Chicago restaurant guide

Chicago is a great place for food and drink. It has something for everyone. I love experimenting with restaurants & bars and I’ve built up a mental list of “places I love”. A friend recently suggested I write down my mental list so that people could explore my suggestions and give me feedback and receive further restaurant suggestions based on what I like. Great idea!

So here goes – creating a top 10 list is just too hard for me – it’s like picking your favourite children, instead I’ve gone for “categories”. All the links in this article go to Google places pages where you’ll be able to access the restaurant web site, the google maps location and other reviews – take reviews with a pinch of salt – I only recommend great places!

Worth noting – I work down town and live in the Lincoln Park & Lake View area. I have a definite geographical bias. I don’t have kids so I cannot really comment on “family friendly locations” – perhaps a category for the future. I’m not a big fan of “boxing left-overs” so if you’re not into portion control you might want to find a different guide.

This page is a little long so here are some quick links:

Breakfast/Brunch

I’m definitely a hearty-breakfast-kind-of-guy. I like fresh fruit, omelets & the occasional pancake.

  • Nookies Tree – it’s always fun to eat in Boy’s Town and this place is no exception. Nookies has a great selection of breakfast dishes – omelets, pancakes etc –  as well as a more seasonal menu of specials. Nookies has several restaurants across the city so check out Google maps to see if there is one near you.
  • John’s place – the first breakfast place I fell in love with. On top of a great menu selection this place has some lovely morning cocktails to sample. I love the “scrambles” they do here. Scrambled eggs with tons of ingredients thrown in. Yum!
  • Orange – slicker than your average. This is a place with a style of it’s own. I’ve queued to get in several times. I love it because the dishes are a little bit unusual and the juices available are awesome. The make-your-own-juice concept is a lot of fun and tasty too!
  • North Pond – the building and location are beautiful and the food is stunning. Set next to the body of water known as the North Pond in Lincoln Park (more of a mini-lake than pond) this restaurant offers up a set price 3 course brunch. The place is pricey, particularly if you fancy wine to get your morning kick started, but you definitely get value for money.

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Lunch

Lunch is always a tricky one. You try not to spend too much money and you would rather be in and out fast (or perhaps that’s just me). I don’t think you can get a good lunch in down-town Chicago for under $7. Price is not a good indicator of quality though as I feel there is big range of quality in the $7-$10 price point.

  • Artisan Cellar – hands down my favourite place for a good panini or salad. Artisan also has an amazing selection of wine and booze. This is also one of the only places I’ve found which has European style chorizo – thank goodness! All prices include sales tax too – particularly satisfying from an Englishman’s perspective.
  • Pastoral – wow & wow. If you need cheese you need Pastoral in your life. If you need cheese and fancy chowing down an awesome mini-baguette stuffed with deliciousness – this is your place.
  • Xoco – it’s easy to get cynical about celebrity chefs (I love ‘em) and if you’re in Chicago talking about the subject it will not be long before you hear the name “Rick Bayless”. The owner of several high-end Mexican restaurants in Chicago and celebrity-chef-extraordinairre. Xoco is Chef Bayless’s take on Mexican street food and it’s amazingly yummy. If you love soups and freshly made sandwiches with a little bit of kick you cannot go wrong here. Warning – expect to queue.
  • Panes bread cafe – this bakery, based in Lake View, is great for many things – buying a nice loaf of bread to go with your evening meal, soup and good sized tasty sandwiches.
  • Maggianos – my first sit-down-place lunch recommendation. Maggianos is known for it’s family style Italian food. I’ve been there and I’ve done that – it’s tasty for sure… BUT… I don’t think it gets much credit for it’s lunch/snacks/bar menu. If you like your sandwiches “man-size” with a side of marinara sauce take a walk to this Chicago classic.
  • Paramount room – delicious beer (“no crap on tap”) and a foodie-style bar menu. I love the kobe-beef burgers, the fish & chips and the pork & gravy.
  • Kinzie Chop House – great place to hold a client meeting. The place feels like a throwback from the 1920s. Al Capone and friends would definitely dine here and I say that in the most positive way possible. The place is a touch of Chicago class. Everything is good here but their risottos have a special place in my heart. Always listen out for the specials!

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Afternoon Tea

  • Chalkboard – “Yummy” and “wow” are 2 words I associate with Chalkboard. I felt delighted after enjoying a fabulous Afternoon Tea at Chalkboard. The tea, the food and the service were excellent. The decor was classy yet humble. If you need delicate sandwiches, perfect scones & something to satisfy your sweet tooth you should head on over to Chalkboard! This place is perfect for a weekend catch up with friends.

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Dinner

Pizza

Perhaps the most controversial category. Why? Chicago deep dish does not really float my boat. For me it’s more of a gimmick. A stunt you should try after exercising your stomach in a hot-dog eating contest.

  • Piece – picture the scene – your favourite pizza place is also an award winning brewery. AMAZING! If you really like pizza, the thin crust kind, go here. Everything tastes fresh, everything is washed down in hop-tastic style.
  • Uno – I feel as if I need to include a deep-dish place for my personal safety. If I have to recommend one I’d go with Pizzeria Uno or Due (same owners). Small-ish, intimate and stuffed with pizza. I love the spinach pizza.

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Small plates

  • Avec – if you go here and don’t like the stuffed dates I may lose respect for your tongue and send you straight to the nearest hospital. This place does comfort food in small portions and it’s a good job too! The food is fantastic and affordable. The wine and even champagne is mainly around the $30-$40 mark – not bad! Go here if you need flavour in your life without a huge hole in your pocket. You cannot make reservations here so just show up and pray there is no queue.
  • Quartinos – this place is always packed and the energy level is always good. Quartinos does awesome Italian small plates. Risotto is to die for and so is anything prefixed with the words “slow cooked”. The wine here can be purchased by the carafe – very useful (and perhaps a little dangerous) for a place that is so sociable.

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Italian

  • Mia Francesca – continuing the Italian theme, this is definitely the most consistent Italian place I’ve been. In too many places in Chicago “Italian” is synonymous with “portions as big as Hulk Hogan riding a baby elephant”. Thankfully Mia Francesca provides a more than adequate sanctuary of Italian freshness. The food is fresh, fast and fabulous. I like to think that this is where Jamie Oliver would work if he lived in Chicago.
  • Gioco (added to guide 8th Aug. 2010) – owned by the same people as Carnivale and just as wonderful as it’s Latin cousin. Gioco offers some amazing dishes from simple antipasto to extravagant appetizers e.g. rabbit loin with Champagne vinaigrette (yum!). Amongst the posh pizza, pasta & entrees I’m told the Lamb Shank is the restaurant’s signature dish. Slow cooked for 7 hours! My serving was a pretty huge cut of meat but delicious :)

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Mediterranean

  • Maza – if you like lamb you need to go to Maza. This Lebanese place is great. The service is friendly and welcoming. The random courses around the meal are always a nice little treat. This place introduced me to the concept of squeezing lemon into my lentil soup – a lesson I will not forget. Yummy!
  • Sultan’s Market – more than just hummus. Sultan’s Market is a BYOB place where you can get quick, delicious food. There is a couple in town – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park – both are worth checking out. This is also a great place for veggies & vegans.

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Vegetarian

  • Chicago Diner – great, imaginative veggie food. The staff are cool and have a lot of energy. The milkshakes here are unbelievable. They cater for vegans too.

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South American/Mexican

  • Xoco – as discussed in my lunch section this place totally kicks ass! Don’t forget to enjoy the churros and crazy chocolate drinks!
  • Papacitos – awesome BYOB Mexican. There is nothing fancy about Papacitos. It’s quick, it’s tasty and it’s very affordable. Great place if you like SCUBA diving at Underwater Safaris!
  • Carnivale – there is just so much to love about this place. The atmosphere, the cocktails, the service, the energy level every single night. All this before you start talking about the incredible food. The ceviche is great, the Ropa Vieja is amazing and don’t get me started on the steak. The steak with chimichurri sauce – I’ll fight you for it!

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Curry

If you’re an Englishman in the USA you need access to good curry. I cannot live without it. Unfortunately Indian restaurants can vary wildly in Chicago. Your safest bet is to head to Devon Avenue and sample the gifts of this Little-India.

  • India House – best down-town curry by far. Great energy in this place, the smells hit you in all the right places. One down side – drinks are expensive. Save your wallet – eat more delicious food & drink water!
  • Tiffin – a great pick in the sea of restaurants on Devon Avenue. Good selection (I’m told by my Indian friend Sapna – she must know, right?) and reasonable prices. If you want a laugh – get someone in your group to order something served in a Paper Dosai. It’s a huge Indian crepe-type thingy!

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Burgers

  • Select Cut – oddly not many people know about this place. This place tries to position itself in the overcrowded steak restaurant scene, and it does do great steak, but this place totally comes into it’s own if you think about it as a steak-burger place. The burger is honest – basic bun, awesome meat. I just have mine with cheese and a slice of tomato. Anything else just gets in the way!
  • The Counter – just been here once but the place left a good impression. I was certain this place was going to give me “food-chain-service” but I was very pleasantly surprised. The burger was tasty and very nicely cooked. This place is always packed and it’s in a good location to explore the lake, Lake View and Lincoln Park.

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Meat-tastic

Like a vampire in a church, veggies should be terrified of the recommendations below!

  • The Publican – I take people who love meat & beer. Do you know many? I thought so! This place is so cool. The decor is great, the service is sensational, the beer list is jaw dropping. The superlatives keep coming when you get their share-plates-you’ll-hate-sharing menu. The fish and meat menus are as delicious as they are adventurous. The chefs make use of some unusual cuts of meat so if you’re squeamishness extends to reading a menu you might want to try elsewhere. I’ve heard from my friend Kelly that the brunch is awesome here too!
  • Tango Sur – BYOB Argentinian restaurant specializing in great slabs of cow. I’d seriously consider ordering a dish to share between 2. The food is good but there is a little too much of it for my tastes. The other big draw back with this place is the queue. Expect to wait. Expect to get annoyed with people trying to jump the line.

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Fine dining/special occasions

Because everyone loves to treat themselves…

  • Graham Elliott – fine dining redesigned. Turn up in jeans and listen to good music at this insanely awesome River North restaurant. The cocktails are awesome, the vibe is slightly more relaxed than your usual high-end eatery and the food is as divine as it is imaginative. I’ve been here a few times and at least 2 dishes on each visit make me stop what I’m doing and wonder “have I ever tasted anything like this before?”. Yeah – that good.
  • Boka – just been here recently and went all out with the 9 course tasting menu. Did I regret it? Not for a second. The food was sensational. The venison and chocolate dish was out of this world. I want to go back so I can try everything else on this menu. The place has a great decor too with very attentive waiting staff.
  • North Pond – as already discussed in breakfast/brunch this place is awesome. The North Pond is more traditional fine dining and you should go there in smart trousers and dress shoes. I’m yet to try the seasonal tasting menu but I cannot wait until I get my chance. Wine is pricey – you’ve been warned.
  • Nightwood (added to guide 8th Aug. 2010) – this place is awesome. It has everything – a patio, a nice interior decor, a chilled out atmosphere, really nice wait staff, great cocktails and, let’s not forget, amazing food. The menu here is rewritten every day and only seasonal fare from local producers is on offer. Fine by me! This is the sort of place you can bring any social circle – work folks, clients, best buddies, significant others and family. Everyone will get something out of it.

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For the drinks & nibbles

  • Bin 36 – like wine? Like cheese? Then fasten your seat belts, hire yourself a Concorde and head towards Bin 36 at Mach speed. This place is the best place to sample affordable wine. The wine and cheese flights are excellent. The food menu is also pretty good.
  • The Publican – jaw dropping beer list. Everything from everywhere, a little pricey.
  • Zed 451 – great cocktails and a really nice roof top. Probably worth phoning before you go as they often have private events on the roof top.

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BYOB

  • Home Bistro – good food and BYOB. It sounds too good to be true but pinch yourself Dorothy and head to Boy’s Town. This place does hearty, yummy food. Great location and intimate seating. Lovely!
  • Tango Sur – as mentioned in meat-tastic
  • Sultan’s Market – as mentioned in Mediterranean
  • Papacitos – as mentioned in South American/Mexican

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Near the tourist hot spots

  • Park Grill – this used to be my favourite restaurant. Good food, good wine, amazing location. Millennium Park needs a great restaurant and it has one in the shape of the Park Grill.
  • Gage – owned by the same people as the Park Grill and just across the street from Millennium Park. This place has nice beers and some very tasty food. Take a Segway tour and then hit this place.

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For the view

  • Signature Room – the service is never great here but the view is the best in Chicago. Get yourself an expensive cocktail ignore the tourists and take it all in.
  • Witt – this place feels like a see-and-be-seen kind of place. The view of down-town is very cool and the waitresses in black are pretty easy on the eye too ;)

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Places I Want to go to

Schwa, Naha, Frontera Grill, Girl and the Goat, Green Zebra, Moto, Arun’s, The Map Room, Gene & Georgetti

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Elliott July 19, 2010 at 10:41 am

Haha, great reviews on all the places I’ve been to on this list and thanks for some new ones to think about.

Reply

Frances July 19, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Man you’ve been to a few restaurants! Do you happen to know where I could get a good bacon sarnie downtown?

Reply

Ben Allen July 20, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Proper bacon is one of the most closely guarded secrets in all Chicago. Chicagoans call proper bacon “Irish Bacon”. I think it’s tough to get in bacon sandwich form! I know you can get it in a few places that sell “Irish breakfasts”. Fadors does a good Irish brekky for example. If you just want to buy bacon you need to go to a butchers. I go to Gepperth’s Meat Market. All hail proper bacon!

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Ben Allen August 21, 2010 at 11:08 am

If you’re not sure where to go for lunch you can always play lunch roulette http://www.lunchdb.com/chicago/roulette

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