When it comes to Chicago dining, the traditionally blue-collar neighborhoods of the South Side are often overlooked for trendier environs like Wicker Park. Not for long; today, keyed-in diners can dig into everything from Polish-Korean fusion in a Bridgeport bar to soul food in a repurposed Washington Park currency exchange.

two people sit at a counter in Chicago
A defunct currency exchange is now one of Washington Park's best cafés © Cate Huguelet / Lonely Planet

Collards, catfish and community

The quirky, convivial Currency Exchange Café is the brainchild of Theaster Gates, a Chicago native and activist-artist who has made a major mark on the South Side’s neighborhoods by transforming down-at-the-heels spaces into community-oriented cultural amenities.

Inside, the cafe's origins as an actual currency exchange are teased via cleverly repurposed signage, while a menu punctuated by soul food flavors (think fried catfish and grits, and jambalaya over vinegar-spiked collards) reflects the historically African American heritage of its Washington Park home.

beer sampler at Whiner Beer in Chicago
After touring the Plant, visitors can kick back over barrel-aged beer and wood-fired pizza in Whiner Beer's tap room © Cate Hugulet / Lonely Planet

Eat, drink and be eco-friendly

In Back of the Yards, the South Side neighborhood on which Chicago’s bygone rep as America’s abattoir was built, an expanding community of food producers known collectively as The Plant is carrying out a collaborative experiment in eliminating waste in a sprawling former meatpacking facility.

Each business housed in The Plant tries to make its waste somehow useful for another. For instance, used coffee from roaster Four Letter Word and spent grains from brewery Whiner Beer are compressed into bricks that fuel the ovens at Pleasant House, an artisanal bakery that turns out pastries and naturally-leavened breads.

Saturday afternoon tours are a great way to glimpse the diverse elements of the project, from a subterranean aquaponics farm to a backyard anaerobic digester. Afterward, head to Whiner’s rustic, softly lit tap room to digest what you’ve seen over barrel-aged beers and pizza.

At home with the chef

In recent years, no South Side spot has won over Chicago’s diners and critics quite like the Duck Inn. It only makes sense that the heart of the operation, chef Kevin Hickey, is Bridgeport-bred. On a quiet street in his home ’hood, he’s tempering the upscale gastropub format with qualities that exemplify the South Side at its best: warmth, ease and a winking sense of humor.

First, there’s the interior, which marries the coziness of a classic Midwestern corner tavern with a light-hearted pop of mid-century flash, courtesy of swanky light fixtures and judiciously-deployed starburst accents. And then there’s the menu. From bar bites like a traditional Chicago dog elevated with rich duck to the house specialty, a wooden cutting board laid out with a shareable rotisserie duck and fat-crisped potatoes, this is food that at once exudes refinement and hominess.

East and West go South

Counter service spot Kimski, an airy, minimalist addition to local bar Maria’s, is inventing a culinary genre: KoPo, or Korean-Polish fusion. This unexpected marriage of cuisines, conceived in homage to the owners’ backgrounds, has generated some fortuitous combinations. Polish sausage meets funky ‘kraut chi’ in the Maria’s Standard, for instance, while dill-scented potato pancakes get a twist from tamari-spiked sour cream.

Grab a seat on the front patio and watch Bridgeport’s cast of characters wander past while you eat, or head back to the bar for dinner with draft cocktails and local brews.

Bronzeville brewery Baderbrau in Chicago
Down in Bronzeville, Baderbräu bucks the prevailing trends, brewing up lager instead of the ubiquitous IPA © Cate Huguelet / Lonely Planet

Ales pale next to these lagers

From cheering on the White Sox to preferencing thin-crust pizza over its more decadent cousin, South Siders take great pleasure in knowing their own minds, regardless of – or even in open revolt against – what’s fashionable north of the Loop. Case in point: Despite the prevailing mania for hoppy ales among the bulk of Chicago brewers, Bronzeville’s Baderbräu dedicates itself to lagers, like easy-drinking flagship South Side Pride (self-described as ‘beer-flavored beer’) and more complex seasonals, like the subtly licorice-scented Dry Schwarz.

In the lofty tap room, beer hall-style seating and Technicolor murals make a cheerful backdrop to flights of brews and beer-friendly eats, some traditional (house-made brats with caraway-flecked sauerkraut), and others that break the mold (the gonzo mac and cheese-topped waffle).

A10 in Hyde Park Chicago
A10 brings upscale Italian to casual Hyde Park © Cate Huguelet / Lonely Planet

A little Italy

It’s about as close as typically casual Hyde Park comes to fine dining, but a snug atmosphere prevails at A10, courtesy of an interior composed of exposed brick and graphic woven rugs hung like art. Captained by proprietor Matthias Merges, a protégé of the late Chicago culinary legend Charlie Trotter, the Italian-accented kitchen turns out house-made pastas (like porcini béchamel-draped lasagna and bucatini carbonara larded with cured beef cheek and a 60-minute egg) and unpretentious mains (like simple, yet satisfying, roasted chicken) enhanced with produce acquired from unlikely sources such as a local youth center garden and the Cook County Jail.

Over in the bar, brightly flavored cocktails like the Applejack Sour (apple brandy, sherry and lemon) go down easy with dressed-up pub snacks, like fries dusted with parsley and Aleppo pepper. 

Breakfast and bikes

Bike shop/cafe combo Ancien Cycles takes its inspiration from the grueling 1200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris ride, but with its easy breezy neighborhood vibe, you don’t have to be an ancien (a designation awarded to those who’ve completed the PBP) to pull in for a pit stop here.

Coffee, reasonably virtuous all-day breakfast dishes like veggie omelets, sambal-spiked avocado toast and protein-packed salads are the order of the day, all the better to power up before pedaling the area’s sprawling park system. For cycling geeks, though, the most delectable treats of all are found along the shop’s rear walls, ranged with sleek bikes from high-end makers like Bianchi and Ritte.

patio cafe plein air chicago
The University of Chicago crowd flocks to the patio of the Plein Air Café on sunny days © Cate Huguelet / Lonely Planet

A lunch date with Mr. Wright

It’s no fluke that the University of Chicago-adjacent Plein Air Café is named for the Impressionist tradition of painting outside; a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows floods the space with natural light, while the view – an eyeful of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style Robie House, perched next door – is pretty darned inspiring. A wholesome note runs through the menu, though we’re not talking rabbit food here. Instead, expect hearty (and photogenic) dishes like savory egg and spinach pies and vegan grain bowls loaded with quinoa and roasted root vegetables.

Between meals, spelt scones, plump beignets and specialty coffees (horchata latte, anyone?) pair well with a good read. Feeling brainy? The attached Seminary Co-op is among the nation’s most esteemed academic bookstores. 

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