Best of Chicago 2021 cover
Credit: Illustration by Vichcraft. For more of Vichcraft’s work, go to vichcraft.com.

What you are holding in your hands, or squinting at on a screen, is the biggest issue of the Chicago Reader in recent memory. Larger even than our before-times Best of Chicago issue in 2019, which was a hefty 88 pages. 

We couldn’t have made this 96-page behemoth (PDF) without you: the proud, opinionated, ballot-stuffing people of Chicago. Thank you for nominating and voting for your favorites across more than 300 entries, seven categories, and multiple rounds.  

We hazard a guess that most media outlets have a love-hate relationship with best-of issues. On the one hand, we get to celebrate what we love about living here; on the other, if there are winners, there are bound to be losers, and don’t nobody wanna lose.

And, of course, there are the folks who are left out entirely, a gap that Reader staff and freelancers fill with impassioned essays every year. 

In the News section, you’ll find a reported piece by staff writer Katie Prout, who spent the last two weeks visiting Chicago’s six public warming centers and trying to interview visitors and employees. She found locked doors, complex rules and regulations for the people seeking shelter at the centers, and even one that was curiously closed for inclement weather.

City Life touches on some of the Chicago treasures hidden in plain sight: a 22-year-old website devoted to horror writing, a daily email newsletter compiled by a newsman who’s been reporting in Chicago for decades, and a comedian and actress using her social media talents to skew the mayoral status quo are just a few of the highlights we’ve found around here in the last months. 

In our Buy Local section, our writers give kudos to Chicagoans who’ve been plugging away and keeping us in style (Ponnopozz, Agriculture), and who’ve been supporting the style makers (Chicago Fashion Incubator). Plus we tell you about the crossroads of matrimony and divorce, right in the middle of downtown.

Our Sports & Rec essays reinforce our belief that thanks to the city’s loyalty and creativity, there are no better sports fans anywhere. 

Food & Drink pays tribute to a mouthwatering collection of the most unique and pleasantly surprising local items we consumed last year, including delights sweet, savory, and spicy. 

Our Cannabis essays express our newfound loves of liquid relaxation, dispensary-line voyeurism, and weed-related comedies, dramas, and reality shows

In the Arts and Culture section, you can find out about a group of Korean American “ajummas” who created a flash mob at a suburban market, or about a long-running public performance art project that brings intriguing work right to your doorstep (or at least your el stop or park). And if you’re interested in catching new BIPOC writers early on, then there’s a playreading club for you. Even those who have achieved greater fame outside Chicago, like drag sensation the Vixen or Sophie Thatcher, star of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, got their start in Chicago’s theater and performance scene, which constantly asks artists to show up as their best selves. 

Just about every publication and every critic puts out a “Top films of the year” listicle. But only in the Reader will you find coverage of a drive-in horror screening called “Video Brain Blender,” put on by two local zine creators; a celebration of blacknuss.tv, a Chicago-based alternative streaming platform that features Black culture, Black creators, Afrofuturism, and more; and the category “Best fat daddy Dom bitch on TV” (find out who won).

The essays in our Music & Nightlife section go beyond marquee names and stage lights, and they’re vivid with detail that no poll could capture. Do you know which 1960s soul star was sponsored by a Mumbo Sauce mogul? Which new zine chronicles the city’s most exciting teenage indie-rock scene? Or which west-side arts center has hosted an orchestra made up entirely of local Black middle-school students? Every one of these 16 love letters to Chicago represents a choice plucked from among literally thousands of options—and that exhausting, wonderful profusion is both the joy and the frustration of every Best of Chicago issue. —The Editors

Best of Chicago 2021 is
presented by

sponsored in part by

Refer to the closed final ballot to see all the categories and finalists that were voted on.

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