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Photo by Kelly Allison.

Rarely when confronted with a breadbasket do we bother to stop and reflect on our surroundings. But it’s worth putting down the butter knife (just for a minute) to admire the dazzling and innovative design on display in Chicago’s many fine eating establishments. We toured some of the city’s (and the North Shore’s) most beautiful restaurants and found nine gorgeous spaces that will have your mouth watering.

Nellcôte

Pretty and gritty, Nellcôte (pictured above) is like a supermodel with dirty hair. The space has great bones—high ceilings, herringbone oak floors, crown molding—and it’s dressed to kill with sparkling chandeliers, Carrara marble tables and tufted velvet banquettes, but it’s a little rough around the edges. Aesthetically inspired by Villa Nellcôte, the mansion where the Rolling Stones recorded Exile on Mainstreet, the space embraces that rock ‘n’ roll duality of glamour and grunge. The opposing energies at play create a tension that can be only be described as sexy. 833 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-432-0500

Found Kitchen and Social House

Inspired by a bohemian salon à la Gertrude Stein, Found is a three-dimensional quilt of vintage hides, velvet and paisley, houndstooth and pinstripes—all things found, reclaimed or reproduced. Amy Morton, who owns the restaurant, also designed the interior. It is a repository of memory, studded with personal artifacts, and has that peculiar and charming patina that clings to a person’s home—something a design firm can never quite recreate. Though the furnishings are eclectic in scale and material, Morton pulled from a broad but specific period circa 1918 to 1958. The result is a cohesive mosaic, gilded with history. 1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-868-8945

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Photo by Kelly Allison.

avec

At the opposite end of the spectrum is avec. Danish Modern in style and designed by Thomas Schlesser, the space strictly enforces a disciplined use of materials, eschewing adornment for elegant simplicity. Wood, steel and glass are seamlessly combined in a graceful geometry, with cedar wrapping the walls and ceiling, a hickory floor, and seats made of red oak. Across from the five identical communal tables is a stainless steel bar. A glittering wall of wine bottles that seems to pull you magnetically through the long rectangular structure is the only extravagance. But it’s the relentless restraint in avec’s design that reveals its spare beauty. 615 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-377-2002

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Photo by Doug Fogelson.

Embeya

Embeya evokes the feeling of being in an ethereal temple. Designed by Karen Herold, formerly of 555 International, the space is warm and dusky, despite its cavernous proportions. Ornamentation is limited to a few dreamy paintings on the back wall. Mostly the space imparts its enchanting atmosphere through layers of lavish texture. Sculptural decorations recall shapes from the natural environment but are suspended in an otherworldly form, like ghosts. Jumbled strands of plastic become sea urchins floating overhead and crystalline leaves fall in perpetuity over a halved tamarind tree with a smoky mirrored core. 564 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-612-5640

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Photo by Jason Little.

Guildhall

Despite the humble “Hardware” sign outside, Guildhall in Glencoe is a gracious and resplendent environment, laden with old world charm. 555 International, the group responsible for Guildhall’s elegant transformation, preserved much of the building’s original character. Crown molding, steel and glass skylights, rough hewn structural beams and tin ceilings add depth to a neutral palette dominated by dazzling shades of white with splashes of green glass. Dark hardwood flooring and studded chocolate leather chairs temper the ethereal brightness. The main dining room is framed by beveled glass archways and the private dining area, anchored by a massive zinc topped table, can be glimpsed behind steel framed windows. 694 Vernon Ave., Glencoe, 847-835-8100

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Photo courtesy of Guildhall.

Boka

Boka doesn’t take itself too seriously. A handsome painted portrait of Bill Murray greets you when you enter (another of Dave Grohl is around the corner) and cheeky anthropomorphized cats adorn the moss wall. Inspired by the Victorian architecture in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, designer Caren Crangle from Simeone Deary Group gave the restaurant an exuberant makeover rooted in the aesthetic and historical context of its surroundings.The new Boka is a moody and luxurious flirtation between masculine and feminine; strong graphic elements and voluptuous curves. 1729 N. Halsted St., Chicago, 312-337-6070

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Photo by Eric Kleinberg.

Travelle

On the second floor of the Langham Hotel—in the Mies van der Rohe-designed IBM building—is the beautiful Travelle. It’s composed of two distinct spaces, intersected by a small private dining and wine tasting area flanked by towering glass wine cellars and obscured by an impressive sliding bronze screen. The bar and lounge are sleek and sexy with gleaming surfaces and glittering gold accents. Around the bar, clusters of iconic mid-century pieces—both custom and vintage—form intimate seating arrangements. The dining room is airy and sun-splashed in an understated palette of tans and golds offset by sculptural furniture. The defining feature is the glass-enclosed kitchen, affectionately referred to as the chef-quarium. 330 N. Wabash, Chicago, 312-923-7705

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Photo courtesy of Travelle.

Momotaro

Momotaro is materials porn. The place is sheathed in walnut. Glazed bricks, marble tables, nubby tweeds and brass accents combine in a sensuous symphony. Inspiration found in midcentury design, traditional Japanese forms and the Japanese notion of the dual-natured “salaryman” contribute to the immersive environment design group AvroKo has created. The main floor is a warm, orderly space with neatly paneled walls, a bar menu based on vintage brokerage boards and custom light fixtures you’d leave your spouse for. Upstairs is a private dining space resembling an elegant boardroom, while downstairs debauchery beckons in the Izakaya, a subterranean club evoking winding alleys and food stalls. Throughout the space, thoughtful attention was lavished on every detail giving it a breathtaking beauty that cuts through the irony. 820 W. Lake St., Chicago, 312-733-4818

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Photo by Galdones Photography.

The Dawson

The Dawson is the perfect man: ruggedly handsome, masculine but refined. The restaurant’s two floors are joined by a spectacular entryway with exposed brick walls, patterned tile, soaring steel-framed windows and enormous medieval doors. Stunning light fixtures made of gathered bunches of glass globes seem to drift overhead. Both floors are spacious and inviting, with central U-shaped bars, though the upper level has a more intimate ambiance. The design-build firm BuilderBoone applied sharp tailoring to rustic materials like denim, military canvas, salvaged wood and distressed leathers, creating a space that is dapper and relaxed, like a well-made suit after a fun roll in the hay. 730 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-243-8955 

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Photo by Kelly Allison.


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