Like children staring up at Rainforest Cafe’s artificial night sky (or shaking from the booms and quakes of its fake thunderstorms), Alinea’s customers are served an illusion. They are led to believe that a food’s trappings are valuable even when divorced from satisfying flavors, from nature, or from nostalgia. They are tricked into thinking that a restaurant which denies dining’s transcendent, human dimension has any value as a conjurer of culinary gibberish. They are, ultimately, suckers who are being sold a future where a restaurant’s quality grows with how “Instagrammable” the experience is.

Reviewing restaurants with respect to “reality” rather than “hyperreality” means enveloping oneself in the insecurities of an audience that has little to no experience with “fine dining.” It means preserving the magic, educating the consumer when necessary, but never letting one’s cynicism infect the experience (let alone the political axes one has to grind). A critic should challenge their reader without ever blowing smoke up their ass.

Kyōten is one of few restaurants you have ever visited that feels unmistakably “alive.” Phan and friends invite you to become a part of their story, to write your own chapter with them. You can trust that they will do everything possible to please you in your time together, and they succeed at doing so in a manner that Chicago has never quite seen before.

Ciccio Mio is the red sauce joint of your dreams, the greatest common divisor of every good thing that every Italian-American restaurant has done in the century (or so) since the diaspora wove the trodden souls of Naples, Palermo, and Genoa into the fabric of domestic life. Does that mean Ciccio Mio is the best Italian restaurant in Chicago? Why, yes, it does. Tied for “best,” at least, depending on just what one considers “Italian” and whether diaspora culture the whole country over is destined for preservation or renovation. “Authenticity,” you guess, is the name of the game, and Hogsalt’s newest restaurant brings one of modern dining’s most contentious questions to the fore.

Gaijin has garnered praise as one of Chicago’s most ambitious openings of 2019, and, while the last year saw little by way of new concepts in this city, the restaurant’s reputation is well-earned. You have visited the establishment four or five times following its first day of service in early November and must attest that the space is inviting, the food is delicious, and the experience flows with nary a hiccup…

Despite what you may have heard, Mako does not serve the best sushi in Chicago. Sure, it is a stunning, special venue. The staff is polished. The branding is slick. There is a well-priced beverage pairing and a decent wine/sake selection to boot. You may even go so far as to say that Mako is one of the better Japanese restaurants in the city. But in terms of sushi?