Welcome to our guide on What to Eat in Chicago, Illinois. There are a lot of Chicago restaurants to the point of being overwhelming, and Chicago has a lot of what is considered “American” style eateries with comfort food that includes plenty of meats and hearty vegetables, especially downtown.
However, culturally-influenced cuisine can be found on the outskirts of the city in small neighborhoods dedicated to a certain type of food. Lincoln Square brings you Germany, Pilsen brings you Latin influences, Devon Avenue is chock full of Middle Eastern and Indian choices, and Chinatown brings you Asian options.
Regardless of the type of restaurant, it is easy enough to find the best fine dining restaurants through a simple Internet search, so we thought it best to give you several inexpensive options that you might NOT see on a “Best of Chicago” list, but they most certainly are among the best.
We did the legwork, bringing you hidden gems as well as the cannot-miss, world-class favorites. Our list includes our choice for the top 10 places to grab some chow in Chicago, and we cover at least one restaurant in every major Chicago area.
Among our 10 places, four are expensive, must-go places that we felt the need to include because of their interesting takes on the cuisine. So, if you have a night to splurge or you are celebrating a special occasion, choose one on our list. Otherwise, stick to the moderately-priced options to save some bucks.
Chicago Cuisine – What to try when Visiting Chicago
As with most things Chicago has a bitter Rivalry with New York and even in their food cultures there are contests and rivalries. From a Culinary Perspective, the two Cities are quite similar and standard American Cuisine, but both have their own take on their local Specialities, as such you should ensure you try them all in order to develop your own opinion on which is best.
Chicago Style Pizza
Authentic Italian Pizza is thin Crust, whereas American Style Pizza has a much deeper pan. In Chicago, they mixed it up even more and used a Deep Pan to create a Pizza that is… err… Deep pan. This style Pizza Pie maximizes the Crust to Filling Ratio meaning more topping and less bread.
Due to the immense thick layer of toppings, the Pizza takes longer to bake and as such the cheese is liable to burn so in a food Pizzeria the order of layers is inversed so the cheese is on the crust and the tomato is on top! Despite being very similar to regular Pizza and comprising the same ingredients, it’s a totally different experience and one you have to try when in town!
Chicago Style Hotdogs
Hot Dogs in NYC are well pretty rubbish. The ubiquitous Hotdog Carts that line the streets really just pump out junk hotdogs of very low quality. We still love them but we don’t really respect them. The Chicago Style Hotdogs are a different proposition entirely! Loaded with delicious toppings it’s a real feast and one they Chefs and vendors take real pride in.
While the hot dogs themselves are little better the toppings are what make them. A poppy seed bun with 100% beef dogs are topped with Onions Tomatoes Pickled Peppers, Mustard, Green Relish and topped with a Pickle.
Vendors are in the form of hundreds of hotdogs shops and restaurants, there are more Hotdog joints than McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendys COMBINED! So, you will not struggle to find one! Which is the best is a hot and passionate topic but try Wiener Circle, Portillos or Downtown Dogs and you won’t go far wrong.
The Italian Beef
This one is entirely Chicago’s baby and is without compare in New York or anywhere else. It is a bit like a Philly Cheesesteak but even that is doing it a disservice. It is a unique dish all of its own. Sliced Beef cooked in Gravey (Beef Stock) and served in a roll dipped in said Gravy. Cheese is optional.
It’s not a great looking dish but ultimate comfort food and perfect for the long cold winters on Chicago. Beef Stands are easily found and the best are Als Italian Beef, Bari’s Italian Deli and Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery. You can normally get an Italian Beef from most Hotdog Joints too!
Best Places to Eat in Chicago
Away from the Cheap eats and Chicago Delicacies the Dining scene in Chicago is fantastic and can hold a candle to the rest of the country often ranked as one of the best dining scenes in the country. Here is our guide to the best restaurants by district.
The Best Inexpensive Restaurant in The Loop, Downtown Chicago
- Pastoral: Skip “The Loop” if you’re looking for proper upscale cuisine. While you can find places that will take your money, there are way better options outside of downtown Chicago. In fact, whether you have a big or small food budget, there aren’t many great choices in The Loop. We do like Pastoral, however, which is a specialty shop that serves delicious sandwiches, as well as wine, cheese, and bread. Those of you familiar with chain sandwich shops like Subway will disavow them forever after a stop at Pastoral. Here, you find fresh-baked bread, artisanal cheeses, and cured meats that provide the ingredients for affordable sandwiches that beat out any other shop in The Loop or outside of it. For $5-$13, you get more than a sandwich; you get a handcrafted meal, like the Spanish tuna sandwich with house-made black olive tapenade, piquillo peppers, red onions, shaved celery, tomatoes, and fried greens; and the roasted local turkey sandwich with Mediterranean fixings, including oven-roasted tomatoes, house-made basil pesto, white bean purée, and red onion.
The Best Luxury Restaurant in West Loop and Near West, Chicago
- Girl and the Goat: Girl and the Goat is your best option in the West Loop. This foodie favorite keeps people in limbo for a bit with its long waits, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, but it’s well worth it—and the wait can be had at the bar. While you can make reservations, your only chance of getting one during your stay is if you are willing to eat in the late afternoon, 4-5 pm, during the week, because the weekends and normal eating hours will be taken. Once you are FINALLY seated, you will bite down on delicious exotic cuisine from celebrity chef Stephanie Izard, who was the winner of the reality cooking show Top Chef in 2008. Interested in roasted pig face or duck tongue? You’ll find it here, and guess what? You’ll love it. And with a name like “Girl and the Goat,” you might expect Stephanie to deliver on dishes like goat liver mousse and goat carpaccio. And every bit of the goat is used from the neck to the legs on other menu options. This sensuous and sophisticated spot is casual when it comes to attire, with an open kitchen, some communal bar tables, lounge chairs, and regular seating within its overall warm confines.
The Best Luxury Restaurant in the Magnificent Mile and Gold Coast, Chicago
- Spiaggia: Beautiful views of Lake Michigan from windows that reach from the floor to the ceiling are the prominent feature in Spiaggia. However, the dazzling scene does not compete with delicious food that has propelled the restaurant to 4-star status. In fact, Spiaggia is the only ITALIAN restaurant in a town with 500,000 folks of Italian descent that has four stars (and one Michilen). Imagine that. This opulent offering requires a jacket, and leave your jeans at the hotel if you plan to make it past the host. This is the spot to take your favorite person for a bit of romance, and if you are like me, my significant other and the call of perfectly-assembled meals is the only thing that could get me to dress up and then dish out $40 per person for a plate of food. The $115 four-course menu provides authentic and vibrant flavors in dishes like wagyu beef with mushroom and potato that is paired to perfection with a selection of white and red wines.
The Best Restaurant Quartet in River North, Chicago
- Frontera Grill: In River North, you have a “Cuatro” of options offered by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, the winner of Top Chef Masters. And, regardless of which of the four you visit, you will dine on good Mexican food put together with fresh, organic ingredients. Some of the restaurants are better than others, however, and the prices vary outrageously. At the bottom of the heap, but still good, is Xoco, a straightforward counter-service spot that serves up sandwiches, soups, salads, and churros at prices from $9-$13. Everything is served up quick in this cramped quarters, but it is tasty and ripe with a Mexican flair.
- Topolobampo is the 4-star (and a Michelin Star as well) establishment of the Bayless choices, with prices to match. Inside, you will find dramatic lighting, a sculptural ceiling, and a menu that changes monthly. However, it isn’t the best option of the four.
- Frontera Grill holds that title and has an ambiance that is energetic and fun, with classic Mexican food that is authentic and rich with flavor, from magnificent moles, braised meats, and Mexican street food. It may have fewer stars but stars are not always everything!
- Oh, and the fourth spot is Frontera Fresco, which is the closest thing that Bayless offers in the way of fast food and is found inside two Chicago Macy’s locations. Frontera Fresco is good, but don’t go out of your way for it, or even for the stately Topolobampo. Stick with the original Frontera Grill, which has been around since 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation’s highest honor, Outstanding Restaurant in 2007, and was once called “a study in the art of Mexican cookery” by the Chicago Sun-Times in 2011. We agree.
The Best Luxury Restaurant in Lincoln Park, Chicago
- Alinea: Alinea is so badass that it doesn’t even feel the need to put up a sign to reveal itself. With its matte gray and brick exterior right beside a children’s dental office, you’d never know the non-descript spot is considered to be the best restaurant in America and ranked as one of the top restaurants in the world. Through the mind of Chef Grant Achatz, the science and art of molecular gastronomy is explored through tasting menus that incorporate 16-18 courses and 10-12 courses, all of which are mind-blowing and budget busting. Alinea is more like a lab and modern art museum than a restaurant, where you pay for the experience, which includes what might be the best service in America that seems choreographed, along with a study in food that has made it one of only 12 restaurants in America to receive a 3-star rating from Michelin, and the only one in Chicago. You might actually experience real emotions as you dine for nearly four hours on treats like deep-fried icefish served over fermented kumquat sauce, seasonal mushrooms in foie-gras sauce under brittle blueberry leaves, and lamb loin with black garlic and blackberry. When we went, our dessert was literally painted on our table, and another course included a goose that we placed in our mouth through the use of leaf-covered branches used as skewers. A ticket is required, so plan months in advance.
The Best Moderately-Priced and Inexpensive Restaurants in Wrigleyville and North Side, Chicago
- Kuma’s Corner: Are you into Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, or Metallica? Apparently, the owners of Kuma’s Corner enjoy their heavy metal because every burger and sandwich on the menu is named after well-known metal bands. My favorite burger is the “Slayer,” which sits on a bed of fries with cherry peppers, scallions, caramelized onions, Monterey Jack, chili, and “anger.”All metal aside, the food is outrageously tasty, which is probably why we had to wait more than two hours to be seated, or it could be because there are only 10 tables. Well, in Wrigleyville, there is nothing to worry about; check in at Kuma’s and visit a neighboring bar while you wait. We chose Reed’s Local—a dive bar with pinball, a jukebox, and local brews—that is only a short walk away.
- Nhu Lan Bakery: If you eat at one of the haute, expensive restaurants mentioned above, you might want to try Nhu Lan’s Bakery for a few meals where you can pick up a delicious Vietnamese sandwich for $3-$5 – and if you buy five sandwiches during your stay in Chicago, you get one free. The Nhu Lan special is a subway sandwich with ham, headcheese, pate, and pork rolls on fresh baked demi baguettes for $3.50. However, there are a few dozen other options, including plenty of vegetarian offerings like the perfectly delicious veggie lemongrass tofu and the veggie ginger tofu that is so full of flavor and texture that you will wonder if it is really plant-based.
- Tac Quick: Tac Quick is a great place for a quick bite if you are heading to Wrigley Field for a ballgame, as it is a 10-minute walk from the park. For a place that sells Thai food at prices from $8-$12, you might be surprised by how busy it gets at night, which might call for a reservation to get a table. Tac Quick is a colorful spot with an energetic bar and a secret menu that we were keen to before we went. While the main menu courses are made for a European palate, the authentic Thai food found on the secret menu is a bit more daring. If you are adventurous, try fermented pork and rice sausage, as well as less “sour” dishes that include yellow curry with squid and shrimp, and a bowl of thin rice noodles with fried pork skin, braised beef brisket, beef meatballs, and Chinese broccoli in a whiffy, oily broth. All of the dishes we tried were large on portions at under $10.
The Best Inexpensive Restaurant in Wicker Park
- Big Star: Big Star is located in what used to be a gas station built in the 1940s, but you have to squint to see it now with its complete remodel. This hipster haven serves tacos upon tacos, bourbon upon bourbon, with a side of beer, and a honky-tonk attitude, as the staff cranks classic country and rock. The patio is wonderful on a sunny day, which makes the fish tacos, tasty guacamole, and the sting of nearly 100 whiskey varieties taste even better.
The Best Moderately-Priced Restaurant in Logan Square and Northwest
- Kai Zan: If you are into sushi, you won’t find a better option in Chicago than Kai Zan with small plates that hover at about $9 a pop. The Asian restaurant isn’t found on any of the main drags, which must be the reason there isn’t a crowd out the door. But make no mistake, you will find perfectly plated food that would meet the standards of any upscale sushi bar, and you can bring your own booze or beer. Try the Angry Crab, a spicy mix of tuna and crab, at this charming neighborhood spot whose twin-brother owners can be seen performing their magic for all to see.
Happy Hours are a fantastic way to get a taste of a City, normally the participating restaurants offer a small selection of the normal menu or appetizers for a bargain price (normally accompanied by some bargain drinks!) so you can grab a taste of what they have to offer without breaking the bank, Check out some of the best in our Money Saving Page, we have the best Fried Chicken, Bargain Mexican, and cut-price rooftop bars!
Final Word on Chicago’s Dining Scene
Chicago might be the least pretentious eating scene among the world’s most populated cosmopolitan cities. The places that serve high-dollar plates in the ritzy parts of town are full of good-natured staff, just like the hole-in-the-wall, neighborhood joints. In other words, you won’t find snooty folks who dish out bad service anywhere in Chicago regardless of the size of your tab.
Furthermore, the folks in the Windy City really like their grub, but they only ask that is good. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s a simple hot dog or exotic luxury food, just make it with soul, and you will make a name for yourself, for the people will flock to your joint.
There is something different about this town. Everyone lingers a little longer at restaurants, everyone wants to know your story when you pull up to a restaurant bar, and the servers really care that the food is good and you are being entertained. We hope you look for this when you visit, and you receive it in plenty.
Have Your Say?
Have you got a favorite spot to eat in Chicago? Maybe a favorite dish? Or somewhere we should all really avoid? Anything you have to say about the incredible Dining scene in Chicago just drop us a comment below we would love to hear from you!