Welcome to Chicago: Where skyscrapers and Midwestern sensibilities mingle, an often misunderstood place by coastal elites where the summers are as hot as the winters are cold. This city desperately wants to prove misconceptions wrong, to show outsiders it is a place where culinary innovation and cheap eats thrive. Chicago is unexpected, where diners can find a foie gras taco at a fancy French restaurant or a wagyu hot dog inside a hardware store.
Though the city is diverse in a sense — the large Mexican population means its cooks run circles around New York. The Eastern European population allows for delicious encased meats. The large Black population means Southern cooking is not in short supply. Locals know how to navigate the city’s 77 neighborhoods, many with borders determined by immigrant enclaves. Tourists might have to be patient if they want to uncover the best bagel or the crispiest samosa. But Chicago is largely a come-as-you-are city. Unless you’ve got a fancy dress and want to wear it out at Alinea or at any of its fine dining masterpieces. That includes the world’s only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant, Kasama.
While the city searches for some sense of normalcy, its chefs, cooks, bartenders, and servers continue to offer a level of sophistication seldom seen anywhere else in the country. This is your guide to the best the city offers.
Culinary innovation with a Midwestern heart
While Chicago is no longer the nation’s meatpacking capital — the famous (or infamous) Union Stockyards closed in 1971; Fulton Market’s slaughterhouses have been replaced by food halls, swanky cocktail bars, and gastropubs, the city’s steakhouses remain bustling, mostly due to tourists, as well as businesspeople and conventioneers armed with buoyant expense accounts. But let’s not forget street food: the city’s hot dogs stands have no match, with enough variety beyond Vienna Beef’s monopoly. Protip: Many local Home Depots have stands, operated by a third party, that have premium hot dogs.
Tourists fixate on deep-dish pizza, a complicated topic for locals who tend to reserve the stuff for special occasions. Instead, most regularly consume the city’s signature square-cut thin-crust pizza, known as tavern style. But Chicago is more than a two-pie town. The city’s variety — from grandma slices, to Detroit squares, to Neapolitan — demonstrates that pizza is something Chicago excels at, no matter the form.
Street food remains a vital part of the city’s dining culture, and visitors should spend time getting to know Italian beef sandwiches and tacos. Don’t forget to ask for extra mild sauce when stopping at a Harold’s Chicken Shack or any of the many fried chicken specialists on the South and West sides.
The Michelin-starred restaurants in America’s third-largest city offer top-notch fine-dining experiences, ranging from experimental tasting menus (Alinea, Claudia, Esmé, Ever) to omakase (Mako, Omakase Yume) to foragers (Elizabeth) to the only starred Filipino restaurant in the world (Kasama).
Then there’s the storied beer scene. The eclectic community isn’t just made up of bearded dudes who like flannel, but women-owned breweries like Eris Brewery & Cidery, and Metropolitan Brewing. From dark and heavy stouts to all the hops an IPA fan could want, the city’s breweries from Revolution Brewing to Goose Island Beer Co. (inventors of barrel-aged beer, now a subsidiary of Budweiser) to Maplewood Brewing — are humming.
Where to Start with Eater Chicago's Top Maps
Eater publishes a massive number of maps to guide diners through all of Chicago's can't-miss foods, drinks, restaurants, and bars. From patios to takeout and dine-in, this is where to start when plotting out a visit.
Essential restaurants: To ensure an authentic Chicago experience, visitors should dive into Eater Chicago's Essential 38 Restaurants, which is updated quarterly. Can’t-miss spots include Diana Dávila’s genius Mi Tocaya Antojeria, Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark’s Korean-American stalwart Parachute (recently reopened after a pandemic hiatus), and Jason Hammel’s all-day masterpiece Lula Cafe. Virtue in Hyde Park is another splendid restaurant with its own spin on Southern food from chef Erick Williams, who recently won a James Beard award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. Chicago is also home of Paul Kahan’s Publican and other members of the One Off Hospitality family. On the Northwest Side, in Albany Park, check out the Korean-Chinese cuisine, particularly at Great Sea Restaurant, one of the originators of the unique lollipop chicken wing with sticky and spicy sauce.
For pastries, check out Lost Larson in Andersonville and Wicker Park, Aya Pastry in West Town, and James Beard award nominee Justice of the Pies (available at various markets and restaurants). Pastry chef Mindy Segal, who worked with Williams at MK The Restaurant, is also back. The James Beard Award winner recently opened a bakery in Wicker Park. Those who watched FX’s The Bear might want to visit Avondale where Loaf Lounge serves the chocolate cake featured on the show. Co-owner Sarah Mispagel was a consultant for the show.
New standouts: The Eater Chicago Heatmap, updated every month, showcases popular new restaurants. Recent additions include Loaf Lounge, where diners can try the chocolate cake made famous on The Bear. There’s also Obelix, a French restaurant with a Chicago heart — try the $23 foie gras taco. Bronzeville Winery, a new upscale restaurant on the South Side, is also a revelation.
Chicago Cures Cravings
Burgers: Ten years after Bon Appetit anointed it the best burger in America, Au Cheval continues to draw long lines of visitors. But explore the essential burger map for more variety such as the East-meets-West-flavored burger at Mott St, Red Hot Ranch’s sublime burger for under $6, and the extra-thin, extra-caramelized cheeseburger at the Region. There’s also the Big Baby, a double cheeseburger that originated on the Southwest Side and, for non-meat eaters, the burger at I Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat. There’s also the return of Owen & Engine, a restaurant that stayed closed during much of the pandemic. The Logan Square restaurant serves a thick burger with the meat ground onsite and the bun baked in the kitchen.
Coffee: Chicago is home to an exciting and diverse local coffee scene that’s free of the pretentiousness too often associated with the industry. The city is packed with friendly, knowledgeable baristas and roasters eager to show novices that there’s more to coffee than Starbucks. For an essential coffee shop experience, visit specialty cafe and roastery Gaslight in Logan Square, Japanese-influenced Sawada in West Loop, or community icon Back of the Yards Coffee. There are also unique drinks at Oromo Cafe in both Bucktown and Lincoln Square.
Doughnuts: Get your fluffy, crunchy, sweet fried dough rings at Firecakes, Doughnut Vault, Brite Donuts, or any of the other spots featured on the essential doughnut map; there are even vegan options. For a classic experience, go to Old Fashioned Donuts in Roseland where owner Burritt Bulloch has been rolling and cutting doughnuts in the front window since 1972. He’s a master artist at work.
Fried Chicken: Fried chicken in this city is no joke, as evidenced by the selections on the essential fried chicken map. Head to one of the many original Harold Chicken Shacks or Avondale’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken. Don’t forget Cleo’s Southern Cuisine in Bronzeville or Big Jones in Andersonville, where the chicken is fried in leaf lard and bacon fat according to Edna Lewis’s original recipe. Chicago hasn’t fetishized spicy options like other cities, but there’s still plenty of Nashville hot chicken to be found. One newcomer, Hot Chi Chicken & Cones, fuses American, Middle Eastern, and Indian spices for a tasty bird with plenty of heat if that’s what’s craved.
Hot dogs: Anthony Bourdain begrudgingly admitted that Chicago bests his native New York when it comes to hot dogs. Don’t be intimidated by the Chicago-style hot dog, a Vienna Beef wiener “dragged through the garden” with mustard, neon green relish, raw or grilled onions, tomatoes, and celery salt with optional sport peppers. But never, ever order it with ketchup; it’s sacrilege here. Eater’s essential hot dog map includes icons like Portillo’s, Superdawg Drive-In, and Wiener’s Circle (which in late 2021 added a bar). Red Hot Ranch and Gene & Jude’s serve a variation stuffed with fries called the “Depression Dog.” An exciting newcomer is the father-and-daughter-run operation of the Hot Dog Box Portage Park. And don’t forget those Depot Dogs.
Beer: Chicago has the most breweries in America (101 in 2021 by one count), and many of them, including Maplewood, Goose Island, Half Acre, Dovetail, and Hopewell offer their beer to-go in cans, crowlers, and growlers. Some also have patios for those who are concerned about social distancing or want to bring their dogs or simply want to drink outside. Check out the essential brewery map. There’s also a strong scene in the suburbs.
Cocktails: Chicago’s mixologists and bartenders are as inventive as its chefs in settings as diverse as a gilded underground lounge, a rooftop with a view of the lights of downtown, or a corner neighborhood joint where everyone is treated like a regular. At bars like Estereo, Weegee’s Lounge, Osito’s Tap, Larry’s, Nine Bar, Moonflower, and James Beard finalist Nobody’s Darling, enjoy cocktails mixed with high-quality spirits — or not; it’s now possible to enjoy a great non-alcoholic cocktail in Chicago — and creative ingredients from around the world, from fruit and herbs to Korean milk soda.
For fall 2022, the owners of Michelin-starred Ever opened a bar in the same building. Called After (get the joke?), it’s a hyper-futuristic space with creative drinks, vintage spirits... and even affordable (for the area) beer. There’s also caviar, skewers, and duck wings. Every seat in the bar can be reserved, so it’s easy to plan a night.
Dive Bars: Grab a can of PBR (or better yet, a cheap local brew) and a shot of Jeppson’s Malört at one of Chicago’s great dives. Bars to know include Old Town Ale House, Woodlawn Tap, Delilah’s, Lange’s Lounge, and Rossi’s.
Essential bars: The beauty of Chicago’s bar scene is its variety. It’s possible, in a single session, to down a Guinness at an Irish pub, then wander into a brewery taproom, and finally cap things off at a cocktail lounge or a late-night dive — all without having to leave the immediate neighborhood or even the block.
Chicago has lifted all of its COVID restrictions, the regulations that devastated the bar industry by keeping patrons away. Mask-wearing is up to the discretion of the owners who hope customers are honest about their vaccination status.
For a fancy cocktail, Kumiko on West Loop is a Japanese-inspired spot that bartender Julia Momosé (who recently won a James Beard award for her book The Art of the Cocktail) has built into a contender for best bar in the country. The Wicker Park speakeasy the Violet Hour remains one of the city’s most influential bars. These taverns and many others are featured on the Essential Bar Map.
Chicago’s skyline, one of the prettiest in the country, makes spending some time on a rooftop bar a priority during the warmer months. Many have long lines during peak weekend hours. Try BiXi Beer in Logan Square, Cabra in Fulton Market, or, for a spectacular view of the lakefront, Cindy’s inside the Chicago Athletic Association hotel on Michigan Avenue.
Ice Cream: After surviving those long, cold winters, Chicagoans take their summers — and their ice cream shops — seriously. Peruse the essential ice cream map; throwback destinations Margie’s Candies (North Side) and Original Rainbow Cone (South Side) should not be missed. There are also plenty of playful new-school vendors like Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Logan Square and now Lincoln Park and Kurimu, a Japanese-style soft serve shop with locations in Little Italy and Wicker Park. One of the country's finest vegan ice cream stands, Vaca’s Creamery, is in Noble Square. Also, Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream may provide the best ice cream experience in the city with flavor combos not seen anywhere else. Those seeking a classic Chicago dessert experience should also browse the essential Italian ice map.
Japanese: Chicago has seen an influx of elegant Japanese omakase meals and fine dining experiences, often housed in sleek, intimate spaces. Explore the essential sushi map and book a spot at the eight-seat sushi haunt Kyoten in Logan Square or find a pristine box of nigiri from Mako in West Loop. More casual sushi and izakaya-style spots are also popular, including TenGokyu Aburiya and recent entrant Sushi Hall. The city is also home to a bustling ramen scene: the essential ramen map lists some of the best destinations, including Chicago Ramen (which is actually in suburban Des Plaines).
Jewish Delis: Despite nervous rumblings to the contrary, the Jewish deli is alive and kicking in Chicago. Longtime favorites like Manny’s Deli in the South Loop, founded in 1942, and neighborhood stalwart the Bagel in Lakeview, is still slinging nostalgic Ashkenazi comfort food like matzo ball soup and massive corned beef sandwiches to hungry hoards. But that old-school approach isn’t the only game in town: Chicagoans can also find creative and heartwarming contemporary spins at spots like Steingold’s (Lakeview), Zeitlin’s (Pilsen), and Sam & Gertie’s (Uptown), the latter of which bills itself as the world’s first vegan deli. Peruse the Jewish deli food map for more schmaltzy inspiration.
Michelin: Chicago has its share of world-renowned restaurants. Check out the map of Michelin-starred restaurants for fine dining, or the more affordable Bib Gourmand list, which recommends spots where diners can get a full meal, with wine or dessert, for $40 or less per person.
Pierogi: Chicago's Polish and Eastern European heritage plays a major part in the city's present. The number of Polish restaurants has 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.
Steakhouses: Yes, every major city has many steakhouses, often for business travelers and the expense-account crowd. But Chicago’s steakhouses offer a variety of meats (grass- or corn-fed), aging (dry or wet), cuts, and price points. Gibsons is a true Chicago classic, but the city also boasts South American steakhouses (Tango Sur and El Che), Japanese tappanyaki (Ron of Japan), and an international steakhouse where diners cook their own meat (Holu).
Steak Hoagie: If one asks for a steak hoagie in Chicago, one is asking for a specific type of sandwich with thin-cut beef, green peppers, and a sweet sauce that turns the whole thing into a glorious mess. Home of the Hoagy in Morgan Park has one of the best.
Tacos: The tacos in Chicago, which has one of the country’s largest Mexican populations, are severely underrated on the national scene and often take a backseat to those in Southern California and Texas. Do yourself a favor and try as many on the essential taco map and hottest taco map as you can, particularly the goat birria specialist Birrieria Zaragoza in Archer Heights or one of the many carnitas specialists in the South Side neighborhood of Pilsen, notably Carnitas Uruapan. Also, run to La Chaparrita, a Mexican grocery store in Little Village, for some delicious Mexico City-style tacos de fritangas, or “fried tacos” (it’s the fillings that are fried, not the tortillas). A new contender recently arrived on the border of Bucktown and Logan Square: Taqueria Chingón, which serves a combination of the tried-and-true (a truly excellent al pastor), the more rare (squash blossom, duck carnitas, suadero), and the experimental (raclette cheese, bradade).
Vegetarian/Vegan: Amazingly, and contrary to the tired stereotype, there are vegetarians in the Midwest. The first vegetarian restaurant in Chicago opened at the turn of the 20th century, and now, with the advent of plant-based proteins, meat-free options are more abundant than before, thanks to vegetable-forward restaurants like Althea, Soul Veg City, Fancy Plants Cafe (a great patio and occasional tasting menu), I Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, and B’Gabs Goodies. There’s also Bloom Plant-Based Kitchen in Wicker Park from James Beard-nominee Rodolfo Cuadros.
Chicago Food Neighborhoods to Know
There’s a distinction between the areas that make up downtown (Loop, River North, Mag Mile, Gold Coast, Streeterville, the West Loop), and the rest of the city. Those areas are considered the city’s business district. But the soul of Chicago resides in the outlying neighborhoods, which have distinct identities and are sources of pride for their residents. Public transportation connects most places (though there’s an infamous coverage gap on the city’s South Side). Though only a portion of CTA trains ride on elevated tracks, locals have nicknamed the system “the El.” Buses are also mostly reliable, if not as speedy. There are also rideshares and a robust bike-share system called Divvy that’s linked via Lyft.
Still home to a large percentage of Chicago’s Chinese immigrants, this Near South Side neighborhood is also home to the vast majority of the best Chinese restaurants in town. Get dim sum at MingHin Cuisine or Cai, or hot pot at Mrs. Gu Skewers Hot Pot. Tony Hu, who brought Mrs. Gu to Chicago, is considered one of the city’s most successful restaurateurs. His first restaurant, Lao Sze Chuan, continues to thrives in Chinatown with locations off Michigan Avenue and in Uptown and the suburbs. Check out this map for more. There are also wonders inside the Richland Center Food Court, and don’t forget to grab a Portuguese egg tart from Chiu Quon, the city’s oldest Asian bakery, or make a late-night visit to Nine Bar, the neighborhood’s first cocktail bar, recently opened behind the takeout counter at Moon Palace Express.
The city’s Chinese community has expanded to Bridgeport, the neighborhood immediately west of Chinatown. There, visitors will find the exciting new 88 Marketplace, a Pan Asian grocery stuffed with restaurants including Qiao Lin Hotpot and Holu, a fancy Asian steakhouse.
The city’s South Asian hub is located on Devon Avenue in West Ridge, about 10 miles north of downtown, and the pandemic hit it hard. While fine dining options are in short supply here, South Indian vegetarian cuisine shines at Uru-Swati, and Udupi Palace, Other standouts include Sukhadia’s, Annapurna, and Sabri Nihari. Many South Asian restaurants have a complicated relationship with serving 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. Many locals are also partial to Pakistani spot Ghareeb Nawaz and rave about the value for the money.
Elsewhere in the city, visitors can find stellar South Asian eats at a variety of places including Rooh Chicago in Fulton Market, Wazwan in Wicker Park (home to the city’s only South Asian tasting menu), and Superkhana International in Logan Square.
Greater Grand Crossing
The area around 75th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway has long been full of wonderful restaurants that go toe-to-toe with any area in the city. It’s hard to dismiss Lem’s Bar-B-Q’s rib tips, ribs, and hot links underneath that retro sign. But for vegans, Soul Veg City (formerly Soul Vegetarian) has delivered meat-free gyros, chicken nugget substitutes called protein tidbits, and more for decades. The quality at Harold’s Chicken Shack locations vary, but one of the city’s best locations sits on 75th, right near Brown Sugar Bakery, where turtle cakes and more sweet treats are available.
These adjacent neighborhoods continue to draw top talent, starting with Honey Butter Fried Chicken and one of Chicago’s finest restaurants, Korean American Parachute, which recently returned from a pandemic hiatus.
Lula Cafe has been a neighborhood anchor for more than 20 years and paved the way for some of the city’s most exciting restaurants, including Big Kids, a whimsical sandwich shop; Daisies, where fresh noodles are served with fresh Midwestern produce; Bixi Beer, Chicago’s only Asian-inspired brewpub; and Mi Tocaya Antojeria where chef Diana Dávila dazzles customers with deliciousness while managing to teach them a thing or two about Mexican cuisine. Also, don’t forget about Lardon and Union, a charcuterie and beer one-two punch, soon to be joined by a cocktail bar, Meadowlark.
Hermosa and Belmont Cragin, west of Logan Square and not directly on any El lines, don’t get the attention they deserve, even from locals, but these two neighborhoods are home to some of the tastiest fare in the city. Meanwhile, one taste of the arepas at Rica Arepa will make you dream of returning. The new kid on the block is Hermosa Restaurant, by day a sandwich shop that serves a mind-blowing Cambodian-style chicken sandwich, and by night a multi-course Cambodian tasting menu.
Hyde Park will always be shaped by the University of Chicago, but restaurateurs have never felt the need to cater to the academic community alone. While local residents who love the insular nature of their community may cringe that the neighborhood is listed on a city dining guide, it’s hard to ignore the draw. The aforementioned Virtue is a revelation — a celebration of Black culture with a unique approach to southern cuisine that pushes boundaries. Erick Williams also recently opened a sports bar, Daisy’s. Don’t forget one of the most iconic restaurants in the city, Valois Cafeteria, where customers can find an honest meal for an honest price. (It remains Barack Obama’s go-to when he comes back to town.) There’s also Medici on 57th, home to one of the city’s best burgers, and Caribbean standouts Ja’ Grill and 14 Parish.
Mexican culture is prevalent in Pilsen, where standout selections include Carnitas Uruapan, Don Pedro Carnitas, and 5 Rabanitos. But longtime residents worry that recent changes will lead to gentrification and higher rents that will force them to move elsewhere. Thalia Hall, a building originally built in 1892, was a harbinger of change when it reopened a decade ago with a live music venue and a popular restaurant, Dusek’s, that brought new visitors to the neighborhood. Now there’s an abundance of non-Mexican spots: S.K.Y. brings fun Asian-inspired fare, including memorable dumplings stuffed with Maine lobster, Hai Sous has a memorable Vietnamese tasting menu, Honky Tonk BBQ serves great barbecue with a background of live music, Skylark has standout burgers and tater tots, and Pleasant House Pub sells delicious savory pies and other British pub fare.
Not everything downtown is an office, government building, hotel, chain restaurant, or tourist trap. And not everything shuts down after happy hour. This neighborhood across the Chicago River from the Loop is now home to many of the trendiest nightlife and see-and-be-seen spots in Chicago. Some acclaimed restaurants are holding it down — including Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Bar Sotano, and Carlos Gaytan’s revelatory Tzuco — as well as Lettuce Entertain You’s RPM Seafood, RPM Steak, and RPM Italian. Or keep it simple with a hot dog, Italian beef, or milkshake at Portillo’s or deep-dish pizza at Uno’s or Due’s.
Recently, celebrity chef José Andrés entered the market with his flagship tapas spot, Jaleo, though it doesn’t offer too much that Chicago hasn’t already seen. For more innovation, head south to the Loop, where Andrés recently opened a trio of restaurants inside Bank of America’s pristine new Chicago headquarters right on the river. Bar Mar and Bazaar Meat, which specialize in seafood and steak respectively, are collaborations with Gibsons Restaurant Group, while Cafe by the River is a cute spot for coffee or a casual lunch.
West Loop/Fulton Market
Developers have feasted upon real estate in West Loop and Fulton Market. There’s no doubt the feel of the neighborhood has changed now that companies like McDonald’s and Google have set up corporate offices. The area immediately west of the Loop and the Chicago River remains home to Restaurant Row, lined with spots like Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, Little Goat, and Duck Duck Goat; Paul Kahan’s the Publican and Avec; and the Alinea Group’s Next, the Aviary, and Roister. Time Out Market is a giant food hall filled with local restaurants that attempt to give tourists a curated one-stop shop for Chicago eats. It’s worth a trip if your visit is short.
There’s also a bounty of upscale Japanese restaurants such as Mako, Kumiko, and Omakase Yume. Other highlights include Boka Restaurant Group’s Momotaro and Swift & Sons, and Monteverde from Sarah Grueneberg of Top Chef fame.
Wicker Park and the Surrounding Area
In the ’90s, this area west of the Kennedy Expressway was the center of the city’s counterculture, with its nexus at the Milwaukee/Damen/North intersection. Since then, it’s been thoroughly gentrified. One-Off Hospitality’s anchors, honky tonk taqueria Big Star and cocktail spot the Violet Hour, which opened in the aughts, remain neighborhood standbys. Other bright spots include Mott St which fuses Korean and other Asian flavors into a uniquely American experience. Then there’s Kasama in West Town, recently awarded its first Michelin star, where French pastries and sandwiches feed customers during the day, followed by lumpia and Filipino smoked meats in the afternoon, and a fantastic tasting menu for dinner (for that, you’ll need to book months in advance). Frontier in Noble Square specializes in full-animal service that’s great for groups. For great bagels and pastry, head north to Bucktown, where James Beard Award winner Mindy Segal plans to reopen Mindy’s Bakery later this year.
Argyle Street, which runs through the neighborhood of Uptown, is home to one of Chicago’s most destination-worthy dining strips of Vietnamese restaurants, where every chef has their own specialty. Pho shops like Pho Viet and Hai Yen are impressive. But also don’t forget Immm Rice & Beyond, which offers an abundance of hawker center-style Thai food, and Sun Wah Bar-B-Que, honored as one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation, for Peking duck (be sure to order in advance).
Chicago Glossary of Terms
Breaded Steak Sandwich
An Italian-American classic from the South Side of Chicago, the breaded steak sandwich is not for the faint for heart. This sloppy concoction involves deep-fried and battered pieces of meat, melted cheese, and marinara sauce on a French roll. Gio’s, Ricobene’s, and Punky’s Pizza are among the establishments that sell this delicacy.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Hot dogs in Chicago are their own entity. They shouldn’t be confused with New York hot dogs or Detroit-style Coney dogs. Here, they're "dragged through the garden," i.e. covered with toppings and condiments: sliced tomatoes, a pickle spear, diced onion, neon green pickled relish, sport peppers, yellow mustard. and celery salt, and served on a steamed poppy seed bun. Never ask for ketchup on your hot dog in Chicago (unless you’re visiting Gordon Ramsay Burger in River North, which was widely mocked for offering this on the menu). Also, look for dogs with natural casings for the perfect snappy texture.
Note: Chicago also serves Polish sausages, affectionately called “Polishes.” Sized a little larger than a hot dog, these are served with grilled onions and mustard. Jim’s Original takes credit for inventing this treat when it was still located in the old Maxwell Street Market.
Giardiniera is 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. Also, it’s pronounced “jar-din-air-ah.”
A tribute to Chicago’s European immigrants, this South Side special stacks gyro meat on top of corned beef on top of roast beef for a multicultural melange. Add cheese and giardiniera to the roll, and this is one serious sandwich. Find the iconic version at Stony Sub on the Far South Side.
Chicago’s thinly-sliced Italian beef sandwich has a juicy origin story: it was created by Italian immigrants as a cheap way to feed large parties. 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. A “combo” doesn’t come with fries — it’s a combination Italian sausage topped with the sliced beef. And no matter what folks say, it’s very crabable.
The jibarito, a sandwich that uses sliced and fried plantains in lieu of bread or buns, was invented in Chicago by Puerto Rican immigrants; usually credit is given to the late Juan Figeroa, owner of Borinquen Lounge in Humboldt Park. Fillings include carne asada (steak), roast pork, and chicken. The sandwich is often topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Outside of Humboldt Park, find them at Jibaritos y Más in Logan Square.
Another Chicago original that’s beginning to spread to other cities, Malört is an extremely bitter Swedish wormwood liquor that’s a favorite of many local bartenders. Taking a shot is often a right of passage for newbies. For years it was nearly always served in shots, but recently bartenders have started to use it in cocktails, some of which are surprisingly delicious. Jeppson’s is the original brand, but other companies have started making their own, such as Letherbee’s Bësk.
Black Chicago has its roots in the South thanks to the Great Migration, and it’s no surprise that many Southern cooking traditions have found homes here. One of those traditions is fried chicken, and one way Chicagoans have made it their own is with mild sauce, a wildly copied condiment that has a passionate following. Served at chicken spots like Harold’s and Uncle Remus, this is a concoction made from ketchup, barbecue sauce, and a dash of hot sauce.
The Pizza Puff, a frozen food concoction that’s actually a deep-fried flour tortilla filled with mozzarella, sausage, and tomato sauce, is generally sold at hot dog stands in Chicago. This is a Chicago invention, and Albano’s and Terry’s Place are among the spots that make fresh versions. This is good drinking food.
The flavorful cartilage ends of spare ribs are common at South Side barbecue shacks, as well as in other Midwestern cities. Click here for a primer on Chicago barbecue, which is distinguished by the way pitmasters use smokers made from glass aquariums. Find the quintessential version at Lem’s.
Slashie or Packaged Goods Store
Packaged good stores are corner liquor stores that also just happen to have bars inside. These spots, often patronized by those working odd shifts, have become an important part of Chicago’s drinking culture. But in the early aughts, a new and younger wave of clientele began showing up and calling them “slashies,” much to the disgust of the old guard. Even before March 2020, the future of the slashie was in doubt, but during the pandemic, bars were permitted to sell alcohol to go, essentially becoming slashies themselves, making the original dives, where one can grab a shot and can of beer in peace, an endangered species.
Chicago food personalities and groups to know
Grant Achatz and the Alinea Group preside over some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, including namesake Alinea, a pioneer in molecular gastronomy and the city’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant. A visit to the Lincoln Park restaurant is a theatrical experience, worthy of a bucket list. Achatz’s fingerprints are also on Next, where the menu and scenery rotate every year, and Aviary, the avant-garde cocktail bar. Alinea co-founder, Nick Kokonas is also the co-founder of the popular reservation and ordering platform Tock.
Perhaps Chicago’s most famous chef and television personality, Rick Bayless is known 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 and super-casual Tortazo. Frontera later expanded into packaged food, and its chips and salsa and frozen meals can be found in supermarkets. Bayless, who is white and from Oklahoma, has raised concerns about appropriation within Chicago’s Mexican community.
Another highly-acclaimed and extremely successful Chicago restaurant group is Boka, named for its founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, who won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2019. Boka owns or is a partner in GT Fish & Oyster and GT Prime, Boka (their original Chicago restaurant), Momotaro, Swift & Sons, Bellemore, and Somerset, as well as all of Stephanie Izard’s restaurants. The group continues to grow, with a variety of upcoming projects.
Chef Curtis Duffy is internationally known as the chef behind Grace, which earned three Michelin stars before its closure. Duffy’s follow-up, Ever, has already earned Michelin honors, and the heavy metal-loving Duffy is once again delivering a pristine fine dining experience inside one of the most luxurious spaces in the country. Duffy and collaborator Michael Muser will soon open a cocktail bar, After (get it?), this fall.
Tony Hu is one of Chicago’s most prominent cultural ambassadors and the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown.” Chinese cuisine in Chicago was at a crossroads before Hu opened his Lao chain of restaurants, including Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown, which introduced many Chicagoans to Sichuan food. Hu’s subsequent projects, including an upcoming outpost of the international Xiaolongkan Hot Pot chain, demonstrated how varied Chinese cuisine actually is.
This Top Chef and Iron Chef champion runs three of the most successful (and hardest to get into) restaurants in Chicago — Girl & the Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Cabra — as well as the Little Goat Diner and Sugargoat, a bakery. Izard is poised to follow Bayless’s steps in growing her brand: a branch of Cabra and Girl & the Goat recently opened in LA band her This Little Goat sauces and rubs are now found at stores across the country as Izard splits here time between Chicago and the left coast.
Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark
Folks outside of Chicago will know Kim from her Top Chef appearance. Chicagoans know her from Parachute, the Korean American restaurant she and her husband Johnny Clark have pushed to new heights. Kim has also taken a leadership role with the Abundance Setting, a nonprofit that helps working mothers in the culinary industry, while Clark took an active role in the Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine benefit last spring. Kim and Clark have a second restaurant, the seasonal Wherewithal, which changes its menu weekly.
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 spots that run the gamut from fast food to fine dining, its most noteworthy concepts include R.J. Grunts (the original LEYE restaurant), Aba, Joe’s Seafood Prime Steak and Stone Crab, Three Dots and a Dash, RPM Italian and RPM Steak, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, and Bub City.
A Chicagoan through and through (he was raised in his family’s fish market in Rogers Park) and the James Beard Award co-winner for Outstanding Chef in 2013, Paul Kahan, along with primary partner Donnie Madia, runs One Off Hospitality Group. The group’s known for Avec, the Publican, Big Star, the Violet Hour, Publican Quality Meats, Dove's Luncheonette, and the brand-new bakery Publican Quality Bread.
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, Small Cheval, and High Five Ramen. Hogsalt’s newest restaurant is Armitage Alehouse, an opulently-decorated British-Indian pub in Lincoln Park.
Erick Williams is the first Black person to win a James Beard Award while representing Chicago. He’s the owner of three restaurants, Virtue, Daisy’s, and Mustard Seed Kitchen — all on Chicago’s South Side. He taps into a variety of Balck and Southern traditions in his cooking providing unique experiences diners won’t find anywhere else. He’s also a mentor and leader in his communities, opening opportunities to folks who would normally be ignored.
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