Chicago: A Food Enthusiast’s Paradise
ntil 1971, Chicago was known as a “meat and potatoes” kind of town. This could be attributed in part to the legacy of the famed beef stockyards adjoining the downtown financial district drawing royalty, captains of industry and countless tourists. Fabled steakhouses, not surprisingly, grew up and around it. Chicago was also and still is known as a “city of neighborhoods,” small cities-within-the-city defined by different ethnic groups.
Even with so much to explore, the Chicago of my childhood took a backseat to New York City and other East Coast metropolises when it came to dining. The Chicago of the 21st century, however, is more a melting pot than a patchwork. Gentrification has mixed the populations, and restaurateurs find new ways to celebrate the fruits, vegetables and proteins of America’s heartland. It’s a balanced city where old dining institutions and innovative concepts co-exist deliciously.
Haute Hotel Restaurants
The Florentine at the JW Marriott Hotel
151 W Adams St, Chicago, IL 60603 | (312) 660-8866 | the-florentine.net
The Florentine, under the direction of with Executive Chef Zachary Walrath, converges the old school Chicago Italian restaurant with a contemporary, seasonal form-to-fork approach. Connoisseurs will delight in the imported Italian cheeses, salts and meats while Locavores will appreciate the sourcing of ingredients from nearby farms. This results in a prolific, crowd-pleasing menu of antipasti, wood-fired thin crust pizzas, handmade pasta, and classic Italian dolce like Panna Cotta and Tiramisu executed with approachable modern flair. The beverage program earns The Florentine repeat visits. Sunday brunch features bottomless mimosas and Bloody Mary’s with the purchase of an entrée. An eye-catching circular bar beckons with its artistic antipasti display and selection of draught beers, ciders and seasonal hand-crafted cocktails. And as an Italian meal is just not complete without Italian wine, one can enjoy his or her selection by the bottle or quartino (1/3 bottle).
Sable Kitchen & Bar
Kimpton Hotel Palomar Chicago | 505 N State St Suite 101, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 755-9704 | www.sablechicago.com
Chicago’s trendy River North Neighborhood has long been regarded as the city’s contemporary art hub, and Sable’s Executive Chef Shane Graybeal and Head Bartender Mike Jones effectively taps into that zeitgeist in imaginative ways that have earned it national accolades such as its 12-time nominee status at Tales of the Cocktail for “Best High Volume Bar” and “Best Hotel Bar,” and designation as one of the “Best Bars in America” by Esquire and USA Today.
While Sable’s draws are artfully Prohibition-era classics and original cocktails, and one of the Midwest’s largest selections of brown spirits, the consistently changing food menu forged with ingredients from local farmers and purveyors (i.e. Nichols Farm, Klug Family Farms, Country View Dairy, Slagel Farms, Burton’s Maple Syrup, Frillman Farms, etc.) into each seasonal menu introduction. Interior design at Sable could be described as a microcosm of Chicago itself, juxtaposing the 21st-century alchemical power with 40’s and 50’s design elements.
Potter’s Burger Bar
The Palmer House Hotel | 17 E Monroe St, Chicago, IL 60603 | (312) 726-7500 | potterschicago.com
In one of Chicago’s most famous downtown hotel landmarks, what could be cooler than a restaurant tapping into Chicago’s “Meat-and-Potatoes” reputation? Executive Chef Stephen Henry, the hotel’s esteemed Executive Chef, endeavored to at once celebrate it and turn it on its head.
The menu reveals one can literally eat his way through the city, guided by ingredients from the hotel’s rooftop garden and apiary. There’s much to explore, from the gooey cheese-curd decadence of the #8 Lakeview burger to the #6 Gold Coast burger with its high-rent Foie gras and shaved a5 Kobe beef served on a “gold” bun, and the #2 Little Italy with Italian beef (a uniquely Chicago experience on its own) with giardiniera, sport peppers, provolone and au jus. The “box o’fries” pays tribute to the city’s skyline—a tower of house-made fries and served with dipping sauces like blue-brie cheese, vadouvan curry or “secret sauce.” Diners can also taste the origins of the brownie at dessert with the over-the-top Brownie Burger–the Palmer House’s signature Bertha Brownie atop a donut “bun” flanked with churro fries with raspberry coulis and vanilla dipping sauces.
Standard Bearing Steakhouses
Gene & Georgetti
500 N Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 527-3718 | geneandgeorgetti.com
Gene & Georgetti spans 75 years and three generations, making it a definitive Chicago steakhouse dynasty. Following traditions set by founders partner Alfredo “Georgetti” Federighi and Gene Michelotti in 1941, the family business thrives under proprietor Marion Durpetti and husband Tony Durpetti, and managing partners Richard Ciota and Michelle Durpetti. It stands as an ultimate embodiment of the Italian-American dream expressed in generous home-style food. The menu blends standards like Chicken Vesuvio and Veal Parmesan, enduring originals such as the Garbage Salad and Chicken Alla Joe (both inspired by actual regular customers) and unseasoned, wet-aged steaks. There’s a touch of Hollywood in the mix, with fans Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball lending their names to the legend.
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse
1028 N Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611 | (312) 266-8999 | gibsonssteakhouse.com
While the nationally renowned 30-year-old steakhouse has proliferated, a visit to the original location in the heart of nightlife district Rush Street is a must for the steakhouse purist. For starters, Gibsons has the distinction of being the first and only steakhouse in the U.S. to be awarded its own USDA Prime Certification (USDA Gibsons Prime Angus Beef). The cuts’ earthy distinctive flavor, tenderness and consistency are attained through a proprietary method of raising, feeding and processing, as well as a hands-on relationship with breeders, packers and processors. Like any big city steakhouse, of course, the menu also features prime seafood, comforting-but-luxurious appetizers and sides, appealing condiments, thoughtfully curated wine list and classic cocktails.
707 N Wells St, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 600-6305 | gtprimerestaurant.com
Although GT Prime has the farm-to-fork ethos in place, the experience devised by Executive Chef/Partner Giuseppe Tentori is a dreamscape for meat lovers, from plush purple upholstery and enchanted forest-inspired lighting to artfully arranged share plates of appetizers and sides. However, here’s the rub—quality reigns over quantity, as the menu offers only in 4- and 8-ounce pieces of Ribeye, skirt steak, beef tenderloin, bison tenderloin, lamb loin and venison loin. However, the fit-for-a-king “Carnivore” platter unites four-ounce portions of beef fillet, rib eye, venison and Wagyu. Other highlights include a posh kale Caesar with an architectural arrangement of parmesan, tomatoes, croutons and anchovy fillets; a quartet of arancini (stuffed rice croquettes) filled with smooth mortadella mousse and delicate gnocchi.
Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
218 W Kinzie St, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 624-8154 | bavetteschicago.com
This steakhouse wears its French underpinnings proudly, from its impressive seafood towers to velvety rib-eye cuts; unapologetically rich side dishes; indulgences like roasted bone marrow and peppered duck and goat cheese terrine; house-made desserts (including chocolate cream and lemon meringue pies) and a Parisian 1920s aesthetic. This is a restaurant designed for lingering, thanks in part to an upstairs lounge offering everything from classic big band jazz and vintage blues tunes, as well as its Parlor, with brooding trip-hop, mesmerizing electronica, downtempo rap, rare groove and other ambient music styles.
116 W Hubbard St, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 464-0466 | slurpingturtle.com/chicago
A favorite of trade book Chef Magazine editor Dayna Fields (who also recommended several other maverick restaurants on this list), diners can be assured that although ramen is the ethnic food of the moment, it is not the routine Japanese ramen spot. Chef/owner Takashi Yagihashi (who first established himself with his eponymous upscale restaurant in the Loop) offers diners an education in the art form of ramen (reflecting there are at least 100 regional varieties of the noodle soups covering Japan) well as other succulent modern comfort foods inspired by his childhood memories and then updated, such as duck fat fried chicken and deep fried Brussels sprouts.
The Peninsula, 108 E Superior St, Chicago, IL 60611 | (312) 573-6744 | chicago.peninsula.com/en/fine-dining/shanghai-terrace-chinese-restaurant
The outdoor rooftop oasis teamed with an Art Deco-inspired indoor area is the closest one can get to The Bund in Shanghai without a passport and Chinese visa, down to its location at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel (which is part of the Hong Kong-based hotel group). Artistic renderings of dim sum, noodle dishes, soups, Peking Duck, and other share-worthy staples (i.e. steamed halibut with ginger and scallions; garlicky Szechwan string beans, and Kung Pao chicken) by Executive Chef Elmo Han and his team capture the flavor and flair of Shanghai’s most glamorous street, right down to skyline views and elegant, subtly exotic cocktails such as the aptly named “Lost in Shanghai.” In addition, the experience is a paradise for vegetarians as several dishes can be adapted to suit dietary needs without compromising flavor.
1814 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-4285 | tecrestaurant.com
Since 1973, this hidden gem has offered flavorful, fresh Mexican fare, including epic carne asada burritos, mountainous tostadas and tacos, hearty house-made tortilla chips, and more. And while it is no secret that the gratis bowls of salsa served at Mexican restaurants are partly a ploy to whet the appetite for margaritas, the fiery pico de gallo is addictive and loaded with chunky vegetables. The menu also features enough-for-two “suisa” burritos with choice of fillings and enchiladas enrobed in cheese, which means that although the menu offers different combo-platters, you can craft one exactly to your liking if you don’t want to fill up on rice and beans (though they are delicious). Magnifico! This one is my sentimental favorite, and I always bee-line here whenever I go to Chicago to visit family.
2049 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 661-6874 | www.pubroyale.com
The “Little India” neighborhood, along Devon Avenue on the city’s far north side, has the most prolific assemblage of authentic Indian restaurants and snack shops. However, trendsetters have made the eclectic Pub Royale closer to downtown—with its British pub spin on Indian fare—recognized as one of the most innovative. Craft beer is a big focus, especially as the restaurant’s selection of brews is particularly food friendly. Those who favor cocktails will enjoy a selection of “Royale Cups” created in conjunction with mixology consultants Letherbee that are nice with updated classic paneers and curries. All of it fits perfectly with a conversation-starting ambiance mixes Bollywood flash with the artsy-urban chic of the Wicker Park area.
439 N. Wells St, Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 828-9800 | loumalnatis.com/chicago-river-north
Several places do Chicago pizza pies well, but Lou Malnati’s has the biggest national buzz and 49 locations for a reason. Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due in the Loop are recognized as one of the originators of the insanely rich and cheesy “deep dish” pies (and they actually are pies in a literal sense), Lou brought his deep dish training (dating back to the 1940s) and opened his first location in suburban Lincolnwood on March 17, 1971. And what could be more “Chicago” than an Italian opening a pizzeria in a Jewish neighborhood on an Irish holiday? To this day, the recipes incorporate California vine-ripened tomatoes, an exclusive sausage blend with a proprietary mix of spices and mozzarella cheese sourced from the same small dairy that has supplied Lou Malnati’s for over 45 years. The newer downtown locations, particularly River North, allow patrons to have their pie and nightlife, too.
259 E Erie St, Chicago, IL 60611 | (312) 337-0101 | greenriverchi.com
Although the restaurant’s name is a tribute to the Irish-Americans who helped build Chicago from a trading post into a metropolis, Executive Chef Aaron Lirette and Chef de Cuisine Seth Moliterno bring a mix of down home southern fare and contemporary American invention to the Streeterville neighborhood. Menu highlights include Shrimp & Cheddar Grits topped with lobster sauce and Fried Chicken and Cheddar Biscuits bathed in sausage gravy, delicate Ocean Trout, an unusual Saffron Spaghetti in Uni Sauce, and meat dishes with cuts sourced from Slagel Family Farm. While it has earned its international badge of honor—a Michelin star—it also was anointed one of Playboy magazine’s “Best New Bars of 2016” for its ingredient-driven cocktails in an intimate atmosphere. In the warmer months, its expansive terrace and a tasting menu with a national buzz provide further incentive to test the waters in this river.
Honey Butter Fried Chicken
3361 N. Elston Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 | (773) 478-4000 | honeybutter.com
Sometimes, the best restaurant concepts fall into place organically and almost effortlessly. This was the case for Honey Butter Fried Chicken, which grew out of an underground dinner/pop-up dining series, Sunday Dinner Club, established in 2005 by Chefs/Owners Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski. The original recipe for success consisted of sustainably raised chicken fried to a crispy golden brown, with creamy compound butter featuring regional honey. The formula was then solidified, using mostly-deboned Miller Amish Farms chickens and whipped butter laced with Wisconsin honey from Gentle Breeze Farm. Sides also tweak and upgrade common standbys: Pimento Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Wisconsin Cheddar and breadcrumbs; Creamed Corn with house-made Thai green curry, Roasted Garlic Grits; and Kale and Cabbage Slaw with Sweet Tea Vinaigrette and Dried Pomegranate. Cocktails follow suit with creations such as the Avondale Ginger Mule with gin, molasses, ginger, lime, and mint and The Hill Pop, blending bourbon and house-made lemonade.
Girl & the Goat
809 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60607 | (312) 492-6262 | girlandthegoat.com
Girl & the Goat is the vision and culinary home of Stephanie Izard, Top Chef’s Season 4 champion. Her eclecticism and ingredient-centric approach demonstrated on the show elevated her to “celebrity chef” status, which in turn, has made a table her first restaurant one of the hardest reservations to come by in the U.S. She has re-invented the family-style feast with a menu is divided into equally rule-breaking and imaginative Meat, Fish, and Vegetable categories, with ten share plates per section. While the meat selections will appeal to particularly adventurous eaters (Duck Tongues; Wood Fired Glazed Lamb Ribs), vegetarians won’t leave hungry or bored (Green Garlic Potato Pierogis; Wood-Grilled Broccoli with artisanal bleu cheese). The 122-seat venue’s bustling energy and rock star vibe incorporates burnt wood, a back bar created of fireboxes, and a dramatic 30-foot open kitchen.
Portillo’s Hot Dogs
100 W Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60610 | (312) 587-8910 | portillos.com
Chicago has many fast fooderies offering Italian Beef, the Vienna Beef Hot Dog and more. However, this local chain is the definitive Chicago dog joint according to locals, from the no-frills setting to the abundance of neon green relish, poppy seed buns and aromas of roasting beef and meat.
5347 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640 | (773) 275-5725 | bigjoneschicago.com
Three-time James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef/Great Lakes honoree Paul Fehribach has been bringing “down home” cooking to new heights at Big Jones, since 2008, thanks in large part to his emphasis on heritage and heirloom vegetable crops and livestock, sustainable seafood, and historic receipts from Southern culinary literature. The Southern Indiana-bred owner has noted his menus are also informed by his carefree days as a child exploring family farms, kitchen, gardens, and wandering the nearby woods hunting and fishing. As Bourbon plays a role in the Southern dining experience, the restaurant also offers a membership to its Big Jones Bourbon Society. Members receive special benefits such as advance notice of tastings and pairing dinners, complimentary pours of whiskies of the month with a food purchase and a passport listing 46 bourbons and whiskeys they can fill up for more benefits.
3209 W. Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 | (773) 252-0997 | giantrestaurant.com
Chef Jason Vincent provides indisputable proof that the best things do come in small packages. Giant, his 40-seat, 1,400 square-foot outlet, is conceived as a friendly neighborhood spot that just happens to serve elevated renditions of Midwestern comfort food and a few internationally-inspired items which can be ordered, prepared, and enjoyed in a delightfully relaxed and unstructured way. As one may intuit from the names and descriptions of menu (sweet-and-sour eggplant; jalapeno-laced pici pasta; pecan-smoked barbecued ribs; parmesan crusted onion rings; cajeta ice cream), the flavors are big. A cozy kitchen counter with front-row seating also makes a big impression.
833 W Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60607 | (312) 432-0500 | nellcoterestaurant.com
One could describe Chef Jared Van Camp’s Nellcôte as a wellspring of innovation and bohemian chic. Its namesake, Villa Nellcôte, was an estate in the south of France where the Rolling Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street” in 1971. This, in turn, led to an epic house party attracting other rock, fashion, and culture luminaries of the time. And while Nellcôte’s patrons may be a bit tamer, the menu and dishes have a town-and-country vibrancy recalling that creative era. Van Camp converges culinary influences from France, Italy and Spain and transforms them into completely new ideas using ingredients and products sourced exclusively from the Midwest. Most notably, Chicago area restaurants had not been unable to use locally sourced wheat and flour, even with wheat fields beyond the city limits. Van Camp filled this void in the Chicago food scene by milling superfine double zero flour in-house with local heritage wheat sourced from regional farmers. Nellcôte ended up being the first restaurant in the U.S. to achieve this ambitious feat.
534 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60654 | (312) 595-1616 | brindille-chicago.com
Another one of Dayna Field’s restaurants to watch is Brindille, a hidden, intimate space founded by Co-owner/Chef Carrie Nahabedian. The chef is a risk taker, leaving left coveted Executive Chef position at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills to return to her native Chicago to open NAHA in 2000, which highlights her familial Armenian roots. The one-of-a-kind restaurant garnered her a James Beard Award and Five consecutive Michelin stars. Today, she continues to think big on a smaller scale. Brindille opened in 2013 with her cousin and veteran restaurateur Michael Nahabedian is a celebration of favorite Parisian bistros and the eternal appeal of French culinary technique perfectly balanced with approachability.