The word cafeteria conjures images of hairnets, hospitals and heaps of overcooked mush. Buffet brings to mind all you-can-eat outlets in the 'burbs with burlap-like steaks and melted soft serve. But when it comes to dining in downtown Chicago, especially on your workday lunch hour, cafeteria and buffet are not necessarily the dirty words of dining. In fact, there are some pretty great spots with fresh wood oven–fired pizza, decent Chinese food, and vegetarian options like stocked salad bars with modern touches like kale and quinoa. We explored the skyscraper basements and office complexes of the Loop to find the best cafeterias and buffets in Chicago. (At least those that are open to the public. Sorry, some like the 30th floor of the UBS tower remain locked off for employees only.)
RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to the Chicago Loop
Buffets and cafeterias in downtown Chicago
Barbecue, Korean, raw, lobster rolls, delis, pretzels, Indian…. Overwhelmed by the 28 restaurants in the Chicago French Market? We ate at every single one of them to find the five best. While there is no by-the-pound option here, French Market is the best option of the bunch for a gourmet lunch.
Unique items: boiled peanuts at Lillie's Q, Montreal pastrami at Fumare Meats
Tucked away and oozing a humdrum mall vibe, this dining hall is dirt cheap and dated. Nobody seems particularly enthused about eating here, likely because the menu seems to have been locked in decades ago. Carbo-load on Chinese, Italian and other fried, noodle-heavy grub. Along with Under 55, this offered the worst selection of salad bar ingredients. The crowd is mostly folks from upstairs. You're better off going the extra couple blocks to Chase or the Vault. Unless all you have is a fiver.
Unique items: We've spotted spare ribs and fried perch
Price: $6.39 per pound (lunch), $5.39 per pound (breakfast)
There are other Market Creations locations in the Loop—in Willis Tower, the courthouse, Prudential Plaza—but we went with the one in the Civic Opera House, as it's the most unique…and closest. Look, proximity matters on your break. Take a beautiful antique elevator to the third floor from the marble lobby and step into, well, a rather standard cafeteria. It's a sweet, fruity buffet spread, heavy on Chinese fare—orange and lemon glazes, mango sauces—and various fruit salads. Or, you can assemble a sandwich at the deli station. Opera costumes and photos from Lyric productions decorate the attached dining area, adding to the overall time warp feeling the place.
Unique items: A la carte sushi
Price: $6.99–$7.99 per pound
This Aon Center eatery is sleek and bright. The food is divided up into à la carte stations serving burgers, tacos, pizza, pasta, panini and, most alluringly, bibimbap. The latter is the reason to tunnel here via the Pedway in winter. The by-the-pound hot bar leans towards Thanksgiving-ish eating, as well as Mexican and Chinese food—typical shovel fare. Early birds can pop in for breakfast sandwiches, while those who need a head start on happy hour can pop into the Red Bar, which serves pub grub and booze from 4–8pm.
Unique items: A bibimbap station, a bar
Price: $8.08 per pound
Located in the Franklin Center, Rustle + Roux is a fairly new lunch option, which includes a salad bar, grill, coffee, deli counter, tacos from Mercadito and pizza, pasta and meatball sandwiches from Top Chef alum Fabio Viviani. But this cafeteria seems mostly about confusion and chaos. When I waited in line to order anemically filled fish tacos at Mercadito, I stood behind a man who was utterly perplexed that he had to order tacos in orders of three (I feel you, man). When I waited for a turkey wrap (and had to ask three times for mayo), a woman in line didn’t understand why soup prices varied at the deli counter and the salad bar. The space includes a turquoise tree sculpture, but feels generic overall. Unless you work in the building, go elsewhere for lunch.
Unique items: Mercadito taco counter, Mercato by Fabio Viviani
Price: 49 cents per pound at the salad bar
Dark and dated, the subterranean food court near the Art Institute oozes a heavy '80s vibe, with themed food stations, foam containers, Formica tables and a limited salad bar that believes cauliflower to be cutting edge. Yet there were surprisingly modern touches on our visit, like a pho station and a guest chef whipping up Mexican fare. Those had a wait, so I dabbled in the hot bar that offered Cajun fare like shrimp and grits, a dish not ideally served in bulk bins. Far more a place for warm staples than fresh veggies, Under 55 has some sleepers if you follow the longer lines.
Unique item: When we visited, a pho station
Price: 49 cents per ounce
This spot at the basin of the amphitheatre-like Chase Bank Plaza is hybrid food court and cafeteria. Celeb chefs Rick Bayless and Fabio Viviano offer their Frontera and Mercato counters, respectively, and there are also stations for Indian fare, barbecue, deli sandwiches and the occassional guest chef. Opt to wait for a fresh whole Neapolitan pizza from Mercato rather than the ready-to-go deep dish. The baked potatoes, both sweet and regular, easily trump the hot bar. The salad bar is pretty standard, though we appreciated the option of arugula.
Unique items: Wood-fired pizzas and baked potato bar
Price (salad bar): 47 cents per ounce
The bank basement hallway leading to this eatery is a deco timewarp, though the interior is more plastic mod. Its tucked-away location means fewer crowds, which is odd, as it probably stocks the top salad and hot bar in the Loop. Premade salads, like kale with grapefruit and quinoa tabbouleh are refreshingly on trend, and well dressed, though the perpetual Thanksgiving feast offers comfort for cafeteria nostalgists, too. Premade sandwiches are at the ready for the impatient, while those with looser lunch breaks are rewarded with a hot sandwich to order station. We went to colleges with kick-ass dining halls, and this place fills that void in our adult lives.
Unique feature: Cookie warming station
Price: $7.36 per pound, 46 cents per ounce