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5 places to warm up with hot chocolate

Angel Food Bakery


Regressing back to childhood is a very good thing when you’re doing it at this lively, lime-green café. Pastry chef Stephanie Samuels makes the kind of desserts you used to find in your lunch box: Ding Dongs, Thin Mints and cream-filled cupcakes. She provides pre-dessert nourishment with seasonal soups, grilled chicken club sandwiches with Russian dressing, and a breakfast and Sunday brunch menu that includes powdered sugar–dusted squares of French toast with marmalade syrup and salmon cakes with tangy lemon aioli.

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Through no fault of his own, Rick Bayless was making my life difficult. It’s not that I didn’t want to eat at XOCO. I did. Really. A lot. But to do so was going to take a healthy chunk of time. Granted, XOCO being the most tweeted opening that Chicago has ever seen—due in part to Bayless’s own assiduous tweeting—I at least knew what I was in for, wait-wise. And I’d no more criticize Bayless for being incredibly talented and personable than I would blame him for the hordes of fans lining up down the block, desirous not so much of a torta as a glimpse of the chef-star. It’s not Bayless’s fault he won Top Chef Masters. So it must have been in a fit of frenzy and perhaps insanity that I made the last-minute decision to head over to XOCO one weekday around noon, thinking I would just grab a torta and get back to the office in an hour. No sooner did I survey the line than I promptly did a 180. (Well, not before unsuccessfully checking for a bar seat at Frontera Grill. A girl can hope.) I subsequently returned multiple times, but never on a whim. No, each later visit was planned in advance, with accompanying diners briefed on the possibility of a multi-hour meal. And it’s that planning, deliberation and buzz, that feels, ultimately, at odds with what Bayless is trying to do here. XOCO is intentionally, expressly casual: Much of the seating is bar stools that stare smack-dab into a wall. (A generous interpretation of this setup: It’s one of the most comfortable places in the city to

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River North



Mindy Segal rehabbed her Bucktown restaurant in the spring of 2012, making it sunnier and adding a huge garage door that opens to let in warm weather. Segal—first and foremost a pastry chef—also rehabbed her approach to desserts: Now, the pastry menu consists of a seasonal cake, pudding, pie, etc., and the dessert menu changes weekly. On the savory side, little has changed. The pretzel, the burger, the mac and cheese—breathe easy, it’s all still there.

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Wicker Park

Bittersweet Pastry Shop

Stop by midday for chef Judy Contino’s acclaimed pastries and desserts, and chances are you’ll pull up a chair in the tiny, charming bakery café for lunch. You won’t go wrong with any of the handful of rotating daily menu options, such as carrot jalapeño soup, spinach ricotta quiche or tuna-salad sandwich. But make no mistake—it’s all just a precursor to that beautiful meringue tart or the delicious ice cream scooped out into chocolate-lined Chinese takeout containers (try the intense chocolate almond).

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Lake View

Julius Meinl Café

A café as lovely and sunny as this inspires lingering. But lingering requires cup upon cup of caffeine, and that could become hazardous. This European export has a solution for that, though: a full menu of food, most of it the unlikeliest coffeehouse food you’ve come across. Frittaten soup is offered daily, and the roasted lamb is served with golden, toothsome spaetzle. At the end of the meal, a slice of impeccable opera cake is a necessity. And with it, yet another cup of coffee.

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North Center