Chicago's top pastry chefs know what people want: ice cream, doughnuts and pie. But while they've mastered—and elevated—traditional desserts, the best spots go above and beyond, with s'more macarons and chamomile creme brulee, to name a few. When you have to end your dinner with the best, here's where to find the best desserts in Chicago.
A healthy-fare-meets-comfort-food concept informs the menus at this cheerful River North restaurant and, to be sure, many of the dessert offerings—vanilla bean–flecked kulfi, chia pudding, a gluten-free chocolate cake—cleave to this ethos. And then there’s the Oh My! Caramel Pie, a tall wedge of luxurious burnished caramel—less dense than dulce de leche, but not by much—atop a shortbread crust so buttery it shatters beneath your fork. It’s a devil-may-care-for-health kind of dessert, and it’s worth it. For a sweet fix to go, check out the coffee counter’s selection of enormous and excellent cookies.
The elegant French restaurant ends each meal on a high note with beautiful desserts from pastry chef Marjorie Easley. Easley, last at Gemini Bistro, focuses on French classics, but gives them her own spin. The pistachio bombe is a nutty, creamy dessert paired with raspberry accents, while the coconut financier incorporates tropical flavors like passionfruit curd, for a bright take on a traditional dessert.
Simplicity can be a beautiful thing—and so it is in this Lakeview burger-and-beer spot’s dessert department, where the menu comprises just a handful of good old-fashioned milkshakes blended up to a straw-contracting thickness. Ice cream from Oak Park’s Petersen’s serves as the base for straightforward but satisfying vanilla, chocolate, peanut butter and espresso varieties. Check out the jazzier monthly specials (past offerings have included a coffee version topped with skewered doughnut holes, and a Lucky Charms–infused take on the Shamrock Shake), or ask your server to chuck in a shot of booze.
Jeremy Brutzkus’s desserts are tongue-in-cheek takes on tastes deeply embedded in the American childhood experience circa the convenience food–friendly 1980s. While the menus change daily, dishes could include the Fruit Loop doughnut, which nods to the over-the-top flavor and Technicolor tones of its namesake breakfast cereal with dabs of guava puree, dashes of grapefruit powder and freeze-dried strawberry, and a curl of tangy buttermilk-lemongrass sorbet. A cocoa-dusted chocolate bar set atop a schmear of cola-enriched cream recalls the kind of after-school snack you might’ve sneaked while Mom was out. It’s not subtle or ethereal stuff; it’s just happy.
James Beard Award–winning pastry chef Mindy Segal is something like the mama of the Chicago dessert scene, and her loft-like Bucktown restaurant/dessert bar is a longstanding favorite among locals and visitors who want to skip straight to the sweet course. Perennially popular items include warm doughnuts served up with a side of thick fudge and a menu of rich hot chocolates that vary in sweetness (sugar fiends will lap up the medium, while spice lovers will appreciate the subtly smoldering Mexican). Rotating specials include the quirky Tim Burton’s Ode to Maple, a pecan pie–like tart with a bacon fat–enriched crust, embellished with wild strands of spun sugar and maple-spiked Kilgus Farmstead cream.
Some of Chicago’s loveliest sweets are served up at Bruce Sherman’s Lincoln Park idyll, where Greg Mosko—recently named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chefs—helms a dessert program heavily influenced by the seasons. No matter the time of year, Mosko has an uncanny ability to draw out the color within his ingredients, often composing dishes with the exuberant palette of a Matisse painting. Nor is his creativity strictly visual; on any given visit, you’re likely to find desserts that reinterpret savory flavor profiles (such as a spiced squash cake served with Thai basil sorbet, vanilla noodles and coconut pudding) or playfully merge high and low elements (like a s’mores macaron accompanied by Cracker Jack and candied apple ice creams and roasted pear sorbet).
The dessert roster at this cool Korean-American newcomer changes often, making it difficult to define it with too much precision. But thus far a common thread runs through the offerings: Familiar sweets are tweaked just enough to make us consider them afresh. Who knew, for instance, that glutinous mochi, made earthy with rye butter, paired so comfortingly with tangy ricotta? Or how humble baked apple could be elevated with the addition of a more-savory-than-sugary burnt miso ice cream? No matter the current lineup, you’re in for a dessert that honors the creative spirit of the dishes that preceded it.
There are, rumor has it, a handful of cake-y things to be had at Rick Bayless’s ode to Mexican street food (passionfruit-lime cake and chocolate cherry bread pudding, to cite a couple of current examples), but for us, the dessert menu begins and ends with the churros. Fragrant, golden and fried to order, they possess that magical crisp-pillowy textural duality that’s all the more exquisite for its fleetingness. Our advice: Once you’ve finished your torta, order up a churro to go (plain, or with a nutty glaze if you’re so inclined); it’s the perfect handheld snack for a leisurely stroll through River North.