The unofficial capital of the Midwest scoffs at labels. Chicagoans don’t like being pigeonholed. The city’s residents feel equally comfortable in formalwear or jeans and a T-shirt, enjoying a hearty supper or an elegant tasting menu — or the city’s abundant street fare.
As of February 28, Chicago has lifted all COVID-19 mask and vaccine restrictions at restaurants and bars, though owners could still insist on face coverings or proof of vaccines to ensure the comfort of their staff. Neither Chicago nor the state of Illinois has a vaccine passport program.
While the city searches for some sense of normalcy, its chefs, cooks, bartenders, and servers continue to offer a level of sophistication seldom seen anywhere else in the country. This is your guide to the best the city offers.
Chicago’s winters breed a psychological toughness. Whisky drinks keep locals warm, and robust fare provides the needed sustenance to venture out into the ice and snow. The city remains the country’s meatpacking capital with an abundance of grass-fed and dry-aged steaks. And don’t forget the tube steaks: the city’s hot dogs stands have no match.
Tourists fixate on deep-dish pizza, a complicated topic for locals who tend to reserve the stuff for special occasions (we politely ask Emily to shut up). Instead, most regularly consume the city’s signature square-cut thin-crust pizza, known as tavern style. But Chicago is more than a two-pie town. The city’s variety — from grandma slices, to Detroit squares, to Neapolitan — demonstrates that pizza is something Chicago excels at, no matter the form.
Street food remains a vital part of the city’s dining culture, and visitors should spend time getting to know Italian beef sandwiches, and carnitas or other types of tacos. And don’t forget to ask for extra mild sauce when stopping at a Harold’s Chicken Shack or any of the many fried chicken specialists on the South and West Sides.
The Michelin-starred restaurants in America’s third-largest city offer top-notch fine-dining experiences. Some names to know include Alinea, Smyth, and Topolobampo.
Then there’s the beer scene, which has been growing steadily in recent years. The eclectic community isn’t just made up of bearded dudes who like flannel. From dark and heavy stouts, to all the hops an IPA fan could want, the city’s beer scene — from Revolution Brewing, to Goose Island Beer Co. (investors of barrel-aged beer, and now a subsidiary of Budweiser) to Maplewood Brewing — is humming.
Of course, this is the city of Malört, the divisive spirit born out of Chicago, available at dives and cocktail bars alike; accept that or just quietly sip a hard seltzer.
Eater publishes a massive amount of maps to guide you through all of Chicago’s can’t-miss foods, drinks, restaurants, and bars. From patios, to takeout, to dine-in, this where to start when plotting out a trip.
Essential restaurants: To ensure an authentic Chicago experience, visitors should dive into Eater Chicago’s Essential 38 Restaurants, which is updated quarterly. Can’t-miss spots include Diana Dávila’s genius Mi Tocaya Antojeria, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s Korean-American stalwart Parachute (which should soon reopen), and Jason Hammel’s all-day masterpiece Lula Cafe. Virtue in Hyde Park is another splendid restaurant with its own spin on southern food from chef Erick Williams. Chicago is also home of Paul Kahan’s Publican and other members of the One Off Hospitality family.
For sweets, check out Lost Larson in Andersonville and Wicker Park, Aya Pastry in West Town, and Justice of the Pies (locations at various markets and available at restaurants).
New standouts: The Eater Chicago Heatmap showcases popular new restaurants. Some newcomers include Kasama, a mild-mannered French bakery and casual Filipino-American spot by day, and the city’s only fine Fil-Am fine dining restaurant with a tasting menu by night. Also, check out Porto, a Michelin-starred restaurant and wine bar in West Town where Spanish seafood reins, and En Passant, an exciting medley of European and Mediterranean flavors in Logan Square. Other newer venues include Bocadillo Market and Armitage Alehouse in Lincoln Park, Provaré in West Town, and Rose Mary from Top Chef winner and South Side native Joe Flamm in Fulton Market.
Burgers: Ten years after Bon Appetit anointed it the best burger in America, Au Cheval continues to lure long lines of visitors. But explore the essential burger map for more variety such as Mini Mott and Red Hot Ranch’s sublime burger for under $6. There’s also the Big Baby, a double cheeseburger that originated on the Southwest Side. For metalhead, Kuma’s Corner remains loud, if a slight parody of its once rebellious self with locations in Fulton Market and suburban Schaumburg.
Coffee: Chicago is home to an exciting and diverse local coffee scene that’s free of the pretentiousness too often associated with the industry. The city is packed with friendly, knowledgable baristas and roasters eager to show novices that there’s more to coffee than Starbucks. For an essential coffee shop experience, visit specialty cafe and roastery Gaslight in Logan Square, Japanese-influenced Sawada in West Loop, or community icon Back of the Yards Coffee. — Naomi Waxman
Doughnuts: Get your fluffy, crunchy, sweet fried dough rings at Stan’s Donuts and Coffee, Firecakes, Doughnut Vault, or any of the other spots featured on the essential doughnut map. Aya Pastry has a standout selection inspired by the Samoa Girl Scout Cookie.
Fried Chicken: Fried chicken in this city is no joke, as evidenced by the selections on the essential fried chicken map. Head to one of the many original Harold Chicken Shacks or a newer essential North Side spot Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Don’t forget Cleo’s Southern Cuisine in Bronzeville. Chicago hasn’t fetishized spicy options like other cities, but there’s still plenty of Nashville hot chicken to be found.
Hot dogs: Anthony Bourdain begrudgingly admitted that Chicago bests his native New York when it comes to hot dogs. Don’t be intimidated by the Chicago-style hot dog, a Vienna Beef wiener “dragged through the garden” with mustard, neon green relish, raw or grilled onions, tomatoes, and celery salt with optional sport peppers. Never order ketchup; don’t be ridiculous. Eater’s essential hot dog map include icons like Portillo’s, Superdawg Drive-In, and the Wiener’s Circle (which in late 2021 added a bar). Red Hot Ranch and Gene & Jude serve a variation stuffed with fries called the “Depression Dog.” An exciting newcomer is the father-and-daughter-run operation the Hot Dog Box, which has locations in Bronzeville and Portage Park.
Beer: Chicago has the most breweries in America, and many of them, including Maplewood, Goose Island, Half Acre, Dovetail, and Hopewell offer their beer to-go in cans, crowlers, and growlers. Some also have socially distanced patios. Check out the essential brewery map. There’s also a strong scene in the suburbs.
Cocktails: One of the things the makes Chicago special is that barflies can enjoy a cheap beer one second and the next they could be sipping on a lavish cocktail smoked in house with ridiculous garnishes and custom ice cubes. Bars like Estereo, Weegee’s Lounge, Nobody’s Darling, Osito’s Tap, MONEYGUN, and Larry’s bring both the creative drinks and the fun.
Dive Bars: Dive bars were probably most hurt by the pandemic. When those Zoom happy hours get stale, grab a can of PBR (or better yet, a cheap local brew) and a shot of Jeppson’s Malört at one of Chicago’s great dives. Bars to know include Old Town Ale House, Woodlawn Tap, Delilah’s, Lange’s Lounge, and Rossi’s.
Essential bars: The beauty of Chicago’s bar scene is its carefree quality. It’s not uncommon to down Guinness at an Irish pub, then wander into a brewery’s taproom, and to finally cap things off at a cocktail lounge. Or maybe the plan changes, and you find yourself at a late-night dive to end the night.
Chicago has lifted many of its COVID-19 restrictions, the regulations that devastated the bar industry by keeping patrons away. Mask wearing is up to the discretion of the owners who hope customers are honest about their vaccination status.
For a fancy cocktail, Kumiko on West Loop is a Japanese-inspired bar where bartender Julia Momose puts care into mixing every drink. It’s a contender for best bar in the country. The Wicker Park speakeasy the Violet Hour remains one of the city’s most influential bars. These taverns and many others are featured on the Essential Bar Map.
Chicago’s skyline, one of the prettiest in the country, makes spending some time on a rooftop bar a priority during the warmer months. Many have long lines during peak weekend hours, but the pandemic helped usher a new era where reservations are common practice. Take advantage of that and plan those visits ahead. Try BiXi Beer in Logan Square, Cabra in Fulton Market, or, for a spectacular view of the lakefront, Cindy’s inside the Chicago Athletic Association hotel on Michigan Avenue.
Ice Cream: After surviving those long, cold winters, Chicagoans take their summers — and their ice cream shops — seriously. Peruse the essential ice cream map; throwback destinations Margie’s Candies (North Side) and Original Rainbow Cone (South Side) should not be missed. There are also plenty of playful new-school vendors like Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Logan Square and Kurimu, a Japanese-style soft serve shop with locations in Little Italy and Wicker Park. One of the country’ finest vegan ice cream stands, Vaca’s Creamery, is in Noble Square. Also, Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream may provide the best ice cream experience in the city with flavor combos not seen anywhere else. Those seeking a classic Chicago dessert experience should also browse the essential Italian Ice map. — Naomi Waxman
Japanese: Chicago has seen a recent influx of elegant Japanese omakase meals and fine dining experiences, often housed in sleek, intimate spaces. Explore the essential sushi map and book a spot at eight-seat sushi haunt Kyoten in Logan Square or find a pristine box of nigiri from Mako in West Loop. The city is also home to a bustling ramen scene: the essential ramen map lists some of the best destinations, including Chicago Ramen (which is actually in suburban Des Plaines). — Naomi Waxman
Jewish Delis: Despite nervous rumblings to the contrary, the Jewish deli is alive and kicking in Chicago. Longtime favorites like Manny’s Deli in the South Loop, founded in 1942, and neighborhood stalwart the Bagel in Lakeview, are still slinging nostalgic Ashkenazi comfort food like matzo ball soup and massive corned beef sandwiches to hungry hoards. But that old school approach isn’t the only game in town: Chicagoans can also find creative and heartwarming contemporary spins at spots like Steingold’s (Lakeview), Jeff & Judes (Ukrainian Village), and Sam & Gertie’s (Uptown), the latter of which bills itself as the world’s first vegan deli. Peruse the Jewish deli food map for more schmaltzy inspiration. — Naomi Waxman
Michelin: Chicago has its shared of world-renowned restaurants. Check out the map of Michelin-starred restaurants for fine dining. The tire guide’s affordable list, the Bib Gourmand, seems like a way to laud international cuisine — something Chicago has ample supplies — without giving restaurants a star.
Pierogi: Chicago’s Polish and Eastern European heritage plays a major part in the city’s present. The number of Polish restaurants has dwindled some, but check out the pierogi map and head to Smak-Tak for more modern cuisine or the throwback time-capsule Podhalanka for some comforting dumplings straight out of a Polish grandmother’s kitchen.
Steakhouses: Yes, every major city has many steakhouses, often for business travelers and the expense-account crowd. But in the meatpacking capital of the world, there are steakhouses at many different price points. Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse and Chicago Cut Steakhouse are among those on the essential steakhouse map. Newer entries Maple & Ash and Boeufhaus are also worth seeking out.
Steak Hoagie: If one asks for a steak hoagie in Chicago, one is asking for a specific type of sandwich with thin-cut beef, green peppers, and a sweet sauce that turns the whole thing into a glorious mess. Home of the Hoagy in Morgan Park has one of the best.
Tacos: The tacos in Chicago, which has one of the country’s largest Mexican populations, are severely underrated on the national scene and often take a backseat to those in Southern California and Texas. Do yourself a favor and try as many on the essential taco map and hottest taco map as you can, particularly the goat birria specialist Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights or one of the many carnitas specialists in the South Side neighborhood of Pilsen, notably Carnitas Uruapan. Also, run to La Chaparrita, a Mexican grocery store in Little Village, for some delicious Mexico City-style tacos de fritangas, or “fried tacos” (it’s the fillings that are fried, not the tortillas). A new contender for the North Side taco throne recently arrived on the border of Bucktown and Logan Square: Taqueria Chingón.
Vegetarian/Vegan: Amazingly, and contrary to the tired stereotype, vegetables do grow in the Midwest, and Chicago’s chefs use preservation techniques and other methods to make we don’t come down with scurvy during the winter. Chicago’s meat and potatoes label will stick, but a single sad pasta dish is no longer the only option on the menu for vegetarians and vegans. Meat-free options are more abundant than before, thanks to Althea, Soul Veg City, Fancy Plants Cafe, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, and B’Gabs Goodies. Plus, let’s not pretend Chicago isn’t a metropolis with plenty of Chinese, Indian, and Thai restaurants with a plethora of vegetarian items.
There’s a distinction between the areas that make up downtown (Loop, River North, Mag Mile, Gold Coast, Streeterville), and the rest of the city. Those areas are considered the city’s business district. But the soul of Chicago resides in the outlying neighborhoods, which have distinct identities and are sources of pride for their residents. Public transportation connects most places (though there’s an infamous coverage gap on the city’s South Side). Though only a portion of CTA trains ride on elevated tracks, locals have nicknamed the system “the El.” Buses are also mostly reliable, if not as speedy. Current regulations mandate masks on public transportation.
Still home to a large percentage of Chicago’s Chinese immigrants, this Near South Side neighborhood is also home to the vast majority of the best Chinese restaurants in town. Get dim sum at MingHin Cuisine or Cai, or hot pot at Mrs. Gu Skewers Hot Pot. Tony Hu, who brought Mrs. Gu to Chicago, is considered one of the city’s most successful restaurateurs. His first restaurant, Lao Sze Chuan, continues to thrives in Chinatown with locations off Michigan Avenue and in Uptown and the suburbs. Check out this map for more. There are also wonders inside the Richland Center Food Court, and don’t forget to grab a Portuguese egg tart from Chiu Quon, the city’s oldest Asian bakery.
The city’s Chinese community has expanded to Bridgeport, the neighborhood immediately west of Chinatown. There, visitors will find the exciting new 88 Marketplace, a Pan Asian grocery stuffed with restaurants including Qiao Lin Hotpot and Holu, a fancy Asian steakhouse.
There are plenty of regional Chinese restaurants outside Chinatown, too, such as Lao Peng You in West Town and Chengdu Impression in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park.
The city’s South Asian hub is located on Devon Avenue in West Ridge, about 10 miles north of downtown, and the the pandemic hit it hard. Ignore the rumors and conjecture — restaurants are open and serving up dosa, thali, idli, and more. While fine dining options are in short supply, South Indian vegetarian cuisine shines at Uru-Swati, and Udupi Palace, Other standouts include Sukhadia’s, Annapurna, and Sabri Nihari. Many South Asian restaurants have a complicated relationship with serving meat, but one spot that has no such qualms is Khan B.B.Q., a spicy casual spot that’s carnivore friendly. And FYI: Locals and their immigrant families simply call this area Devon, so don’t try to call it Little India.
Elsewhere in the city, visitors can find stellar South Asian eats at a variety of places including Rooh Chicago in Fulton Market, Wazwan in Wicker Park, Superkhana International in Logan Square, and Vajra in West Town.
Greater Grand Crossing
The area around 75th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway has long been full of wonderful restaurants that go toe-to-toe with any area in the city. It’s hard to dismiss Lem’s Bar-B-Q’s rib tips, ribs, and hot links underneath that retro sign. But for vegans, Soul Veg City (nee Soul Vegetarian) has delivered meat-free gyros, chicken nugget substitutes called protein tidbits, and more for decades. The quality at Harold’s Chicken Shack locations vary, but one of the city’s best locations sits on 75th, right near Brown Sugar Bakery, where turtle cakes and more sweet treats are available. Then there’s 5 Loaves Eatery, where diners walk out with huge grins.
These neighboring neighborhoods continue to draw top talent, starting with Honey Butter Fried Chicken and one of Chicago’s finest restaurants: Michelin-starred Parachute, a Korean-American restaurant the takes mixes contemporary with tradition.
Lula Cafe has been an anchor for more than 20 years, but there’s rich variety here, including Big Kids, a whimsical sandwich shop that doesn’t take itself seriously; Daisies, where fresh noodles are presented through the eyes of a Midwestern; Bixi Beer, Chicago’s only Asian-inspired brewpub; and Mi Tocaya Antojeria where chef Diana Dávila dazzles customers with deliciousness while managing to teach them a thing or two about Mexican cuisine.
Hermosa and Belmont Cragin, just west of Logan Square and several miles from the nearest El stop, don’t get the attention they deserve, even from locals, but these two neighborhoods are home to some of the tastiest fare in the city. For folks searching for Dominican cuisine, Morena’s Kitchen makes delicious, perfectly seasoned chicken. Meanwhile, one taste of the arepas at Rica Arepa will make you dream of returning. The new kid on the block is Hermosa Restaurant, which serves a Cambodian-style chicken sandwich and a Korean cheesesteak sandwich that are both mind-blowing. There are also private dinners on the weekends (because the restaurant is so tiny, one table can fill the dining room), but you’ll need to make your reservation far in advance.
Hyde Park will always be shaped the University of Chicago, but of late its restaurants have figured out that they don’t need to cater to students alone. While local residents who love the insular nature of their community may cringe that the neighborhood is listed on a city dining guide, it’s hard to ignore the draw. The aforementioned Virtue is a revelation — a celebration of Black culture with a unique approach to southern cuisine that pushes boundaries. Don’t forget one of the most iconic restaurants in the city, Valois Cafeteria, where customers can find an honest meal for an honest price. (It remains Barack Obama’s go-to when he comes back to town.) There’s also Medici on 57th, home to one of the city’s best burgers.
Mexican culture is prevalent in Pilsen, where standout selections include Carnitas Uruapan, Don Pedro Carnitas, and 5 Rabanitos. But longtime residents worry that recent changes will lead to gentrification and higher rents that will force them to move elsewhere. Thalia Hall, a building originally built in 1892, was a harbinger or change when it reopened a decade ago with a live music venue and a popular restaurant, Dusek’s, that brought new visitors to the neighborhood. Now there’s an abundance of non-Mexican spots. S.K.Y. brings fun Asian-inspired fare, including memorable dumplings stuffed with Maine lobster. There’s a memorable Vietnamese tasting menu at Hai Sous, great barbecue and live music at Honky Tonk BBQ, standout burgers and beer at Skylark, and delicious meat pies at Pleasant House Pub.
Not everything downtown is an office, government building, hotel, or chain restaurant. And not everything shuts down after happy hour. This neighborhood across the Chicago River from the Loop is now home to the many of the trendiest nightlife and see-and-be-seen spots in Chicago. Some acclaimed restaurants are holding it down — including Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Carlos Gaytan’s revelatory Tzuco — as well as Lettuce Entertain You’s RPM Seafood, RPM Steak, and RPM Italian. There’s a glut of steakhouses, but many prefer the simplicity of a hot dog, Italian beef, or milkshake at Portillo’s or deep-dish pizza at Uno’s or Due’s. Be careful, because there are plenty of tourist traps.
Recently, celebrity chef José Andrés entered the market with his flagship tapas spot, Jaleo, though doesn’t offer too much that Chicago hasn’t already seen. For more innovation, head south to the Loop, where Andrés recently opened a trio of restaurants inside Bank of America’s pristine new Chicago headquarters right on the river. Bar Mar and Bazaar Meat, which specialize in seafood and steak respectively, are collaborations with Gibsons Steakhouse, while Cafe by the River is a cute spot for coffee or a casual lunch.
West Loop/Fulton Market
Developers have feasted upon real estate in West Loop and Fulton Market. There’s no doubt the feel of the neighborhood has changed now that companies like McDonald’s and Google have set up corporate offices. The area immediately west of the Loop and the Chicago River remains home to Restaurant Row, where spots like Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, Little Goat, and Duck Duck Goat; Paul Kahan’s the Publican and Avec; and Grant Achatz’s Next, the Aviary, and Roister reside. Time Out Market is a giant food hall filled with local restaurants that attempts to give tourists a curated one-stop shop for Chicago eats. It’s worth a trip if your visit is short
There’s also a bounty of upscale Japanese restaurants such as Mako, Kumiko, and Omakase Yume. Other highlights include Boka Restaurant Group’s Momotaro and Swift & Sons, and Monteverde from Sarah Grueneberg of Top Chef fame.
Wicker Park and the Surrounding Area
In the ’90s, this area west of the Kennedy Expressway was the center of the city’s counterculture, with the nexus at the Milwaukee/Damen/North intersection. Since then, it’s been thoroughly gentrified. One-Off Hospitality’s anchors, honky tonk taqueria Big Star and cocktail spot the Violet Hour, which opened in the aughts, remain neighborhood standbys. Other bright spots include Mott St, which fuses Korean and other Asian flavors into a uniquely American experience. Then there’s Kasama in West Town, where French pastries and sandwiches feed customers during the day, followed by lumpia and Filipino smoked meats in the afternoon, and a fantastic tasting menu for dinner (for that, you’ll need to book months in advance). Frontier in Noble Square specializes in full-animal service that’s great for groups. For great bagels and pastry, head to Bucktown, where James Beard Award winner Mindy Segal plans to reopen Mindy’s Bakery in spring 2022.
Argyle Street, which runs through the neighborhood of Uptown, is home to one of Chicago’s most destination-worthy dining strips of Vietnamese restaurants, where every chef has their own specialty. Pho shops like Pho Viet and Hai Yen are impressive. But also don’t forget Immm Rice & Beyond, which offers an abundance of hawker center-style Thai food, and Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, honored as one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation, for Peking duck (be sure to order in advance).
Breaded Steak Sandwich
An Italian-American classic from the South Side of Chicago, the breaded steak sandwich is not for the faint for heart. This sloppy concoction involves deep-fried and battered pieces of meat, melted cheese, and marinara sauce on a French roll. Gio’s, Ricobene’s, and Punky’s Pizza are among the establishments that sell this delicacy.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Hot dogs in Chicago are their own entity. They shouldn’t be confused with New York hot dogs or Detroit-style Coney dogs. Here, they’re “dragged through the garden,” i.e. covered with toppings and condiments: sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear, diced onion, neon green pickled relish, sport peppers, yellow mustard. and celery salt, and served on a steamed poppy seed bun. NEVER ask for ketchup on your hot dog in Chicago (unless you’re visiting Gordon Ramsay Burger in River North, which was widely mocked for offering this on the menu). Also, look for dogs with natural casings. Your tastebuds will thank you.
Note: Chicago also serves Polish sausages, affectionately called “Polishes.” Sized a little larger than a hot dog, these are scored and served with grilled onions and peppers. Jim’s Original takes credit for inventing this treat when it was still located in the old Maxwell Street Market.
Giardiniera is an Italian condiment consisting of pickled peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, and other vegetables packed in oil in spicy or mild versions. It’s not totally unique to Chicago, but is ubiquitous here due to its prevalent use on Italian beef. Fans of giardiniera from other American cities should note the local version often includes sport peppers. Also, it’s pronounced “jar-din-air-ah.”
Jim Shoe (or Gym Shoe)
A tribute to Chicago’s European immigrants, this South Side special pits gyro meat on top of corned beef on top of roast beef for a multicultural melange. Add cheese and giardiniera to the roll, and this is one serious sandwich. Find the iconic version at Stony Sub on the Far South Side.
Chicago’s Italian beef sandwich has a juicy origin story: it was created by Italian immigrants as a cheap way to feed large parties. This guide, headlined by near-suburban favorite Johnnie’s Beef and iconic local chain Al’s Beef, shows the best places to find one. Just make sure to specify wet or dipped; and with hot or sweet peppers. A “combo” doesn’t come with fries — it’s a combination Italian sausage topped with the sliced beef.
The jibarito, a sandwich that uses sliced and fried plantains in lieu of bread or buns, was invented in Chicago by Puerto Rican immigrants; usually credit is given to the late Juan Figeroa, owner of Borinquen Lounge in Humboldt Park. Fillings include carne asada (steak), roast pork, and chicken. The sandwich is often topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Outside of Humboldt Park, find them at minichain Jibaritos y Más, which has locations in Logan Square, Lincoln Park, and Dunning.
Another Chicago original that’s beginning to spread to other cities, Malört is an extremely bitter Swedish wormwood liquor that’s a favorite of many local bartenders. Taking a shot is often a right of passage for newbies. For years it was nearly always served in shots, but recently bartenders have started to use it in cocktails, some of which are surprisingly delicious. Jeppson’s is the original brand, but other companies have started making their own, such as Letherbee’s Besk.
Black Chicago has its roots in the South thanks to the Great Migration, and it’s no surprise that many Southern cooking tradition have found homes here. One of those traditions is fried chicken, and one way Chicagoans have made it their own is with mild sauce, a wildly copied condiment (ask D.C. Comics where its precious Mumbo sauce came from; we’ll wait) that has a passionate following. Served at chicken spots like Harold’s and Uncle Remus, this is a concoction made from ketchup, barbecue sauce, and a dash of hot sauce.
The Pizza Puff, a frozen food concoction that’s actually a deep-fried flour tortilla filled with mozzarella, sausage, and tomato sauce, is generally sold at hot dog stands in Chicago. This is a Chicago invention, and Albano’s and Terry’s Place are among the spots that make fresh versions. This is good drinking food.
The flavorful cartilage ends of spare ribs are common at South Side barbecue shacks, as well as in other Midwestern cities. Click here for a primer on Chicago barbecue, which is distinguished by the way pitmasters use smokers made from glass aquariums.
Slashie or Packaged Goods Store
Packaged good stores are corner stores where customers can purchase alcohol that also just happen to have a bar inside. These spots, often patronized by those working odd shifts, have become an important part of Chicago’s drinking culture. But in the early aughts, a new and younger wave of clientele began showing up, calling the hybrid stores and bars “slashies” (the old guard dislikes this term). Even before March 2020, the future of the slashie was in doubt, but during the pandemic, bars were permitted to sell alcohol to go, so it feels most places are packaged good stores now, making these dives, where one can grab a shot and can of beer in peace, an endangered species.
Grant Achatz and Alinea Group preside over some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, including namesake Alinea, a pioneer in molecular gastronomy and the city’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant. A visit to the Lincoln Park restaurant is a theatrical experience, worthy of a bucket list. Achatz’s fingerprints are also on Next, where the menu and scenery rotate every season, and Aviary, the avant-garde cocktail bar. Achatz has developed a reputation for excellence. His more outspoken Alinea co-founder, Nick Kokonas is also the co-founder of reservation platform Tock.
Perhaps Chicago’s most famous chef and television personality, Rick Bayless is known for popularizing regional Mexican cuisine in America, beginning with the arrival of his Frontera Grill restaurant in 1987. Bayless went on to open the Michelin-starred tasting-menu restaurant Topolobampo next door a few years later, followed by street-food haven XOCO. Frontera later expanded into packaged food, and its chips and salsa and frozen meals can be found in supermarkets. Bayless, who is white and from Oklahoma, has raised concerns about appropriation within Chicago’s Mexican community.
Boka Restaurant Group
Another highly-acclaimed and extremely successful Chicago restaurant group is Boka, named for its founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, who won a James Beard Award in 2019. Boka owns or is a partner in GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime, Boka (their original Chicago restaurant), Momotaro, Swift & Sons, Bellemore, and Somerset, as well as all of Stephanie Izard’s restaurants. The group continues to grow, with a variety of upcoming projects.
Tony Hu is one of Chicago’s most prominent cultural ambassadors, earning himself the title “Mayor of Chinatown.” Chinese cuisine in Chicago was at a crossroads before Hu opened his Lao chain of restaurants, including Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown, which introduced many Chicagoans to Sichuan food. Hu’s subsequent projects demonstrated how varied Chinese cuisine actually is.
This Top Chef and Iron Chef champion runs three of the most successful (and hardest to get into) restaurants in Chicago — Girl and the Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Cabra — as well as the Little Goat Diner and Sugargoat, a bakery. Izard is poised to follow Bayless’ steps in growing her brand, as her This Little Goat sauces and rubs are now found at stores across the country.
Folks outside of Chicago will know Kim from her a Top Chef appearance. Chicagoans know her from Parachute, the restaurant she and her husband Johnny Clark have pushed to new heights. Kim has also taken a leadership role with the Abundance Setting, a nonprofit that helps working mothers in the culinary industry. While Parachute is undergoing renovations (it’s been closed for much of the pandemic), Kim and Clark’s second restaurant, the seasonal Wherewithall, is open and has recently opened a bar and added brunch.
Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
Chicago’s most successful and widespread restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), founded by patriarch Rich Melman, has opened more than 130 restaurants since it was founded in 1971. Known for extremely well-run, often fun spots that run the gamut from fast food to fine dining, its most noteworthy concepts include R.J. Grunts (the original LEYE restaurant), Aba, Joe’s Seafood Prime Steak and Stone Crab, Three Dots and a Dash, RPM Italian and RPM Steak, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, and Bub City.
One Off Hospitality Group
A Chicagoan through and through (he was raised in his family’s fish market in Rogers Park) and the co-James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Chef in 2013, Paul Kahan, along with primary partner Donnie Madia, runs One Off Hospitality Group. The group’s known for Avec, the Publican, Big Star, the Violet Hour, Publican Quality Meats, and Dove’s Luncheonette.
Sodikoff and his Hogsalt Hospitality group operate a dizzying array of very successful Chicago spots, including Au Cheval, the Doughnut Vault, Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf, Gilt Bar, Green Street Smoked Meats, Small Cheval, and High Five Ramen. Hogsalt’s newest restaurant is Armitage Alehouse, an Anglo-Indian pub in Lincoln Park.
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