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Daisies
Photograph: Neil Burger

20 Chicago meals that got us through 2020

Give it up for the Chicago restaurants that fueled us through the strangest year on record.

Morgan Olsen
Written by
Morgan Olsen
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We'd typically use the final weeks of December to wax poetic about the memorable dining experiences we had throughout the year, but 2020 wasn't a normal year. In fact, the last time I dined out indoors was back in mid-March, when the world was just starting to turn upside-down. Like so many Americans, I figured it'd be a few weeks (a month max!) before I could resume my usual going-out routine. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

But here's one thing that didn't change: Chicago restaurants continued to feed us during what turned out to be a seriously shitty year. It looked different from home—with all the carryout containers and reheating instructions—but their passion never faltered. Though I sorely miss the full experience of dining out, I can't help but feel more connected to Chicago's dining scene through some of the meals I ate this year. There was the soulful seafood feast from HaiSous, the destination-worthy burger from newcomer Gretel, the summery chamomile cheesecake from Gather and so many more memorable eats.

Consider this list a good starting point if you're looking for carryout and delivery recommendations for this winter. And if you have the means, please support your favorite Chicago restaurants tonight, this weekend and always—they're depending on it to survive.

RECOMMENDED: Discover more of the best delivery in Chicago

Chicago meals that got us through 2020

  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Logan Square
  • price 2 of 4

When I look back at the dozens of delivery orders I've placed this year, there's one that makes me feel weirdly emotional. It's hard to put into words why Lula Cafe's Farm Dinner had this effect on me, but I'll try. For the past 20 years, the Logan Square restaurant has taken great pride in its Monday Night Farm Dinners, which revolve around multi-course meals that celebrate the season's bounty. So when chef-owner Jason Hammel was forced to pivot his business model to takeout, he packaged up the dinner series to go. He and his talented team—including chef de cuisine Andrew Holladay and pastry chef Emily Spurlin—have poured their hearts into these very special weekly menus.

Over the summer, I experienced that passion firsthand; that night's lineup included an impossibly refreshing cucumber-peach gazpacho, a beautifully balanced chickpea panisse with gnocchi and sungold tomatoes, and cream cheese mousse adorned with blueberries, tarragon and hazelnuts. The meal stuck with me for weeks, partly because it was phenomenal, but mostly because I could taste the fight in every bite.

  • Restaurants
  • Soul and southern American
  • Lincoln Square
  • price 1 of 4

If you need a big, warm hug that doesn't actually involve touching anyone, queue up a takeout order from Luella's Southern Kitchen. Chef Darnell Reed's buttermilk fried chicken and shrimp and grits are no-brainers, but it would be sacrilegious to checkout without the chicken gumbo, a belly-warming, soul-soothing blend of andouille sausage, Creole seasoning and toothsome delta rice. For good measure, I've been known to toss in an order of pillowy beignets for a morning-after breakfast treat with coffee—a move I highly recommend.

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  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Ukrainian Village
  • price 2 of 4

Few new restaurants excited Chicago more than Pizza Friendly Pizza, a Sicilian-style slice shop dispensing pies from a back alley in Ukrainian Village. To be fair, it's worth every ounce of hype. Fine-dining chef Noah Sandoval worked tirelessly on the winning recipe, which sports a thick and bubbly crust that's anchored by crispy, caramelized edges. Back in August, my husband and I destroyed a quartet of slices while strolling Cortez Street and basking in a warm summer evening. Mark my words: This place will reach institution status in no time.

Las Delicias
Photograph: Morgan Olsen

Las Delicias

Throughout the year, I occupied many weekend hours with long, meandering walks, a few of which took me through Albany Park. One such stroll deposited me outside of new-to-me restaurant Las Delicias, which specializes in Honduran and Guatemalan cuisines. I wanted to try a bit of everything from the mile-long menu, so I eventually settled on the Combo Vegetariano, which includes one pupusa, one cheese chilaquil, a mess of sweet plantains, a scoop of guac and a side of rice and beans. The treasure trove of food stretched across lunch and dinner and rang up well under $15. I still crave the zucchini-stuffed pupusa anytime I find myself in the neighborhood.

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  • Restaurants
  • Wicker Park

Over the summer, I broke out of the house for my first and only patio romp of the season. I'd be ogling the frozen drink selection at Ina Mae Tavern for weeks and decided to make an afternoon of it. After two daiquiri slushies and a Nashville fried chicken po' boy, I made my way home, still buzzing from the experience (and the booze). I tip my hat to the service team at Ina Mae for keeping things extra safe while helping diners feel right at home.

  • Restaurants
  • Vietnamese
  • Lower West Side
  • price 2 of 4

I believe in the transportative power of food—especially when travel isn't possible. Though I couldn't hop on a flight to Vietnam, my taste buds booked a one-way ticket there thanks to carryout from HaiSous. My regular order includes three must-try dishes from chef-owner Thai Dang: fish sauce-lacquered wings and Vietnamese fries, jerky-studded papaya salad and the seafood platter, which is loaded with lime leaf-scented scallops, shrimp, crab, squad and clams. Next on my list of things to try is a multi-course meal and cooking class with Dang.

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  • Restaurants
  • Logan Square

Thanks to its physical proximity to my home and its impressive new in-house market, Daisies has become my go-to pitstop for handmade pasta, last-minute dinner ingredients and great bottles of wine. (Heck, they even sold me an unopened bottle of rum from behind the bar over the summer when I was in the mood for daiquiris.) But perhaps one of Daisies greatest feats was transforming into a lunchtime destination with some of the best sandwiches in town. I'm sure the rest of the menu is stellar, but I'll never not order the clever peaches and cream sando—with goat cheese, smoked ham and peach preserves on sourdough.

I know what you're thinking: Is a cake really a meal? I assure you that if you try hard enough, it can be breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a belated birthday present to myself, I ordered one of Flavor Supreme's (a.k.a. Joey Pham) whimsical, sustainably sourced cake creations. Pham decorated the buttermilk cake with bergamot-peach curd, black tea chantilly cream, blackberries, cherries and edible flowers. Pandemic or no pandemic, I'll be placing all future cake orders through Flavor Supreme.

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Gretel
Photograph: Starr Nordgren (@chicagofoodiegirl)

Gretel

This fall, when I was updating Time Out's list of the best burgers in Chicago, Number Six With Cheese co-founder Sean Ely tipped me off to a potential new addition. The folks behind Little Bad Wolf (a patty palace in its own right) had just opened Gretel in Logan Square. Intrigued, I queued up a delivery order and found myself face to face with the stacker an hour later. The messy mélange of flavors is wonderfully indulgent, with a cascade of garlic aioli and American cheese dripping out of every crevice. A handful of pickles and a sprinkle of red onions add some much needed acidity to the mix, but the sesame seed bun really takes things over the edge. This freshman may be new to the lineup, but damn if she's not already a first-string player.

  • Restaurants
  • Israeli
  • Sheffield & DePaul

When I heard that Galit was offering takeout and delivery, I immediately cleared the dinner schedule and ordered enough food to feed the entire block. For the rest of the night, we noshed on brisket hummus, crispy falafel, dill-flecked beets and lamb-stuffed cabbage. In the haze of the feeding frenzy, I recall remarking to my husband that chef-owner Zachary Engel must be a wizard; it's the only thing that could explain how he managed to ferry piping-hot, still-inflated pita bread to our door via delivery driver.

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  • Restaurants
  • Korean
  • River West/West Town

I didn’t have the opportunity to dine at Hanbun before it closed in 2018, but I heard fables of the far-flung suburban destination that ferried fine-dining eats out of a food court stall. Since then, co-owners Dave Park and Jennifer Tran have gone on to open award-winning Jeong in West Town. Back in April, I had the chance to travel back in time and experience Hanbun for myself thanks to Park and Tran's takeout-only revival hosted at Jeong. I finally got to try those sticky, gochujang-slicked rice cakes and the wonderfully spicy Korean ramyun. Let me tell you: It’s just as special as I imagined it would be.

Who would have thought that 2020 would be the year we'd order food through a Google Form? Come to think of it, I'd jump through hoops to get my hands on Santa Masa's supreme tamales. Chef Daniel Espinoza and his wife, Jhoana Ruiz, fill and wrap about 3,000 masa bundles every week—and they sell out faster than you can say "salsa verde." Over the summer, I managed to get my hands on the coveted Italian beef tamal as well as a half-dozen other handhelds to stash in the fridge for lunches. Pay special attention to Espinoza's specials (they always shine) and don't neglect the rajas tamal, which is stuffed with tender poblanos and onions, green salsa and gooey queso panela.

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Farmer’s Fridge
Photograph: Morgan Olsen

Farmer’s Fridge

Did anyone else hit a wall with at-home lunches this year? About halfway through 2020, I gave up entirely and outsourced the work to Farmer's Fridge for a week. (Psst: In addition to their vending machines, they also do delivery.) It's a true luxury to start a busy work week with a fridge full of perfectly portioned salads, bowls and snacks that are ready to grab and devour. I'm addicted to the dark chocolate trail mix, and I could easily crush the veg-packed falafel plate on the daily.

  • Restaurants
  • River West/West Town

Back in 2019, Time Out critic Maggie Hennessy raved about Vajra, a top-notch Nepali spot in West Town that she described as a "pure sensory delight." I'm only disappointed that I waited until 2020 to try it, but since then, I've made up for lost time, ordering Vajra again and again and again. The chicken momo are served with a beautiful tomato-sesame sauce, the cashew chicken tikka masala always packs a punch, and the to-go cocktails are wonderfully complex.

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  • Restaurants
  • Food court
  • Little Italy, UIC

There were a million and one online events to attend this year, but early on, I found a sense of community in Virtual Boozy Brunch, a weekly industry support system hosted by award-winning sommelier Belinda Chang. In addition to moonlighting as an occasional co-host, I often cooked and mixed along with the featured chefs and bartenders. In Episode 28, I had the great pleasure of e-meeting Lexington Betty Smoke House chef-owner Dominique Leach, who taught us how to compose her deeply savory applewood smoked pork belly with bourbon BBQ sauce, slaw and sweet pickles—a feast for the eyes and a fête for the palate.

  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • Avondale
  • price 2 of 4

In one of this year's most dedicated pivots, the interior of Pisolino was transformed into a dreamy Italian marketplace that's stocked with souped-up pantry treats like sauces, pasta, wine and specialty goods you won't find at Jewel. Much to my delight, management also debuted 12 O'Clock Sub Shop, a counter-service sandwich joint that deals in stacked handhelds. My maiden order is still my go-to: the classic Italian sub with mortadella, salami, prosciutto, provolone, lettuce, tomato, red onion and Italian vinaigrette.

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  • Bars
  • Wine bars
  • Logan Square
  • price 2 of 4

Halfway through lockdown, I picked up a serious picnic habit that had me dining out in parks all over town. Here's one combo I can't recommend highly enough: charcuterie, cheese and vino from Webster's Wine Bar at nearby Unity Park, a quaint outdoor area in Logan Square that hosts plenty of pups and outdoor fitness classes. The crew at Webster's couldn't have been kinder, even offering to open the bottle of rosé I'd purchased after I admitted I'd forgotten a corkscrew.

  • Restaurants
  • American creative
  • River North
  • price 3 of 4

Early on, Michelin-starred Entente bundled up these fantastic to-go family meals that included a shareable entree plus plenty of sides. I was beyond geeked to try chef Brian Fisher's take on fried chicken with dirty farro and cornbread, and the meal did not disappoint. Fun fact: It was this dining experience that inspired us to switch up Fisher's menu at Time Out Market Chicago to focus on the craggly, crunchy, delicious fried bird.

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Eleven Eleven
Photograph: Morgan Olsen

Eleven Eleven

I come from a family of frontline workers, so heading home for the holidays wasn't even a thought this year. For Thanksgiving, I scoured dozens of amazing takeout menus in search of the one—something that would feel special despite the fact that all of the usual festivities had been called off. I found that (and more) in Eleven Eleven's classic turkey dinner, which came with all of the fixings, including cranberry puree made with Aperol and potato gratin layered with melty gruyere cheese—all prepared with love by chef Charles Welch. In a year that felt terribly weird, this takeout feast made us feel normal for a day.

  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary American
  • Lincoln Square
  • price 2 of 4

Dining solo is one of my favorite ways to recharge. Though I didn't get many opportunities to take myself out for dinner in 2020, I took full advantage of an August evening when I found myself ordering delivery for one from Gather. A picture-perfect composition of summer melons and prosciutto was the opening act for summer pea mafaldine with mint and lemon gremolata. But the star of the show was dessert: chamomile cheesecake dressed up in lemon-berry gel, macerated blueberries and honeycomb candy bits.

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