Take it Easy at Chicago's Best Casual Lunch Spots

A go-go attitude is usually appropriate in Chicago – but when it comes to lunch, try savouring a little midday pause at one of these delicious spots

With all the attention being paid to glorious brunches around Chicago, it can feel as though lunch gets overlooked. At most places there’s no such thing as a leisurely lunch anyway, because everyone’s in a rush to get back to work.

For those of us who would reclaim the pleasurable, leisurely lunch, where to begin? Sprawling shrines to the midday meal, such as the Latin-inspired Latinicity and Italian-focused Eataly, are leading the charge in encouraging diners to actually enjoy lunch again. But here we’re focusing on shining local stars with lots of personality. To experience them to the fullest, block out an ample amount of time. Rule number one of a great lunch is not to rush it.

3 Arts Club Café
Engineered by the same team behind wildly successful eateries Au Cheval, Bavette’s and Doughnut Vault, the café is situated in the recently renovated 70,000-square-foot Three Arts Club, an early 20th-century landmark building that was used for young women studying drama, music and the visual arts. The venue, in the heart of the upscale Gold Coast neighbourhood, is also home to the flagship Restoration Hardware store, which makes it an especially unique spot for lunch.
The dining room is a shopper’s paradise, with everything for sale, from the forks to the high-end furniture upon which the well-heeled diners nosh. They’re coming for simple, yet highly skilled preparations of a bacon club (piled high with house-made bacon, avocado and pickled green tomato), grass-fed burger and slow-roasted beets. While the only cocktails come in the forms of sparkling delights like a Bellini made with fresh peach puree or a crisp prosecco, there’s a well-curated, global menu featuring white and red wine, plus craft beer. Valet parking is complimentary.

1300 N. Dearborn Pkwy., 312-475-9116

Billy Goat Tavern
So many rumors swirl around this legendary watering hole that opened in 1934 – and most of them are true. Yes, owner Sam Sianis cursed the Cubs baseball team from ever winning another championship because they refused to admit his pet goat in the stadium. Also true: the rumour that the goat in question one day randomly stumbled into his bar and inspired the name of the tavern/greasy spoon. Sam Sianis was such a colourful character that comedian John Belushi was inspired to portray him in a famous Saturday Night Live skit. It’s so famous that everyone knows to order the “Cheezborger,” “No fries, cheeps” and “No Pepsi, Coke” without ever looking at the menu. Also available are the classic Italian beef sandwich, Chicago-style hot dog (beef wiener, mustard, pickle, relish, onions, tomatoes, sport peppers) and ribeye steak sandwich. This lower-level Michigan Avenue location opened in 1964; the original Billy Goat Tavern was located near the United Center. A VIP room, which used to be frequented by legendary Chicago columnists Mike Royko and Gene Siskel, is off to the side and offers a bit of privacy from the bustling dining room.

430 N. Michigan Ave., 312-222-1525

Adam McDowell/Billy

Order up a cheezborger (sic) at the legendary, subterranean Billy Goat Tavern

The origins of this sleek, cocktail-focused spot just north of downtown may be New York (Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon of Manhattan’s The Dead Rabbit are involved, as is Danny Meyer's Union Square Events), but everything else about GreenRiver is definitively Chicago. It’s located in Streeterville, which is Chicago’s answer to New York’s tony Upper East Side. Seasonal cocktails draw inspiration from the Irish Americans who helped develop the area, and the executive chef boasts an impressive résumé in some of the city’s most buzzed-about destinations. Before GreenRiver, Chicago native Aaron Lirette clocked time in kitchens at Acadia, Celeste and MK, and the menu reflects that pedigree. Starters like the pork or smoked whitefish tartine are ideal for sharing, so that diners have enough room for their entrées. Choose from the croque (as in, croque monsieur) of ham and mornay cheese; steak frites or roast chicken with polenta that’s drizzled with maitake, romanesco cheese and sherry jus.

259 E. Erie St., 312-337-0101

Courtesy Green River

The serene dining room at Green River

Mindy’s HotChocolate 
Bucktown might seem like more of a weekend lunch neighbourhood, but the trendy area is only about a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown and it’s brimming with local charm. There are many quaint boutiques and storefront restaurants along the Damen Avenue strip, and the award-winning Mindy’s is one of them. Inside, the décor hints at what owner/chef Mindy Segal’s home might look like: Provocative paintings with images of dominant women are mixed in with antiques, mostly cooking utensils. Segal’s lunch menu, which is only available Wednesday through Friday, demonstrates her dedication to local ingredients. Her steak hoagie – a traditional Chicago sandwich – is topped with foraged mushrooms, and the “shrimp Louie” wedge salad is enhanced by crumbled egg from a nearby farm. Additional menu highlights include a turkey French dip, a signature mac and cheese and market salad topped with grilled chicken thigh. No trip to HotChocolate is complete without indulging in something chocolate. An extended lunch requires lingering over a piping hot cup of Mexican hot chocolate enhanced by fresh cinnamon and a pinch of cayenne. Pair it with the cake of the day (one can never go wrong here) or house-made brioche doughnuts topped with hot fudge and caramel corn.

1747 N. Damen Ave., 773-489-1747

Terzo Piano
Most Chicago museums offer snack machines or cafeteria-style operations to whet lunch appetites, but the Art Institute of Chicago goes all out with this chef-driven offering in the new modern wing. Showcasing Mediterranean flavours, Terzo Piano is a project from the highly revered chef Tony Mantuano, who’s also the executive chef at Spiaggia. While prices are half of what one would expect at Spiaggia, the experience is still first class.Inventive entrées such as duck confit flatbread topped with roasted garlic, fontina, baby kale and cherry gastrique, or the grilled lamb burger dressed up in a red pepper-feta spread can be best described as works of art.

159 E. Monroe St., 312-443-8650

Published Thursday, December 3rd 2015

Header image credit: Courtesy 3 Arts Club Café



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