20 best brunch spots in Chicago

Critical praise for the gluttonous, strident, restorative culture of a weekend tradition.

  • Photograph: Erica Gannett

    FIG. 1: Doughnuts at Nightwood

  • Photograph: Erica Gannett

    FIG. 2: Pork hash at Bite Cafe

  • Photograph: Erica Gannett

    FIG. 3: Smoked sablefish at the Publican

Photograph: Erica Gannett

FIG. 1: Doughnuts at Nightwood


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I have eaten egg yolks a very deep orange. I have seen an all-lavender lululemon ensemble. I have watched 15–20 well-to-do Chicagoans stand unbegrudgingly on Milwaukee Avenue on a 35-degree day waiting for a table. I have seen great progress made in the curing of pork. I have learned every conceivable way to fuck up an omelette. I have put away more eggs Benedict than I care to admit. I have watched a woman pull a vibrating phone out of her bra and answer it while eating. I have grown accustomed to cocktails at 11am and to breakfast food in the early afternoon. I have been powerless to exercise portion control. I have overheard men in $200 jeans order a Pancake Orgy. I have routinely counted pure sucrose as food. I have accrued a demoralizingly thorough knowledge of the cost of freshly squeezed juice. I have had servers so attentive to the amount of coffee in my mug that I wanted to bear-hug them.

To be specific: For the past three years, I have partaken, most Saturdays and Sundays (and occasional weekdays), in the fetishized, often-maligned, flourishing tradition called brunch. I have eaten countless variations of what are essentially three or four staple items, and the quality by and large has been either unbelievably good or unforgivably bad. The latter items tend to be from places that are average, pleasant-enough cafés during the week and then every weekend take on the crowds and virulence of the opening hour of a sample sale. I’m talking about Bongo Room, Toast, Orange. But then there are the full-time, capital-R Restaurants that, more and more, are giving the same attention to breakfast foods they give to dinner dishes. This is how we get to have the top tier of doughnuts [fig. 1: Nightwood], the pinnacle of hashes [fig. 2: Bite Cafe], the most lush smoked sablefish [fig. 3: the Publican]. And best of all are the humble neighborhood places that do everything right, from the professional-grade smiles at Birchwood Kitchen to the extended-family demeanor of the bright-eyed Tre Kronor waitresses to the adorable guys waiting on the challenging ladies at Southport Grocery. This is not to mention the side salads (Birchwood), the warm, flaky raspberry Danish (Kronor), the one and only bread-pudding pancakes (Southport).

I have a hard time believing brunch in Chicago has ever been better. And still, I have come up with no explanation for the enduring popularity of restaurants whose food is so far below the already fairly low-quality level one expects of brunch food, except that the product being sold there is not culinary but cultural. Who’s feeling hungover and who’s not but was an hour ago and who’s starting to feel better and who is still a little bit drunk but probably will be hungover later is the major if not exclusive topic of brunch conversation. Sometimes it’s okay if everyone is just quiet for a minute. How was the rest of your night, how did you end up getting home, how are you feeling? Let’s not be so intrepid as to push the conversation much further. But we can be ambitious enough to gather our sleepy selves at an establishment that’s worthy of a wait time, a crowd, a line. So if you want to eat alone, or quickly, or before 11am, or without a drink, go find a diner. If, however, you want a meal to linger over, clear your Sunday for these true brunch icons.


Where you should be brunching now

After making our way through more than 50 brunches, we narrowed down our list to 20 favorites. Some we love for their warm, inviting rooms; others for their ambitious but balanced morning cocktails. But all of them are killing it in the kitchen, with careful sourcing, imaginative dishes and consistent execution.
Balsan
Big Jones
Birchwood Kitchen
Bite Cafe
the Bristol
City Provisions [CLOSED]
Jam
Julius Meinl
Kingsbury Street Cafe
Longman & Eagle
Lula Cafe
Nightwood
Owen & Engine
Perennial Virant
the Publican
Sola
Southport Grocery
Sprout [CLOSED]
Table Fifty-Two
Tre Kronor

—Compiled by Laura Baginski, Marissa Conrad, Julia Kramer and David Tamarkin


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