New York and Los Angeles might occasionally vie for the title, but many experts agree: Chicago is the best restaurant city in America right now.
With a mix of incredible neighborhood spots, one-of-a-kind high-end dining experiences and classic old-school treats, Chicago has the perfect dining itinerary for every single traveler.
But that’s also part of the problem. So much amazingness is happening in Chicago right now that it can be a real pain to navigate all of it and make sure you’re getting the real deal, rather than one of the many imitators or hangers on.
So, from celebrity chefs to roadside stands, here’s your guide to the best of Chicago.
As seen on TV
Chicago is definitely having a moment in the media spotlight. If you’re looking for a meal from a freshly crowned Iron Chef, head to one of Stephanie Izard’s spots, including Girl and the Goat or Duck Duck Goat (though if you’re looking for last-minute reservations, you’ll be better off ordering a foot-tall goat burger at the more casual Little Goat Diner).
Want to experience the magic of Mexico through Rick Bayless? His newest restaurant, Leña Brava, serves up Baja-inspired plates hot off a giant wood-fired grill in the West Loop.
Or, if you’re a Top Chef fan, there’s Parachute, where Season 9 finalist Beverly Kim has created an inspired mix of Korean flavors that has wowed every critic in town.
Izard’s recent competitor for the Iron Chef title (and also a Top Chef finalist), chef Sarah Grueneberg, has Monteverde, offering up homemade pasta dishes that are simply the best, anywhere.
Best of the neighborhoods
Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods, and, accordingly, each neighborhood usually has an amazing restaurant: You just have to know where to look.
If you’re not getting out of downtown, you’re missing out on some great food.
Headed to the Gold Coast? 3 Arts Club Café is a soaring fairyland complete with sparkling giant chandeliers and fountains.
Logan Square? Billy Sunday, a dark bar that feels like old Chicago but boasts the best scotch and amaro selection in town, serves awesome bar bites.
Wandering around Lincoln Park? Boka has your back, with a gorgeous dining room and a blow-you-away menu from culinary rock star Lee Wolen (get the roast chicken, and no, we’re not kidding).
Ravenswood is home to some of Chicago’s best pizza — no, not that kind, the paper-thin Italian kind — at Spacca Napoli.
If you find yourself in hipster-filled Wicker Park, Taxim is dishing up modern Greek-inspired cuisine (spit-roasted duck with yogurt sauce and pickled chard, over-roasted whole Aegean Sea bass with dandelion greens) that is totally unlike what you’ll find down in Greektown.
Brunch ’til you drop
It can be hard to get a reservation at Michelin-starred brewery Band of Bohemia, but neighborhood residents know the secret — go for brunch, which they serve on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when there is rarely a wait. Grab a bagel made with oolong tea, topped with malt-cured salmon, and pair it with an order of their special thick-cut bacon with maple.
Chicago’s got so many amazing brunch spots that you rarely need to stand in line or make a reservation.
Up north at Gather, the best simple omelet in town awaits with brunch potatoes so good, you’ll get an extra order to go (really).
Big Jones, in Andersonville, doubles as a master class in Southern cuisine, as chef Paul Fehribach has scoured antique cookbooks to bring authentic New Orleans dishes back to life. There’s no need to be complicated; just get the shrimp and grits and beignets and sigh with pleasure.
Fine dining perfection
Possibly America’s greatest chef right now, Grant Achatz, is a Chicagoan, and his famous Alinea has led lists of the best restaurants in America for almost a decade.
It’s pricy, but if you can afford it (and if you can get a reservation) you’ll have a mind-bending experience that includes edible balloons, picking shattered pieces of dessert off your table and a whole host of other molecular gastronomic masterpieces.
For something a little bit more low-key, there’s Smyth, where chefs John and Karen Shields (alums of the dear, departed Charlie Trotter’s) serve an Asian-inspired tasting menu with dishes like salted and frozen radish and oyster, lamb with pickled onions and black allium and egg yolk soaked in salted licorice.
Tickets for EL Ideas, an interactive tasting-menu spot in Back of the Yards, guarantee adventure. There, you’ll drink with the chefs in the kitchen, taste chef Phillip Foss’ take on a Wendy’s frosty with fries (it sounds silly, but it’s life-changing) and have one of the most fun “fancy” meals you can find anywhere.
In addition to being one of the United States’ best dining cities, Chicago is rapidly becoming one of the best cocktail spots in America.
A good chunk of that is thanks to the efforts of award-winning bartender Paul McGee, and both of his establishments are worth a visit: the tiki temple Lost Lake and the super-exclusive 8-seat Milk Room.
At the Milk Room, you’ll taste bottles that haven’t been opened in decades, including pre-embargo Cuban rum, whiskey from distilleries that closed 30 years ago, and liquor laid down by monks before Roosevelt was president.
If you’re looking for another unique experience, Apogee, the newest rooftop bar from mixer Ben Schiller, serves “cocktail bongs,” drinks inspired by Super Mario Brothers mushrooms and cocktails that come to life with lights and motion.
The reason it works? All this fluff is backed up by some seriously skilled mixers.
For something a bit more chill, try Punch House, a ’70s rec room-themed bar that serves a variety of high-end takes on classic punches through the centuries, including a 1700s-era milk punch that is so tasty, it will have you on the floor before you realize you’re drunk.
Classic Chicago treats
With all this fanciness going on, it’s easy to overlook the classics, and in Chicago that would be a real crime.
It’s always a good idea to visit the Italian Village, where three restaurants (including the 1920s vintage signature spot upstairs, the Village) co-exist under one garlic-scented roof.
A trip down to Hyde Park is worthwhile to visit the 90-something year old Valois, which was visited so many times by President Obama during his Chicago years that it has a whole menu of his favorite dishes.
If you’re willing to drive, Calumet Fisheries is one of the last old-fashioned fried and smoked fish joints left in Chicago. Everything is made on-site in the smoking sheds out back.
And it’s practically against city ordinance to leave without a Chicago-style hotdog (we like Budacki’s) and an Italian beef (go to Al’s Beef).
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