as wedding soup, chicken and eggplant Parmesan and a variety of pastas and meat dishes. “My grandma was a great cook. She’s definitely one of the reasons I’m in the restaurant industry today.”
Opened in January 2015, the restaurant is part of the B. Hospitality group—Ross’ company that also manages The Bristol, Balena and Nonna’s.
On the second floor of the 1950s-style restaurant, there are two private event spaces that can hold anywhere from 20 to 200 guests. There is also a separate kitchen dedicated to serving the private event menu. As well, a patio in front of the restaurant can be rented in warmer months.
“If the guys from Mad Men had opened a restaurant in Tokyo in the late 1950s, it would look like Momotaro,” says Kevin Boehm, coowner of Boka Restaurant Group, the company that owns and manages the hottest new sushi restaurant in Chicago.
Named one of the top 10 best by Chicago Magazine, Momotaro offers a private dining room that “looks like a Japanese boardroom,” according to Boehm. It sits above the dining space and can hold up to 22 people for a seated event and 40 for a cocktail reception. Popular menu options include organic edamame and wasabi salmon.
A larger area—named izakaya, the lowerlevel drinking tavern—features a semiprivate lounge, an area called the West Lounge and a four-sided bar with traditional Japanese décor. The full buyout capacity here is 150 with a semiprivate room for 30.
While some sushi restaurants aren’t exactly in line with what is found in Japan,Momotaro is the real deal, says Boehm.
“The chef’s focus was to open something that was truly Japanese. We tried to stay away from anything Americanized,” he says, further crediting the city’s global cuisine trend to the patrons themselves. “[Chicago] is a great market. Diners are extremely smart and appreciate anything that is well executed. There are many genres that are saturated, so people have to begin to branch out.”