The Chicago food scene runs the spectrum – from world-class restaurants run by celebrity chefs to neighborhood gathering places serving comfort food and ethnic delicacies. Come for the Michelin starred restaurants or just enjoy a deep dish pizza or a hot dog.
Here’s our favorites:
Alinea was named Chicago’s “Best Restaurant Ever” by Chicago Magazine, and Chef Grant Achatz and Chef de Cuisine David Beran’s progressive 12 and 23-course tasting menus have become a foodie right of passage. The food is avant garde fusions of science and art, and the presentations are whimsical and picture-worthy. Alinea is the only Chicago restaurant that currently owns the highest rating of three stars from the Michelin Guide, and it is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best restaurants.
The restaurant can be found behind an unmarked door and down a corridor with decor that changes with the season. Inside, the space is modern and clean without being stuffy. Instead of taking traditional reservations, Alinea sells tickets for tables. Buy tickets up to 3 months in advance. For prompt notice of when tickets become available, follow Alinea on Facebook or Twitter – read more here (Photo by John)
avec is small, sleek and modern, and, with all of the light woods, it looks a bit like a Japanese sauna attached to a stainless steel kitchen. It is not a sauna, however – avec is a top-notch wine bar and widely regarded as one of the foremost restaurant in the country. Owner and executive chef Paul Kahans recently won the James Beard Outstanding Chef award. The food consists mostly of small plates of rustic European fare constructed with exquisite verve and creativity. The drinks at are small-producer European wines and beers. The seating is at communal tables or at the lengthy bar. avec does not take reservations – read more here (Photo by Eugene Kim)
3. Frontera Grill
Frontera Grill offers regional Mexican fare by Chef Rick Bayless in an vibrant, fiesta-like atmosphere. It opened in 1987 and was Rick’s first restaurant. In 2007, Frontera won the James Beard Foundation‘s award for “Outstanding Restaurant” in the United States. Start with a margarita – there’s usually a few from which to choose. The menu changes monthly, and Frontera Grill use lots of organic and sustainable ingredients.
Despite its age, Frontera is still very popular – you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the line on the Near North Side. Book a visit to Frontera Grill up to 2 months in advance if possible. Also consider sitting at the bar. Topolobampo is another Rick Bayless restaurants that shares the same location. It is a bit more elegant and better for a quiet date than Frontera – read more here (Photo by vxla)
4. Girl & The Goat
Girl & The Goat makes eating and drinking fun and fresh. The place is both rustic and chic, and the open kitchen provides an exciting central focus. The small plate dishes are inspired and flavorful, and the service is amazing. Girl & The Goat was recently named one of the “101 Best Restaurants in America” by The Daily Meal, and Chef Stephanie Izard was the first female winner of Top Chef when she won the fourth season.
If you’re in Chicago and have craving for pig face or duck tongue, Girl & The Goat has you covered. They even blend their own wine. Make reservations at Girl & The Goat a couple of weeks early. Little Goat is a more casual sister restaurant on the Near West Side – read more here (Photo by Edsel Little)
5. Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse has been named one of the “Best Steaks in the U.S.” by Food & Wine and one of the “Top Ten Steakhouses in the Country” for 2011 by Gayot. Gibsons just celebrated their 25th anniversary. The steakhouse is located in the former home of Mr. Kelly’s, a legendary nightclub where Frank Sinatra and many renowned jazz artists have performed. The steaks are Black Angus and come from sustainable farms in the Upper Midwest. They have been aged for 40 days. When it’s time to order, the server will bring out a tray of raw meats to help diners decide what to order.
The place is packed, loud, fun, and the people-watching is some of the best in town. Get a martini, sit back, and enjoy. In 2009, Johnny Depp left a $4,000 tip after a late-night dinner – read more here (Photo by Jorge Cortell)
6. Mindy’s Hot Chocolate
Mindy’s Hot Chocolate definitely takes hot chocolate to another level, but they are also known for their pastries, desserts, and ice cream. Don’t overlook Mindy’s Hot Chocolate as a destination for food, either. The rotating menu of entrees makes inspired use of locally-grown and seasonally-inspired ingredients. The Mac and Cheese alone is worthy of a trip.
Chef Mindy Segal is a 5-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef award, which goes to the best pastry chef in America. The eatery is open from late morning until late at night, but they close for a few hours in the afternoon – read more here (Photo by Kimberly Vardeman)
7. Portillo’s Hot Dogs
Portillo’s Hot Dogs is the premiere purveyor of Classic Chicago Hot Dogs. The Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dog comes on a steamed poppy seed bun with mustard, relish, freshly chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers – everything except ketchup. The dog itself made specially for them by Vienna Beef with a natural casing that is juicer and snappier than others – it snaps when bit.
The specialties don’t stop with the hot dogs – the Italian beef sandwich, burgers, and fries are also worthy of note. Portillo’s Hot Dogs has numerous Chicago locations, plus locations in Indiana, California, and Arizona. Check their web site for location details – read more here (Photo by John)
8. Kuma’s Corner
Kuma’s Corner serves juicy gourmet burgers with heavy metal names. The food is delivered by tattooed servers – what could more righteous? How about their great beer selection – and whiskey on tap?
The restaurant recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and it’s burger was ranked as one of the “Best Burgers in the World” by Burger Guide. The Daily Meal named the signature Kuma Burger as the best burger in the country. There’s 22 burgers on the menu, plus monthly rotating specials. There are a few options for non-burger eaters, plus a couple of salads, a chicken tenders sandwich, and a pork shoulder sandwich. There are also vegetarian options for the burgers.
Great burgers brings crowds, so anticipate a wait. Also, the place is loud, so set your expectations accordingly. Kuma’s Too is a sister location at 666 W. Diversey Pkwy, and there are also locations in Schaumburg and Indianapolis – read more here (Photo by Kuma’s Korner)
9. Green Zebra
Green Zebra has been a destination for Chicago vegetarians and healthy eaters ever since it opened to critical acclaim in 2004. The focus is at Green Zebra is on small plate, upscale vegetarian fare, many with Asian influences. Incorporated into the menu are vegan options as well as some fish options.
Chef Shawn McClain won the award for “Best Chef: Midwest” by the James Beard Foundation in 2006. He also runs the Sage restaurant at the Aria in Las Vegas. The restaurant does offer a good selection of beer, wine, and specialty cocktails, as well as a popular Chef’s Tasting Menu – read more here (Photo by Banditob)
10. The Purple Pig
The Purple Pig is a collaborative effort between four renowned Chicago chefs, Scott Harris of Mia Francesca, Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, and Jimmy Bannos and Jimmy Bannos Jr. of Heaven on Seven.. The menu is focused around Mediterranean offerings of “Cheese, Swine, and Wine,” and served in a communal, cozy setting. It seems as though every part of the pig can be found in some dish on the menu. The charcuterie is made in-house, and the selection of cheeses is vast. The plates are small and meant to be shared, and there’s a well-rounded list of wines to accompany the food.
Upon opening in 2010, The Purple Pig was named one of the “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America” by Bon Appetit. The Purple Pig does not accept reservations not accepted in order to encourage walk-in traffic. Get there early evening to avoid a long wait – read more here (Photo by Edsel Little)
11. Smoque BBQ
Smoque BBQ is a neighborhood barbecue joint in Irving Park that started by 5 guys, including owner Barry Sorkin, who all love to smoke meat. The succulent, southern-style barbecue is cooked low and slow over apple and oak hardwood. Authentic St. Louis baby back ribs are prepared Memphis-style with a dry rub, then finished with a semi-sweet sauce. The beef brisket, however, is the star of the menu – it’s smoked for 14 hours and comes out charred on outside, but tender and juicy in center. Many barbecue places skimp on the sides, but not Smoque. Their homemade sides include awesome skin-on French fries and gooey mac and cheese with a perfect crust on top.
12. The Publican
The Publican is Chef Paul Kahan’s tribute to pork, beer, charcuterie, and shellfish. Many of the ingredients come from local farms, and many items are made in-house. Accompanying the food is a quality selection of about 100 beers, plus a spirited list of wines and liquors. The Publican’s interior features stand-up tables and communal tables, which give it a casual and modern European banquet hall feel. The pig artwork on the walls pays homage to the star of the menu. There’s outside seating when the weather allows.
13. Pequod’s Pizza
Pequod’s Pizza is one of the most-highly regarded – if not the best – of Chicago’s deep dish pizza restaurants, and it’s claim to fame is the caramelized crust on the edges of the pizza. The place was opened in 1971 by Burt Katz, and he named his restaurant after the whaling ship in Moby Dick. He invented the famous caramelized crust of greasy cheese by baking the pizza in cast-iron pans with mozzarella placed along the edges of the pan. Katz sold his the restaurant in 1986, and thin crust pizza was added to the menu in the late 1980’s, but the deep dish still rules. Burt Katz later opened Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove in 1989.
Pequod’s has a casual, sports bar feel with brick walls, comfy booths, and TV’s on the walls. The authentic deep dish pizza takes up to 40 minutes to cook, so consider calling the order into the restaurant so that it will be ready when you arrive – read more here (Photo by Sophia Sengsuriya)
14. Fat Rice
Fat Rice serves Asian fusion food influences by Portuguese traders who made their way East hundreds of years ago. Needless to say, the food is not the standard Asian fare. It has been described as “Euro-Asian comfort food” and is a spicy fusion of Portuguese and Chinese foods with additional influences from India, Malaysia, and even Africa. Bon Appetit named Fat Rice the #4 Best New Restaurant in America for 2013.
Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo are the owners and chefs (one is Portuguese and the other Chinese), and they made the long trek to Macau to learn about the traditional cuisine from locals. Macau is a republic of China and endured over 400 years of occupation by the Portuguese. The restaurant’s namesake dish is the Arroz Gordo, which is from Macau and features a base of seasoned rice steamed in a clay pot and topped with various layers of braised chicken, grilled sausage, shrimp, clams, vegetables, tea-boiled eggs, and croutons. The space is casual with an open kitchen and communal tables – read more here (Photo by Edsel Little)
15. The Gage
The Gage opened in 2007 in a historic building in Chicago’s Loop near Millenium Park. It’s a chic and cozy gastropub a world away from the bustle outside. Inside, there’s a seasonal menu of upscale comfort food in a tavern setting with fine wines, craft beers, and small batch whiskeys. The Gage takes something as simple as fish and chips and a beer and raises it to an art.
The 24 S. Michigan Avenue building where The Gage is located is one of three buildings collectively known as the Gage Group. The buildings were designed and built in 1889-1899 by architectural firm Holabird & Roche, with architect Louis Sullivan designing the facade for the building at 18 South Michigan. Together, the buildings demonstrate two different approaches to the Chicago School, a design movement that led to the creation of modern commercial architecture, and they foreshadow the Chicago skyscrapers built in the 1960s and 1970s – read more here (Photo by Brad Hagan)
Blackbird is a cozy and modern restaurant in Chicago’s Near West Side. The food is small plate, earthy, sophisticated, and memorable. The shotgun space features minimalist white-on-white decor, and the open kitchen anchors the back end. Most tables are two-tops. The restaurant opened in 1997 and was a pioneer in seasonal farm-to-table cuisine and modernist cooking techniques. Despite its age, the restaurant still retains a freshness and is continuing to evolve.
Blackbird has earned a Michelin star, and it was named “one of the finest restaurants in the country” by the Chicago Tribune. Chef Paul Kahan tied the James Beard Outstanding Chef award for 2013 with David Chang of New York Citys Momofuku Noodle Bar. Makes reservations at Blackbird way in advance. For a better value, try the more popular fixed-price lunch menu – read more here (Photo by Seth Anderson)
17. mk Restaurant
mk Restaurant was opened in Chicago’s Near North Side in 1998 by the husband and wife team of Michael and Lisa Kornick. Chef Michael Kornick focuses on seasonal ingredients and creative dishes with French and Italian accents. He succeeds quite well.
The chic, hanger-like dining room is expansive, but the warm woods, exposed brick, and white walls give it a cozy feel. The restaurant was renovated in 2013 in celebration of mk’s 15th anniversary. Diners at mk Restaurant can order either a la Carte or the 7-course Tasting Menu. Bookend your meal at mk Restaurant with a cocktail before and dessert afterward – read more here (Photo by avlxyz)
Ruxbin is a low-key restaurant in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood that serves surprisingly good, creative food. The creative and eclectic menu showcases globally-influenced Asian cuisine. Korean-American Chef Edward Kim trained at LA Cordon Bleu and also spent time at Thomas Keller’s Per Se before opening his intimate 32 seat restaurant.
The interior is just as eclectic as the food. Seating is old church pews, theater seats, and seatbacks made of old seat belts. The wall decor includes repurposed shipping crates and old cookbooks. Also, Ruxbin contains what may be Chicago’s most surreal bathroom. Ruxbin is BYOB and reasonably priced. The cozy restaurant has friendly, professional servers and a communal table that invites conversation, snack on the house popcorn – read more here (Photo by Emiliano De Laurentiis)
19. Au Cheval
Au Cheval puts serious intent into regular diner fare and raises it to a much higher level – much like they transform a basic fried bologna sandwich into one with thinly-sliced, house-cured mortadella piled ultra-high onto a perfectly toasted bun from Chicago’s Z Baking. Their cheeseburger is one of Chicago’s finest.
The West Loop diner features a long zinc bar runs the length of the restaurant and fronts and open kitchen. Thirty craft beers are on tap, and there’s a good menu of classic cocktails. The place is dark and crowded, but, between the chefs, bartenders, and clientele, all of the action makes for good people-watching. There are no reservations – put your name on the list and get a drink at a nearby bar while waiting for your table – or stool – read more here (Photo by Sam Howzit)
20. Quartino Ristorante
Quartino Ristorante brings the tapas dining concept to regional Italian food in this Near North Side restaurant. The food menu is extensive and includes small plates of salumi, formaggi, antipasti, pastas, and pizzas. A great selection of wines rounds out the menu.
The vibe is bustling and lively. Warm woods, subway tile, tin ceilings, natural light, and an open kitchen add a friendliness and authenticity to experience. Quartino is perfect for a late night stop for dining or a glass of wine. During the warmer Chicago months, Quartino Ristorante has great sidewalk seating – read more here (Photo by regan76)
Spiaggia is a refined, modern Italian restaurant in a beautiful, romantic setting in Chicago’s Near North Side. With its scenic views of Lake Michigan and Michigan Avenue, Spiaggia is a great place to celebrate a special occasion.
The food manages to meld perfectly traditional Italian cooking with modern sensibilities. Chef Tony Mantuano is one of the champions of Bravo‘s “Top Chef Masters” series, and Spiaggia has received numerous nominations for the James Beard Foundation‘s “Outstanding Restaurant in America” award. In addition to all of this, the restaurant is a favorite of the Obamas. In 2014, Spaiggia underwent a redesign that made the space more open and bright and a tad more casual. At the same time the menu was updated after 30 years and there is more focus on the visual presentation of the dishes – read more here (Photo by Anne Petersen)
22. Lula Cafe
Lula Cafe was before its time – the restaurant put down roots in Logan Square before it was trendy, and they were into the whole farm-to-table thing before anyone knew it was going to be a trend.
Jason Hammel and Amelea Tshilds’ place is casual and rustic and funky and cozy. The clientele is a healthy mix of hipsters, foodies, chefs, and Logan Park regulars. The staff friendliness belies that outward hipness. The menu changes with the seasons and the whims of the staff and ranges from reasonably-priced salads, comfort foods, and vegetarian plates to the more expensive and often-changing entrees. Lula is open from breakfast through dinner, and the brunch is super-popular – read more here (Photo by Heidi De Vries)
Xoco is a Rick Bayless restaurant offering Mexican street foods at affordable prices made with local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. Specialties include Tortas, Caldos, Churros, Empanadas, Bean-to-Cup Hot Chocolate, and 9 types of Guacamole. Xoco is pronounced “SHOW-coh” and means “little sister” in Aztec. It opened in 2010 and is more informal and lively than Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, the other Rick Bayless restaurants in Chicago.
The casual restaurant is set up buffet-style. Guest enter and stand in a line that makes its way across the open kitchen. Guests make their selections, pay, then make their way to a seat in the dining room, where the food is brought to them when ready. The centerpiece of the open kitchen is the wood-burning oven where the tortas get crisped and the suckling pigs and lamb are braised overnight in banana leaves. Things start with breakfast here, and the place is hopping until late at night – read more here (Photo by Kent Wang)