An Eater’s Guide to Chicago

Unofficial, highly opinionated information about the Windy City

Chicago is no longer a simple meat and potatoes town. Restaurants in the nation’s third-largest city have grown to a level of sophistication that rival any food scene in the country. Consider this your guide to the best food and drink the city has to offer.


Welcome to the Land of Fine Dining Innovation and Glorious Greasebombs

Yes, soul-warming hearty comfort food is how many outsiders and locals define Chicago’s food scene. In the meatpacking capital of the world, you can still get America’s best steaks and hot dogs, plus the destination-worthy local innovations: deep-dish pizza and Italian beef. But there are also Michelin-starred world-class fine-dining experiences, groundbreaking cocktail bars, line-inducing doughnut shops, and some of the best taquerias this side of Donald Trump’s proposed Mexican wall.

Whether it’s the height of a muggy summer or the depth of a frigid winter, there are some Chicago food experiences you shouldn’t leave without trying. A quintessential Chicago day should begin with a wait in The Doughnut Vault‘s line for a massive old fashioned doughnut — just get there a few minutes before opening to mitigate the wait. Then spend a few hours saving room for what many consider to be the best burger on the planet at Au Cheval. Next, soldier on to the South Side’s legendary smoked fish shack Calumet Fisheries for smoked salmon or shrimp. Follow it up with a Chicago-style “depression” hot dog at Gene & Jude’s or snag a seat at the bar for some pig face at Girl and the Goat. You can also have a churro and Mexican hot chocolate at XOCO. And take a dip into Chicago’s extensive Polish heritage and street food chops at the historic street-side stand Jim’s Original for a Polish sausage any time of day or night. Also: every first-time visitor needs to try an Italian beef (Johnnie’s Beef preferably) and a deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s.

Where to Start on Eater Chicago’s Top Maps

Eater publishes mass amounts of maps to guide you through all of Chicago’s can’t-miss foods, drinks, restaurants and bars; from classic to cutting edge. Below are the most important spots on these maps for those exploring the city with little time to take a deep dive.


Greg Wass/Flickr
Buckingham Fountain

Hottest restaurant: Chicago’s restaurant scene has rarely been hotter than it is at this very moment, as the restaurants currently on the Eater Chicago Heatmap attest. Among the hottest restaurants, start with gorgeous upscale soul food at Virtue in Hyde Park. If you have time, head to perhaps Chicago’s best sushi omakase experience, Kyoten in Logan Square.

Essential restaurant: Every visiting food enthusiast should try all of Eater Chicago’s Essential 38 Restaurants, updated quarterly, but if you’re short on time you shouldn’t miss Chicago hero Paul Kahan’s ode to pork and beer The Publican, Macanese trailblazer Fat Rice, or Rick Bayless’ original and most famous restaurant Frontera Grill.

Essential bar: The quality and sheer number of bars in Chicago is arguably unparalleled. On the Essential Bar Map, go to The Violet Hour, widely credited with starting the craft cocktail movement in Chicago. Head to Big Star for honky tonk, whiskey, and tacos, or to Lost Lake for the most definitive local tiki experience. If you’re drinking cocktails and spirits only, experience The Aviary‘s tasting menu. Try the best of the local beer scene at Revolution Brewing or Half Acre.

Fine dining: The Michelin Guide has been giving Chicago upscale restaurants their proper due since 2011, and on the Michelin Map the top is the among-the-best-in-the-world Alinea, as Grace is sadly now closed. Just prepare to spend big bucks and make a reservation months in advance.


Marc Much
A Lost Lake tiki cocktail

Pizza: Love it or hate it, Chicago-style pizza, including deep dish, is something that everyone should try once — or eat every day. The 11 spots on the Chicago-Style Pizza Map are all great representations, but if you have to narrow it down, do try Lou Malnati’s deep dish and Pequod’s caramelized crust. Also check out the Iconic Pizzeria Map if Chicago-style isn’t your jam.

Hot dogs: Chicago does hot dogs like no other city: Usually a Vienna Beef dog “dragged through the garden” with an array of vegetable-based toppings and condiments. Although Hot Doug’s is sadly gone and not on the Essential Hot Dog Map, icons Portillo’s and Superdawg Drive-In are still around—as is Gene & Jude‘s variation, the “Depression Dog.”

Italian beef: The juicy beef sandwich, masterminded by Italian immigrants, is a wholly Chicago innovation, rarely found outside the area. This guide, headlined by near-suburban favorite Johnnie’s Beef and iconic local chain Al’s Beef, shows the best places to find one. Just make sure to specify wet or dipped; and with hot or sweet peppers.

Steakhouses: Yes, every major city has many steakhouses, often for business travelers and the expense-account crowd. But in the meatpacking capital of the world, steakhouses are ingrained in all of the city’s ranks. Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse and Chicago Cut Steakhouse are not-to-be-missed on the Essential Steakhouse Map. There are also a crop of new-school steakhouses turning the genre on its head.

Tacos: Underrated around the country, the tacos in Chicago often take a backseat to those in Southern California and Texas. Do yourself and favor and try many on the Essential Taco Map and Hottest Taco Map, including goat specialist Birrieria Zaragoza and the many carnitas specialists in the South Side neighborhood of Pilsen, notably Carnitas Uruapan.

Burgers: You already know about Au Cheval. On the Essential Burger Map, you also need to try the thick and creative burgers at the original Northwest Side location of heavy metal-themed Kuma’s Corner and the thin, griddled goodness at Evanston’s Edzo’s Burger Shop.

An Au Cheval Cheeseburger
Marc Much
An Au Cheval Cheeseburger

Doughnuts: Get your fluffy, crunchy, sweet fried dough rings at Stan’s Donuts and Coffee and Firecakes — in addition to the previously-mentioned The Doughnut Vault — which are all on the Essential Doughnut Map.

Beer: Drinking beer is an institution in Chicago, and a new wave of craft brewers are bubbling up to make the Essential Brewery Map stand up to any in the country. Goose Island Beer Co. wins the lifetime achievement award, while Revolution Brewing (Illinois’ largest craft brewer with a cult following) and Half Acre Beer Company (classic micro styles, barrel, and wyld beers) are the challengers.

Coffee: Chicago is an exceptional place to get a caffeine buzz. For an Essential Coffee Shop experience, try expanding local icon Intelligentsia Coffee or Dark Matter Coffee and its Star Lounge Coffee Bar, a small artisan company with amazing fair-trade coffees from Central and South America.

Brunch: The only thing that rivals dinner in Chicago is brunch and Lula Cafe (farm-to-table), The Publican (an essential restaurant that does everything right) and Jam (delicious brunch with a beautiful, creative, fine-dining sensibility) are the standouts.

Ice Cream: With long cold winters, Chicagoans take their summers — and their ice cream shops — seriously. Narrow down the Essential Ice Cream Map to throwback destinations Margie’s Candies (North Side) and Original Rainbow Cone (South Side) and hit whichever is closest to you.

Pierogi: Chicago’s Polish and Eastern European heritage plays a major part in the city’s present. Polish restaurants have dwindled some, but check out the Pierogi Map and head to Smak-Tak for more modern cuisine or the throwback time-capsule Podhalanka for some comforting dumplings straight out of a Polish grandmother’s kitchen.


Marc Much
Furious Spoon ramen

Fried Chicken: Fried chicken in this city is no joke, and neither is the Essential Fried Chicken Map. Head to one of the many OG Harold Fried Chicken Shacks or newer spot Honey Butter Fried Chicken for some juicy birds with exceptionally crispy skin.

Ramen: Chicago isn’t the first city to jump on the Japanese noodle soup phenomenon. But it’s certainly one of the best, with standouts such as Japanese imports Santouka (in the northwest suburbs), Ramen Misoya (city downtown location in Streeterville), as well as burgeoning local chain with hip-hop and house-made noodles Furious Spoon filling the Essential Ramen Map. Pick one that’s closest to you.

Gangster haunts: No trip to Chicago would be complete without visiting — and eating and drinking inside — one of the historic spots where legendary gangsters such as Al Capone used to hang out (and possibly operate). Check out the Gangster Map and head to Green Mill Cocktail Lounge — where Capone used to run booze barrels in subterranean passageways and had a booth in the main room — or Green Door Tavern, a former speakeasy known as Chicago’s oldest bar that still has secret compartments and passageways as well as a newer speakeasy-style cocktail bar downstairs.

Classics: For more tastes of old Chicago, head to The Berghoff in the Loop for old-school German dishes and beer, Daley’s Restaurant for South Side soul food, and Billy Goat Tavern for no-frills burgers and drinks in the subterranean spot that cursed the Cubs in the 1940s and was immortalized on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s. Check out the Classics Map for 22 more options.

Chicago Food ‘Hoods to Know

Chicago is known as a “city of neighborhoods,” which is mostly true, as many areas outside of downtown are distinctive strips separated by residential areas. If you’re a visitor, don’t be afraid to stray from your downtown hotel or off the lake, as a bounty of culinary treasures await — whether you’re driving or using the well-connected Chicago Transit Authority train and bus system. Below, find the top areas every self-proclaimed food obsessive needs to know.


Seth Anderson/Flickr
Randolph Street Restaurant Row

West Loop/Fulton Market

The area immediately west of the Loop and the Chicago River has earned its nickname as Chicago’s “Restaurant Row” — it’s quite simply one of the hottest dining districts on Earth. Here, some of the country’s best chefs are taking over rows and rows of abandoned old meatpacking plants and factories on West Randolph Street, Fulton Market, and the areas in between — transforming them into crowd-drawing restaurants such as Grant Achatz’s Next, The Aviary and Roister; Paul Kahan’s The Publican, Avec and Blackbird; Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat; and a bevy of other attention-grabbers from the likes of Brendan Sodikoff (Au Cheval; Maude’s Liquor Bar), the Boka Restaurant Group (Momotaro; Swift & Sons), and Sarah Grueneberg of “Top Chef” fame (Monteverde). Nearly every storefront is a hot restaurant or bar.


Wiredforlego/Flickr
Logan Square mural

Logan Square

The other restaurant neighborhood to rival the West Loop, this fast-gentrifying creative enclave on the Northwest Side of town still offers low enough rents that Chicago’s top culinary talent can open here with some financial wiggle room for creativity. You’ll find farm-to-table trailblazer and neighborhood anchor Lula Cafe, Macanese fusion powerhouse Fat Rice, and cocktail masterpieces Lost Lake, Billy Sunday, and Scofflaw. There are also new hotspots such as Giant and Asian stalwart Parachute (just to the north of Logan Square) mixed in with dive bars, hole-in-the-wall late-night Mexican joints, and artsy coffee shops.

River North

Not everything downtown is an office, government building, hotel, or chain restaurant. And not everything shuts down after happy hour. In this neighborhood just north across the river from the Loop, what was once a skid row has morphed into a hospitality row and is now home to the trendiest nightlife and see-and-be-seen spots in Chicago. Some acclaimed restaurants are holding it down — including Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO — as well as morning magnet The Doughnut Vault and evening French steakhouse spin Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf. There’s also hot dog, Italian beef, and milkshake icon Portillo’s; seafood stalwart GT Fish & Oyster, and celeb-magnet Asian fusion spot Sunda.

For nightlife, head to nightclubs Studio Paris Nightclub and The Underground, sophisticated spots Gilt Bar and Celeste, the dive bar Rossi’s Liquors, and casual bar Clark Street Ale House.

Wicker Park

From Polish cultural center to artist enclave to hipster magnet and yuppie draw, the evolution of what many consider to be Chicago’s coolest neighborhood has flooded the area built around the Milwaukee Avenue/Damen Avenue/North Avenue nexus with starry-eyed restaurant and bar owners. A few spots have managed to turn the abundant foot traffic and swarming twenty-somethings into staying power and long-term success: the perpetually-packed honky tonk whiskey taqueria Big Star and iconic cocktail spot The Violet Hour across the street, and the Anglo-Indian beer pub Pub Royale. Also, head to Piece Brewery and Pizzeria for award-winning beer brewed on site that’s paired with standout New Haven-style pizza.

For nightlife, check out Emporium Arcade Bar for video games and craft beer, Bangers & Lace for craft beer and sausages, and for everything head to the live music/event space/butcher shop/restaurant/bar Chop Shop. There’s also plentiful ramen — Furious Spoon, Oiistar, Kizuki, and Urban Belly — and coffee shops — Caffe Streets, La Colombe Torrefaction, The Wormhole Coffee, and an Intelligentsia.

Wicker Park’s main intersection

Pilsen

While neighborhoods such as Wicker Park and Logan Square are succumbing to gentrification, this near-South Side hood is trying to hold on. Head down to this Mexican and art-driven neck of the woods for taquerias straight from Mexico — the best being Carnitas Uruapan, Don Pedro Carnitas, and Tortilleria El Milagro. The neighborhood is anchored by Thalia Hall, a building built in 1892 that now houses the Michelin-rated restaurant Dusek’s, the subterranean bar Punch House, the honky tonk piano bar Tack Room, and a live music venue upstairs. Other noteworthy spots include great barbecue and live music at Honky Tonk BBQ, creative tamales at Dia De Los Tamales, standout burgers and beer at Skylark, and the relocated meat pie stalwart Pleasant House Pub.

Uptown/Argyle Street

Argyle Street, which runs through the ethnic neighborhood of Uptown, is home to one of Chicago’s most destination-worthy dining strips of Vietnamese restaurants. Anchored by Tank Noodle, which serves perhaps Chicago’s most popular pho and other delicacies, the neighborhood also includes your pick of Vietnamese cuisine and longtime Peking duck destination Sun Wah Bar-B-Que.


Clifton/Flickr
A Chinatown street festival

Chinatown

Still home to a large percentage of Chicago’s Chinese immigrants, the Near South Side neighborhood also holds the vast majority of the best Chinese restaurants in town. Get dim sum at MingHin Cuisine or Cai, hot pot at Little Lamb, and spicy Szechuan dishes at Chicago’s most celebrated Chinese restaurant, Lao Sze Chuan. Check out this map for more.

Devon

Chicago’s South Asian population has huddled around this stretch in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood — about 10 miles north of downtown — for decades. While fine dining options are in short supply, South Indian vegetarian cuisine shines at Uru-Swati, Udupi Palace, and Mysore Woodlands. There’s also Sukhadia’s and Annapurna, the quintessential spots for a snack and chai. Many South Asian restaurants have a guilty relationship with meat, but one spot that has no such qualms is Khan B.B.Q., a spicy casual spot that’s carnivore friendly. And FYI: Locals and their immigrant families simply call this area Devon, so don’t try to call it Little India.

Chicago Glossary of Terms

Chicago-Style Hot Dog

Hot dogs in Chicago are their own entity that aren’t to be confused with New York hot dogs or Detroit-style Coney dogs. Here, they’re “dragged through the garden,” i.e. covered with multiple vegetable-based toppings and condiments: sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear, diced onion, green relish (often neon-green), sport peppers, yellow mustard and celery salt, and served on a poppy seed hot dog bun. NEVER ask for ketchup on your hot dog in Chicago.


I-Ta Si/Flickr
Portillo’s hot dog

Deep-Dish Pizza

Many pizza places around the country serve what they call deep-dish pizza, but in Chicago this style of pie is a local innovation (some say novelty food) that can only be experienced in its pure form here. Set on a tall, almost pie-like crust that’s flaky on the outside and dense and doughy on the inside, the “pizza” is a massive item with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese on the bottom, then the toppings, followed by chunky tomato sauce on top. It’s extremely gooey and eaten with a fork and knife.

Italian Beef

The Italian beef is another true Chicago original that is rarely experienced outside the Chicagoland area. Originally a budget sandwich for Italian immigrants that has similarities to a French dip, it consists of long-roasted beef in Italian spices that’s served dripping wet, sliced very thin and piled onto a long Italian roll and topped with either hot peppers (spicy giardineira) or sweet peppers (roasted bell peppers). If you ask for it “wet,” your entire sandwich will be dunked into the vat of jus and should be eaten at an angle over your plate or wrapper in order to not make a mess of yourself.

Malort

Another Chicago original that’s beginning to spread to other cities, Malort is an extremely bitter Swedish wormwood liquor that is often a right of passage for newbies (Google the “Malort face”) and a favorite of many local bartenders. For years it was nearly always served in shots, but bartenders in recent times have started to make cocktails with it, some which are surprisingly delicious. Jeppson’s is the original brand, but other companies have started making their own, such as Letherbee’s Besk.

Jibarito

A Puerto Rican sandwich, mostly served at taquerias, that uses sliced and fried plantains in lieu of bread or buns. Fillings include carne asada (steak), roast pork, and chicken. The sandwich is often topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.

Slashie

Chicago historically has been littered with these dive bar/liquor store combos, where you can shop for booze to go as well as walk through a side door or hallway into an attached full-service bar. These neighborhood spots, which often are adorned with an Old Style or other local beer sign, aren’t as common as in the past, but some ingenious bar owners are attempting to revive and update the concept for the present. Beware, however, for “slashie” can be a controversial term.

Hot Dog Stand

Hot dog stands in Chicago are not like hot dog carts in New York or other outdoor food sellers in other cities that are literally carts or stands on the street. What Chicagoans call hot dog stands are brick-and-mortar buildings with counter-service, counter seating, and sometimes limited tables that serve very similar menus: hot dogs, burgers, Italian beef, Polish sausage, pizza puffs, and sometimes other greasy and meaty foods, which often come with free French fries.

Pan Pizza with Caramelized Crust

This pizza has a thick crust with cheese on the bottom, sauce on top, and is cooked in a pan. It differs from deep-dish pizza in that the dough is thicker and rises more. The outside of the raw crust is also sprinkled with cheese, which becomes caramelized and black when baked. Pequod’s Pizza and Burt’s Place are its most acclaimed purveyors.

Thin-Crust Pizza

Chicago-style thin-crust pizza is not the same as New York-style, Neapolitan, or other thin, foldable pizzas in other areas. These pizzas — which are actually more widespread in Chicagoland than deep dish — are denser and crunchier than those other thin crusts, and are often square-cut (called “tavern style”), with very little crust, and with more char on top. Vito & Nick’s Pizza on the South Side is the most iconic example.

Rib Tips

The flavorful cartilage ends of spare ribs are common at South Side barbecue shacks, as well as other Midwestern cities. Click here for a primer on Chicago barbecue.


Nick Murway
Rib tips getting sauced at Lem’s Bar-B-Q

Giardiniera

An Italian condiment consisting of pickled peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, and other vegetables packed in oil, in spicy or mild versions. It’s not totally unique to Chicago but is ubiquitous here due to its prevalent use on Italian beef. Fans of giardiniera from other American cities should note the local version often includes sport peppers.

Rick Bayless

Perhaps Chicago’s most famous chef and television personality, Rick Bayless is beloved for popularizing regional Mexican cuisine in America, beginning with the arrival of his Frontera Grill restaurant in 1987. Bayless went on to open the Michelin-starred tasting-menu restaurant Topolobampo next door a few years later, followed by street-food haven XOCO. He also has newer local restaurants, Lena Brava and Cruz Blanca, and spots around the country in California, Florida, and O’Hare International Airport. His salsas, sauces, marinades, and other foodstuffs are available in grocery stores around the country.

Paul Kahan

A Chicagoan through and through and the co-James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Chef in 2013, Paul Kahan and his One Off Hospitality Group run perhaps the best restaurants in town: Blackbird, Avec, The Publican, Big Star, The Violet Hour, Publican Quality Meats, Nico Osteria, Dove’s Luncheonette, Publican Tavern at O’Hare, and Publican Anker.

Stephanie Izard

This celebrity chef, buoyed by her victory on season four of “Top Chef,” runs three of the most successful (and hardest to get into) restaurants in Chicago: Girl and the Goat, Little Goat, and — her newest — Duck Duck Goat.

Brendan Sodikoff

A polarizing restaurateur with the Midas touch, Sodikoff and his Hogsalt Hospitality group operate a dizzying array of very successful Chicago spots, including Au Cheval, The Doughnut Vault, Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf, Gilt Bar, Green Street Smoked Meats, Maude’s Liquor Bar, Small Cheval, Three Greens Market, California Clipper, High Five Ramen, and C.C. Ferns. He also now owns restaurants in New York City and Las Vegas.

Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

Chicago’s most successful and widespread restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), founded by patriarch Rich Melman, has opened more than 130 restaurants since it was founded in 1971. Known for extremely well-run, often fun spots that run the gamut, its most noteworthy concepts include R.J. Grunts (the original LEYE restaurant), Michelin-starred Everest, Joe’s Seafood Prime Steak and Stone Crab, Three Dots and a Dash, RPM Italian and RPM Steak, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, Bub City, Studio Paris, and many more.

Boka Restaurant Group

Another highly-acclaimed and extremely-successful Chicago restaurant group, the duo of Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz that was a James Beard finalist in 2016, 2017 and 2018, own or are partners on all of Stephanie Izard’s restaurants, GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime, Boka (their original Chicago restaurant), Momotaro, Swift & Sons, Balena, newer spots Bellemore and Somerset, and more.

Graham Elliot

A world-famous chef and TV personality, Graham Elliot is widely known for his long stint as a judge on “MasterChef.” His trademark charismatic personality backs up his signature style: creative dishes that are often spins on comfort foods. Most recently, Elliot has garnered some ink for his dramatic weight loss. His last remaining restaurant, West Loop’s Gideon Sweet, is now closed.

Reservations to Make in Advance

Most Chicago restaurants aren’t as difficult to book as many in New York or San Francisco, but there are a few you’ll absolutely need to prepare for in advance if you want a table: Alinea, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Girl and the Goat, Fat Rice, Parachute, Next, Schwa, Lena Brava, Duck Duck Goat, Roister, Goosefoot, Giant, Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf, Maple & Ash, and EL Ideas. Also be aware that some restaurants you’ll want to visit, such as Au Cheval and Avec (at dinner), don’t take reservations.

Follow the News

Eater Chicago is updated multiple times every weekday with breaking news stories (restaurant openings, closings, etc.), features, guides, and more. Here are a few ways to stay in the loop:

  • Keep an eye on the Eater Chicago homepage. New stories will always show up near the top and flow down toward the bottom of the page as they get older, while important recent stories will stay pinned right at the top. Also, check out our big sister, Eater.com, for national and international food news.
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  • Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates on new stories and more throughout the day, and follow us on Instagram for some of the best food photos in Chicago.
  • Interested in upcoming restaurant openings? Here’s our winter openings guide and all openings are tracked here.

Get in Touch

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