Every Single Boka Restaurant in Chicago, Ranked

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Chicago

A round four-top table sits in front of a green plant wall decorated with framed artwork. Boka Restaurant Group

Sizing up Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s empire after more than two decades

A six-table restaurant in Seaside, Florida, named Lazy Daze Cafe is to blame. The 1991 restaurant opening was the first from Kevin Boehm, who 12 years later would, along with Rob Katz, go on to establish Boka Restaurant Group. Boehm, then a University of Illinois student, was encouraged to drop out to pursue his dreams by his future famous writer roommate, Dave Eggers.

“It was a two-person operation: myself and my girlfriend at the time, Theresa. Small menu, small wine list, centered around fresh fish from the gulf, a few pastas, sandwiches, and salads at lunch,” says Boehm. I’ve always thought of it as my bachelor’s and master’s education in restaurants, as every responsibility rested on both our shoulders.”

Boehm went on to open other spots, including Indigo in Springfield, before meeting Katz, a Vancouver, British Columbia, native who moved to Chicago to work in the trading pits. Katz became a nightlife impresario, opening up places like the Elbo Room in Lakeview.

Katz wanted to leave nightclubs and Boehm wanted an in to the Chicago restaurant market. The two met through mutual friends in 2002 in Old Town. “We sat for coffee at Nookies, and the meeting was supposed to be 15 minutes. We sat for four hours. We just clicked instantly, felt the same way about hospitality and food, and were both big believers that design was a huge part of the puzzle. We basically shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘Let’s do one. What’s the worst that could happen?’” says Boehm.

Two men in suits standing.
Boka Restaurant Group’s Rob Katz (left) and Kevin Boehm.
Boka Restaurant Group/Anthony Tahlier

Boehm and Katz were once very much like the ex-GM of their beloved Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein. Like with Epstein, who won two World Series championships with the Boston Red Sox and one with the Cubs, Boka’s success came in identifying unknown and undervalued top-level talent like Giuseppe Tentori, Lee Wolen, and Gene Kato. Now Boehm and Katz mostly partner with big-name celebrity chefs like Stephanie Izard, Michael Solomonov, and most recently, although it didn’t work out as planned, Daniel Rose.

The real hidden feather in their cap is partnership with designers like Karen Herold of Studio K Creative, as well as AvroKO, who create interiors that beget immersive experiences. Through this formula, Katz and Boehm have earned reputations as empire builders.

The following is a ranking of the restaurants that make up Katz and Boehm’s Chicago empire, from 2003 to present (though their influence now extends to New York and Los Angeles, with noteworthy spots like Laser Wolf Brooklyn and Girl & the Goat LA). We also stuck to restaurants, thus omitting Lazy Bird, Boka’s cocktail bar in the Hoxton hotel. Whether the contender is one of Boka’s OG stalwarts or its clubbier offerings, the paramount criteria for the rankings below was food quality followed by the level of commitment to experiential design and/or original style.

1. Boka, 1729 N. Halsted Street, (312) 337-6070

Boka Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Deciding which of Boka’s stellar lineup of chefs is the greatest is kind of like asking which Avenger is the best. They’re almost impossible to separate. However, if someone put a Global cleaver to my jugular and made me pick, I’m probably choosing Lee Wolen. Wolen is a student of culinary history and a veteran of Eleven Madison Park. Though he runs a three-star restaurant (by choice) in Boka, many of his plates are four-star prix fixe-level studies in impeccable technique. From chefs Meg Galus to Kim Mok, the pastry program at Boka has also always offered a double threat unmatched by almost any other place in town save Daisies (whose chef Joe Frillman worked at two shuttered Boka restaurants, Perennial Virant in Old Town and Balena in Lincoln Park).

2. Girl & the Goat, 809 W. Randolph Street, (312) 492-6262

Girl & the Goat
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Pairing it with a Top Chef and Iron Chef champion like Izard would make McDonald’s a first-tier restaurant. Adding in Boehm and Katz’s business and service acumen and Herold’s creative interiors made G&TG the real inflection point of Boka’s rise in Chicago, and maybe the launching pad for its current celebrity chef-driven multimarket restaurant domination.

The smoky wood-fired oven, which churns out first-class bread you don’t mind being charged for, and the flame-charred walls make you feel like you’re eating inside a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrel. I’ve been to Girl & the Goat many times and it seems like I wait months or years between visits. But every time I return to a platter of wood oven-roasted pig face glistening with red wine and maple syrup, gooey with the remains of a breached sunny side egg, I wonder why I waited. At almost 14 years old, few local spots — save sister restaurant Boka, or Alinea and Avec — have stayed on top of their game for so long.

3. Momotaro, 820 W. Lake Street, (312) 733-4818

Momotaro
Momotaro
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Generally, after you’re assaulted by the pomp and circumstance of a well-designed restaurant, the luster often wears off. Stick around a while and you start inspecting a dining room, notice the smoke alarms, the exit signs, and the cheap paint. You start to feel like you’re in a fake set piece.

Momotaro, though, is more than a restaurant. It’s a story. It’s not reality per se. Certainly never in history has a Japanese salaryman’s office/sushi bar/1960s airport lounge as frequented by Don Draper ever existed. And yet, the attention to detail, the pen stroke graffiti in the bathrooms, the bar menu — a vintage split-flap airport departures/arrivals style display — makes up a world so unique that it feels real.

On my first visits, the hot food was the thing, but on subsequent visits, the sushi execution finally caught up with the vision. Silky lithe scrims of toro blanket plump toothsome grains of rice. Outside the city’s omakase stylings there may be no finer place for raw fish in Chicago. Girl & the Goat may have made the empire, but Momotaro is the spot that put Boehm and Katz on par with the best of the mega-restaurateurs.

4. Alla Vita, 564 W. Randolph Street, (312) 667-0104

A large dining room with wood frames to look like a garden Alla Vita/Anthony Tahlier

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in Chicago, but most are of the multigenerational-owned, Frank-Sinatra-got-hammered-in-this-very-booth, red-sauce variety. At Alla Vita, Lee Wolen brings a top chef’s eye to the cuisine, elevating beyond fried calamari with pillowy ricotta gnudi dripping in cacio e pepe cream. You also likely won’t find a more beautiful or stylish dining crowd in Chicago, a reflection of the sleek space that features hanging gardens and gauzy undulating lanterns that mimic the blazing energy weaving through the room.

5. GT Prime, 707 N. Wells Street, (312) 600-6035

GT Prime
GT Prime
Boka Restaurant Group

I remember running over as fast as I could when GT Prime’s namesake Giuseppe Tentori took over the kitchen at Boka after he left as chef de cuisine of Charlie Trotter’s. Tentori had spent nine years working for Trotter, which, based on its exacting standards, is like spending 100 years in most other kitchens. Few, except maybe Matthias Merges, had put in that much time at Trotter’s and lived to tell the story with a great second act.

But Tentori dusted off his shoulder and rode his bicycle/pasta machine, aka “The Black Stallion,” to glory at Boka and then at GT Fish & Oyster. Prime, which features the coolest taxidermy in Chicago (the oryx and sable antelope mounted in the front vestibule are nicknamed Chuck and Tenderloin, respectively) is Tentori’s true masterpiece. At Prime, Tentori took the steakhouse to a clientele beyond expense account folks who buy Louis Vuitton trunks by the busload. By curating small cuts of Japanese A5 wagyu and prime strip loin and mixing them in with silky tagliatelle or world-class lasagna, Tentori made a meat emporium a welcoming place for all real food enthusiasts again. As a bonus (ever since his other spot GT Fish & Oyster closed), you might even find its legendary clam chowder as a special here.

6. Cabra at the Hoxton hotel, 200 N. Green Street, (312) 761-1717

A large, spacious dining room with huge windows. Boka Restaurant Group

The first time I ate at chef Izard’s Cabra, I thought it was some kind of time warp from the 1980s. Everyone on staff seemed to be wearing acid-washed mom jeans. The food wasn’t quite of the era, but it was inconsistent relative to Tanta, the superior Peruvian choice in River North. Since then, a tightening of the menu, focusing on mouthwatering ceviche and delightful chorizo queso dip, has created an infusion of new energy that allowed the brand to extend to Los Angeles.

7. Duck Duck Goat, 857 W. Fulton Market, (312) 902-3825

Duck Duck Goat
Duck Duck Goat
Anthony Tahlier/Boka Restaurant Group

My love for Izard’s mashup of authentic and American Chinese is deep and endless. Were this a roundup of my subjective personal favorite Boka restaurants, it might be ranked higher. But in this ranking I’m looking for a superior mix of food quality, interior design, innovation, influence, and service, and the food quality and consistency at Duck Duck Goat has wavered in recent years, as with the recent receipt of a soggy Chongqing chicken. Still, as a regular diner, I just want to have fun, and DDG’s set-piece decor makes me feel like I’ve been dropped into Spielberg’s Shanghai in Indiana Jones. And that environment still gives me pure delight.

8. Swift & Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market, (312) 733-9420

Swift & Sons
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

This might be the best-designed of all the Boka restaurants. While I love the story of the Japanese salaryman told through Momotaro, I am foremost a Chicagoan — a faithful denizen of this former hog butcher to the world, one who screams “Da Bears!” and all that. Which is to say, my belly is often full of pork and my mind is truly raptured by the stories of the all-time local greats like Algren, Burnham, Sullivan, Wright, and Gustavus Swift.

The vestibule of this place looks like the abandoned offices of Swift, the great meatpacking magnate, and the interior simultaneously conjures the elegance of the Titanic ballroom and the corporate art deco aesthetic of the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. You can almost smell the aftershave dripping off the leather bench seating. Though it is the most “steakhouse” of all the Boka restaurants, chef Chris Pandel doesn’t just give you a simple baked potato bigger than a T. rex egg. He’s putting out bacon-larded and horseradish cream-spiked potato and ricotta-stuffed pierogies that would make most babcias jealous. There is creamed spinach on offer, but also chile crisp- and gojuchang aioli-spiked roast brussels sprouts, which is to say, just like GT Prime, Swift & Sons is not a Gibsons knockoff.

9. Cira, inside the Hoxton hotel, 200 N. Green Street, (312) 761-1777

A smattering of Mediterranean food on a table. Boka Restaurant Group/Galdones Photography

Hotel restaurants demand all-day rigor, and few chefs are up to the challenge like Chris Pandel. The Hoxton hotel has become a coworking and de facto meeting spot for me over the last few years, and while the central location and comfy lobby play a role, it’s mostly because I know Cira’s gonna sate my cravings any time of day. If it’s early morning, there’s a perfect shakshuka waiting to break my fast. If it’s lunchtime, I’m digging into the crisp cumin- and coriander-perfumed falafel. If work is done and a celebration dinner is in order, I’m ordering a bowl of pistachio ravioli roofed with crisp breadcrumbs and gilded with saffron orange butter.

10. Itoko, 3326 N. Southport Avenue, (773) 819-7672

Scallop sushi in a bowl with avocado and slice jalapeño.
Itoko
Boka Restaurant Group

I can count maybe a handful of dishes I still think about months after I visited a restaurant, but Gene Kato’s octopus at Itoko — a carpaccio flayed out like a giant hibiscus blossom and sprinkled with shiso and red onion slivers, then drizzled with the lifting acidity of ponzu — is one of them. If you’re looking for pristine sushi or perfectly toasted nori hand rolls bulging with king crab in an informal setting, Itoko is the spot in Lakeview.

11. The Izakaya at Momotaro, 820 W. Lake Street, (312) 733-4818

Momotaro
The Izakaya at Momotaro
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

The Izakaya under Momotaro in Fulton Market has that hidden speakeasy vibe. Even though it’s not invite-only like the Aviary’s the Office, or hidden behind a graffiti wall as with the Violet Hour, like both those spots, Izakaya is a windowless lair where time seems to stand still. You can drink and drink and drink with friends, and even better, sop it up with salty snacks like sweet soy-pepper glazed tebasaki wings or a big bowl of chicken curry. The design magic of AvroKO is in full force, as the space feels the kind of place John Wick might stop by to plot his next assassination over shots of sake.

12. GG’s Chicken Shop, 3325 N. Southport Avenue, (773) 819-7671

A metal tray with a salad and chicken.
GG’s Chicken Shop
Boka Restaurant Group

Stroller parent-friendly salads and crispy chicken sandwiches are usually the domain of a Chick-fil-A, not a super chef like Wolen. But add in perfect mahogany-crusted rotisserie chicken and incredible consistency, and this might be one of Boka’s most dependable and delicious spots. The only thing keeping it from ranking higher is its informal nature.

13. Little Goat, 3325 N. Southport Avenue, (773) 819-7673

Two hands grabbing a burger off a plate on a table.
Little Goat Diner has moved to Lakeview.
Boka Restaurant Group/Keni Rosales

In the move from the more spacious OG location on Randolph, Little Goat lost square footage, but gained more character. The new vibe, a kind of retro Fonzie-meets-midcentury modern, is actually more creative than the original. But what it’s gained in design, it’s lost in consistency of service and food quality. Stick to Izard’s classics like the This Little Piggy, a sesame cheddar egg biscuit sandwich stuffed with Sichuan pork sausage, or the okonomiyaki packed with bacon and bonito crunch, and you’ll still be satisfied.

14. Swift & Sons Tavern, 3600 N. Clark Street, (773) 360-0207

A round metal bowl holds a circle of raw oysters on the half shell. It sits on a table beside two beers in tall pint glasses.
Swift & Sons Tavern is across from Wrigleyville.
Swift & Sons Tavern

Except for the nearby Mordecai, this is probably one of the best restaurants in Wrigleyville. Then again, that’s a lot like being the tallest kindergartener: Everything is relative to the competition. Thronged on Cubs game days, service sometimes suffers. Not as serious as its brother, the bigger original Swift, informal eats like fried cheese curds or an Italian beef stuffed with shaved rib-eye are the moves here.

GT Prime

707 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60654 (312) 600-6305 Visit Website

Boka

1729 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 (312) 337-6070 Visit Website

Cabra

200 North Green Street, , IL 60607 (312) 761-1717 Visit Website

Little Goat

820 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607 312 888 3455

Girl & The Goat

809 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 492-6262 Visit Website

Swift & Sons

1000 West Fulton Market, , IL 60607 (312) 733-9420 Visit Website

Izakaya at Momotaro

820 West Lake Street, Lower Level, , IL 60607 (312) 733-4818 Visit Website

Alla Vita

564 West Randolph Street, , IL 60661 (312) 667-0104 Visit Website

Cira

200 North Green Street, , IL 60607 (312) 761-1777 Visit Website

Duck Duck Goat

857 West Fulton Market, , IL 60607 (312) 902-3825 Visit Website

Momotaro

820 West Lake Street, , IL 60607 (312) 733-4818 Visit Website

Swift & Sons Tavern

3600 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60613 (773) 360-0207 Visit Website

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