River North is full of hotels, tourists, and expensive, sceney restaurants. But this neighborhood also has a number of spots where you can have a very good, affordable lunch (we’ve defined “lunch” here as an entree with a side or a drink). Whether you want pizza, burgers, or something kind-of-healthy, this guide has a good option under $15 - so you can save up some extra money for a hotel suite, or a dinner someplace where your table doubles as a subwoofer.
Inside the Ohio Hotel is Cafe Tola. It’s a small, casual counter-service Mexican spot with several other locations in Chicago. This one in River North has lots of pink accents and a chalkboard menu, and while the space looks like a good spot for a 6-year-old’s teddy bear tea party, it’s actually a good choice for an affordable lunch in the neighborhood. It has tasty tacos and daily empanada specials, and everything on the menu is under $10. Order the skirt steak, chicken mole, or chorizo and egg tacos, plus whatever the empanada of the day is. Just know that this place is small and popular, so expect a wait.
Fast food is an obvious choice when you want something inexpensive and convenient, but a lot of it is terrible. We’re fans of all the options at Big & Little’s, though. In fact, we’d probably pay a lot more than they charge for the tacos, foie gras-topped French fries, and soft shell crab po’boys here. It’s a casual counter-service spot, and we like that just fine. The sooner we get in and out, the sooner we can go take a nap.
Ema is a small plates Mediterranean restaurant in the Hyatt Hotel, and Rotisserie Ema is the small self-serve spot that’s attached to it. They share a kitchen, so you’ll find similar food on the menu at both places. There are a variety of spreads, salads, and rotisserie-style meats available, and you purchase everything by weight, then either take your food to-go or eat it in Ema’s dining room. So practice weighing stuff at home, then come here for lunch.
3 Greens is from the same people who own Au Cheval, and there’s so much happening here that you’ll have a full-blown FOMO situation on your hands, no matter what you get. They have a huge hot and cold bar, Small Cheval burgers, Dillman pastrami sandwiches, delicious fries, Doughnut Vault donuts, pastries, coffee, cocktails, and a putting green. That last one we’re pretty sure you can’t eat. Either way, this place is an indispensable spot to have in your rotation.
Portillo’s has some of the best Italian beef in Chicago, and if it’s ever on your lunch short list, you should probably just forget about whatever else you were considering and come here. Get an Italian beef and a Chicago-style hot dog, and spend the rest of your $15 on chocolate cake shakes.
Left Coast Food & Juice
If you like spending your lunch break pretending your office is closer to the Pacific Ocean than Navy Pier, come here. You’ll find surfer-y stuff like fancy avocado toast with orange slices, ricotta, and sunflower seeds, plus a collection of grain bowls, and wraps with chicken and black beans. Plenty of the options are vegan and gluten-free, and overall this place is perfect if you’re looking for a affordable, kind-of-healthy meal. There are two levels (both counter-service), and the upstairs doubles as a nice place to hang for a while and plan your winter escape from Chicago.
Beatrix works well for a variety of situations, including but not limited to lunches with people who believe exercise is fun. The well-rounded menu has lots of salads, grains, and things like bulgur wheat poke bowls, all of which are around $15. It’s a particularly good choice for a healthy sit-down meal where everyone can be happy. At least until that office team-building spin class.
We might not have a lot of by-the-slice places like New York, but that doesn’t stop us from getting individual servings of pizza. Case in point: Lou Malnati’s, where you can order a personal size deep dish pie for around $10. It’s like a slice, except for the fact that it’s round and weighs eight pounds.
Lyfe is has a wide range of tasty options, most of which are kind-of-healthy, and all of which cost around $10-14. There are options like gluten free pastas, poke bowls, and baked chicken. Also, this spot has the honor of being home to number 15 on Chicago’s Big Booth Power Rankings - so come with all your friends.
Even if you don’t eat a lot of vegan or raw food, you should know about Chicago Raw. Because it’s objectively great. Everything on the menu is - unsurprisingly - vegan and raw. So you’ll find grab-and-go options like collard burritos, spinach lasagna, or a sampler platter where you can try a little bit of everything. There’s a small counter where you can dine in, and the food is so healthy that if you come here you won’t need to eat another vegetable for at least a week.
Unlike your seventh birthday party, Shake Shack will never let you down. Because it’s never a bad time for a consistently great cheeseburger and crinkly cut fries. Make sure to get some frozen custard, too.
If you’re new to Chicago (or missed his statue carved into a mountain on your flight in), you might not know Rick Bayless. OK, we’re kidding about the mountain, but he is very well-known and he has a lot of great restaurants, including Frontera Grill. Xoco is another one, and it specializes in delicious tortas, along with other Mexican dishes like tacos and caldos. In case you don’t actually have to go back to work after lunch, you should know that they serve alcohol here, too.
Sushi-san is more expensive than the other places on this guide, but it’s definitely worth knowing about - the food is fantastic. As part of their express lunch deal (which you can get from 11am-3pm during the week), you get miso soup, your choice of a “san-specialty” (like a tuna trio or maki), and a rice bowl (with options like Vietnamese pork or miso salmon), all for $16.