Chicago's Essential Eats, From Nibbles to Feast

The way to the heart of Chicago is through your stomach. The food here is phenomenal, whether you’re dining in a Chicago steakhouse with the suits paying with their company card, or supping with the common folks in heavy metal band shirts at the city’s most bombastic burger joint. Here are some essential Chicago spots to check out on your next visit.


If you prefer your food to take the form of an edible balloon, or you’d like to see it painted before your eyes, across your table, then reserve your space at Alinea. This hub of molecular gastronomy has been named among the top restaurants in the world, and Chef Grant Achatz’s 12- to 14-course extravaganzas deliver one surprise after another, from a salad that resembles a garden to cocktails that are edible. Here, even the reservation system comes with a twist. Rather than a traditional call-and-reserve system, diners must go online and purchase a “ticket” by selecting a date and time and then paying online to secure it. The pre-paid dinner price ranges from $210 to $265 per person (not counting wine pairings), with the more popular dining hours (say, Saturday at 7 p.m.) commanding a higher cost – but it’s a cost for an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the world.


1723 N. Halsted St., 312-867-0110

Girl and the Goat
Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard (Season 4) has the Midas touch when it comes to food. Everything she makes is that good. Try unique meats, like her beloved wood-roasted pig face (which is meat from the pig’s face and jowls, fried potato sticks and a fried egg) or the duck tongues (which, when fried, almost have the texture of candied walnuts, and are served with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri). Or opt for something from the magical vegetable selection, such as the sautéed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews. A reservation can be hard to come by here, but waiting at the bar is practically a rite of passage. Impatient? Head across the street to Little Goat, Izard’s lighthearted interpretation of diner food, and try one of her golden dishes there.


Girl and the Goat: 809 W. Randolph St., 312-492-6262


Little Goat: 820 W Randolph St., 312-888-3455

The Bristol
The whole-hog approach is alive and well in Chicago’s Bucktown neighbourhood. This locals’ favourite uses every part of the pig, and does it quite well, whether it’s the pork cracklings, porchetta, sausage, country pâté or even any of the other perfectly prepared non-pork options. Whatever you do, don’t leave here without ordering the Basque cake – “buttery” is an understatement in this pastry perfection.


2152 N. Damen Ave. 773-862-5555

Gibson’s Steakhouse
This Chicago steakhouse is an institution; a paradise of leather booths, gin martinis, tantalizing rib eyes and quiet conversation. It’s one of those places that has framed photos of the celebrities who've eaten there. Gibson’s works whether you’re in the mood for a tender steak sandwich or a more elaborate meal (note that the portions are advertised as “huge”; most of the steaks are in the neighbourhood of 20 ounces on up). Six private dining rooms are available for booking.


1028 N. Rush St., 312-266-8999


Lou Malnati’s
Some visitors to Chicago will arrive clamouring for thick, gooey, cheese-laden deep-dish pizza. Where to go? Lou Malanit's is the locals' choice, for the quality of the ingredients, the copious – but not too copious – amounts of cheese and the craveable cornmeal-dusted crust. Order the sausage like a real Chicagoan. Want to go gluten-free? They make that, too, using a giant sausage patty as the crust (be still, my heart).


Multiple locations, including 1120 North State Street, 312-725-7777

Topolobampo, Frontera and Xoco
Rick Bayless has catapulted Mexican food from muy causal to muy fancy, with a heavy focus on spices and careful culinary consideration given to every dish. At Topolobampo, try his enchanting combinations of fresh veggies, meats and fishes with a south-of-the-border twist. Frontera has more traditional favourites, such as enchiladas and tamales, exceedingly well prepared. Xoco makes killer breakfasts, churros, soups, sandwiches and sipping chocolates. Having trouble deciding? They’re all right next door to one another.


Topolobampo and Frontera: 445 N Clark Street, Xoco 449 N. Clark Street, 312-661-1434

Kuma’s Corner
If you like your burger with a side of rage, hit this heavy metal carnivore haven. Located in the Avondale neighborhood (and now with a second Lakeview location), Kuma’s Corner is a small, dark bar that happens to make some of the city’s best, most creative burgers, which it names after heavy rock bands. The burgers are so tasty, in fact, that patrons are willing to wait up to two hours to get a table. Some regulars swear by the Plague Bringer (roasted garlic mayo, crushed garlic, housemade hot sauce, jalapenos, tortilla strips, lettuce tomato and onions) and the Absu (tomatillo salsa, pepper jack cheese, avocado, red onion fresco and a trio of fried chilies) but you can’t go wrong with anything you order here.


2900 W. Belmont, 773-604-8769


Garrett Popcorn
That drool-inducing sweet smell you’re getting wafts of around town? That’s Garrett Popcorn Shops, and it somehow tastes even better than the aroma. For a sweet treat, hop in line and order the Garrett Mix. The half cheese, half caramel combo sounds odd, but it’s salty-sweet enlightenment.


Multiple locations, including 625 N. Michigan Ave., 312-944-2630

Margie’s Candies
Since 1933, Margie’s Candies has been heaping ice cream into white clamshells, served with a side of hot fudge, butterscotch or caramel and a cookie, in this charming ice cream outpost in Logan Square (there’s a second location on Montrose in the Ravenswood neighborhood). Bonus: it’s open until midnight, fulfilling all of your late-night lactose needs.


1960 N. Western, 773-384-1035

Donut Vault
You’ll know you’ve found the Donut Vault when you see the line that stretches around the corner. Served out of a former bank vault, this artisanal donut shop offers just a few flavors each morning and is open until the donuts run out (opens at 8 a.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday).


401 1/2 N. Franklin St., 312-285-2830

Published Thursday, August 20th 2015

Header image credit: Photo by Anthony Tahlier, courtesy Girl and the Goat



Forgot your password?


Not Registered?
Learn more about BILLY