Here are more than 25 top spots in Chicago including genius chef Grant Achatz’s flagship Alinea, a legendary coffee roaster, an incredible gelato shop and the best place to get a hot dog with celery salt and pickled peppers. » F&W’s Full Chicago Travel Guide
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Chicago Restaurants: Insider Picks
Photo courtesy of Graham Elliot.
After leaving the elegant hotel restaurant Avenues, Graham Elliot Bowles set up his dream restaurant—a bistro with a casual vibe (servers wear jeans, the sound system blasts the chef’s own iPod) and whimsical dishes that deploy lowbrow ingredients like Corn-Nuts and Nilla Wafers. Expect tweaked takes on Americana classics, like a Buffalo “wing” (actually a crispy thigh), with a blue cheese sauce, hot sauce, celery slaw and Budweiser foam. grahamelliot.com
The next-door spin-off of Paul Kahan’s New American flagship Blackbird, this wine bar is always packed—despite the fact that it’s narrow, loud, only offers counter seating and takes no reservations. Chef Koren Grieveson elevates the small plates menu with Mediterranean-inspired dishes like chorizo-stuffed dates and baba ghanoush crostini with salmon roe. Sommelier Eduard Seitan’s all-European list features lots of interesting small producers, with about a third of the selections available by the carafe and 30 by the glass. avecrestaurant.comPhoto courtesy of Girl & the Goat.
"It’s a rustic restaurant with a bit of bad ass," says Top Chef Season 4 winner Stephanie Izard about the spot she opened with Boka co-owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz. Using Spanish, Italian and Southeast Asian ingredients, Izard changes the menu frequently, creating unique dishes like a clever play on surf and turf: lamb-stuffed calamari topped with marcona-almond butter. On the drinks list: a custom-blended Girl & the Goat wine from Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, and beer collaborations with Three Floyds Brewery. girlandthegoat.comPhoto © Lisa Predko Photography.
Chef Jimmy Bannos, Jr., is boldly turning out meaty delicacies rarely seen in the tony Magnificent Mile area; even the ladies who lunch happily eat his sweet-crunchy pig’s ears with pickled cherry peppers at the communal tables. A Euro-centric wine list includes 50 choices under $40. thepurplepigchicago.com
At this Bucktown spot with brick walls and communal tables, nose-to-tail advocate Chris Pandel serves seasonal dishes with Mediterranean roots such as handmade garganelli tubes with ham hock and pea tendrils and head-on prawns à la plancha. Snacks are irresistible, such as sausage-stuffed olives battered and fried like Scotch eggs. thebristolchicago.com
For his first restaurant, Oprah’s former personal chef, Art Smith, chose a two story carriage house on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Goat-cheese biscuits arrive as an amuse bouche and the comfort-food menu includes fried green tomatoes with greens and ham and wild shrimp with white corn grits. Some of the best seats in the yellow, barn-like space are at the chef’s counter, with a front-row view of the wood-fired oven. tablefifty-two.com
Chicago Restaurants: Splurge
Grant Achatz’s hyper-experimental cooking style put him in the vanguard of American cuisine and made this Lincoln Park restaurant an incredibly tough place to get a reservation (try calling two months in advance). Exquisite, impossible dishes arrive with custom-made plates and utensils and seem to defy physics—the heirloom tomato salad is a burst of sweet tomato foam trapped in a balloon of mozzarella inflated like bubblegum. alinea-restaurant.com
Every three months Grant Achatz’s restaurant transforms itself to serve food from a particular time period—like Paris 1912 or Hong Kong 2036. Instead of making reservations, diners buy tickets for the complete meal, and prices fluctuate based on demand (i.e., a Saturday night reservation costs more than a Tuesday night table). nextrestaurant.com
At his 26-seat BYOB, chef-owner Michael Carlson serves experimental cuisine in a spare room with zero frills—there is no host, coat check or even waitstaff (chefs deliver the dishes themselves). The intensely creative menu, which changes every six weeks or so, might include Peekytoe crab with "pine flavors" (rosemary, juniper, Banyuls and maple) served with yuzu-marinated royal king mushrooms, or one of Carlson’s signature dishes—a parsnip custard with candied sweetbreads—for dessert. Reservations take about six weeks to get, so plan ahead. schwarestaurant.comPhoto courtesy of Blackbird.
At his New American flagship, chef Paul Kahan and chef de cuisine David Posey create a hyper-seasonal, always-changing menu that is filled with inspired combinations, like fennel-and-sesame-seed soup with smoked eel. The space is space-age and sharp-edged, but the clientele is indie-style casual. The food-friendly wine list has a large selection of Alsace whites. blackbirdrestaurant.com
In an intimate two-story A-frame building in Bucktown, the Japanese-born Takashi Yagihashi delicately combines Asian and French techniques with Midwestern ingredients, like chicken baked in a clay pot with shimeji mushrooms, eggplant, haricots verts and yuzu juice. A concise list of Spanish and French wines pairs well with the salty-spicy-tangy food. takashichicago.com
In a plain-Jane office building in suburban Western Springs, star chef Paul Virant plays with Western European flavors in an semi-industrial setting—concrete floors, brushed aluminum chairs, silk banquettes. Virant tops crispy veal sweetbreads with green tomato sauce and honey roasted rapini and plates local sugar snap peas with pretzels and kale. Desserts come with a glass of wine, a nod to Vie’s distinction as the town’s first restaurant with a liquor license since Prohibition. vierestaurant.com
The restaurant in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago is an impressive, futuristic space with bright white tables and an expansive terrace overlooking Millennium Park. Star chef Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia finds the perfect nexus between Italian dishes and Midwestern ingredients, as in a grilled steak tagliata with poached farm egg and charred asparagus. terzopianochicago.com
Even in hot dog–saturated Chicago, Hot Doug’s stands out with a massive menu of specialty sausages, including goofy celebrity items (the Brigitte Bardot is a “mighty, mighty, mighty hot” andouille) and high-low combos like the foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli. Still, their version of the classic Chicago-style dog, with trimmings like celery salt, tomatoes and pickled peppers, is top-notch. Insider’s tip: The duck-fat fries, made only on weekends, attract even longer lines than usual. hotdougs.com
Chicago Restaurants: Best Value
“Tacos, whiskey, hillbilly music” is how Paul Kahan describes the ultracasual Mexican spot he opened in Wicker Park in 2009. Located in an old dive bar, Big Star blasts classic Bakersfield-style country (Buck Owens, Merle Haggard) while serving excellent pork-belly tacos and greasy-good queso fundido (a glorious melted-cheese appetizer studded with chorizo). If you’re going to drink, there are only three options: beer, tequila and bourbon. bigstarchicago.com
The beer list at this Paul Kahan–owned gastropub is outsize, featuring rarities from US craft brewers and seemingly every Belgian style known to man. Beer director Michael McAvena will guide you to smart pairings to go with the porky, farmhouse-style menu, which features homemade sausages and charcuterie. For the pig-averse, there are plenty of seafood offerings, including amazing raw oysters. thepublicanrestaurant.com
Rick Bayless of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill was already one of Chicago’s stars when winning the first season of Top Chef Masters made him a national celebrity. His most affordable restaurant has a quick-serve menu inspired by Mexican street food. Anchoring it are caldos (soups) and huge tortas (sandwiches) stuffed with fillings, like braised beef short rib, that get toasted in a wood-fired oven. Insider’s tip: Go before 10 a.m. to try the amazing ham-and-egg breakfast bread pudding. rickbayless.comPhoto courtesy of Belly Shack.
Chef Bill Kim’s follow-up to his pan-Asian noodle shop, Urban Belly, is also fast and casual, serving Asian-Latino food in a stripped-down setting (communal tables, counter service) under the Blue Line el tracks. Kim studs hot and sour soup with hominy, evoking the Mexican soup posole. He also finds unexpected ways to use noodles, like sneakily tucking crispy egg noodles in Chicago’s beloved hot dog bun. bellyshack.com
Chicago Bakeries, Coffee Bars and Breakfast Spots
Owners Sandra and Mathieu Holl turned their Green City Market stand into this Lincoln Park bakery with a glass-paned facade that’s open to the sidewalk. French pastries still rule, including flaky croissants and caramelized canalés—those Bordeaux pâtisseries that resemble little, narrow bundt cakes concealing custardy rum-spiked centers. The brick-and-mortar space has also led to an expanded cafe menu featuring savory polenta topped with butter and breadcrumbs and La Quercia proscuitto sandwiches on baguettes made in house. floriole.com
Jeffrey Mauro is the king of Chicago’s brunch scene. Here’s how much care Mauro puts into his beloved French toast: He dips thick brioche slices in a vanilla-and-malt-spiked custard before cooking them sous vide, which helps the custard penetrate every bit of the bread. Just before serving, he caramelizes the bread in a hot pan, then serves it with marinated fruit; sweet, citrus-flavored whipped cream; and a sprinkling of pink peppercorns. For a savory highlight, try the pork-shoulder-and-egg sandwich with ricotta salata and plum preserves. jamrestaurant.com
Founded on the North Side of Chicago in 1995, low-key Intelligentsia is now one of the most respected coffee roasters in the country. Coffee buyer Geoff Watts—a pioneer in the direct-trade coffee movement—was among the first to seek individual growers, cutting out middlemen. The coffee bar in the Monadnock building is the most attractive, with Art Deco fixtures and original tile floors from the 1920s, but all three locations spotlight the company’s beans in pour-over coffee and espresso drinks, while offering ample seating for big cookies and prepared sandwiches. intelligentsiacoffee.com
Chicago Ice Cream Shop
In a fuchsia-painted Ukrainian Village spot, pastry chef Jessica Oloroso offers some 20 flavors of gelato and sorbet daily. She also makes delicious ice cream sandwiches, great with a scoop of malted vanilla or Mexican chocolate in between sugar cookies. Oloroso’s former colleague at Scylla, chef Stephanie Izard, still drops by for her favorite, Salted Peanut gelato. blackdogchicago.com
Photo © Christian Seel.
Alinea’s Grant Achatz masterminded this experimental cocktail lounge where there’s no bar or bartenders (chefs do the mixing in the kitchen) and each drink comes in a custom-designed glass. Drinks are unusual in every way, from the flavor combinations (a Truffled Negroni) to their presentation—the old-fashioned is served inside a sphere of ice that you have to crack open to drink. theaviary.comPhoto courtesy of Sable Kitchen & Bar.
The 16-page drink menu at Hotel Palomar’s bar quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, lists cocktails like the Cat’s Meow with gin, lemon, honey, and spicy siracha and features one of the city’s largest collections of rum, bourbon and whiskey. Former Atwood Café chef Heather Terhune creates shareable gastropub dishes like pork rillettes with pickled apricots, fingerlings fried in duck fat and flatbreads fired in the open kitchen’s brick oven. sablechicago.com
This cocktail lounge in the Wicker Park neighborhood is nearly hidden, marked only by a single sconce and a poster-plastered door. Owner Toby Maloney stocks his bar with house-made bitters and infused liquors to mix classic cocktails as well as signature drinks like the Juliet & Romeo with Beefeater gin, mint, cucumber and rose water. There’s also a menu of upscale bar snacks, including brandade fritters and caramelized onion dip made with crème fraiche and served with chips. theviolethour.com