Occasionally, we order salads to help balance out our pizza or hot dog consumption, but sometimes we order salads because they're just so darn good. These 10 bowls of greens fall into the latter category—with fresh vegetables, seafood and other ingredients, they're often meals unto themselves, or great for sharing at the table. And while you'll find some at vegetarian restaurants, plenty are at more meat-centric spots. After all, life is all about balance.
Best salads in Chicago
Yeah, this salad is from a vending machine. If that weirds you out, don't let it—these are fresh salads that are added daily, and they include thoughtful combinations of ingredients. There are numerous Farmer's Fridge kiosks around the city, including in Block 37, and the machines are easy to use. They also dispense breakfast items like almond butter oatmeal, while the salads include buffalo chicken, kale caesar and the shaved veggie and kale, with shaved beets, carrots and apples. Maple sherry vinaigrette comes tucked into the top, and you can add on little jars of chicken or tofu. The jars are recyclable, and each kiosk has a spot to deposit used jars—perfect for when you're picking up your next salad.
Sometimes a salad is less about the greens and more about the thick slices of barely cooked tuna placed on top. This is the case at Japonais, where their sashimi caesar salad includes whole leaves of romaine coated in creamy, tangy caesar dressing with a touch of garlic. It's covered with a blizzard of shaved Parmesan and crunchy, salted croutons, but the star is the tuna, which is sushi grade and just barely touched by the grill. The fish is sweet and coated in a thin layer of sesame seeds and a confetti of seaweed, and melts when it hits your tongue. Mix it into the tangy dressing, and you have the ideal light lunch.
The tiny vegetarian and vegan restaurant serves countless fresh veggie dishes, but one of the standouts is the panzanella, available in two sizes. The mix of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, toasty cubes of grilled bread, shallots and basil comes mixed with a lively red wine garlic vinaigrette. It sounds simple, but tastes elegant, and is a must-order on any visit to the Wicker Park gem.
Brendan Sodikoff’s sexy French supper club Maude’s has a menu so overwhelmingly full of elaborate cold seafood dishes and thick-cut aged meat that you wouldn’t expect to find such a restrained salad hidden in the margins. The bibb lettuce salad is made with layers of frilly, ruffled leaves of butter lettuce generously coated with a bright and light lemony dressing, which has a slight bite from dijon mustard. The salad is topped with fresh herbs, from bitter parsley to dark-green chives, making it the perfect starter for a heavier meal. The best thing about Maude’s salad is that it doesn’t need gobs of cheese or meat to make it stand out, and allows the simple leafy greens to shine.
The ability to grab a fresh, delicious salad to go amidst the many tourist traps in the Loop can be a challenge. At Mezza, which has a handful of locations downtown, our favorite lunchtime choice is the shepherd salad. The base is made of chopped romaine lettuce, mixed greens and crunchy cabbage, which are topped with heaps of veggies, including ripe tomato, creamy avocado, sweet corn and sugary dates. A sprinkle of almonds adds a bit of crunch, and fluffy dabs of goat cheese finish the whole thing off. The dressing is light and lemony, letting each of the vegetables shine without being overpowering. Enjoy it as a side to one of the other offerings, or throw on some grilled chicken to make it a meal.
The Italian spot excels in fresh seafood, and there's a generous amount of Dungeness crab in Nico's refined take on a wedge salad. Crunchy iceberg lettuce, thick nubs of bacon, tomatoes, scallions and avocado come drizzled with a buttermilk dressing. It's a wonderfully balanced salad and, since it's only available on the lunch menu, it makes for a lovely lunch when you can sneak out of the office.
The cheese, charcuterie and sandwich shop also serves a menu of salads that make a great lunch or dinner. We’re fond of the harvest salad, composed of fresh, sweet mixed field greens and topped with tangy crumbles of Ader Käse Reserve blue cheese. The addition of crunchy green apples and a sweet-sour bite from onion confit (made from locally sourced shallots) makes this salad shine. The finishing touch is the addition of housemade prosciutto bacon, which adds a chewy, salty crunch. The whole thing is topped with Pastoral’s homemade sweet and sour balsamic vinaigrette, which helps turn each bite part of this salad into a perfectly balanced meal.
In the oyster bar or dining room at Shaw's, you can get a simple chopped salad, with avocado, egg, cucumber, tomato and other veggies—or you can upgrade to the restaurant's chopped seafood salad. It's a no-brainer, since the seafood version adds a generous amount of king crab, snow crab, shrimp and lobster on top. It's drizzled with creamy Louis dressing, resutling in a dish that tastes totally indulgent, but still gets your veggies in.
At Reno, which serves excellent wood-baked pizzas, it’s worth starting off with a heaping portion of leafy greens. The salad selection changes occasionally, but one of the long-standing menu items is the frisee spinach salad. The base of the salad is composed of sweet, tender leaves of spinach mixed with crunchy, fluffy sprigs of frisee. Ribbons of flash-fried leeks are scattered in tangles over the salad, and sliced raw baby portabellos and strips of snappy red onion are tossed on top. The salad is finished with a vibrant and vinegary sherry-laced dressing that adds a nice, acidic kick. Make it a meal and top it with the additional tender shredded smoked chicken or salty-sweet bacon.
The charcuterie offerings on the menu at Tête Charcuterie may change from time to time, but you'll always find a seasonal garden dish, which is easily one of the best vegetable dishes in town. Expect to find a seasonally changing mix of herbs and vegetables, which includes some raw items, some cooked and some pickled, which combine into a delicious meditation on the Midwestern seasons, and a foil to the heavier meat dishes. It's listed as an entree, but get it as a starter to share because everyone at the table is going to want to try some.