Behold - the LIST! This list is in a constant state of growth and flux because Chicago has over 42,000 restaurants, and I'm only one person with one stomach. If only we could have six stomachs like cows do...
Chicago Restaurant Recommendations
- Dusek’s Board & Beer/Punch House – I’ve yet to order anything and this place and not like it. If there’s one thing you must order every time you go there, order the mussels with their homemade sourdough bread on the side. They dry roast the mussels with harissa butter, and each bite gets more addicting than the last. Eat the sourdough with the extra mussel seasoning and butter. Pair your meal with one of their killer punches or their gin and tonic (they make their tonic water in front of you), and you’re set.
- Maude’s Liquor Bar – EAT AND DRINK EVERYTHING HERE. I mean it. Nothing here is mediocre. They have the best crème brulee here I’ve ever eaten. Why? Because the sugar top is not torched like other places, it’s branded with a red hot iron. Don’t question me - just end the meal with crème brulee.
- Alinea - It really is mind-blowingly amazing. The food there is pure art, and it’s freaking delicious. I wouldn’t recommend to go there too often. For the $300 per person, you may want to keep it for a special occasion.
- Calumet Fisheries – And at the complete opposite end of the fancy spectrum from Alinea is Calumet Fisheries. This is a cash only shack that makes the best (and only) smoked seafood in the Chicagoland area. This shack is SO GOOD that it won a James Beard Award! Take a little drive into Indiana, you won’t be sorry once you have a bite of their smoked shrimp. Bring your own craft beer to make it complete.
- Wellfleet/The Fish Guy – Fish market during the week – fish market AND restaurant on the weekends. This is the place where all the upscale restaurants like Alinea, Grace, etc get their seafood. You’ll find all kinds of exotic swimmers - from Patagonian Langostino to Cortez Leopard Grouper. The great part about going there on the weekend is that you can have them cook up any of their seafood for you on the spot. Make a lunch reservation to make sure you get a seat.
- Fat Willie’s - Don’t let the décor deter you. This Southern BBQ place looks gritty but the food is to worth dying over. Order everything. Then go around the corner to get a burger at Owen & Engine (see Burgers & Beer section). You’ll have wonderful meat sweats in no time at all.
- Smoke Daddy – Don't wear fitted pants. Just don't. I always have this problem when I go there where I want to order and eat EVERYTHING, and on top of that, I can't miss out on their cornbread. Also the mac and cheese...also the rib sampler...also the burnt ends...(just read down their entire menu in this longing fashion)
- Honky Tonk – Hello bourbon, Memphis BBQ, and live music. Start with the Lonely Presbyterian cocktail and go from there. Everything is good, especially their brisket sandwich - ask for extra dry rub on the side.
- Nana – They do a creative take on the typical brunch items with a Latin Twist to pay homage to their Pilsen roots, and they do it really well. Menu changes a lot, so go often.
- Waffles – Oh man, do these people live out their namesake to the fullest. I really like their cheddar waffle topped with braised short rib. Then I end it with their green tea waffle topped with lemon chiffon cream.
- Gather – TWO WORDS: STICKY BUN. GET IT. This place is known for southern comfort food, and it’s all so very tasty. Expect food comas.
- Bang Bang Pie – I'm never going to pass up the opportunity to have an entire meal made of pies. Their savory and sweet pies are nothing short of amazing, and if you really want to push yourself into a wonderful carb coma, order their homemade seasonal biscuits too.
BURGERS & BEER
- Owen & Engine – This burger is my favorite in the city because the burger meat itself is SO GOOD that you don’t need a bunch of add-ons to make it good. For your first time, I recommend to get the burger without cheese, just the included caramelized onions. Not much else is good there besides the burger, fries, and beer so just go there for burger!
- Kuma’s Corner – This heavy metal joint is so ridiculous with burgers, you can find every imaginable kind of burger at this place. While I’d say their burgers aren’t the best, it’s a really fun atmosphere filled with heavy metal music, beer, tattoos, large plates of custom mac and cheese, and huge burgers the size of your face.
- Au Cheval – Their cheese burger is sinfully good with a fried egg on top, and I would recommend you go there with another person so they can order the hot bologna and cheese sandwich (sharing is caring). Other random things that are tasty there – Matzo Ball soup and scrambled eggs with foie gras. Things there tend to run a little saltier so don’t wear tight rings on your fingers – hello sodium!
- The Gage – Their venison burger is large, juicy, and really tasty. The venison is nice and mild, not overly gamey. Other things are tasty here too, but their burger is most notable, as well as their St. Germaine cocktails.
- Little Goat Diner – Yes, goat meat is tasty, especially as a burger. Don’t deny yourself this. I like the goat burger Korean style. Instead of beer, though, go for the milkshakes. Also, their goat milk cappuccinos are awesome and lactose-friendly.
COCKTAILS & LIQUOR
- The Fountainhead – This is the Chicago Mecca of beer and brown liquor. 50+ beers on a rotating draft. Enough bottled beer to make your head spin. They have so many kinds of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon that they’ve created a legend to let you know how each one tastes. Your beer and brown pilgrimage starts here.
- Scofflaw - Delicious, handcrafted gin cocktails for $8 a glass? YES. YES. Yes, please. Get there earlier than later. They fill up fast.
- The Aviary – If you’re looking to drink art that blows your mind, go here. I’ve had some of the most fun and interesting cocktails here, but get ready for the $20-25 price tag. It really is worth it, though.
- Three Dots and Dash – This place is a really fun tiki bar. All the cocktails I’ve had there are great, and deadly alcoholic (you feel it once you try to stand up). If you bring 4 friends, I recommend getting the giant cocktails that are shareable. They also have little bites to keep you from drunkenly falling off your chair. Love this place to escape the Chicago winter for a few hours and pretend I’m somewhere tropical. Then afterward, go around the corner and get a donut ice cream sandwich at Firecakes (see Doughnut section).
- Bottlefork – So I’ve yet to go there for their food, but hot %&#! they make their cocktails there like it’s a science. With ice cubes so clear I can see the floor through them and cocktails so smooth I can’t tell it’s highly alcoholic…I drank bourbon old-fashioned cocktails until I was high-fiving the bartenders (and every person that walked by).
DONUTS & DESSERT
- The Doughnut Vault – Famous for their glazed classics, I actually like them for their ginger donuts because they’re not overly sweet and well-flavored. I can’t find them anywhere else… Cash only. They close when they sell out. Get there EARLY and bring something to read because you’ll still be in line.
- Glazed and Infused – They’re on the puffier, softer side and are perfect for those with a sweet tooth/teeth. I like mine with black coffee to balance out the richness of these glazed beauties.
- Do-Rite – I really love their old-fashioned donuts here, but they do a great job at the others too. If you like chocolate mint, go on St. Patty’s day for their old-fashioned chocolate mint donuts.
- Firecakes – Four words – donut ice cream sandwiches. While you’re there, also get the coconut crème donut – toasted coconut donut with coconut crème and shave coconut filled into the donut hole part. YOU’RE WELCOME.
- Mindy’s Hot Chocolate – Okay so this place is more than just a donut place. I love going there for their donuts and hot chocolate on a summer night. You can get a full dinner there too (OMG get the Mac and Cheese), and this place is famous for dessert and hot chocolate (obviously). The chef won a James Beard Award for her desserts.
- Wasabi – Nice BYOB with a really extensive sushi list, but they have legendary ramen. LEGENDARY.
- High Five Ramen – Really good, spicy ramen. I’d recommend getting their signature ramen at half spice, unless you can embrace the spicy burn. I’m Thai and found that the half spice was enjoyable without being too uncomfortable. Get there early – they don’t take reservations. P.S. Alcoholic slushies!
- Kai Zan – Small, upscale Japanese that’s more than just rolls and nigiri. They make raw fish art. It’s hard to get in, and you definitely need a reservation in advance. After eating there, other sushi places just can't compare!
- Sun Wah BBQ – There are two things you must get – their wonton soup and their Peking Duck Feast. The wonton soup is the best in the city. Their Peking Duck Fest is not on the menu, but you’ll see almost every table eating it. For $35, you’ll get duck fried rice, duck soup, the BEST DAMN DUCK YOU’LL EVER HAVE, and a really frozen ball of sorbet. The duck is carved table-side and comes with boa buns, hoisin sauce, and veggies – put the duck and all the condiments in the bun and shove in mouth. Proceed to be really happy.
- Fat Rice – No reservations are taken here, but it’s worth the wait. For a Chinese joint, they have some really fun, creative dishes here. Very casual with communal tables – get ready to make new friends.
- Del Seoul – A fun little Korean joint that does Korean fusion tacos and tasty hot stone bowls. If you’re going to get a bowl, make sure to pay the extra dollar for the hot stone bowl so you get the crispy rice crust on the bottom.
- Cho Sun Oak – The food is AMAZING. The ladies that work there are scary - they mean business and have no time for dillydallying. Hahaha, but it's the most amazing authentic Korean food you'll find in Chicago. Order the #1 ChaDol-Guis that's cooked at the table and includes kimchi fried rice. The seafood pancake (aka HaeMul PaJeon) and JapChae noodles are also really noteable. Plus, make sure to taste the many sides that they bring. Mix and match with the meat!
- Tank Noodle – My soul would wither and die without their Pho. They also have good Vietnamese food overall.
- The Phoenix – This is the “fanciest” place in Chinatown. They have really great food there, and I recommend that you go there on a weekend late morning for Dim Sum (Chinese Breakfast). Dim Sum is a lot like tapas, so bring lots of friends so you can try a bunch of dishes. Some recommended dishes to get you started with 2-3 friends:
#2 – Pork and shrimp dumplings
#9 – Sticky rice filled with lots of tasty stuff (varies by day) and steamed in a lotus leaf (my second favorite!)
#14 – Short rib with black pepper sauce
#18 – BBQ Pork steamed baos
#27 – Shrimp crepe (my favorite! I never share this)
#31 – Pan fried chive and shrimp dumpling
#48 – Sesame Ball
#51 – Puffy egg custard
#54 – Coconut Pudding
- Spoon – This joint is the most authentic Thai food you’ll ever get to the motherland. It’s BYOB, and there’s a secret menu. Make sure to venture beyond the typical noodles and basil chicken – many of the dishes here are what Thai people really eat but aren’t available in most Thai restaurants. You can tell it’s amazing because there’s only old, Thai women in the kitchen, and they’ve been doing this forever.
- Amarind’s – Technically this is not in Chicago – Oak Park. The food here is quite good if you’re in the area. The chef trained at a famous Thai restaurant called Arun’s and opened up a smaller shop. The style of Thai food is more Royalty than Street, so expect more delicate flavors.