The South Loop got a little easier to access recently, when the Cermak-McCormick Green Line stop opened. Now, it takes less time to get to Acadia, one of the best fine dining restaurants in Chicago (and which also serves a killer lobster roll), as well as newcomer Spoke & Bird, a cozy cafe. The rest of the great South Loop restaurants include one of the city's best Spanish restaurants, a curry spot and a humble hot dog joint. Here's where to eat on the Near South Side, near the museum campus, McCormick Place and Soldier Field.
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Chef-owner Ryan McCaskey’s South Loop fine dining respite is a study in rich whites, a rare exercise in the restaurant as a space of tranquility and elegance. Flashes of inspiration light up the menu but the overall focus is on food that is rich and satisfying rather than revolutionary. If you don't want to spring for a pricey meal, head to the bar, where you'll find an exceptional lobster roll, burger and ramen.
You don’t have to claim a bunk at the adjacent Hostel International to get your hands on one of this café’s ridiculously good Cuban sandwiches. The Cubano’s crusty bread is toasted just right, its roast pork juicy, its pickles thick, and its mustard and gooey cheese plentiful. And once it’s devoured, only a potent café con leche will keep you from calling the café’s comfy couch home for the day.
This sibling of Highwood’s Curry Hut gets a leg up on typical tikka masala spots by offering a few lesser-known Nepalese specialties. The Bhojan sampler is a nice assortment of flavors, and the momo dumplings are tasty, but save room for the chhoela, slices of chilled, tandoor-cooked goat tossed in a bracing salad of raw onion, garlic and ginger slivers, and the kukhura ko pakheta, chicken wings marinated overnight in the Nepalese holy trinity (ginger, garlic and cumin).
The second location of the hot dog and burger joint has the same menu as the original outpost, but with some bonuses—seating and proximity for Loop office workers who are craving a hot dog for lunch. The Chicago dog is well-done, and there's a large variety of specially topped hot dogs, but you'll be remiss if you don't get the steakburger, a small patty on a buttery, eggy bun.
Owner Brad Rubin scoured the country to research this Jewish deli/diner. His pastrami is tender, fatty and full of flavor; the milkshakes are thick and oversized; matzo balls are enormous; and the brisket is good enough that any grandmother would want to claim it.
Is this a pizza joint? Or a Polish restaurant? Actually, it’s mostly a sports bar, with more screenage per square foot than most bars of this size. For game-watching eats, skip the Polish fare and choose a thin-crust, South Side–style, square-cut thin-crust pie, which comes with a crackly crust and spicy pepperoni.
Sitting on one of the tree-stump counter stools at this sleek, designer coffeehouse is a lovely experience, thanks to oversized mugs filled with lavender-scented chai lattes, hot sandwiches and brunch favorites like stuffed brioche French toast. Evening visits are best spent digging into batter-dunked grilled cheese.
The third location of the Greektown daytime spot is sporting more than extra hours. Meli Cafe on Dearborn features a dinner menu with new favorites like chicken aginarato, and Athenian style skirt steak. The rest of the menu, however, is exactly the same. And that's a good thing, because it means surprisingly light whole-grain pancakes; huge goblets of delicious Greek yogurt layered with fruit and granola; and delicate crêpes.
Under the helm of Jose Garces, this colorful spot in the Blackstone Hotel offers a prime view of Michigan Avenue, but the cooks’ focus is on the grill. We’re not talking burgers and barbecue, but elevated Catalan cuisine. Flavorful charred octopus is tossed with green olives and confit potato while grilled flat-iron steak is marinated in a rich sauce of nora chilies, roasted garlic and honey.
Two decades old and still bustling, this Thai stalwart thumbs its nose at the chowhounds running around town for ant eggs and crispy caterpillars. No need for secret menus here—a broad range of staples is done well and at a good price. Wine-toting couples swap forkfuls of shu-mai, tart naem sod (minced chicken tossed in a limey dressing with peanuts and raw ginger) and a flavorful rendition of pad ped pla dook (hunks of crispy catfish sautéed in red curry paste with green beans and eggplant).
Is this a coffee shop or a restaurant? The Prairie District gathering place is both, with Counter Culture beans and people pounding away on laptops, plus a menu of sandwiches, burgers and salads. Ingredients are drawn from around the area, like 1871 Dairy and Moody Tongue Brewing Company, and the big windows, plants and light woods make it a comfortable spot for settling in over a sandwich and dessert.