Joke all you want about bratwurst and deep-dish pizza—Chicago has come into its own as a culinary hot spot. Our top local chefs win national cooking awards and show up regularly on the Food Network, while we locals have a hard time keeping up with the new restaurants that seem to open every week. What makes eating out in Chicago fun is the variety: we've got stylish see-and-be-seen spots, an amazing array of steakhouses, chef-owned temples to fine dining and every kind of ethnic cuisine you could possibly crave.
It's no easy task to narrow down the very impressive list of restaurants in this city. But with an eye toward variety and quality, here's a list of essential, don't-miss Chicago restaurants, from longtime city favorites to notable newcomers. Whether you're looking for a restaurant to impress a business colleague or simply a no-frills spot to dig in, these are the places the locals go when they want to eat well.
A note on prices: unfortunately, Chicago is no longer the budget dining destination that it once was. (Hipness doesn't come cheaply.) The following restaurants fall into three price categories: "inexpensive" means you probably won't spend more than $20 per person on dinner and a drink; "moderate" means it will run you $20—$35; "expensive" means you'll be spending $35 per person and up (and it can go way up). But just because the prices have risen doesn't mean the attitude has. Restaurants in Chicago may have gotten trendy, but we're still friendly.
Nine (expensive, 440 West Randolph St., 312-575-9900) gives the standard steakhouse a hip makeover. The Champagne and Caviar Bar—illuminated with a blue glow—sets the scene as you walk in, and a large window lets diners check out the kitchen action. The full range of steaks is available, but you don't need to be a carnivore to dine well; a wide selection of seafood (lobster, Ahi tuna, sea bass, roasted whole red snapper) will keep lighter tastes satisfied. After dinner, follow the beautiful people to the Ghost Bar upstairs for cocktails.
The view alone would make the trip up to Everest worthwhile (expensive, 40th floor, One Financial Place, 440 South LaSalle St., 312-663-8920). The fact that chef Jean Joho also creates some of the finest French cuisine in the city—if not the country—makes this a don't-miss spot for foodies. Dishes are influenced by the chef's native region of Alsace and include terrine of pheasant, partridge and squab; Maine lobster roasted with Alsace wine and ginger; and ballotine of skate stuffed with mushrooms and wrapped around non-sour Alsatian sauerkraut in a light Riesling juniper-berry sauce.
Heaven on Seven (inexpensive, 7th floor Garland Building, 111 North Wabash Ave., 312-263-6443) is a funky Cajun-Creole place that started life as a coffee shop, and it's still open only for lunch. The lines can be long but they move fast, and the array of hot sauces will awaken even the most jaded taste buds. Favorites include soft-shell po' boys, pasta shrimp voodoo, crawfish tamales, jambalaya and rabbit with mushroom étouffée. Heaven on Seven has expanded to other locations, but loyal fans swear that this remains the best.
The Berghoff (inexpensive, 17 West Adams St., 312-427-3170) is a Chicago landmark that has been family-operated for more than a century. You'll feel like you're stepping back in time as you enter this traditional German restaurant, with its high ceilings and elegant wood accents. The menu's Teutonic fare includes sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, bratwurst and creamed herring (and lighter selections are available for more moderate appetites). Wash down the meal with one of the Berghoff's signature beers.
Experience cozy old-world ambience at Russian Tea Time (moderate, 77 East Adams St., 312-360-0000). This restaurant cooks up classic dishes from Mother Russia, making a nice change of taste for the weary palate. The ambitious menu includes wild game (like stuffed quail), vegetarian fare (jumbo stuffed mushrooms with spinach, onion and cheese), elaborate kulebiaka (meat pie filled with ground beef, cabbage and onions) and excellent crepes stuffed with beef stroganoff or salmon and cheese.
Kitty O'Shea's at the Chicago Hilton and Towers (inexpensive, 720 South Michigan Ave., 312-922-4400) is a dimly lit Dublin-style pub that often hosts lively Irish music sessions (feel free to sing along). Guinness and Harp are drawn from antique taps, and the simple, hearty pub fare includes Irish lamb stew, shepherd's pie, corned beef and cabbage and American variations like the Blarney Burger Deluxe.
The Italian Village (inexpensive to moderate, 71 West Monroe St., 312-332-7005) is actually three restaurants in one. La Cantina Enoteca is the most casual and inexpensive; the seafood specials are a good bet. The Village, with a huge menu of Southern Italian favorites, recreates the feel of a smalltown Italian piazza (complete with twinkling "stars" on the deep blue ceiling). Vivere is the glamorous choice, with a chic, modern design and upscale Italian creations such as duck breast sautéed in red wine and balsamic vinegar.
Inhabiting a striking split-level space with tall windows and a cathedral ceiling, Prairie (expensive, 500 South Dearborn St., 312-663-1143) gets its name from the Prairie school of architecture it exemplifies—it's a restaurant for Frank Lloyd Wright fans. The menu is Midwestern, featuring heartland products and recipes. Consider the Wisconsin honey-coated duck breast, sweet onion crusted pork or black-bean- and cilantro-encrusted whitefish.
The Zen-like atmosphere at Vong (expensive, 6 West Hubbard St., 312-644-8664) includes a torchiere wall of flickering lights, inspired by the candle-filled walls of Buddhist monasteries. Expectations were high for this Chicago outpost of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's stylish New York restaurant, and Jean-Georges didn't disappoint. The food is Thai-French fusion and includes rare Muscovy duck breast with spicy tamarind-sesame sauce; monkfish baked with Thai spices and herbs; and salmon with morel mushrooms and turnips in cardamom broth. The signature "Black Plate" seasonal sampler is a great starter, with options like crab spring rolls, prawn satay or lobster daikon roll with rosemary ginger dip. Finish up with the "White Plate" of desserts, including the signature fruit "sushi."
For a less expensive taste of Asia, Ben Pao (inexpensive to moderate, 52 West Illinois, 312-222-1888) comes through with a modern take on Chinese dining. The exquisite interior was designed with harmony and balance following traditional feng shui philosophy. Pass through the stunning entryway, flanked by granite columns sheathed in rippling water, and enjoy Chicago's first Chinese satay bar. Satay choices include tamarind chicken, five-spice shrimp, ginger portobello, lamb, vegetable and Mongolian beef. Other options include good-luck shrimp dumplings, Hong Kong spicy eggplant, soongs (wok-seared fillings such as chicken or vegetable) and crispy garlic tofu.
Naha (expensive, 500 North Clark St., 312-321-6242), the nickname of chef-owner Carrie Nahabedian, is one of the newest entries on Chicago's fine dining scene. The menu has a strong California influence (thanks to the chef's years working at Four Seasons hotels in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara), but also reflects her Armenian heritage. Try the tartare of Ahi tuna topped with caviar to start, then the mustard-seed-glazed smoked salmon or hearty veal rib-eye. The restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows give the dining room a bright, airy feel, making diners feel like they're part of the lively street scene outside.
The Hudson Club (moderate, 504 North Wells, 312-467-1947) is sleek, sensuous and spacious, resembling a luxury ocean liner merged with a swank 1940s supper club. (The place was designed after the aerodynamic flourishes of the Hudson Hornet automobile.) The menu changes weekly, but entrées include wood-roasted bluenose grouper, grilled pork tenderloin, poppy-seed-coated halibut and the "lobster martini" (lobster arranged on mashed potatoes with green peas and red wine butter in a martini glass).
The name tells you that Zinfandel (moderate, 59 West Grand Ave., 312-527-1818) serves wine-friendly cuisine. What makes this restaurant stand out is its distinctive mission: to highlight different regions of the United States with menus that change every month. One month might focus on Hopi or Navajo dishes; the next month, the menu might be Hawaiian or Midwestern. Sample main courses feature the likes of vegetarian portobello and squash dishes, "Hawaiian soul food" (e.g., banana leaf-steamed Hawaiian moonfish), or braised Illinois venison with posole. Vegetarian options are always available.
It's hard to miss Harry Caray's (moderate to expensive, 33 West Kinzie Ave., 773-465-9269), since the sportscaster's trademark "Holy Cow!" is emblazoned on an outside wall. Sure, there's plenty of Caray and Cubs memorabilia on the walls, but this American-Italian establishment takes food seriously (unlike some celebrity places). Specialties include the chicken Vesuvio with terrific potatoes, grilled New York sirloin steak (served with peppercorns or Vesuvio style) or the trio of double lamb chops oreganato. The bar is always a popular spot to watch a game—even if the "Loveable Loser" Cubs aren't winning.
The food is the main attraction at Café Iberico (moderate, 739 North LaSalle St., 312-573-1510), a bustling tapas bar that has a devoted following of loyal fans. This can mean long lines for a table (order a pitcher of sangria while you wait) and a pretty high noise level, but the atmosphere always seems to be festive. Tapas dishes come either hot or cold; try the baked goat cheese with tomato sauce, grilled octopus and Spanish omelet. Entrées include paella Iberico with seafood, chicken, pork and saffron rice.
Reza's (inexpensive, 432 West Ontario St., 312-664-4500) doesn't look like the typical Middle Eastern restaurant; housed in a former microbrewery, it has high ceilings and expansive, loft-like dining rooms. But the Persian-inspired menu will soon make you forget all about pints of ale. Specialties include a deliciously rich chicken in pomegranate sauce and a variety of kebabs (make sure you ask for the dill rice). Can't decide what to order? Go for an appetizer combo, a generous sampler of Middle Eastern dishes.
Papagus Greek Taverna (moderate, Embassy Suites Hotel, 620 North State St., 312-642-8450) brings a taste of the Greek Isles to downtown. This rustic, old-world-style taverna specializes in traditional dishes prepared for lighter, modern tastes. Mezedes (appetizers) are the centerpiece, with selections like taramosalata (cod or lobster roe salad), spanikopita, sagnaki (flambéed cheese), and grilled garlic-marinated shrimp. Main courses include Greek roast chicken, spicy lamb and beef meatballs, or braised lamb with orzo.
Mr. Beef (inexpensive, 666 North Orleans St., 312-337-8500) doesn't have much atmosphere or seating room. What it does have is classic Italian beef sandwiches, the Chicago version of a Philly cheese steak. The Mr. Beef variety is made of sliced beef dipped in jus, piled high on a chewy bun and topped with sweet or hot peppers. Heavy, filling and very Chicago. While you're chowing, check out the celebrity photos and newspaper clippings covering the walls, and you'll see why this place is considered a local monument.
Michigan Avenue: The "Magnificent Mile"
Looking to impress? Go no further than the seventh floor of the luxurious new Park Hyatt Hotel, where NoMI (expensive, 800 North Michigan Ave., 312-335-1234) will put any stereotypes about hotel restaurants firmly to rest. The sleek dining room offers a picture-perfect view of some Chicago landmarks (the Water Tower, Michigan Avenue), while the French-inspired eclectic menu will inspire its own exclamations of delight. Try the roasted sea bass accented with Japanese seaweed and caviar or the veal chop touched with truffle.
Looking for a less pricey dining room with a view? The Café at the Ritz-Carlton (moderate, 160 East Pearson St., 312-573-5160) sits in an open alcove of the hotel's spectacular 12th-floor lobby. The expansive windows look out over Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive and almost make you feel like you're sitting on an outdoor terrace. The cafe offers a fine dining experience with china and silver, top-quality food and service, and beautiful surroundings for a reasonable price. Specialties include a triple-decker turkey club sandwich, dairy-free vegetarian lasagna and pumpkin risotto with porcini mushrooms.
Foodlife (inexpensive, Water Tower Place, 835 North Michigan Ave., 312-335-3663) is a much-needed solution for groups with widely varying tastes. This modern take on the food court concept is set up like an outdoor cafe, with 13 food stations serving a wide variety of choices. Customers are given a sensor card to use at each station, which then tracks your purchases for payment at a cashier. From barbecue to stir fry to hamburgers, it's all here. Many of the dishes have a healthy focus (making this a nice change from your standard fast food), and there's even a juice bar to make sure you get all your vitamins.
Joe's Be-Bop Cafe (inexpensive to moderate, Navy Pier, 600 East Grand Ave., 312-595-5299) is an energetic mix of good Southern fare and groovy, live jazz. The place swings, especially later in the evenings. Pick from the Be-Bop BBQ combos: King Oliver (baby back ribs and half a chicken) or Duke Ellington (ribs and brisket). Cajun classics like jambalaya and rice with andouille sausage are also on the menu.
Echo (moderate, 1856 West North Ave., 773-395-3475) takes the tapas concept a step further, offering "small plates" in a variety of flavors. This stylish spot, decorated in silver and black, feels like a nightclub, but the overall vibe is laid-back. Some of the best dishes are Asian-inspired, including the tuna trio, served in a dramatic S-shaped aluminum dish, and the dumplings, which come in a white Chinese takeout container. A meal at Echo is a great way to combine many cuisines into one meal—especially if everyone at the table agrees to share.
Mirai Sushi (moderate, 2020 West Division St., 773-862-8500) packs them in with a mix of traditional sushi and more gourmet versions (such as shiitake mushroom rolls). Freshness fanatics can choose one of the fish swimming in the restaurant's tanks and then have it served to them a few minutes later. An upstairs lounge serves late on weekends, so night owls can get their sushi fix.
The motto of Soul Kitchen (moderate, 1576 North Milwaukee Ave., 773-342-9742) is "Spicy Music, Loud Food"—and the place delivers on its promise. The decor is hip, with bright colors and plush banquettes, and a funky soundtrack keeps things lively. The menu focuses on Southern dishes with a twist, such as jambalaya-style linguine and pecan-coated catfish. Windows overlook the busy intersection of Milwaukee, Damen and North avenues: prime people-watching territory.
After more than 50 years in business, Twin Anchors (1655 North Sedgwick St., 312-266-1616) still boasts what many Chicagoans believe are the best barbecue ribs in the city. Frank Sinatra used to stop by when he was in town, and the no-frills, pub-like spot hasn't changed much since the Chairman's visits (he's well represented on the restaurant's jukebox). When it comes time to order, you've really got no choice: it's got to be the fall-off-the-bone ribs (ask for the zesty sauce). When you're finished, you'll know why Chicago was Frank's kind of town.
A long-standing neighborhood ethnic favorite, the Ethiopian restaurant Addis Abeda (inexpensive, 3521 North Clark St., 773-929-9383) is a refreshing change from contrived concepts and high prices. This is an active dining experience: you're expected to eat with your hands, grabbing up bits of food with moist injera bread. Exotic choices include doro wot (chicken simmered in red pepper sauce, spiced butter and honey wine), yebeg alitcha (lamb slow-cooked in spiced butter, onions, garlic and tumeric) and zilzil tibs (beef strips marinated in red wine, red pepper sauce, garlic and cardamom).
The regional Mexican fare at Ixcapuzalco (moderate, 2919 North Milwaukee Ave., 773- 486-7340) is both soulful and scintillating, as is the bright Mexican art lining the walls. The centerpiece of chef Geno Bahena's menu is the sensational Oaxacan mole dishes (chicken, duck or quail), which vary by the day of the week. Also consider the sopa Azteca (dark broth with chile pasilla, chicken breast, avocado, cheese and tortilla chips) or the tostaditas de seviche "Chichihuhuliti" (tortillas piled with lime-marinated marlin, Manzanillo olives, tomato, Serrano chiles and cilantro). A five-course chef's tasting menu is also available.