A compendium of the Windy City's best burger, steakhouse, and more.
In December 2018, Chicago Magazine food writer John Kessler declared the party was over when it came to Chicago dining. Kessler's takedown scolded the city’s chefs for numerous aspects of the current restaurant scene, among them not yet “figuring out” local and seasonal cooking and a lack of “exciting immigrant cooking.” Soon after, Chicago Reader restaurant critic Mike Sula offered a rebuttal, naming a number of restaurants that in fact already offer many of the elements Kesseler felt the city lacked. Sula ended the story with a piece of advice for Chicago diners: “If you missed out on any of these exciting new spots, you weren't paying attention. If they don't inspire you, you just don't care.”
“That summed it up for me,” Julia Kramer, deputy editor of Bon Appetit, told me over the phone as we discussed Sula’s piece. Kramer, a Chicago native who spent five years reviewing restaurants for Time Out Chicago, has always been vocally positive about the city’s dining scene. She rebuffed Kessler's off-putting tone throughout his manifesto (“he just made you want to argue with him”) and praised the positivity of Sula’s: “There’s exciting and interesting food in so many parts of the country. I’m much more interested in learning about that than in some guy’s hot take.”
Of course, Chicago was a food city long before there were glossy food magazines. Deep-dish pizza comes to mind—every New Yorker should try the caramelized crust pies at Pequod's Pizza. Chicago-style hot dogs are their own animal: all-beef dog on a poppy seed bun, topped with mustard, sweet relish, white onion, tomatoes, sport peppers, a pickle spear, and celery salt, the best of which can be found at Gene and Jude’s or Redhot Ranch. Sandwiches are big too: Italian Beefs are often served au jus, same as they were in the 1930s. Gym Shoes (a West and South Side speciality) pile on corned and roast beef, gyro meat, tzatziki, and giardiniera. Jibarito sandwiches replace the bread with fried, flattened plantains.
And if that’s not enough for you to brave the cold of the Windy City, Chicago is also home to a robust cocktail scene, from tropical and tiki drinks at Lost Lake and Three Dots and a Dash respectively, to house-made syrups at The Violet Hour (often said to have started the craft cocktail movement in the city back in 2007).
There's a lot to eat, so I've compiled my greatest-hits list below. Grab a big coat—and a fork.
It’s not an all-day cafe, but they serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s not a bakery, but their pastries are masterful. It’s not a natural wine bar, but their list is decidedly funky. With a biweekly menu focusing on seasonal produce, Cellar Door Provisions nips the “Chicago doesn’t do vegetables” argument in the bud, while continuously churning out truly excellent food. Right now their menu boasts oat porridge bread with briny butter, white grapefruit salad, ricotta and potato culurgiones, and brioche-wrapped pears. (They probably won’t be there as you read this, but rest assured there will be something equally exciting.)
Known for hot tamales and craft cocktails, The Delta is an homage to the Mississippi Delta. Owner Eldridge Williams characterizes the region as a “melting pot of African, Mexican, Chinese, and Italian cooking styles”—so you know the grilled catfish gets just as much attention as the fried rice. Still, Chicago’s presence is felt in the restaurant: The Jim Shoe tamale is a nod to the West and South Side sandwich with lamb, beef, and house-made pastrami. The Delta’s burger also gives Au Cheval a run for its money, thanks to 40-day dry-aged beef and their “DAF” sauce. (And yes, DAF stands for “Delta as F—.”)
Fat Rice, the popular Macanese restaurant-bakery-bar, serves what the chef-owners, Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo, call “Euro-Asian comfort food.” Indeed, their signature arroz gordo, or “fat rice,” fits the bill: Hailing from Macau, this dish is similar to paella (a vestige of Portuguese colonialism heavily influenced by Spain) and features char siu, linguiça sausage, Spanish rice, olives, and sliced hard-boiled eggs. Though Fat Rice made an impression on Chicago when they opened in 2013, the team continues to make exciting changes: 2016 brought a bakery, which offers a Chicago-style hot dog bun that looks like a blooming flower; and a bar, the Ladies’ Room, where Annie Beebe-Tron leads a program of deeply unique cocktails that embrace ingredients like umeboshi vinegar, shiso cumin bitters, and house-made chartreuse and Ginjinha.
For a reminder that you’re in the Midwest, hit up Giant, where ribs, biscuits, onion rings, and crab salad are abundant. Still, as the team likes to keep things “slightly cheffy,” it won’t come as a surprise that the first item on the menu is a plate of uni shooters, and among their house-made pastas is something called sortallini, which does in fact mean "sort-of tortellini." The vegetables at Giant (sweet and sour eggplant with cashews! carrots in mole!) don’t need to beg for attention either. And if you’re into it, there’s a long list of minimal-intervention natural wines available.
The fried egg salad on an everything bagel–seasoned crumpet is reason enough to visit Little Goat Diner. Owned by Stephanie Izard, who also runs Girl and the Goat and Duck Duck Goat, Little Goat is one of the best places in town for an unfussy yet deeply thoughtful meal. With elevated diner classics (a kimchi-slathered Reuben, a goat burger, a sundae dripping with apple cider vinegar caramel), and mainstays like corned beef hash and cinnamon buns, it’s an ideal spot to bring families made up of both picky and adventurous eaters.
One of the city’s OG farm-to-table restaurants, Lula Cafe wants to be anything you want it to be—a dinner party spot for the group, a date-night bar, a place to spend an afternoon with a book and a glass of wine. If Lula is definitively anything, it’s an eatery that makes good food. On weekends, lines form early for their ubiquitous yet ever-changing “Royale” breakfast sandwich. Every Monday for the past 18 years, they’ve held a different three-course “farm dinner,” highlighting the best nature has to offer (recently there were lamb ribs with buckwheat and hempseed tabbouleh, and rye Dutch babies with winter greens and black trumpet mushrooms). Oh, and there’s a six-course vegetarian tasting menu offered nightly. But why not just go for a snack of Indonesian-spiced peanut butter on sourdough or a blueberry buckwheat miso muffin? Why not, indeed.
Mi Tocaya Antojería is an unmissable spot when it comes to Mexican food. Chicago is home to some of the best regional Mexican food in the country (Carnitas Uruapan, Ixcateco Grill, La Chaparrita, among many others). But Mi Tocaya Antojería is a cut above. Chef-Owner Diana Davila opened the restaurant to share her own spin on the already complex flavors of Mexican cuisine. See: a salad of raw cactus, burrata, and cured tomato; queso fundido with lamb chorizo and goat cheese; grilled beef tongue with a garlicky peanut sauce. Davila’s ultimate goal is to never dumb down Mexican cooking for the American palate, but to encourage diners to welcome new flavors and textures.
A restaurant serving Korean food heavily influenced by the culinary traditions of Central Italy (and even the Midwest) isn’t something you’ll stumble upon every day, which makes Passerotto a gem. But it’s not a thrown-together concept. Chef-Owner Jennifer Kim made Passerotto a true reflection of her culinary identity and hopes to influence a new generation of traditions. Ddeokbokki is treated like pasta here, the chewy rice cakes seared and blanketed in lamb-neck ragu. One of her larger plates is called cacciucco sundubu—an Italian seafood stew and a Korean tofu stew, respectively. As interpreted by Kim, the dish is a soup of clams, mussels, tofu, and kimchi broth.
Chicago is home to some of the best barbecue in the country (Uncle J’s BBQ, Lem’s BBQ House, and Honky Tonk BBQ, to name just a few), much of which can be found at Smoque. They say their menu is small, but with brisket, baby back and St. Louis ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and Texas sausage—not to mention a full list of classic sides like cornbread, coleslaw, and barbecue beans—I don’t see how one could possibly need anything more.
President Obama cites Valois, a cafeteria-style restaurant, as one of his favorite spots in the city. He likes their breakfast, specifically the eggs and turkey sausage. Open since 1921 (making its home in a few locations over the years), the open kitchen churns out daily specials like prime rib, corned beef and cabbage, patty melts, rice pudding, and peach cobbler. No frills, no spending your whole paycheck—no problem.