From small plates to steaks, suburban eateries reflect national trends
If you didn't get your fill of smoky pulled pork or a locally crafted double bock in 2014, don't fret. Barbecue joints and brew pubs aren't going anywhere.
As I look back on the year in food and drink, here are six rising trends that captured my taste buds and that I don't see falling anytime soon.
King 'cue: Whether you like it bold and smokey, or sweet and spicy, there's a barbecue spot for you. Rock n Ribs BBQ came onto the scene in Lake Zurich in 2014 with its award-winning dry-rubbed ribs and music-themed space.
Elsewhere, Real Urban BBQ, a Northshore favorite, brought its addictive "burnt ends" and Red Neck Tacos to Vernon Hills and Oak Brook.
Keep an eye out for the Jan. 9 Time out! to see what our reviewer has to say about Park West BBQ in Villa Park.
Fast and healthy: Fast casual dining -- the category that includes counter-service ordering and made-to-order cooking -- is one of the fastest growing segments of the restaurant industry, and those fast-cas spots that put a healthy spin on mealtime are making inroads in the suburbs.
Pure Juice Cafe in downtown Arlington Heights is one of the independent eateries offering the likes of kale-infused smoothies and black-bean and quinoa salad, while Chicks 'n Salsa in Glen Ellyn uses organic produce in its famous salsa bar and fire grills its chicken for more healthful results.
Salata opened its first Illinois location in Wheeling. Billed as "the next generation salad bar," it allows diners to customize made-to-order salads and wraps from more than 50 fresh ingredients.
Take a shining: Martinis, move over. Moonshine has staked its claim on bar menus.
Places including Old Crow Smokehouse in Schaumburg, The Still Bar and Grill in Barlett and Whiskey River BBQ and Honkey Tonk in Mount Prospect have made moonshine -- the Prohibition-era moniker for unaged whiskey -- the focus of their drink menus.
"You can do a lot with it," said Jim Leo, owner of The Still. "We like the flexibility of the product."
Moonshine not only subs in for whiskey in punch, lemonade and iced tea, but also can blend into margaritas, sangria and, gasp, martinis.
Here's the beef: Burgers might be the darling of the casual dining scene, but suburbanites still have a big appetite for steak.
From Johnny's Chophouse in Antioch with its tenderloin tips and flaming Greek cheese to the clubby Perry's in Oak Brook and its updated classics (corn-fig relish on a bacon-wrapped filet!) and the exquisite New Zealand lamb chops at Top Table in St. Charles, it's hard to throw a bone without hitting a top-quality steakhouse.
Tiny but mighty: When portions are smaller, you can try more things, and it's that small-plate, shareable dining experience that I endorse wholeheartedly.
Spanish tapas cuisine, the original small-plate concept, draws in diners at Macarena Tapas in St. Charles (goat cheese fritters and beef tenderloin crostini) and el Tapeo at Oak Brook's Le Meridian hotel.
Winfield's Union House brings a Southern flare to small-plate dining with its ever-changing, locally focused selections like smoked chicken wings and killer chocolate pecan pie.
Even the new The Grillhouse by David Burke in Schaumburg touts a "shareable" section for those looking for a communal, generally lighter, meal experience.
Hopped up: Craft beer sales outpaced major breweries this year and that's not just true at the liquor store.
Some restaurants brew their own India pale ales on site or team up with suburban breweries to produce signature lagers; others have installed special taps to handle the revolving selection of locally brewed and hard-to-find small-batch lagers.
What will be on tap at Granite City Food and Brewery in Naperville? We'll tell you in an upcoming Time out!