Chicago Basics Restaurants

Best Restaurants in Chicagoland | Article Published 2005

Chicago once had a reputation for a meat-and-potatoes diet so much a part of its culture that even the exotic smorgasbord of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 seemed to leave little mark on the city's cuisine habits. As different waves of immigrants seeking jobs and a new life in the city put down deeper and deeper roots, however, their culinary offerings became as much a part of Chicago's cultural landscape as the traditional midwestern steak dinner. Later, the city made its contribution to an American pop-cultural mainstay, pizza, with its deep-dish, "Chicago-style" variant. Finally, in recent years, Chicago has enjoyed a gourmet renaissance, bringing haute cuisine from around the world to formal and trendy/casual restaurants alike.


  Traditional American / Midwestern food in Chicago.  

Chicago has seen tastes and fashions change, but its tried-and-true favorites are always in demand. From hot dog stands to steakhouses, every neighborhood in the city has its local spot. For an eclectic offering with plenty of vegetarian items, the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park is second-to-none. Or for excellent beef (increasingly hard to get, even in Chicago), Lawry's, in the Near North, an incarnation of the vintage Los Angeles prime rib establishment, is a sure winner. If it's homestyle cooking like fried chicken or ribs you have a hankering for, however, numerous outlets on Chicago's south side should serve your needs well. And if it's an Americana setting you're looking for, look no further than the Lincoln Restaurant in North Center, where menu items are named after people and events from the Civil War.

"Demon Dogs" Logo
  New Cuisine / Fine Dining in Chicago.  
The wave of exquisite gastronomy Chicago now enjoys knows no boundaries of style or origin, but its finest restaurants share one detail in common: the intent to serve very good food in an extraordinary setting, whether exclusive, trendy, or both. Perhaps most closely associated with the city's fine-food revolution, Charlie Trotter's in Lincoln Park offers world-class cuisine at exorbitant prices. No less impressive are the prix fixe Thai marvels served up at Arun's in Irving Park. When it comes to atmosphere, it's hard to beat the meticulous French Colonial decor of Pasteur in Edgewater or the ambiance of wine-bar / bistro Stained Glass in downtown Evanston. Recently opened Green Zebra, in West Town, is causing quite a stir for its all-gourmet, mostly vegetarian menu. For excellent, unusual, reasonable French, Brasserie Jo in the Near North offers deliciously prepared favorites with an Alsatian twist. For good food in a rustic, elegant building with the feel of a National Parks lodge, the North Pond in Lincoln Park deserves a visit. Finally: Trio in Evanston and Tru in the Near North boast huge followings and hefty pricetags.

  Chicago Pizza.  

Chicago may be known for its deep dish delights, but there are crusts and toppings to satisfy every craving in the City of the Big Shoulders, and beautiful places to savor them. Start in a charming trompe l'oeil setting with some delicious thin-crust pizza and a salad at Il Fornello in Buena Park. If you have a hankering for that famous Chicago-style, make your way up to Howard street, just south of the Evanston border, to Gulliver's in West Ridge, where you can enjoy your slices in an eclectic atmosphere decked out with turn-of-the-century replicas of antiquities. Or, for a little bit of everything and a fun environment, give Gino's East in the River North a try. If you want delicious delivery and you're in the right area, we recommend a pie from Pizzeria Ora (Downtown / Near North) or Ranalli's (North Side / Lincoln Park).

  Italian Food in Chicago.  

Long a seat of Italian culture, Chicago offers up some great samples of Italian cuisine in just about every community. For three interesting settings in one, check out the Italian Village center in the Loop. Or, in what remains (after the not-so-neighborhood-friendly UIC expansion) of Chicago's Little Italy area along Taylor Street, you can enjoy tasty Italian favorites cafeteria-style at Pompeii. Those exploring the south side will want to pay a visit to Piccolo Mundo in Hyde Park, especially for its irresitable frozen desserts. Along Chicago's northern border in Pulaski Park, find traditional food in a magnificent medieval-style interior at Monastero's Restaurant. A bit farther north, in the historic del Lago shopping center in Wilmette, Convito Italiano has a fully-stocked gourmet specialty market and serves lunch and dinner in a most civilized setting.

Decoration at Monastero's

  Mexican Food in Chicago.  
If you're dreaming of a glimpse of Mexico, don't miss the evocative Southwestern decor and savory regional specialties of Adobo Grill, at Piper's Alley in Old Town. For scrumptuous delicacies of central Mexico in a friendly atmosphere, That Little Mexican Cafe in downtown Evanston should delight. Both Adobo Grill and That Little Mexican Cafe offer fantastic, made-to-order tableside guacamole. Frontera Grill and (pricier) Tompolobampo in the Near North, driven by the expertise and reputation of local personality Rick Bayless, remain popular favorites. Locals also laud Salpicon in Old Town. In addition, Chicagoland has dozens of traditional Mexican-American family restaurants not unlike those you might find in California: for instance El Sol Restaurant in Morton Grove, with great food and a kind staff. And for cheap, authentic, quickly prepared "typical" dishes, there is no place better than the Pilsen neighborhood. If you're really looking to get away from it all, though, Uncle Julio's Hacienda in Lincoln Park / Ranch Triangle will transport you to a version of colonial Mexico jam-packed with the weekend bargoing set.

May Street Cafe,
in the Pilsen
  Japanese Food in Chicago.  

Metropolitan Chicago has a relatively low percentage of Japanese inhabitants, but there are plenty of great places to enjoy excellent Japanese cuisine. One of the very best is Kamehachi, based in Old Town in a two-leveled traditional sushi-bar style restaurant. Kemehachi also serves selections from its menu in the chic lobby of the Westin River North Hotel. Also in Old Town, Cafe Sushi has a bright, linear interior that makes dining a pleasant experience. Edo Sushi offers high-quality dishes in a comfortable Lincoln Park setting. For excellent sushi and teriyaki on the South Side, give Kikuya a try, or if you're on the North Shore, check out Takkatsu in Hubbard Woods. For something unique, make the trip out to Arlington Heights, where at the corners of Arlington Heights Road and Algonquin Road, you'll find a small-scale Japanese indoor mall called the Yaohan center, with a supermarket, book and music store, and kiosks selling wares and comic books.

  Greek Food in Chicago.  
Chicago's Greektown, like Little Italy, was impacted badly by the UIC expansion, but what's left of it offers one great Greek restaurant after another. Settle down to a long, delicious meal at Pegasus, or step into Artopolis bakery for a yummy snack or sweet. In the Near North, Papagus might be the best place to get a Greek meal, and you will likely enjoy its festive atmosphere. Farther north, in Lincoln Square (for a brief time regarded as Chicago's "second Greektown"), Barba Yianna still has the traditional delicacies.

Chicago's Greektown
  Middle Eastern / Mediterranean Food in Chicago.  

There are many delicious options in Chicagoland for the connoisseur of middle-eastern cuisine. For a great value, make a meal of appetizers at The Nile in Hyde Park. For something with a little more substance, head up north to Cafe Suron in Rogers Park, where a gracious interior recalls the sun-drenched boulevards of a different latitude, and savory main courses please the palate. Or, for a quick stop, try out Sinbad's in Lake View, where you can get a filling combination platter for well under ten dollars. For one of the more interesting dining experiences in Chicago, try the Oasis Cafe in Jeweler's Row in the Loop, where you will go through a large room of jewelery retail areas and workshops on the way to and from a tasty and cheap meal.

Cafe Suron
  French Food in Chicago.  

With the gourmet revolution have come plenty of would-be monarchs of the cuisine throne in the form of French restaurants, but a select few make the grade. Brasserie Jo in the Near North neighborhood offers one of the best values in Chicago, with Alsatian specialities, good service and pleasing decor. For a superb prix fixe menu at a comparatively reasonable price, we recommend La Petite Folie in Hyde Park. And for a somewhat less formal atmosphere, enjoy traditional favorites at whimsical Bistrot Margot in Old Town.

Bistrot Margot
  Indian / Pakistani Food in Chicago.  

The automatic destination for food and culture from the Indian Subcontinent in Chicagoland is the neighborhood sometimes known as North Town, in the West Ridge community area at the intersection of Devon and Western Avenues. Many delicious sit-down restaurants beckon the diner to enjoy regional Indian and Pakistani delights in a formal setting at reasonable prices. For extraordinary Indian food in Chicagoland, however, we recommend Khyber Pass in Oak Park. Mt. Everest in Evanston also deserves mention. For those seeking a buffet less expensive and a bit closer to downtown, Moti Mahal, in Lakeview along Belmont Ave., presents a good option.

Viceroy of India,
in North Town
  German Food in Chicago and Scandinavian Food in Chicago.  
  A German immigrant culture once dominated much of Chicago, but although about a hundred thousand people in Chicagoland still speak German natively, the quintessential expressions of the culture, once prevalent, have become somewhat of a rarity. In the Lincoln Square area, however, business owners take great pride in celebrating German hertiage, and standbys like the Chicago Brauhaus will give you plenty of gemutlichkeit. For a real page of history, though, head to the Berghoff on the south end of the Loop -- the tasteful Old-World charm of its interior hasn't changed in many decades, and that's just how the owners like it.

Chicago's Scandinavians, especially the Swedish, celebrate their heritage on the Northwest Side, with the Swedish-American museum as the centerpiece of a handful of Swedish institutions in Andersonville and North Park. Here, the old favorite is Ann Sather's, which has the regular smorgasbord of heavy nordic main courses on the menu. Ann Sather's has a similar location on Belmont in the Lakeview neighborhood.

Chicago Brauhaus
  Chinese Food in Chicago.  
  Compared to in other large American cities, there are not a lot of Chinese in Chicago, but those here have a strong, centralized community in Chicago's expanding Chinatown (Near South Side) as well as a a somewhat more disparate presence on the city's far north side and in the Northwest Suburbs. In Chinatown proper, one of the best loved spots is Three Happiness, where exotic selections of dim sum are brought around on carts. Chinese restaurants as well as other kinds of Asian food are also available along Argyle Street in the "New Chinatown" on the far north side (Edgewater Community Area).
Chicago's Chinatown
  Thai Food in Chicago.  
  In Chicago especially, Thai cuisine seems to have gone gourmet. As mentioned above, Arun's in Irving Park is equal to the city's other very best restaurants both in terms of food and imagination. For excellent food and prices a bit more down to earth, though, the Thai Grill and Noodle Bar in Edgewater is definitely worth a try, where you can enjoy bubble-tea smoothies and many sumptuous delicacies. For another great value, head down to Hyde Park for a thai banquet at a bargain price at The Snail.
The Snail Restaurant
  Eastern European Food in Chicago.  
  Eastern Europeans have long called Chicago home -- and many are still coming. To enjoy the cosmopolitan setting of a Yugoslavian-style coffee house, make your way to Panini Panini in Rogers Park, where gourmet coffee and frozen (nonalcoholic) drinks along with yummy sandwiches and salads are the order of the day. Get a table outdoors if the weather's nice, and enjoy watching the world go by on Sheridan road from an enclosed patio area. For a bit more hustle and bustle, head way out on Belmont Avenue to the Belmont Central neighborhood (at about the 6000 block), where a considerable Polish presence remains from a recent wave of immigration. Here you can have your pick of kitschy, authentic restaurants or trendy, edgy night clubs -- be warned, however, that the locals can be skeptical of outsiders, making the experience that much more authentic.
Staropolska in Belmont Central
  Sweets and Treats in Chicago.  

Treat yourself - especially to some of Chicago's delicious indulgences from many cultures. Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown is full of authentic bakeries with everything from American-style cookies to Asian specialties. Devon Avenue at Western Avenue, mentioned above, marks the center of Chicago's Indian-Pakistani corridor and has many bakeries serving yummy delicacies from that region. For a contemporary European bakery, go to Cafe Selmarie in Lincoln Square for exquisite pastries, or try the always delicious Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston.

Cafe Selmarie
  Tapas in Chicago.  

Since the early '90s, Tapas have had a well-frequented place in American dining, and Chicago has its share of Spanish restuarants devoted to the bite-size dishes. Two stand out: Cafe Ba Ba Reeba, in Lincoln Park, where several large rooms and an outdoor area offer a fun setting to enjoy selections from a carefully prepared menu, and Cafe Iberica, in the River North neighborhood, suggests an authentic atmosphere and offers good values.

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  Vegetarian Food in Chicago.  
  For extraordinary vegetarian cuisine at fair prices, the Blind Faith Cafe in Evanston (Dempster stop) fits the bill and should please most palates, offering international favorites in vegetarian versions. For classic Indian vegetarian, Mysore Woodland on Devon offers good value and a tasteful setting. For those on a vegan diet or curious about vegan and macrobiotic delicacies, Amitabul in Pulaski Park offers excellent Korean cuisine cooked and served by the friendly, knowledgable owner. Karyn's Fresh Corner in Roscoe Village offers a more American take on innovative "raw" Vegan delicacies. Also, many restaurants in Chicago which are not exclusively vegetarian offer first-rate vegetarian options, such as Green Zebra (New Cuisine), Heartland Cafe (American / Midwestern), Thai Grill and Noodle Bar (Thai), Cafe Ba Ba Reba (Tapas), Khyber Pass (Indian), and Cafe Suron (Mediterranean), all mentioned above.
Blind Faith Cafe
  Coffee Houses in Chicago.  

The Grunge heyday of the early '90s may be long over, but there are still a handful of great spots to have a cup and read a book which have not gone corporate. Most are near universities. Near De Paul you'll find the creative Bourgeois Pig, full of great reading material and cozy rooms upstairs with the feel of a European intellectual salon. In Rogers Park, not far from Loyola, Ennui offers a hangout where locals go to philosophize and enjoy great snacks and desserts. In Evanston, close to Northwestern, two coffee houses popular among students and with great interiors stand out: Kaffein and Unicorn.

Bourgeois Pig

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