Skip to main content
Shedd Aquarium

Keepers of the Flame

Some of Chicago's most innovative restaurants use live fire to create unique dining experiences.

Nov 19, 2018 Eat & Drink

A large steak being cooked on a wire rack over open flame

Peek through the kitchen doors or over the serving lines of some of Chicago’s top restaurants, and you’ll see the glow of firelight reflected on the faces of cooks and chefs.

Live fire is one of the hottest trends on the city’s restaurant scene, treating diners to the primal pleasures of crackling wood and seared-in flavors. Here’s a sampling of Chicago eateries that are lighting it up.

Publican Anker

Casual cousin to oyster-, pork- and beer-centric The Publican, hipster hangout Publican Anker sits on a bustling corner in Wicker Park. A record player spins vinyl, while floor-to-ceiling windows make for perfect people-watching.

On Fire

Live-fire cooking fits the feel of this small neighborhood gastropub. Chefs work the flames at a simple grate behind the counter, giving diners a glimpse of the action.

Must Try

The half-roasted chicken with endive and frites is worth the half-hour wait. Start with Honeycrisp apples with persimmon, Gouda, hazelnut and sage. 

A view of customers eating through the open restaurant doors
Elske in Chicago's West Loop


Chefs Anna and David Posey, a Chicago fine-dining power couple, tapped their Scandinavian roots for the menu, design and name (Danish for “love”). The open kitchen and wood-burning grill form the focal point of a minimalist space in the West Loop.

On Fire

Going through 100 pounds of oak a day, the restaurant draws diners to the flames outside as well, with a patio fireplace surrounded by fur-covered benches.

Must Try

The menu changes constantly, but the first course on the tasting menu is always a tea made of fruits and vegetables smoked overnight.

Lena Brava

Celebrity chef Rick Bayless’ newest Mexican restaurant in the Fulton Market District takes a deep dive into the seafood traditions of the Baja Peninsula. In a twist on traditional vibrant Latin colors and art, the decor stays understated, letting dancing flames from the open kitchen star in the fiesta. (The restaurant’s name, after all, is Spanish for “ferocious wood.”)

On Fire

A mix of hickory, oak, apple, maple and cherry make up Rick’s first-ever exclusively wood-fired kitchen. That’s right, no gas lines here.

Must Try

As you might expect from a burner-less kitchen, there’s a delicious assortment of raw items. A fire-and-ice-theme dinner features grilled striped bass, with the Leña ceviche from the raw bar as a starter.

A chef cooks over flames in Smyth's open kitchen
Smyth features a stage-like open kitchen


The midcentury modern decor gives off a simple, subdued vibe, but the prix fixe menu offers complex flavors. Located steps from the L in the West Loop, Smyth recently earned a coveted second star from Michelin, the authority for foodies.

On Fire

A stage-like open kitchen with wood-fired hearth dazzles diners visiting the Fulton Market District, Chicago’s former meat-packing area. 

Must Try

Smyth offers a wonderful culinary adventure, including a savory brioche doughnut fried in aged beef fat, or a frozen yogurt meringue topped with an egg yolk soaked in salted black licorice.

El Che Bar

Chef-owner John Manion spent much of his childhood in South America and honors the Argentine grilling tradition in his newest West Loop restaurant. With no gas lines in the kitchen, a custom 12-foot wood-fired hearth carries the cooking load.

On Fire

Want to really feel the heat? Reserve the two-stool chef’s counter for front-row seats to the fiery show.

Must Try

Live-fire drinks like Hunter’s Harvest with fire-roasted tropical fruits kick off the evening. Follow with grilled oysters served in burning-hot shells with a side of garlic aioli. Meat-lovers gravitate to a 32-ounce bone-in ribeye.

Share this story

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get inspired by top travel stories, gain access to exclusive promotions and contests, and discover even more reasons to #EnjoyIllinois.