Best restaurants in Bucktown and Wicker Park
With just a dozen seats and five main courses, this shoebox of a restaurant seems to traffic in smallness. But slurp rice noodles in a Thai chili-scented broth, or take a bite of the complex curries or juicy bulgogi in one of the namesake bento boxes, and you’ll be hit by big Asian flavors, fresh ingredients (such as Jidori chicken) and the sense that the chef—Rick Spiros—is cooking with some real gusto. Tip: The menu changes daily, and when Spiros says barbecue-pork steamed buns, you better run.
This popular Bucktown restaurant has matured since it's opened, and its cocktail program is stronger than ever. We have a hard time moving away from the signature dishes, like the salad of heirloom apples and the devastatingly delicious egg-and-ricotta–filled raviolo, but it’s worth it to try the unusual, always-changing daily specials, from marinated beef tendon salad to cold-smoked salmon with bacon-dill dumplings. The brunch, too, is worth a visit for the outstanding Bloody Mary and chicken and biscuits.
The nearby condo dwellers with kids in tow may be a different crowd than the Polish regulars who once frequented this joint post-Prohibition, but the owners have gone out of their way to restore the original cocktail-culture look of the ’50s. The place is always packed, thanks to a dependable, old-school, family-style Italian menu with standouts like grilled calamari, chicken Vesuvio, and escarole with sausage and beans. But if you’re kidphobic, go late for the lounge vibe of Sinatra standards and signature martinis.
On the quiet stretch of Damen between North Avenue and Division Street, Craft Pizza is serving up some of the best thin crust pizza in the city. Slices are available in classic choices, like a bare-bones Margherita or dressed with pepperoni, as well as a farm-fresh slice of the day. The dough is crisp, perfectly thin and chewy, with a tomato sauce that cuts through the richness of the cheese. Topped with a changing rotation of assorted veggie gems from the Green City Market, farm pizza is a quick and easy way to change up your lunchtime routine, and won't make you feel as guilty as splurging on a slice of deep-dish.
Chef Min Thapa showcases Nepalese cooking with dishes such as paalungoko saag, where he takes whole spinach leaves, sautées them with caramelized garlic and coats them in a trinity of seeds (fenugreek, mustard and cumin). Another standout, the bhutuwa (goat), is flash-cooked with bell peppers, green chilies, onions and flattened rice. Thapa is no slouch when it comes to Indian cuisine either (the peppery biryani and lunch buffet are both solid), but ignoring the Nepalese dishes here is like going to a beer bar and ordering wine.
The adorable Mexican diner, from the team behind the Publican and Big Star, is open from 9 in the morning to 10 or 11 at night and it's precisely what Wicker Park needed. In the morning, try the grits and blood sausage, while the red chile enchiladas and chicken-fried chicken are worthy orders for lunch or dinner. No matter which meal you're there for, though, you'll want to add a rotating Mexican-inspired slice of Hoosier Mama pie, like the horchata. Yes, even for breakfast.
Yes, it’s small and crowded, and you’ll have to wait at the bar for a bit even with a reservation. But it’s the closest thing Chicago has to that adorable little bistro in Paris. Regulars have their never-fail favorites: the flaky, caramelly onion tart; the robust onion soup with a gluttonous amount of Gruyère; the butter-topped steak flanked by perfectly crisp frites; the hard-to-find seared veal kidneys with mustard sauce; the feeds-two duck à l’orange; and the simple profiteroles. Only snootier waiters could make for a more French experience.
At this shoebox-size meatless mecca, global vegetarian fare is gobbled up by lanky diners lounging on chunky wood stools and in dark booths under dim lights. Since prices are somewhere between Green Zebra and Chicago Diner, two people will spend around $60 to leave full, so to leave both full and satisfied, choose wisely. We recommend sampling among small portions of sesame noodles, bibimbap and the brown rice-mushroom sliders. Apricot cheesecake is a great ending, unless you’re looking to drink dessert, in which case go for the cucumber Sakerita.
Mindy Segal rehabbed her Bucktown restaurant in 2012, making it sunnier and adding a huge garage door that opens to let in warm weather. Segal—first and foremost a pastry chef—recently appointed Amanda Barnes to head up the savory kitchen, and the menu now includes lobster spaghetti and roasted chicken with a soy glaze.
The second restaurant from Edward Kim (Ruxbin) is designed around food chefs like to eat after their shift, but we call it "food we want to eat all the time." The menu spans a range of Asian influences, and highlights include a delicate fish collar, crispy rolls stuffed with sausage and an array of vegetables, and tiny chocolate-dipped bananas, all of which are the perfect cap to anyone's day.
Two things keep this place from going the route of sports-bar-beer-bong culture: excellent house brews and expertly executed pizzas. The crispy pies hold a lot of weight, so after you choose your pizza style—red, white, BBQ or New Haven–style “plain” (red sauce, no mozzarella)—start piling on the toppings. (If you’re really going New Haven–style, try one with clams and bacon.) Wash it down with a pitcher of the crisp Golden Arm, and you’ll never disparagingly say “pizza and beer joint” again.
Presidio is a solid spot for dinner and drinks, though the lounge vibe and loud music (even on weeknights) make it best for a group seeking a lively evening out. Owner Patrick Cullen gave his first restaurant/lounge a San Francisco theme (the name refers to a city park), which translates to some cocktails with a Bay Area provenance, fairly simple food and a lot of Fernet, the Italian amaro that’s celebrated out West. Nicole Bayani is heading up the kitchen and turning out a well-executed mix of small and large plates like crispy broccoli with sweet soy, toasted walnut and pickled blueberry and the Presidio Double Cheeseburger with secret sauce.
The cozy, cushy, Byzantine-style dining room and simple (and often simply delicious) seasonal Mediterranean food at this Wicker Park Greek den are all the influence of chef-owner David Schneider. Minimal ingredients are needed for a poof of housemade phyllo filled with ramps and flanked by feta or a bowl of fresh fava beans tossed with preserved lamb, but solid execution and superb seasoning yields maximum flavors. Nice prices and a share-everything platform mean more dough for sampling through the superb Greek wine list.