A bento box promises a seemingly contradictory experience: an array of wildly different options, all of which are meticulously and thoughtfully organized into compartments. It's a feast, but an orderly one. And to be very literal, you simply cannot have a bento box without the distinctive container.
In some respects, bento boxes sort of resemble school lunch trays. But whereas the trays are meant to keep food apart (lest the gloopy creamed corn interact with the lifeless, limp broccoli), bento boxes display the diverse collection of dishes as equals. Forget about a main and a side dish, the bento box is all about balance, and every element is important.
There don't seem to be many absolutes, but I uncovered a few unwritten rules. There is a protein, often fish or beef, which is likely grilled. Rice is there more often than not. Crisp and slightly sweet pickles are usually accounted for. But a lot is up to the restaurant's whim. Some serve crispy and tempura fried vegetables, while others go with a tart and assertive salad. (A few go with both.) Sushi popped up at a number of places, though it never felt like the highlight.
I should also mention that before the box ever hits the table, there's a bowl of miso soup. Most I tried were bland and unexciting, but a few places lavished attention on the staple, and I was stunned by how restorative a bowl of miso could be.
I didn't set out to find the absolute best bento box in town; because each is so unique, it's kind of impossible to compare them all. I'd honestly be happy with any of these options. But there are a couple that genuinely stood out. Definitely start with the offerings at Sumi Robata Bar and Slurping Turtle.
Editor's Note: After publishing, I heard from some people that Arami Go in Streeterville actually closed yesterday. What a shame. Fortunately, the restaurant is planing to reopen at 3056 North Lincoln Ave in Lakeview in March.