An Essential and Utterly Subjective Guide to Dining in Chicago
If you're planning to visit Chicago in the summer or fall of 2021, welcome! We could use you--and you should be able to snag dinner reservations most anywhere. While you could and should check the guides offered by Eater Chicago, Time Out Chicago, and others, the value of the list you've landed on here is its focus: only the best and most unique-to-the-city foods are identified. My goal is to give you the guidance you need for an excellent 3-4 days of eating here.
If you're a gastrotourist heading here to checking a few Michelin-starred places off your proverbial restaurant bucket list, know this: you're missing out. Since the start of the pandemic, much of the city's existing and emerging talent has concentrated on casual concepts; many are far more interesting than the city's hotspots or tasting menus. The best eating adventure here will include a mix and range of places, both low- and high-end; don't sleep on some of the virtual/pop-up restaurants either.
But, above all things, enjoy!
The Four Chicago Restaurants You Must Visit
If you fly through Midway, your first and/or last stop must be Birria Zaragoza, which is near the airport and purveyor of the finest tacos--goat meat and hecho a mano tortilla alike--in the city. Flying through O'Hare? Hermosa is not exactly near the highway or train, but worth the detour to explore Ethan Lim's range: he's making creative sandwiches inspired by south Asian standards (i.e., moo ping), infusing Cambodian dishes with local produce, and offering a single Saturday night table doing for an eight-course "Cambodian Family Meal" that's one of the best dining experiences--and values--in the city. Make sure you also swing by Logan Square, the nexus of the city's new dining creativity (see below), to check out its leaders old and new: Cellar Door Provisions is the stalwart and iconoclast, a bakery by day and vegetable-focused restaurant at night; Big Kids is the rambunctious neighborhood kid, offering brilliant riffs on stoner cuisine--their collard melt and smashburger are particularly great--and goofy humor in equal measures.
If You're Gonna Do Pizza
Chicago is going through a pizza revolution, with dozens of new options, many of whom work in less common styles. There's no better place to sample the range and quality of the scene than Paulie Gee's in Logan Square, which offers both Neapolitan- and Detroit-style pizzas; it also serves New York style slices at its front window. Pizza Lobo, which offers an interesting hybrid of Neapolitan and New York, is right down the street and has an outdoor patio, the better to compare wares.
For the sculptural and aesthetic minded, the auteurs are at Pizza Friendly Pizza and Milly's: the former does a Sicilian style 'za that's all about the bread (go with minimal/minimalist toppings to fully appreciate); the latter is doing deep dish like it's ballet, with an emphasis on naturalism and interplay that makes pan pizza almost feel light. Downtown? The bread baker at The Arch not only created the dough recipe--a 72-hour ferment with a texture like ciabatta--but also is likely to be the one making your pizza, which is highly scarfable hybrid of Detroit and tavern styles.
Top Tasting Menu
While Alinea, Oriole, and Ever are all world-class ventures, they could very well be located in any city of said world; The Smyth, however, feels native. This is a three-star-worthy restaurant choosing to be comfortable rather than showy, Michelin be damned; it's not only the most consistent and coherent degustation in town but the only one exploring and expressing midwestern terroir, right down to an actually delicious beef protein main. Come as you are: this place will wow you.
Best Dining Neighborhood
Logan Square. The West Loop may have the Michelin-starred restaurants, but Logan has the innovators and artisans, including the aforementioned Paulie Gee's, Cellar Door Provisions, Big Kids, and Pizza Lobo. Additional recommendations in the area include Four Letter Word, a Turkish coffee spot hosting incredible pastries from some DIY pastry chefs; Superkhana, where a fantastic Malaysian concept, Kedai Tapao, and a pizza bianca start-up, Pizza Finestra, hold court on Mondays and Tuesdays.
What's Next in Chicago Dining?
Plenty of great talent got started during the Pandemic and is likely to go pro in 2021-22. Among the most promising are Sao Song, who uses seasonal produce to reimagine Thai and Vietnamese standards; Giong Giong!, merging Vietnamese and Central American cuisines; and Tasting India, which explores deep cuts in regional Indian cuisine. Brass Heart re-imagines the tasting menu through the lens of central and southern Mexican cuisine--definitely one to watch.
So You Want to do Chicago Classics, eh?
If you absolutely must do Deep Dish, Labriola is not only right on Michigan Avenue but a league above the usual tourist traps and area chains. Better yet, advance order from Milly's Pizza in the Pan, a ghost restaurant whose pan pizza is almost artful. The original location of Al's Italian Beef will sate your wet sandwich fix, but go to Kurimu down the street for ice cream afterward rather than Mario's Italian Ice across the street.
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