Though you might not know it from the outside, the kitchen at Aqua Bar and Grill, part of a hotel building from the 1940s, is the site of a nightly culinary summit. There, flavorful representatives from Cajun and Caribbean traditions meet to form an ever-changing menu that includes cajun sandwiches, penne pasta tossed with three kinds of sausage and jambalaya, top sirloin steak, coconut shrimp, crab-stuffed mushrooms, and crab legs. The chefs concoct a selection of seasonal American fare with emphasis on seafood that complements the bar and grill's well-rounded wine list and selection of more than 25 craft beers. Amid the high ceilings and walls dotted with paintings from local artists, Aqua's friendly owners also prowl the restaurant floor, mixing up signature cocktails at the bar, making friends, and daring people to sing their orders to the tune of "Turkey In The Straw".
Conn's Cafe & Catering Inc.'s professionally uniformed wait staff and executive chefs furnish festivities with a comprehensive menu of entrees, buffet packages, barbecue fare, and boxed lunches. The full-service company provides tables, chairs, linens, tableware, and invitations, offering customers reprieve from the stresses of party planning and additional time to perfect their chicken dance. A catering coordinator can counsel guests on décor, entertainment, and locations, and licensed and insured bartenders are available to distribute pours of champagne and spirits. In addition to the standard and seasonal menus, the caterers can also furnish Indian, Thai, Cajun, Middle Eastern and Mexican fare, as well as thematic decorations.
A vintage, barrel-shaped neon sign shimmers against the rough brick exterior of The Fish Keg, where the Hansen family draws on 50 years of experience to hand-bread shrimp, fish, and chicken and concoct made-from-scratch tartar and cocktail sauces. Shipments of seafood fly in daily from around globe to star in the rotating menu, which changes according to the availability of quirky fishing-boat names. Orange roughy arrives from New Zealand, and shrimp bursts in from the Gulf of Mexico to don cloaks of spicy batter and splash into the golden depths of a deep fryer.
Spices, mixes, and goods from Zatarain's crowd colorful shelves, begging to bring their piquant fragrances to home kitchens. The Hansen family's happy chatter wafts into the dining room as they craft custom party platters that fuel shindigs and offer tailored maritime experiences without the embarrassment of an overly snug lobster costume.
At the heart of Chicago's Haitian community lies Kizin Creole, a restaurant that offers locals much more Haitian culture than the kind that comes on a plate. In addition to serving the sun-kissed foods of the Caribbean, the spot also serves as a community center, promoting Haitian art, language, and music to anyone interested in taking part. Diners at the restaurant get to share in that cultural experience with every bite, whether they order plantains or a flaky pastry pâté stuffed with chicken, beef, cod, or sauteed vegetables. On the weekend, the chefs cook up more complex dishes, such as konsonmen—a traditional Haitian soup made with local vegetables—or the mildly spicy pumpkin soup special, guaranteed not to turn back into a pumpkin at midnight.
Oceanique's culinary history sparkles with the brilliance of a reef. The restaurant, after all, celebrated 25 years of fine dining history in February 2014 after gifting itself an interior renovation in July 2013. Now the space boasts cream walls, rectangular tables, and modern light fixtures to juxtapose the classic French cuisine that gave the restaurant its swagger. While the ambiance may have changed, Chef Mark Grosz still peppers his menu with the evidence of a culinary education acquired in France and under Jean Banchet at Le Francais. The eclectic dishes, which change daily, might pair butternut squash with salmon or drizzle rhubarb-mango chutney on foie gras. Beyond the signature seasonal fish dishes, they can devote full plate space to organic, ultrafresh produce, such as butternut squash and fiddleheads.
Even with its complex array of ingredients and tastes, the menu strives to remain approachable. Time Out Chicago writes that "while the multi-ingredient preparations border on overwhelming, Grosz somehow manages to balance flavors while completely flipping off subtlety." What results is a laid-back dining atmosphere lubricated by a choice of more than 800 wines and several vintage seawaters.
There’s no Jerry at Jerry’s. Owners Mark Bires and Mindy Friedler chose the moniker as an homage to Jerry Garcia, whose freewheeling spirit they evidently share, given that they’ve traveled the country sampling sandwiches ranging from Chicago's italian beefs to Philly's cheesesteaks, from New Orleans's po boys to New England’s lobster rolls. It’s easy to see the influence of their journeys on the eatery’s menu, a staggering array of more than 100 regional and ethnic sandwiches that could make a magic 8 ball cloud over from indecision. Root-beer-glazed ham, beef tenderloin, and fried tofu are but a few of the sandwiches’ centerpieces, their flavors accented by offerings such as fried green tomatoes and grilled asparagus. Diners can also customize their own creations from a board filled with meats, veggies, and 10 different bread options. Hand-formed burgers, rustic-cut fries, and decadent desserts add weight to the menu like an extra stripe adds weight to a zebra. At the eatery's bar, diners scan rows of roughly 200 American craft beers accessible by bottle or tap, and they savor a selection of 70 American whiskeys. When the digital jukebox needs a break, Jerry's hosts live music, the catchy tunes of which slither through door cracks and out to the outdoor dining area.