The James Beard Foundation can sniff out a culinary winner, which is why it chose Chicago to host its 'Oscars of the food world' award ceremony through 2021. The city has become a chowhound's hot spot, with award-winning chefs and foodie talent elevating an already thriving food scene to new gourmet heights. As you graze through town, here are the themes to keep in mind and mouth.
Certain names come up time and again whenever foodies discuss the Chicago scene. Newly revamped Alinea tops the pack, wielding three Michelin stars, multiple Beard awards and a regular ranking on Restaurant magazine's world's top 50 list. Dinner here is an event, where courses come in a balloon or capsule or other molecular gastronomy concoction. Elizabeth and EL Ideas have won lofty accolades for tasting menus sans stuffiness; the former transforms whimsical inspirations like Dr. Seuss and Game of Thrones into ethereal bites, while the latter embraces a freewheeling dinner party vibe. If award-worthy sweets are more your speed, make haste for Boka, where Beard nom Meg Galus crafts seasonal desserts whose plain names – Banana, Dark Chocolate, and so forth – belie their intricacy.
Frontera Grill – celeb chef Rick Bayless' signature restaurant – has been serving rustic, mole-sauced Mexican dishes and precision margaritas for more than 30 years. Speaking of booze: the Violet Hour won the 2015 Beard Award for the nation's best bar program, though you'll first have to find the unmarked, graffitied building before you lay your lips on the Hungry for Apples (lemon- and cinnamon-spiked brandy) and other delicious cocktails.
Rise of the 'nouveau diner'
Several come-as-you-are restaurants that cook complex comfort foods have surfaced around town. Grab a seat at the counter at Dove's Luncheonette for Tex-Mex plates of pork shoulder pozole (stew) and belt-busting chicken-fried chicken draped with chorizo verde gravy. Scooch into a vintage booth at Little Goat, where Bravo TV's Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard whips up everything from corned-beef-and-kimchi reuben sandwiches to peanut butter Fat Elvis waffles (served all day, by the way). Humboldt Park’s Spinning J puts a crafty twist on retro soda fountain fare, serving up egg creams and malts enhanced with housemade syrups in flavors like Thai tea and bay rum cola.
Little restaurants, big flavor
The city has had an influx of small (40 seats or less) but mighty makers of taste. The dining room is tiny, but the flavors are huge at Logan Square’s Giant, where label-defying good-mood food like king crab tagliatelle and biscuits with jalapeno butter has earned critical raves. Perpetually-packed Fat Rice dishes the food of Macau, a whacked-out Portuguese-Indian-Chinese meld. The eponymous 'fat rice' entrée shows the spirit: a bowl brimming with prawns, garlicky sausage, salted duck, jasmine rice and more. Michelin-starred Parachute puts an inventive spin on Korean classics – say, yellowfin tuna and preserved lemon bi bim bop. The ambiance is like a party in your friend's retro-cool kitchen.
Fancy food halls
Revival Food Hall brings together some of Chicago's favorite fast casual vendors in one stylish space. Image by Revival Food Hall
Chicago’s food court game has gotten a serious upgrade lately, trading stodgy cinnamon rolls and scuffed linoleum for high-quality eats and luxe settings. The French Market kicked off the trend when it debuted in 2009, tempting commuters at Ogilvie Transportation Center with bites like Saigon Sisters’ flaky banh mi and Pastoral’s funky cheeses. Chef Richard Sandoval’s cheerful, Loop-based Latinicity brings together 8 stations that embrace and reinterpret flavors from across Latin America--one dishes up Peruvian-meets-Chinese chaufa fare, for instance, while another doles out molletes, traditional Mexican open-faced sandwiches. The expansive Revival Food Hall brings together mini versions of some of the city’s favorite fast-casual spots (like fiery hot chicken specialists the Budlong and brisket masters Smoque), and then sweetens the deal with a historic location (inside a Loop building designed by architecture luminary Daniel Burnham) and a full-service bar.
Chicago has a superb range of ethnic eats, especially if you break out of downtown and head for outlying neighborhoods. Humboldt Park unfurls the 'Puerto Rican Passage,' a stretch of Division St packed with island-food cafes. Papa's Cache Sabrosa sits in the thick of it, prime for trying a jibarito sandwich (garlic-mayo-slathered steak between slices of fried plantain 'bread'). Thai and Vietnamese noodle houses steam up windows in Uptown. Nha Hang Vietnam is a good one for slurping pho and clay-pot catfish while the portions at Tank Noodle are hefty. Logan Square is rapidly emerging as a hub for haute Mexican cuisine. Inventive dishes like Peanut Butter y Lengua earned Mi Tocaya a 2017 best new restaurant nod from Bon Appetit, while Todos Santos, Quiote restaurant’s subterranean bar, has an alchemist’s way with mezcal, using the smoky spirit as the base for bright, complex cocktails.
Some roads are blessed with superior awesomeness for gastronomes:
- Randolph St This stretch in the West Loop is where Chicago’s best and brightest chefs do their thing. A wander here rewards with Au Cheval, a mod diner for fried-egg-dripping cheeseburgers; Girl and the Goat, Stephanie Izard's rock-and-roll, mega-popular flavor bender; and Bad Hunter, a sunny, stylish spot to sample natural wines and vegetable-centric dishes at once wholesome and indulgent..
- Lawrence Avenue This north side strip offers a veritable United Nations of dining options, from doro wat and injera bread at Demera to Bosnian cevapcici sausage at Restaurant Sarajevo.
- Damen Ave Come the first hint of good weather each spring, the cool kids pack the sprawling patio at Wicker Park’s Big Star for fancy tacos and single-barrel whiskey. LA transplant Stan’s serves up some of the city’s best donuts, like the dynamite Pistachio Lemon Old Fashioned. Up the street, the reigning queen of Chicago pastry, Mindy Segal, works magic at her long-running Hot Chocolate; while the savory fare is excellent, many diners skip right ahead to Segal’s beautifully-executed desserts.
- 18th St In Pilsen, Mexican taquerias meet hipster hangouts on 18th St. To experience both sides of the spectrum, check out pots of hog bubbling in the window at bare-bones Don Pedro Carnitas – soon to become your fresh taco filling – then walk to Dusek's (dusekschicago.com), a cool-cat gastropub that shares space with an indie band concert hall.
A group of culinary-minded Chicago brewers are pushing the boundary between the brewhouse and the kitchen, utilizing ingredients traditionally seen on the plate and creating beers designed to enhance the dining experience in the same way that wine can. Moody Tongue brews highlight unexpected ingredients like Meyer lemons and black truffles; at the outfit’s sleek Pilsen taproom, pours are paired with fresh oysters and decadent German chocolate cake.
The beer at Moody Tongue is made to accompany some high-class dishes, like this chocolate cake. Image by Jordan Balderas / Moody Tongue
At Ravenswood’s Band of Bohemia – the first brewpub to win a Michelin star – beers are often conceived to harmonize with specific dishes, and might feature fenugreek, maitake mushrooms, or jasmine rice. In West Town, Forbidden Root seeks to reclaim the lost tradition of brewing with botanical elements such as roots and herbs; typical beers here might get an assist from ingredients like cherry stems or basil.
Classic Chicago eats, and where to get them
You didn't think we'd forget Chicago's bread and butter, did you? You can read more about the city’s iconic foods here, but here’s a quick primer:
- Chicago hot dog For Chicago-style hot dogs, go straight to the source: the Vienna Beef Factory Cafe. Join employees chomping on traditional weenies (with neon-green relish, sans ketchup) while gossiping about local sports and politics.
- Deep-dish pizza Debates rage over the best deep-dish pie. Lou Malnati's claims to have invented the gooey behemoth, and the restaurant now has beloved outlets citywide. Giordano's takes a slightly different approach with its 'stuffed' pizza – a layer of cheese baked between two sheets of dough. It's enormously satisfying (and a premier booze absorber).
- Beef sandwiches Chicago’s beef and giardiniera-piled, jus-soaked signature sandwich is a major mess to eat – and worth every last sloppy bite. The mildly curious can get their fix at local chain Al’s (where the sandwich allegedly originated), while more dedicated foodies will want to make the trek to Elmwood Park for the superlative rendition at Johnnie’s Beef (7500 W North Ave).
This article was updated in 2018 by Cate Huguelet.