Nine Chicago Restaurants to Try: From a Monster Burger to Refined Midwest Fare
Chicago is a great city for eating out, even though it lacks the gastronomic ambition and international reputation of New York.
There's a wide range of cuisines, the cooking is good, the prices are affordable and the service is friendly. Plus, it is a manageable size, with good public transportation. On a flying visit last week, to interview chef Grant Achatz at Alinea, I made a whistlestop tour of some hot dining spots.
Here are some recommendations:
Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur known for quality establishments such as Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, has just opened this 18th-floor restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking downtown Chicago. Green River, which celebrates the city's Irish-American culture, is a collaboration between The Best Bar in the World group and Meyer's Union Square Events.
The dining room is packed and buzzy at night, and there are standout cocktails. It's good to sit at one of the high tables beside the bar, which serves drinks such as the Tommy Gun ($13), which features Kappa Chilean pisco, pineapple, lime, garam masala and aromatic bitters.
The Midwestern menu (of chef Aaron Lirette) includes snacks and sharing plates, including a wonderful smoked whitefish tartine ($11), with sliced egg and shaved radishes and celery on rye. If the flavors were any cleaner, you'd be able to wash in them. The food is certainly accessible: Chicken oysters (fried in breadcrumbs) are noble nuggets; the frites in Cheddar dust are posh Pringles. The spicy beef tartare costs $14.
Lunch is a simpler affair with a stripped-down menu which, fortunately, includes the whitefish tartine. The steak frites ($21) are also a winner. The cut, teres major from Slagel Family Farm, is tender and rich. It's simply served with herb butter and peppercorn sauce.
I enjoyed GreenRiver so much, I went twice. (Thereby reducing this Top 10 to a Top 9.)
259 E. Erie, 18th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611; tel +1-312-337-0101
This restaurant/bar is hugely popular. I queued for about 40 minutes for a stool behind the beer taps and counted myself lucky to get in. The hamburgers have been described by Bon Appetit as just about perfect, while the double cheeseburger ($12.95) is Best in America, according to Food Network. It actually contains three patties and is so dirty it should wash its mouth out. You have to open very wide just to get it in. But there is more to Au Cheval than burgers. Chef-restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff has worked with Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller. He's very serious about his food. The menu features dishes such as roasted marrow bones, beef cheek marmalade and toast ($17.95). I would have ordered that if i'd ever made it through the burger.
800 W. Randloph Street, Chicago, IL 60607; tel. +1-312-929-4580
This West Loop casual dining spot focuses on Asian barbecue. Chef Bill Kim, an alumnus of Charlie Trotter's, is backed here by basketball star Michael Jordan. The dining room has an industrial look whose sharp edges are smoothed by warm service and hot food. The flavors are big in dishes such as roasted pork butt (curry BBQ, Asian giardiniera) at $14 and belly mac n' cheese ($8). To be honest, I wasn't taken with the latter, which features thick noodles, Thai curry and cheddar. I took solace in cocktails such as 13th Assassin (Letherbee Gin, coconut, egg white, Korean chili flake) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Sudachi Shochu, Passionfruit Drinking Vinegar, Mezcal) at $11 apiece.
1400 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607; tel. +1-312-563-1010
This modern Mexican restaurant in Andersonville uses local ingredients - including some from a garden on the rooftop - to create dishes that are colorful and relatively light. Chef Diana Dávila studied regional cooking in Oaxaca, and her focus is on quality and flavor. I went along for brunch and have to confess I was most excited by the Green Bloody Mary ($7), which was one of the finest cocktails I enjoyed in Chicago. It was sour and spicy without being overpowering. The huevos divorciados ($8) - two eggs with individual salsa, black beans and sour cream - had depth and heat in equal measure. There were layers of flavor. Cantina 1910 is a huge place but was quiet on a Sunday morning.
5025 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60640; tel. +1-773-506-1910
This Logan Square cafe is particularly popular for brunch, with locals and visitors alike lining up for unfussy food that has gained national - and even international - attention over the past 16 years. (Among other accolades, Lula holds a Michelin Bib Gourmand.) I went straight for the Tineka ($9): Indonesian-spiced peanut butter on seeded whole grain sourdough, tomato, cucumber, red onion and sprouts. The quality of the ingredients was memorable as was the balance of flavors. The house pastries include caramel apple Danish and almond pear coffee cake. The crowd is generally young and there's a laid-back vibe, but the food is serious and the service is focused.
2537 N. Kedzie Boulevard, Chicago, IL 60647; tel. +1-773-489-9554
This bar and restaurant atop the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel offers a great view of Millennium Park and Lake Michigan from an outdoor terrace. It's worth a visit for the views alone, though I did find time for a few glasses of wine. I'd eaten two brunches before reaching here so can't tell you much about the food. However, the two women beside me at the bar appeared to be enjoying the shellfish platter ($72) heaped high with lobster, oysters, king crab, white balsamic mignonette and bloody Mary cocktail sauce. (I stayed at the hotel and loved it.)
Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603; tel. +1-312-792-3502.
This award-winning restaurant and bar in the West Loop was packed, noisy and dark when I entered on a Saturday night. The staffers looked extremely busy but found time to sort out somewhere for me to eat, albeit standing at a counter. There's a large open kitchen serving an eclectic menu of boldly flavored dishes such as Sichuan goat satay (with goat dashi and smoked-apple puree) and escargot dumplings. Chicago-born Stephanie Izard is the chef behind this gutsy fare. If you want to know what umami is, I recommend the pan-fried shishito peppers with Parmesan, sesame and miso.
809 W. Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607; tel. +1-312-492-6262
I really don't get Chicago deep-pan pizza. Or, rather, I didn't. I could almost be converted by Pequod's, whose pizzas have a thin, crispy rim that provides not only texture but sharp cheesy flavor. As for the toppings, the tomatoes I ordered were large and sweet, the peppers were hot and chunky and the bacon was fat and salty. You get so used to toppings being pureed and diced and baked into a colorful mosaic, it's a pleasure to get them big enough to bite into. The restaurant itself is like a sports bar, with brick walls, large-screen TVs and plenty of beer on tap. My bill, including drinks and tax, was $26.37.
2707 N. Clybourn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614 773-327-1512
This dark and noisy gastropub serves a wide range of draft and bottled beers. The main attraction for me was the food, which is Indian. Having tried that cuisine in New York, I didn't set my expectations too high and I was pleasantly surprised. Chicago has an Indian community and plenty of restaurants, centered on Devon Avenue. Here, buttered paneer ($12) came as a spicy gravy with salted chili, served with a whole-wheat paratha on the side. The menu is limited but the food packs a punch that makes it great with beer.
2049 W. Division Street, Chicago, IL 60622; tel. +1-773-661-6874
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines