With internationally lauded temples of molecular gastronomy, a constellation of breweries and cocktail bars and a roster of iconic local specialties like belt-busting deep dish pizza, Chicago boasts a dining and drinking culture to satisfy the lustiest of appetites.
But if you have dietary restrictions (or merely fear you’re one Chicago-style hot dog away from gout), take heart: in recent years, the city’s food scene has begun to develop a lighter side, too, with juice bars, cafes and even super-stylish spots that prize good health and good taste in equal measure. Here are seven of Chicago’s best healthy eateries.
1. Wheat's End
For followers of a gluten-free diet, there’s perhaps no crueler taunt than brunch, that midday orgy of pancakes, cinnamon rolls and croissants that dominates restaurant menus citywide come weekends. Enter Wheat’s End, a daytime-only spot whose 100 percent gluten-free status seems almost incidental, thanks to an airy, modern space, a menu that doesn’t shy away from the breadiest brunch classics and a kitchen with the chops to execute them.
A honey-butter-smeared cheddar chive biscuit yields up pleasing juxtapositions of savory and sweet, crusty and tender, while the house take on biscuits and gravy (diners choose from sausage, beef or vegetarian-friendly mushroom varieties) stars a flaky, meltingly light popover that arrives still steaming.
A packed itinerary of strolling, shopping and museum-hopping in Chicago’s city center demands serious stamina. Here to answer the call is tiny takeout spot Hi-Vibe, purveyor of cold-pressed juices, smoothies and bowls packed with so-called superfoods to River North’s shiny-haired set.
Among the shop’s most interesting offerings are its nearly 20 riffs on Bulletproof Coffee, a brew of allegedly toxin-free beans, grass-fed butter and coconut oil extract which devotees swear boosts brain function and kicks the body into fat-burning mode, without the caffeine crash that can follow a traditional cup of joe.
Hi-Vibe’s rendition of the original concoction is mouth-coatingly creamy, with sufficient richness to serve as a standalone breakfast. For vegans and tea lovers, there are options like the Matcha Vatte, a subtly sweet take on a conventional matcha latte that swaps dairy for luscious coconut cream.
3. Left Coast
There’s perhaps no better symbol of Chicago’s newfound embrace of good-for-you-grub than Lake View’s Left Coast, an erstwhile hotdog stand converted into a clean-eating haven, with a sun-dappled SoCal vibe (see the vertical garden and retractable windows) and a menu developed by local super-chef Paul Kahan.
When the weather gets sticky, order up a frosty, berry-loaded acai bowl and cool down with the locals – and their dogs – on the chilled-out patio. If fiery flavors are more your thing, go for the K-Town, a brown rice bowl with bibimbap-inspired toppings like kimchi, mushroom and a jammy seven-minute egg. Even kids’ fare gets a nutritious upgrade here – think dishes like turkey meatballs with Israeli couscous and broccoli.
4. Upton's Naturals
From its onsite breakroom, a spare but light-filled cafe tucked along an industrial stretch of West Town, homegrown natural foods manufacturer Upton’s Naturals dishes up fast-food delights like diner-style burgers and barbeque plates. Just one twist: everything’s vegan. Among the greatest hits are the smoky bacon seitan mac and cheese and al pastor tacos filled with adobo-marinated jackfruit.
For a meal with a distinct local flavor, though, go for the 'Chicago-Style' Italian, a vegan interpretation of Chicago’s classic giardiniera-topped Italian beef sandwich that ditches the traditional main ingredient for herbed seitan. While it won’t fool unrepentant meat lovers, it may be the closest you can come to this iconic dish without crossing to the carnivorous side – and at a glance, it’s a darned convincing lookalike.
5. Green City Market
Green City Market began with just nine area farmers back in 1998, long before terms like 'sustainable' or 'locally grown' peppered every menu, from the rarified fine-dining spot to the fast-food drive thru. Today the market is a bonafide local institution, counting some of Chicago’s top chefs among its faithful customers and commanding an impressive swath of Lincoln Park each Wednesday and Saturday.
(November through April it moves indoors, to the nearby Peggy Notebaert Museum.) Come to source high-quality picnic fixings direct from the hands of the independent farmers, cheesemakers and bread bakers who produced them. Families flock here en masse for the cheerful – if busy – atmosphere, and the so-close-you-can-almost-touch-it proximity to Lincoln Park Zoo (across the street).
6. Bad Hunter
Pushing against stereotyped notions that a healthy ethos precludes a sense of humor or style is veggie-focused Bad Hunter, whose very name sets a tone: it’s a waggish reference to the mocking quip that 'vegetarian' is derived from a Native American term meaning 'bad hunter'.
Situated amidst the meat-packing houses and decidedly-not-herbivorous eateries of the West Loop, the restaurant strikes a welcome note of lightness, beginning with the verdant foliage and vintage pressed leaf artwork that punctuate the neutral interior.
Made-to-be-shared dishes like tempura-battered lemons and broccoli and wood-grilled mushrooms and pickled blueberries over koji porridge manage the trick of feeling virtuous and at once indulgent and special. Even the cocktails make a nod to good health. Try the LA Brunch, a cool, velvety sipper that balances its boozy components with avocado, snap pea and aquafaba, a chickpea-derived emulsifier.
7. Real Good Juice Co
If you’re lactose intolerant, vegan or simply trying to limit sugar and calories, finding frozen treats that actually taste good and don’t contain a laundry list of tough-to-pronounce additives can be a tall order. Local chain Real Good Juice Co has your back.
In addition to serving up fare like avocado toast and comically named cold-pressed juices (see, for instance, the green vegetable-packed Juice-Pac Shakur), its Old Town and Lake View locations also churn out NoYo FroYo, a coconut nectar-sweetened almond milk soft-serve in fashionable flavors like activated charcoal and matcha.
It clocks in around just 80 calories per serving and it’s downright tasty, with a delicate sweetness and a creamy texture sufficient to scratch the ice cream itch without sabotaging your diet. Toppings like vegan cookie crumbles and almond butter only sweeten the deal.
Updated August 2019.