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5 unexpected spots for waterfront dining

Take in views of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River this summer—without dealing with crowds

Photograph: Angela Conners
Whole Foods Lincoln Park offers waterfront dining

Ever feel like going for a bite beside one of Chicago’s major waterways necessitates a Faustian compact, in which access to nice views means accepting a fate of lackluster food, crappy service or overinflated prices (and sometimes all three)? It needn’t be so, friends. These Chicago restaurants allow diners to savor great river and lakefront vistas while offering something more, from cheap food to unique atmospheres to food that’s creative or just downright good.

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Unexpected spots for waterfront dining

Cafe 300

Dinner on the river walk can be great and all, but it’s tough to rationalize lobster and prime filet prices when you’re just popping out of the office for a workday lunch. Enter Café 300, a cafeteria-style spot where you can dine on basic lunchtime fare like hot pastrami sandwiches and avocado, strawberry and roasted almond salads on an open-air terrace situated directly beneath Chicago Cut Steakhouse. It’s like getting chateaubriand views on a chicken salad budget.

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River North

Kief's Reef

If you’re after a Northwoods vibe without the long drive, Kief’s Reef in Cook County’s neighbor to the northwest, McHenry, is a solid bet. The bar/restaurant’s outdoor dining area, which fronts the Fox River, features a kitschy tiki bar, a dock for boat-up access, and a small beach, along with views of passing speed boats towing hot-dogging water skiers. A large daily menu includes super-casual pub-grub fare like burgers and wraps, though the big draw for many locals is the Friday night fish fry.

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Northwest Suburbs

Parrot Cage

From Thursday through Sunday each week, the students of Washburne Culinary Institute take up residence in the South Shore Cultural Center, putting on a dinner service (or Sunday brunch) highlighting American-inflected dishes like crab and grits, Lake Superior whitefish and grilled ribeye, all at an affordable price point. While the dining room feels somewhat dated, the adjacent patio peeks out over a sandy beach and Lake Michigan beyond—a sight that never gets old.

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South Shore

Waterfront Café

Sprawling lakeward from the rear of a charming old Edgewater coach house, the seasonal Waterfront Café serves up unpretentious food like fish and chips, crab cakes and apple walnut salad and a roster of basic drinks—as well as some of the most spectacular lake-meets-skyline scenery to be found at a local dinner table. And while it's a bit of a trek for many people, that's a good thing—the Waterfront is among the calmer lakeside restaurants.

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Whole Foods Market Lincoln Park

A trip to one of the city’s tight-aisled, constantly mobbed grocery stores can be stressful—but Lincoln Park’s Whole Foods has a secret asset that might actually encourage you to linger. Through the glass doors beyond the registers at the store’s rear is a small canal-side seating area complete with highboy tables and southeasterly views of the skyline. With a sizeable food court and expansive bakery and cheese departments at your disposal, assembling a meal here has the feeling of putting together a picnic. Choose a few bites, grab a glass of wine or a pint of beer, and head out those magic doors for a grocery store experience that’s surprisingly tranquil.

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Lincoln Park