Chicago's best restaurants come in many shapes and sizes, from fine dining heavyweights and chef-fueled newcomers to mom-and-pop sandwich shops and fan-favorite pizza joints. At times, it can feel like there too many great options. But this dining scene shows no signs of slowing down, so we cut to the chase and named our essential Chicago restaurants—the ones you must check out whether you're visiting for the weekend or you've called the city home for decades.
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Best restaurants in Chicago
Chicago is home to oodles of fine dining experiences—from big names like Grace and Alinea to newcomers Smyth and Elske. But no foodie's checklist is complete without Oriole, a West Loop restaurant from Noah Sandoval and Genie Kwon. The $190 15-course menu (with a few additional treats tossed in) is filled with clever, beautiful, indulgent bites that allow guests to get swept up in the experience. If we may offer just one piece of advice, it's this: Don't peep the menu before visiting; allow each plate to be a surprise, as the kitchen intended.
There's something inexplicably special about this humble Logan Square spot. Ideal for both special ocassions and low-key Sunday brunch, Lula is a neighborhood institution that's been around since 1999. It's easy to see why as soon as you scan the menu. For brunch, zucchini bread French toast topped with sherry pastry cream, tart raspberries and candied citrus; for dinner, roasted honeynut squash with sunflower seed miso, thyme, manchego and swiss chard. Lula has been doing the whole farm-to-table thing long before it was a thing.
If you have but a single afternoon to enjoy Chicago, book it to Revival Food Hall in the Loop for lunch. The 24,000-square-foot marketplace is home to 15 vendors that define Chicago's best neighborhood eats. Choose from pristine fried chicken at The Budlong, Detroit-style pizza at Union Squared, decadent pastries at Hot Chocolate Bakery or bowls of soul-warming ramen at Furious Spoon. There's also a book and record shop and a stocked bar with excellent cocktails.
If you need a break from the traditional (read: hoity-toity) fine dining experience, book a seat at Roister in the West Loop. There are no white tablecloths, the music is loud and you can totally get away with wearing jeans. Brunch and lunch are available, but you'll want to go for dinner, when you can fully appreciate the hearth kitchen and everything it has to offer. The whole chicken is a must for first-time visitors and includes perfectly braised, poached and fried poultry. Toss in an order of aged cheddar rillettes, hushpuppies and Yukon fries, and you'll see what all the hype is about.
This tiny chicken joint in Lakeview is constantly packed, and for good reason. The chicken is fresh, of good quality, and comes slathered in three different sauces: a sticky barbecue, a hot sauce–laced buffalo and a sesame-soy glaze dubbed “Seoul Sassy.” While we love the latter, even unadorned, the chicken stands out for its juicy meat and crunchy black pepper–dotted crust. If you're craving wings, there's no better bet.
Be forewarned: A trip to Proxi will undoubtedly leave you wanting more. It’s not that the menu is lacking; on the contrary, it’s rife with so many tough decisions that you’ll have to book a second visit to try it all. Tempura elotes or roasted baby potato carbonara? Baby octopus or raw tuna? BBQ lamb ribs or Wagyu sirloin? It’s not for the indecisive, but Proxi is one of the best new restaurants we visited in 2017. The food is remarkable, yes, but the service and attention to detail are a step above all other newcomers, making it a must-try addition to Chicago's growing roster of fantastic restaurants.
The Boka group's (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others) foray into Japanese fare is a reminder that the cuisine goes far beyond sushi. The sushi is excellent, though cooked dishes from Mark Hellyar consistently amaze—the namesake momotaro tartare melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread, while roasted crab legs come to the table dripping in butter. A simple cedar-roasted sea bream, spritzed with lemon and drizzled with shiso dressing, is a testament to how clean and fresh Hellyar's flavors are.
If you're on a mission for stellar barbecue, look no further than Smoque in Irving Park. The crew here doesn't believe in taking shortcuts, meaning each rub, smoke, sauce and cut of meat has gone through a lengthy vetting process. The fruits of this painstaking labor include lip-smacking ribs, smoky brisket and juicy pulled pork. Save room for house-made sides and desserts—we're particularly fond of the BBQ beans and melt-in-your-mouth peach cobbler.
Springing from the mind of chef Grant Achatz, fine dining institution Alinea has been the recipient of numerous awards and is regularly named the best restaurant in Chicago (and the United States, for that matter), bringing culinary expertise and flawless service to each and every meal. At Alinea, food comes and goes effortlessly, wine glasses filled and replaced throughout the meal, with the sheer beauty of excellent service extending all the way down to your entry. Guests get to play a guessing game in between each course, wondering what might come next and how it might be arranged. The first dish, simply named “ice,” comes out as a wobbly ball of, you guessed it, ice, which you have to balance while you spoon out spot prawn, banana and coconut as it freezes to your ice ball-slash-bowl. The meal wouldn’t be complete without one of Achatz’s signature helium taffy balloons, which fill the dining room with high-pitched laughter from each party as they suck down the sticky and sweet dessert.
Earlier this year, Giant was named the sixth best restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appétit magazine. Of course, we didn't need an outsider to tell us how phenomenal this Logan Square restaurant is, but we're certainly not complaining. Jason Vincent, the chef-owner behind the tiny space, is dishing out bold, flavor-filled eats including fried uni shooters, chili-glazed short ribs and king crab-dotted tagliatelle dripping in chili butter. Oh, and because it's so small, you'll absolutely, positively need a reservation.
Chefs and co-owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo bring killer Macanese dishes to Chicago at Fat Rice—a mesh between Portuguese and Chinese cuisines. That means you'll find curries, noodles, fried rices and potstickers on the menu regularly, but the thing that never comes off the menu is the arroz gordo (yes, the fat rice). It's a shared dish best set for groups of at least four, filled with jasmine rice with sofrito, chorizo and salted duck then topped with curried chicken, pork, prawns, clams, pickled chilies… the list goes on and on. The important part here is that it's massive and delicious, filled not only with immense flavor, but packed to the brim with history and stories. Fat Rice says it's the celebratory dish of Macau, and that's what it feels like: a celebration in a family-style dish. The rest of the menu is worth trying too, which means you'll just have to come back a second time.
Carnitas are served by the pound at Carnitas Uruapan (and you'll see plenty of people lining up to get pounds to take home and dress up themselves), but you can also grab tacos to eat at the restaurant. A large handful of carnitas with your choice of the cut is set atop two corn tortillas and served with salsa for just $2.75. Order chicharrones for a crispy side if you have room. Head to the Pilsen stop early, though; the carnitas start to sell out in the afternoon.
Chefs/owners Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim opened Parachute in 2014 and it quickly became a Chicago staple. Nestled in Avondale, Parachute's Korean-American menu has garnished several accolades, all deserved. The offerings change regularly, with the exception of the baked potato bing bread (which you should absolutely get). We're fans of the rotating bibimbap, but really you'll be pleased with all of your choices. Your server will help you out in picking out dishes; just grab a glass of wine or a cocktail and relax in this single long room at the wraparound bar or one of its surrounding tables.
Plenty of new Mexican restaurants set up shop in 2017, but Mi Tocaya in Logan Square is one to watch. Upon opening the menu, your eyes will go straight to the tacos (and you should order a few of those), but the antojos section is where you'll find chef Diana Dávila’s best work. Guacamole is showered in black ash, the fish con mole verde is bright and beautiful and the peanut butter y lengua is one of the most intriguing dishes we’ve tasted this year. Return at the end of the weekend for Dávila’s Sunday Dinner series, where you can order additional menu items like fried chicken and churros and elote.
There are a few things you should know before visiting Avec. First and foremost: Prepare to give up any notion of personal space upon entering. The cozy, always-packed, Mediterranean-skewing West Loop restaurant offers communal seating and shared plates (fear not—you don't have to share with your neighbors). Whether it's your first visit or your 15th, you must order menu mainstays chorizo-stuffed medjool dates and the "deluxe" focaccia with taleggio cheese, airy ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs. From there, dabble in a little something from every section of the menu to cut back on FOMO feels.
Remember the bridge-jumping scene in Blues Brothers? It happened right next to Calumet Fisheries, Chicago's quintessential cash-only take-out counter. The best way to get there is to drive—your car will double as your dining space when you leave with your bounty—and you won't be alone: Everyone else who has stopped into Calumet Fisheries will be sitting outside in their cars with their picks of fish too. You'll find smoked fish aplenty (it's the restaurant's specialty) alongside fried fish dinners. Do yourself a favor and come armed with plenty of cash and a car full of hungry friends and you'll be happy. Our favorites are the fried shrimp, fried fish and smoked salmon, though we're pretty sure you can't go wrong. And since the small counter's open almost every day of the year (except New Year's, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas), there's never a bad time to try it out.
Regional Piedmontese cuisine is Osteria Langhe's focus, and that means ingredients like truffles, cream and eggy pastas appear on the menu. The space is warm and cozy, and you'll want to order a bottle of well-chosen wine for the table before diving into the food. The plin, miniature agnolotti filled with cheese, are beautiful and light; the beef tartare is impeccably seasoned; and the vitello tonnato tops tender slices of beef with a vibrant tuna citrus caper aioli. In case you needed further proof that Osteria Langhe has elevated Chicago's Italian restaurant scene, order the creamy panna cotta to finish the evening.
Pequod's, at face value, is an unassuming Lincoln Park neighborhood bar—the difference is the pizza. Locals pour in to hang out, drink beers, watch sports and share a pie. Thin-crust and pan pizza are both on the menu, and while we're a fan of both, we really can't get enough of the caramelized crust on the pan pizza. It's Chicago-style pizza we can eat all the time, with a chewy crust that's covered with crispy and burnt cheese—giving it a crunch that's unbeatable. It's laden with a mouthwatering tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese that brings the whole pizza together. Top it with whatever you like, but also add extra cheese and sauce for the full experience.
Tall ceilings and long communal tables dominate the space at the Publican, giving it the feel of a big beer hall. The menu focuses on meat—oysters, pork and beer, to be exact—using high-quality meats and utilizing farmers with sustainable and responsible practices. Much of the menu is rotating and seasonal, but you'll find a few mainstays like the farm chicken, served with sausage and frites. An absolute must is the charcuterie plate, which can switch out but always has a solid mix of choices from pâtés to sausages and head cheese served with pickles and mustard. Whatever you pick, you've found the spot for the ultimate in Chicago's meat and potatoes—no, you won't find many steaks here, but you will find quality cuts cooked well, which are our favorite kinds of meat and potatoes.
J.P. Graziano's has been selling meat since 1937, but its killer subs have only been on the menu since 2007. None of the sandwiches will set you back more than $10, but the Italian is our favorite: a bunch of meats—hot capicola, Volpi Genoa salami, hard salami and mortadella—plus provolone, tomato, lettuce, red wine vinegar and oregano on a long roll from D'amato's Bakery. Grab one and a soda and take a seat at the shop—you'll see plenty of regulars grabbing their lunch favorites and newcomers just learning about the staple that this sub shop is.