Chicago may not have an abundance of Spanish restaurants, but the ones we do have are very, very good. If you're in the mood for classic tapas like gambas al ajillo or patatas bravas, head to Cafe Marbella. Vera offers a terrific sherry program, Spanish-style gintonics and refined small plates, while Mercat a la Planxa specializes in Catalan cuisine. Here are the best Spanish restaurants in Chicago.
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Best Spanish restaurants in Chicago
It’s kind of like riding the El: The wait at this always-packed tapas joint can be long and annoying, but once you get inside, things go pretty quickly. Cheap plates of patatas bravas (soft, habit-forming cubes of potatoes immersed in a spicy tomato sauce) and croquetas de pollo (creamy chicken and ham fritters) arrive at the table almost immediately. A plate of Manchego and a pitcher of sangria to tide you over, and you won’t even notice the wait.
This standout tapas spot is a bit out of the way on a fairly desolate stretch, but offers a comfortable setting, hospitable staff and, most important, great food. The signature menu includes unbeatable paprika-rich garlic soup, plump mussels in parsley-flecked cream sauce, crispy potatoes that soak up flavorful chorizo grease and bacon-wrapped figs with brandy cream sauce so decadent it leans more toward dessert (but have both if you can).
Under the helm of Jose Garces, Philly's famed Spanish chef, 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. Signatures like the spicy housemade pork sausage make enough of an impact that you’ll believe Garces’s claim that Mercat is different from a “run-of-the-mill tapas bar.”
With its small menu of simple but elegant seafood dishes, a dinner (or lunch, if you're lucky to work nearby) at mfk. is a welcome break from fancy plates and elaborate combinations of ingredients. Here, there are boquerones piled with peppers and fennel on a grilled baguette; easy vegetable salads; occasional crab feasts. At mfk., the chefs prove that less is more.
Chef Ashlee Aubin (also of Wood) hit on something we were missing in Chicago—elegant Spanish food that's definitely not tapas. At Salero, you order off a menu with appetizers, entrees and desserts, which is refreshing, considering we're dining in the age of shared plates. And I was doubly thrilled, since it meant I received an entree-sized portion of potato confit, topped with a gleaming egg and accompanied by mushrooms and a dreamy slab of melted Spanish cheese. Other items on the menu—perfectly textured grilled octopus tentacles, seafood bathing in a sherry-saffron broth, silky flan capped with blood orange gelee—just further confirmed how good this restaurant is.
Mark and Liz Mendez, both formerly of Carnivale, escape the trappings of their former employer with this quiet spot. It's a wine bar, so drink up—Liz has assembled an excellent sherry program, and all the servers can direct you toward a glass. Mark handles food, and we're fans of the hearty paella, perfectly seasoned meatballs and the generous cheese and charcuterie plate. A new daytime menu features coffee and tea paired with sherry, plus snacks like doughnuts, English muffins and a tortilla espanola.