Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.
In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end. That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way. More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have.
Maybe most surprising to the readers (or maybe not), this is the first time we dropped Charlie Trotter’s off of the list. We don’t dispute the fact that his Lincoln Park spot was influential in building the world-class food city we have today, but in recent years he’s been a victim of his own success, as protégés and followers have gone on to provide more cost-accessible and innovative quality restaurants by watching him.
Also, with Trotter’s failure to complete the “Elysian” hotel project downtown and amidst rumors of potential trouble with other projects, we wonder if he has the drive or the pull to really be a creative culinary force anymore. You could argue that we’re not being fair by keeping stalwarts like Everest or TRU, but Everest still has one of Chicago’s best views and a refinished dining room, while the team at Tru has made tremendous strides in wine service with their sommelier-driven tasting menus.
Of course, that’s the beauty of any list. You may not agree, so let us know. (Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor)
$= most entrées under $10
$$ = most entrées $10-$20
$$$ = most entrées over $20
$$$$ = most entrées (or degustation menus) over $30
All restaurants accept major credit cards, unless otherwise noted
Middle Eastern, 4639 N. Kedzie, (773)279-8900. $
BYOB and the best rotisserie chicken in the city. The spot for Lebanese featuring juicy grape leaves and coriander-perfumed falafel.
French/Belgian, 5148 N. Clark, (773)334-9851. $$
Hopleaf’s compact menu offers comforting French/Belgian bar standards done well, like mussels steamed in Belgian white beer.
Cajun/Creole, 1525 W. 79th, (773)994-6375. $
Mary Madison’s from-scratch eats include a chocolate-brown swamp of spicy étouffée filled with plump crawfish, specks of peppers and onion surrounded by an island of white rice. One gulp and a lost afternoon in New Orleans comes rushing back.
Sausages, 3324 N. California, (773)279-9550. $
Doug Sohn’s “encased-meats” emporium, the best hot dog joint in Chicago, which also means the best in the world. Go for the exotic sausages—wild boar, rattlesnake, etc.—that Sohn always has as specials; go for the duck-fat fries available every Friday and Saturday; but more than anything, go for the lovingly prepared classic dogs, Polish sausages and other old favorites.
Upscale Pub, 2900 W. Belmont, (773)-604-8769. $
The Hell’s Angels version of Hopleaf, serving up bad-ass beer and the best burgers, named after metal bands like Sabbath and Slayer, in the city.
Ed’s Potsticker House
Chinese, 3139 S. Halsted, (312)326-6898. $
Ironically, the cigar-shaped namesake potsticker dumplings aren’t that good, but the chive-and-bacon pancake, mouth-bursting soup dumplings, lamb with cumin and the fried, glazed eggplant more than make up for the shortcoming.
Diner, 3510 S. Halsted, (773)847-9058. $
The plate-glass front window is always steamy from the grill, the air always smells like greasy burgers and the sweet-spiced Greek-style chili is always hot.
New American, 1747 N. Damen, (773)489-1747. $$
Mindy Segal, one of the city’s greatest pastry gurus, slings cake and comfort food, albeit elegantly crafted versions of favorites like mac and cheese and tuna melts.
Costa Rican, 1865 N. Milwaukee, (773)252-5687. $/Cash only
The city’s sole Costa Rican restaurant serves Latin food heavy on black beans, rice and plantains, but its vegetarian burritos—packed with mushrooms, rice, avocado and hot peppers—puts the plain old Mexican burrito to shame.
Rustic Italian and Mediterreanean, 1647 N. Milwaukee, (773)342-2340. $$
Rob and Allison Levitt’s tasty temple for locavores is filled to the brim with luscious charcuterie and tongue-delighting shortbread.
Piece Brewery & Pizzeria
Microbrewery/Pizza, 1927 W. North, (773)772-4422. $
A Wicker Park pizzeria and brewpub that serves New Haven-style (that’s thin crust) pies with a broader range of toppings—like meatballs or broccoli. Jonathan Cutler’s craft beers are just as memorable as the pies.
New American, 2039 W. North, (773)395-7100. $$$
Shawn McClain’s Asian-influenced Spring spawned a legend-in-the-making. The menu favors seafood, in creative presentations, grounded in Midwestern food elements.
Chinese, 228 W. Cermak, (312)842-7818. $$
Owner Ben Li undergirds his fiery chili-inflected dishes with the right amount of sweet, sour, salt and umami. Don’t miss his Dry Chili Chicken, aka Chicken Crack Part II (Chicken Crack Part I is available at Lao Szechuan), his house-cured and hoisin-glazed pork belly, and Black-Pepper Garlic Tenderloin, an American-Sichuan fusion dish of fried flank steak sautéed in butter and garlic and oyster sauce.
Lao Sze Chuan
Chinese, 2172 S. Archer, (312)326-5040. $$
This nondescript, bustling spot in the newer north end of Chinatown—that is, in the outdoor mall—is the place everyone’s buzzing about. Whether it’s foodies or Chinese expats, Lao Sze Chuan’s spicy menu is drawing crowds, and deservedly so. Chinese patrons seem to favor the fondue-like hot pot, but we’re content to let chef Tony Hu do the cooking.
East Garfield Park
Soul food, 3175 W. Madison, (773)638-7079. $
Brimming with history—the soul-food palace was a key gathering spot for civil rights leaders in the sixties—Edna’s sings a song of the South. With its unbelievable fried chicken, creamy mac and cheese and savory vegetable faves like collard greens and fried okra, Edna’s delivers.
Avenues (Peninsula Hotel)
New American, 108 E. Superior, (312)573-6754. $$$$
Forget filet mignon dotted in ruddy bordelaise. Hotel restaurants, once grand ballrooms of classic uninspired French cuisine, are now laboratories for gastronomic inventiveness. Former Alinea sous chef Curtis Duffy leads the way with breathtaking organically plated works of molecular-gastronomy swirled art.
Seafood, 166 E. Superior, (312)523-0923. $$$
Stuck with the cinnamon-roll funhouse of Ann Sather, we really could have used a high-end Scandinavian resto like Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit in New York. Though after sucking down his luscious pork-like salmon belly pastrami and mini-yellowtail tacos, we’re not too disappointed by this seafood-serving alternative.
Vietnamese/French, 937 N. Rush, (312)255-1221. $$
The chic downtown style and sepia-toned romance of time gone by (in this case, the French-occupied Saigon of the 1920s) make Le Colonial a cultural and culinary curiosity.
David Burke’s Primehouse
New American Steakhouse, 616 N. Rush, (312)660-6000. $$$
If P.T. Barnum and Julia Child had an illegitimate encounter, David Burke would be their spawn. At Primehouse, Burke’s serving up designer grass-fed beef genetically derived from his $250,000 Angus bull stud, Prime 207L. With his lobster, steak and cheesecake lollipops, bacon-flavored sprays and pink rock-salt curing rooms, Burke is a bigger culinary showman than Emeril.
Food court, 835 N. Michigan, mezzanine, (312)335-3663. $
The ultimate food court. From rotisserie to stir fry, soup to pasta, foodlife’s got something for you—and the handy smart-card system means you can wander from kiosk to kiosk, loading up, and not have to deal with the bill until you leave.
French-Asian, Park Hyatt, 800 N. Michigan, 7th Floor (312)239-4030. $$$
Park Hyatt Chicago’s gem is NoMi, a spectacular, sprawling space and unrivaled room with a view overlooking Michigan Avenue. Chef Christophe David spices up the menu with sushi/sashimi flown in daily.
Italian, 980 N. Michigan, (312)280-2750. $$$$
Chicago’s unanimous four-star Italian restaurant continues to soar both literally (overlooking North Michigan Avenue) and figuratively, under the creative reigns of its founding chef Tony Mantuano. These days it’s also the favored spot of President Barack Obama.
French, 676 N. Saint Clair, (312)202-0001. $$$$
Artistically prepared and exquisite in taste, Tru’s cuisine never disappoints. Indulge in a three-course prix fixe dinner that allows you to enjoy such specialties as the caviar staircase. Or choose one of the degustation delights (vegetable collection, seafood collection, “The Grand Collection,” “Chef Tramonto’s Collection”), seven- and eight-course meals designed to create a sensory overload.
American Bistro, 155 E. Ontario, (312)255-8505. $$
This is the best place to eat after a long Mag Mile shopping excursion. Steve Chiappetti, who made his bones at Mango, Grapes and Rhapsody in the late nineties, has made a triumphant return harnessing his mad skills into American bistro-style cooking that is unfussy and a perfect match for Viand’s slightly jazz age interior.
Greek, 314 S. Halsted, (312)726-2407. $$
The oldest spot in Greektown. Flaming saganaki cheese—the hallmark of Greek restaurants everywhere—was invented right here on Halsted Street in the 1960s by current and original owner Chris Liakouras. The Parthenon also played a role in popularizing the gyro in Chicago by giving it away as sort of a free amuse course from 1968-1971. They still serve the best gyros in town, make most everything from scratch and eschew frozen appetizers and pre-made foods used by their competitors.
Mexican, 3619 W. North, (773)772-8435. $
For anyone who’s ever doubted that a taco or a sandwich could be as sophisticated or rewarding as a four-star meal, just check out Tony Anteliz’s spit-roasted pork and chipotle Tacos Arabes, or his deep-fried pork and crusty-bread-wrapped cemita milanesa.
Barbecue, 3800 N. Pulaski, (773)545-7427. $
Proving you don’t need bulletproof glass to offer up some of the best ‘Que in Chicago, Smoque serves up tender juicy brisket and spicy, gently smoked toothsome ribs. Sides like mac and cheese or baked beans, which are usually a sideline at other BBQ spots, are as good as the meat.
Vegetarian, 3411 N. Halsted, (773)935-6696. $
Seitan and quinoa may need defining for the average carnivore, but for the vegetarians out there, these foods (wheat gluten and a high-protein grain, respectively) symbolize a dining experience with boundless choices.
Korean, 2940 N. Broadway, (877)693-8653. $
Four words: Seoul Sassy Fried Chicken. This Teriyaki-style marinated crispy skin flecked with garlic, ginger and pepper wrapped around succulent meat clinging to its smoky bones will have you swearing off the southern classic forever.
American Bistro, 2925 N. Halsted, (773)528-7200. $$
Chef Erwin Drechsler, in crisp chef whites with his salt-and-pepper beard, often mans the maitre d’ station, peering out over his reading glasses to scan for your reservation or bid you a hearty adieu after a filling meal. Drechsler is the man who taught lauded Blackbird chef, Paul Kahan, how to cook, so it should be no surprise that the seasonally focused, market-based cuisine on display at Blackbird is also the same rubric from which Drechsler works.
Italian, 3311 N. Clark, (773)281-3310. $$
A simple interior of white paper-covered tables and handwritten, photocopied menus belies the noisy, energetic atmosphere of waiters carting heaping bowls of full-flavored Italian pastas to tables of well-heeled professionals.
Breakfast, 3231 N. Clark, (773)549-4400; $
A cheerful, creative vibe permeates your experience, from the self-designed fresh juices to the “frushi,” a fruit-sushi appetizer. The creativity permeates the menu as well—from the green eggs and ham (scrambled with tomatoes, mozzarella, pancetta and pesto) to the French-toast kabob, a skewer of coconut-infused French toast and fruits.
French-Japanese, 3257 N. Halsted, (773)248-6160. $$$
Casual, healthy French-Japanese and American flavors prevail at chef Yoshi Katsumara’s eponymous café.
New American, 1723 N. Halsted, (312)867-0110. $$$$
Grant Achatz has been dubbed a molecular gastronomist, but compared to most of his peers he tempers his wizardry with a lot more flavor and craft. Everything at Alinea changes so fast, and the cuisine, the serveware and the interior design, which is far removed from its culinary progenitors, is in such constant flux, that if there has to be a label, it should probably be “Evolutionary Gastronomy.”
New American, 1729 N. Halsted, (312)337-6070. $$
Chef Giuseppe Tentori, who spent eight years as Charlie Trotter’s right-hand man, brings his rustic flare for grilled rabbit, ash-baked eggplant and creamy polenta to Lincoln Park. His pastry chef, Elizabeth Dahl, who serves up blackberry-drizzled corn flan and savory inspired sweets makes this culinary show a killer double bill.
Seafood, 2300 Lincoln Park West, (773)868-0002. $$$$
Chef Laurent Gras’ luxury-ingredient-laced raw seafood presentations will ruin regular sushi for you. If you like things cooked, though, expect one of the best bread services in all of Chicago, as well as superior hot dishes like pork belly coated with duck fat and drizzled with black truffle jus.
Mon Ami Gabi
French bistro, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, (773)348-8886. $$$
With a beautiful park-side setting and a lively French-bistro charm, Gabino Sotelino’s downscale little sister to his late, great Ambria proves the range of the master chef’s charms. Ah, steak frites…
New American, 2610 N. Cannon, (773)477-5845. $$$
Nestled in the picturesque environs of Lincoln Park, this homage to all things artisanal offers locally raised meats and organic products whenever possible.
Pizza, 2207 N. Clybourn, (773)327-1512. $$
Though we love Burt’s in Morton Grove, it’s not in the city proper, but rest assured we’re not settling when we laud this inspired deep-dish pie surrounded by a halo of caramelized crust, baked in cast-iron pans blackened by decades of seasoning.
New American, 1800 N. Lincoln, (312)981-7070. $$
Despite working at the French Laundry, some of the top molecular gastronomy temples in Spain and getting a nod for best restaurant 2005 in Esquire magazine for his work at the now-defunct Butter, Chef Ryan Poli still manages to be one of the most underrated chefs in Chicago. His food, comprised of the best products the Green City Market located across the street from Perennial has, is unforgettable, however.
Lincoln Square/North Center
French, 4518 N. Lincoln, (773)271-6100. $$
Chef-owner Michael Altenberg has brought the country-cuisine charms of his Campagnola Italian restaurant in Evanston to Bistro Campagne and its moderately priced lineup of French champagnes, wines and menu classics.
German, 4732 N. Lincoln, (773)784-4444. $$
The Chicago Brauhaus lets you celebrate Oktoberfest year-round. A traditional German oompah band rocks here nightly, cranking out your favorite Bavarian drinking tunes and occasionally slowing it down with a little “Edelweiss” while you chow on some hefty classic German dining options.
Filipino, 2501 W. Lawrence, (773)271-2988. $$
In a culinary world dominated by steam tables filled with gloppy Adobo pork, the made-to-order Tocino, aka Filipino bacon, and crispy Lumpia here (pork-and-garlic-filled egg rolls), are a welcome relief.
New American, 3868 N. Lincoln, (773)327-3868. $$$
California- and Asian-styled gourmet fare like miso black cod, mushroom pad Thai and sake-marinated steak from chef Carol Wallack.
Thai, 4608 N. Western, (773)769-1173. $
The Royal Thai Army must be led by Colonel Sanders, because the crunchy red-chili-spiced Thai fried chicken (kai thawt) served at Spoon easily dethrones Harold’s as Chicago’s new chicken king. Sure you can score pad Thai, but now you can order like a Bangkok regular and sample authentic specialties thanks to a translated “Thai regulars” menu.
Al’s #1 on Taylor
Italian Beef, 1079 W. Taylor, (312)226-4017. $
With thousands of corner shacks serving up indiscriminate, reheated, pre-packaged beef from Scala or Vienna on a thick roll, the original Taylor Street location of Al’s beef, featuring eleven herbs and spices, including a sweet nutmeg warmth, as well as hot fennel giardiniera, is the paragon of beef.
Italian, 1352 W. Taylor, (312)243-1035. $
Gennaro’s is an old red-sauce emporium in Little Italy serving up La Famiglia-style eats. John Jr. tends bar, pouring tipples of a garnet Chianti (the same house formula his father served in 1959), while Mary Jo works the room like a Southern-fried waitress, peppering her conversation with a well-placed “honey.” Gennaro’s has made few concessions to history. A legacy from when the neighborhood used to be dicey, John buzzes you in from behind the bar.
New American, 2537 N. Kedzie, (773)489-9554. $$
Co-owners Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, along with chef Jason Vincent, conduct daily kitchen jam sessions based on availabilities from local farmers and markets, and deliver their findings in the form of ever-changing and always-surprising specials.
New American, 2451 N. Milwaukee, (773)227-1050. $$
The Borrego en Mole Negro, succulent medium-rare lamb chops swimming in a pool of mahogany mole made of chilhuacle chiles is so good we don’t care how many places Chef Geno Bahena opens or closes, as long as he keeps one open at all times. Don’t forget to order extra tortillas on the side, or you’ll be using your tongue to sop up all the remaining soulful mole on your plate.
American, 1 W. Washington, (312)368-1900. $$$
Before heading to the theater, impress your date with dinner in the Atwood Café at the Burnham Hotel, where haute comfort food is supplemented by unpretentious sophistication. Chef Heather Terhune styles her menu around seasonally available ingredients, but you can almost always count on a hearty potpie for lunch, or unique dinner entrées like garlic-honey-chile-glazed duck breast with Asian pan-fried noodles and shiitake mushroom broth, capped off with perfect vanilla-bean crème brûlèe.
Cuban, 26 E. Congress, (312)922-2233. $
Owner Philip Ghantous roasts the meat for his sandwiches in-house and marinates them in a garlic-and-citrus-flavored mojo sauce. He also makes his spicy, herby chimichurri fresh each day. Cafecito’s Cubano sandwich, which features the perfect amount of tangy pickles and mustard and proper ratio of ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese to crusty, grilled bread, is one of the best around.
French, 440 S. LaSalle, 40th Floor, (312)663-8920. $$$$
The quintessential big-city splurge: topnotch French chef Jean Joho, spectacular views of the city, huge wine list and impeccable service.
New American, 17 E. Monroe, (312)917-3404. $$$$
Rarely does four-star dining have a sense of humor, but super-blogging chef Phillip Foss’ recent unveiling of a deconstructed Chicago-style lobster dog ensures that he has the loudest gourmet laugh.
Burgers, 111 N. State, 7th Floor, (312)781-4884. $
Serving up medium-rare coarsely ground patties featuring television-commercial-ready cross-hatched grill marks that dribble peppery juices down your chin with each greedy bite, these are the Loop’s best burgers.
American, 440 W. Randolph, (312)575-9900. $$$
The restaurant/nightclub hybrid launched by Michael Kornick (of mk) and Michael Morton and Scott DeGraff (formerly of Drink) keeps intriguing us with its ostentatious splendor. Once you get past all that glitters, you’ll find an array of tasty steaks, chops and seafood.
Middle-Eastern, 21 N. Wabash, (312)443-9534. $
The best falafel in Chicago, mahogany dark, deep-fried chickpea balls that cast off puffs of steamy cumin perfume from their coriander-infused, soft, verdant interior, hidden in the back of Jeweler’s Row.
Spacca Napoli Pizza
Pizza, 1769 W. Sunnyside, (773)878-2420. $$
The crust on these wood-fired pizzas is a study in perfect imperfection. Airy, crunchy, with bits of char and lines from the floor of the brick oven, the Margherita topped with creamy fior de latte mozzarella, anise-perfumed basil and zingy tomatoes conjures an afternoon in Naples.
Aigre Doux Restaurant and Bakery
New American, 230 W. Kinzie, (312)329-9400. $$$
Husband and wife Mohammad Islam and Malika Ameen team up to bring a New American, seasonally focused, detail-oriented touch to River North. Ameen’s Sticky Toffee pudding may just be the best new dessert in Chicago.
Pan Asian, 6 E. Cedar, (312)640-8888; 60 E. Ohio, (312)951-1888. $$
Steamed and fried wontons with various fillings and kung pao chicken are king at this high-design Midwestern Asian noodle shop.
New American, 339 N. Dearborn, (312)755-9463. $$
A huge, dramatic space with an epic, arched ceiling and a terrific menu offering well-prepared renditions of seafood, chicken and pasta would be reason enough to visit, but the main attraction is the wine. Each item on the menu is matched to several wine choices, which can be ordered by the half-glass, the glass, the flight or the bottle.
Spanish Tapas, 737 N. LaSalle, (312)573-1510. $$
Iberico is a perennial hotspot, always crowded, always a delicious time, with killer tapas and some of the best sangria in the city.
Italian, 331 W. Superior, (312)337-9444. $$
The commission of food is less important than the commission of nostalgia at Club Lago, with strong drinks that rinse away the smack of 1940s-style Chianti-bottle-candle cuisine. The restaurant is closed for a few months as they repair the damage from a fire next door.
Crofton on Wells
New American, 535 N. Wells, (312)755-1790. $$$
One of the few fine-dining places where you might find a vegan entrée amidst French touches like foie gras. Chef Suzy Crofton has mastered a winning formula—delicious, creative cuisine served in an unpretentious atmosphere.
French Bistro, 546 N. Wells, (312)467-0546 $$
Chef Didier Durand is Chicago’s lead defender of foie gras, enduring endless protests and the occasional brick through the window. This is an emblematic bistro serving up classics from bouillabaisse to vichyssoise.
Frontera Grill/Topolobampo/Frontera Fresco
Mexican, 445 N. Clark, (312)661-1434. Frontera: $$; Topolobampo: $$$
Chicago is home to what just might be the nation’s top Mexican cuisine. Actually, the kitchens of widely acclaimed chef Rick Bayless encompass two sister restaurants. Frontera Grill boasts regional Mexican cuisine with a sophisticated spin, a festive atmosphere and knock-your-socks-off margaritas. Next door, Topolobampo delves deeper into territory at once more elegant and exotic. The newest spot, Fresco, located on the seventh floor of the Macy’s on State store, might be the most important development in high-quality, quick service food in Chicago.
French-Vietnamese, 749 N. Clark, (312)280-9100. $$$$
What happens when not one but two four-star chefs collaborate? In the case of Roland Liccioni and Arun Sampanthavivat, who opened Le Lan together, creative combustion. Consider the evidence: lemongrass-scented grilled bass with water chestnuts, bell peppers, shiitakes and beignet of prawn; or Asian-spiced beef tenderloin with Chinese long beans, Pankoed bok choy, white quinoa and a star anise red-wine sauce, just to name two menu offerings.
French-American, 868 N. Franklin, (312)482-9179. $$$
Chef Michael Kornick’s multilevel River North restaurant has drawn crowds since it opened. And creative cooking producing the ever-popular “one banana, two banana” dessert keeps the fans coming back.
Taking over the legendary Gordon’s space was an act of culinary bravado, but chef Carrie and manager Michael Nahabedian’s Naha has lived up to its surroundings. Designed with a simple, yet elegant, interior space, Naha serves up its take on the New American cuisine dominating our city’s platters by infusing it with Mediterranean influences.
Pizzerias Uno and Due
Pizza, Uno: 29 E. Ohio, (312)321-1000; Due: 619 N. Wabash, (312)943-2400. $$
The birthplace of Chicago-style pizza, so they say, is a hotspot for the tourist crowd, but there’s not a Chicagoan around who wouldn’t salivate at the thought of a Uno/Due pie, packed to the nines with sausage and cheese and washed down with an Old Style.
Shaw’s Crab House
Seafood, 21 E. Hubbard, (312)527-2722. $$$
Forget those concerns about seafood in the oceanless Midwest—at Shaw’s catches are flown in daily from the Atlantic and you can taste the freshness.
May Street Market
New American, 1132 W. Grand, (312)421-5547. $$$
Chef Alexander Cheswick, formerly of Tru and Le Francais, is glamming up this gritty stretch of Grand Avenue with seasonal haute fare like Maytag blue cheesecake and oven-roasted skate wing.
American, 501 N. Ogden, (312)666-1500. $
This biker-bar-gone-neighborhood-hangout is the home of the greatest hamburger in the civilized world, The Fatboy, a half-pound mass of beef and fixins.
Rogers Park/West Ridge
Senegalese, 2131 W. Howard, (773)465-5643. $
Owner/Chef Diaw Sow’s family friendly Senegalese storefront serves killer Debbe—peppery, grilled lamb topped with a sweet vinegar-tanged salad of olives, onion and tomato—and African empanadas, aka flaky-puff-pastry-half-moons filled with ground beef and fruity and fiery peppers.
Pakistani, 2401 W. Devon, (773)274-8600. $
The best chicken boti, with flakes of char from the natural-wood-charcoal-fired tandoor and neon green streaks from crushed peppers, is crispy, while seekh kababs, skewered round cylinders of ground beef, onion and coriander, are moist and spicy.
Hai Woon Dae
Korean, 6240 N. California, (773)764-8018. $$
The best place to grill Bulgogi over a bucket of live coals, filch swigs of the Korean Budweiser, OB beer, and live the suburban backyard dream indoors. From bi bim bop to mountains of complimentary Panchan- or Korean-style appetizers, including kim chi, red chili-infused fermented cabbage, this utilitarian store-front open twenty-four hours is a late-night haven.
South Loop/Near South Side
New American Steakhouse, 500 S. Dearborn, (312)523-0200. $$$
The first two times were a charm, so who knows what that makes this, the third restaurant in Shawn McClain’s restaurant empire, other than an utterly delicious palace of meats. Bone-in-ribeye and braised short ribs celebrate the sacrifice of cows everywhere.
Deli, 1141 S. Jefferson, (312)939-2855. $
The classic deli: New York-style lunch counter, Chicago-style attitude, Manny’s is, hands down, the best place to score a sandwich in this city.
Mercat a la Planxa
Spanish, 638 S. Michigan, (312)765-0524. $$
Simple flat-top (planxa) grilled fare like head-on prawns and meaty lamb chops paired with smokey romanesco and braised rabbit agnolotti from Philly super chef Jose Garces redeem the honor of the tired “small plates” phenomenon.
Chinese, 1301 S. Wabash, (312)461-0161. $$$
From its dramatic fiery-red interior in a former film-storage warehouse to its mesmerizing spicy Chinese dishes, Opera keeps its customers singing its praises out loud.
Vegetarian soul food, 205 E. 75th, (773)224-0104. $
Except for the honey in some sauces, the entire menu here is vegan. Many popular dishes, including the McNugget-shaped (and obscenely addictive) “protein bits,” are fried. True to its “soul food without the meat” credo, Soul plays nice with the traditionally carnivorous palate.
Vietnamese, 1055 W. Argyle, (773)561-4077. $$
Storefront Vietnamese for curious white folks. Authenticity-seeking chowhounds can score a good bowl of pho replete with beef brisket, bible tripe and tendon, while more discriminating palates might favor gui cuon, or traditional Vietnamese rice-paper spring rolls.
Chinese, 1132 W. Argyle, (773)769-1254. $$
Ford past the gaggle of glistening glazed ducks hanging sentry over hotel pans full of steaming tripe and bell jars filled with fried chicken skin and sit down for Chicago’s best Beijing duck service.
Mediterranean, 615 W. Randolph, (312)377-2002. $$$
Cozy, storefront neo-enoteca with communal dining and simple but often sublime Mediterranean-inflected cooking, the handiwork of chef Koren Grieveson.
New American, 619 W. Randolph, (312)715-0708. $$$
Chef Paul Kahan’s California-derived simplicity has inspired the newest generation of restaurateurs to care about ingredients and freshness instead of spicy presentation.
French, 833 W. Randolph, (312)226-8399. $$$
Although the Randolph Market restaurant district wasn’t born here, the advent of Marché let everyone know it was here to stay. The spectacle of the large wide-open space and its fashionable crowd, as well as a consistently excellent menu, have allowed Marché to remain in vogue much longer than the shelf life of most trends.
Asian, 945 W. Fulton Market, (312)491-0058. $$$$
Homaro Cantu dishes food with the cerebral abandon of James Joyce and the creepy technological obsession of William Burroughs. Edible menus and dishes like Maki in the Fifth Dimension, donut soup and Kentucky-fried ice cream are already Chicago classics.
Beer, Pork & Seafood, 837 W. Fulton Market, (312)733-9555. $$
Filled with the biggest wooden communal dining table in Chicago, this beer, pork and oyster hall is ready for a shipload of Vikings, or at least a small cabal of hell-raising foodies.
New American, 1400 W. Randolph, (312)850-0303. $$$
New toque Michael McDonald has reinvigorated this West Loop pioneering resto with duck-fat-powder-coated hash browns and pumpkin soup sporting an egg nog flavored “cloud.” Once Charlie Trotter’s right-hand man at C restaurant in Los Cabos, McDonald’s invention and accessibility is partially why his old boss is now less relevant.
Pan Asian, 820 W. Randolph, (312)733-8880. $$$
Swanky décor and an eclectic mix of Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesian flavors combine to make this one of the most popular spots on Harpo Row.
Sushi, 842 W. Randolph, (312)563-1224. $$
Most sushi joints would have to work hard to beat the meditative food experience of this little West Loop staple. Besides the standard entrees of tempura and teriyaki, they also have a two-piece-per-order dinner sushi menu that includes red flying fish roe and a mean, wood-smoked salmon, or tobikko.
Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village
Breakfast, 1470 N. Milwaukee, (773)489-0690; 1152 S. Wabash, (312)291-0100. $
The Bongo Room has a brunch menu that’s worth the extended wait, stocked with choices like eggs Benedict with roasted red pepper and feta.
Mexican Seafood, 1035 N. Ashland, (773)486-6850. $$
This spot on Ashland looks like the prow of a wooden ship. Featuring some of Chicago’s best Mexican seafood including tostada de pulpo, a crunchy corn wafer topped with purple chunks of octopus glistening and swimming in limey cilantro infusion or huachinango al mojo de ajo, a whole deep-fried snapper with its crunchy fins and crispy tail suspended in batter, and topped with chopped garlic, white wine and cilantro sauce.
Middle-Eastern, 2018 W. Chicago, (773)384-9930. $
A monument to nightlife impresario Jerry Suqi’s American-tinged Middle Eastern childhood led by his mom’s home-cooking, which included creamy hummous and tender malfoof (cabbage stuffed with lamb, garlic, rice and onion).
Southwestern, 1434 W. Chicago, (312)243-0477. $$
A funky café outfitted in folk art with a tasty touch of Santa Fé menu, Flo has grown from a brunch hotspot to a lunch and dinner staple known for innovative cuisine at modest prices.
Vegetarian, 1460 W. Chicago, (312)243-7100. $$
In Shawn McClain’s hotspot, it’s the thirty or so items on the menu on any given visit that wow, including inventive salads, a rich polenta and an avocado panna cotta, tomato gelee and crème fraiche concoction that won’t be forgotten.
Sushi, 2020 W. Division, (773)862-8500. $$
Live sushi: there are two words to wake you up, followed by the sinful sensations of the freshest savors. Pricey sakes and champagnes could go to the head and handbag, but instead listen attentively to the glorious specials, sparkling and tangy, drawing from traditions only now beginning to float into basic sushi joints.
Punk Haute, 1466 N. Ashland, (773)252-1466. $$$$
The best BYO Chicago storefront restaurant run by chefs sporting mohawks—where the wine is served in glass tumblers and the ravioli with gently poached quail egg soaking in ricotta, brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano—is worth the elusive reservation.
West Town Tavern
Contemporary Comfort, 1329 W. Chicago, (312)666-6175. $$
You’ll find solid, moderately priced entrées prepared with the finest ingredients, from the farfalle tossed with spicy sausage, eggplant, zucchini, fresh mozzarella, capers and oven-cured tomato to the zinfandel-braised pot roast with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and Pennsylvania Dutch black vinegar sauce. But don’t skip the tavern beer cheese appetizer—it’s a true classic.