As any theater-loving Chicagoan will tell you, this is a theater town. Then, they will proceed to list all the famous actors and comedians who got their start at venues like the Steppenwolf or Second City, and hint that the next great talent might be onstage at this very moment, somewhere far from the Loop and the city’s official theater district. Here are some of the best off-Loop theaters — and places to eat nearby.
Writers Theatre: Considered one of the area’s top theater companies, Writers is known for putting contemporary spins on classic plays. A show here gives visitors a chance to explore downtown Glencoe. Standouts include Guildhall, an upscale comfort food restaurant that added a sushi pop-up during the pandemic, and Shanghai Garden. Slightly farther afield in Northbrook, there’s the Prairie Grass Cafe, run by James Beard Award winner Sarah Stegner.
Theo Ubique: Located on Howard Street, the border between Chicago and Evanston, tiny Theo Ubique specializes in cabaret and musicals. There’s plenty of good eating on both sides of the street: Badou Senegalese Cuisine, a specialist in okra jambalaya; Good to Go Jamaican Cuisine, serving jerk, oxtail, and brown stew; and the Peckish Pig, a gastropub with a slight British accent.
Redtwist Theatre: This tiny black box puts viewers in the middle of the drama. The theater itself is in the middle of Edgewater. Nearby standouts include Pearl’s Southern Comfort for cajun and creole cuisine, Alice and Friends Vegan Kitchen for plant-based specialities, Cookies and Carnitas for pizza and tacos (and cookies), Moody’s Pub for burgers, and Herb for high-end Thai.
Chicago Magic Lounge and the Neo-Futurists: There are a lot of magical things around the corner of Clark and Foster: the Chicago Magic Lounge, accessible through a portal in a laundromat; the Neo-Futurists, who can perform 30 plays in 60 minutes; and the Hopleaf, with its never-ending beer menu and CB&J sandwich that somehow turns cashew butter, fig spread, raclette cheese, and toasted bread into something divine.
PrideArts: PrideArts shows both plays and movies centered on LGBTQ characters and themes. The Bar on Buena has long been the neighborhood hub for Buena Park and a place grab dinner or brunch before a movie or a show. But there’s also Siam Noodle & Rice, a Thai restaurant that’s been around for even longer, and Michael’s, a sports bar that serves tavern-style pizza.
Mercury Theater Chicago: The Mercury shows crowd-pleasers that appeal to pop culture enthusiasts; it also contains a separate cabaret with comedy performances and open mics. It’s housed in a former movie theater on the same block of Southport Avenue as the DiSapio family empire: Tango Sur, the Argentine steakhouse that has become a neighborhood landmark; Bodega Sur, its lighter sibling; and El Mercado Food Mart, which sells delicious empanadas to go. Nearby, there’s Coalfire for pizza, and Toon’s Bar and Grill for burgers and wings.
The Belmont Theater District: This section of Lakeview rivals the Loop for the city’s largest collection of theaters. There’s the Annoyance, a center for improv and comedy; the Laugh Factory, a stand-up club; the Newport, a showcase for fringe theater; the Briar Street, longtime home of the Blue Man Group; TimeLine, specializing in politically-minded drama; and Theater Wit and Stage 773 which both host a range of shows in addition to their own house companies. Fortunately food options here are equally numerous: try Sochi Saigonese Kitchen, a new Vietnamese spot, and Yoshi’s Cafe, a longtime neighborhood fixture for French-Japanese fusion, or, if you’re short on money or time, bopNgrill for Korean-American fast food, BIG & littles for tacos and fried seafood, or Bangaroos Aussie Pies for meat pies; before a Sunday matinee, grab brunch at the longtime neighborhood breakfast fixture Ann Sather or Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Cafe.
Athenaeum Center for Thought & Culture: The Athenaeum is a venue for many small and non-profit theater, dance, and music companies. It’s also near Dear Margaret, a homey French-Canadian bistro; the Lakeview location of Rica Arepa, source of some of the best arepas in the city; and Red Hot Ranch, justly famous for hot dogs, griddled burgers, and fries.
Aguijon Theater Co: The Aguijon, a Latino performing arts center, is just a few blocks from Hermosa, one of the city’s most underrated eating neighborhoods. Try quesabirria at Tacotlán, traditional Puerto Rican food at Ponce, cider at Right Bee, beer at Pipeworks, or maybe, with enough advance planning, a Cambodian feast at Hermosa. There’s also the original location of Eater 38’s Rica Arepa Venezuelan Cafe.
Victory Gardens Theater and the Greenhouse Theater Center: The Victory Gardens, a launching pad for new plays and playwrights, and the Greenhouse, which rents space to comedy and children’s productions, both occupy the same stretch of Lincoln Avenue, where there are plenty of pre- and post-show dining options: Middle Eastern star Galit, the local outpost of Parson’s Chicken and Fish, longtime standbys Lou Malnati’s and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, and before the matinee, popular brunch spot Batter & Berries. There’s also a charming Sichuan specialist Chengdu Impression and Paula’s Thai Kitchen’s extensive menus.
Steppenwolf Theatre: The Steppenwolf, the theatrical juggernaut that began as a humble storefront, happens to be on the same block as Alinea — try to experience them together, and what a night out that would be! More modest options include Boka, the Willow Room, and the Blue Door Farm Stand, a trio of New American spots that boast fresh ingredients; Kababish for barbecue; and Circle Sushi, conveniently located right across the street. The Steppenwolf also has a bar and cafe, but both are currently closed for the pandemic. There’s also Athenian Room for Greek and Elli’s BBQ.
The Second City, Zanies, and A Red Orchid Theatre: The Second City complex has its own restaurant, the 1959 Bar and Grill — which is owned by Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (they also own neighboring Roots Handmade Pizza, which is a clutch family-friendly venue; and the most adult-oriented Utopian Tailgate rooftop bar). But it’s worth going out to explore Old Town, especially if you’re not actually going to Second City but to Zanies for standup or A Red Orchid to see a play put on by one of the city’s most thoughtful ensembles. Try Small Cheval for burgers, Forastero for Korean tacos, Old Jerusalem for falafel and shawarma, or spend some time at one of the neighborhood’s venerable sit-down spots: Topo Gigio for Italian and the Kennison. After the show, make like generations of comedy fans and go around the corner to the Old Town Ale House, short on fanciness but long on character.
The Den Theatre, the Chopin Theatre, and Free Street Theater: Both the Den and the Chopin rent their space out to various small theater companies, while the Free Street is committed to using theater as a tool for social justice. All three are clustered in Wicker Park, where there’s no shortage of bars and restaurants, including Asian American Mott St., Antique Taco, a branch of Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon, pasta factory Tortello, tapas restaurant Mama Delia, and ramen spots like Oiistar and Kinton.
Ruth Page Center for the Arts: The Ruth Page Center for the Arts in the Gold Coast hosts many local and visiting theater and dance companies, and there are plenty of nearby (and expensive) restaurants to turn a performance into a special occasion. Maple & Ash and Gibsons are a modern and classic steakhouse, respectively; Bistronomic and the Brasserie are modern and classic French; the Somerset and Devereaux, both in the Viceroy Hotel, offer great food and a great view; and the 3 Arts Club Cafe in Restoration Hardware serves lighter fare in a lovely setting. After the show, visit Sparrow, a retro lobby bar that evokes 1940s Havana, for a nightcap.
Chicago Children’s Theatre: The Chicago Children’s Theatre is near some of the finest restaurants in the West Loop, many of which are not child friendly. But there’s still the Little Goat for diner food; Rye for bagels, soup, and sandwiches; Chicago Waffles for brunch; Beatrix for a reasonable kids’ menu; and, of course, Cone Gourmet Ice Cream.
Repertorio Latino Theatre Company: Repertorio produces Spanish-language shows, both adaptations of films and translations from English. The theater is a bit south of the main drag of Bridgeport, but that puts it closer to Phil’s Pizza, an excellent source for classic tavern-style pizza. It’s also not terribly far from the trio of Maria’s bar and its two spinoffs, the Polish-Korean mashup Kimski, and Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream, or from Han 202, which offers prix fixe Chinese meals and sushi. And the wonderful dive bar Bernice’s is right there for a drink pre- or post-show.
Court Theatre: Located on the University of Chicago campus, the Court, which specializes in the classics, is right around the corner from Michelin Bib Gourmand honoree Nella Pizza e Pasta and Middle Eastern neighborhood standby Nile. Ascione Bistro, an upscale Italian spot; La Petite Folie, a French bistro; and Soul Shack, a great source of down-home Southern cooking, are all a slightly longer walk away.