Drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea. Remember that time you went out for Happy Hour after work, and instead of heading right home, you took an Uber out to Rivers Casino? That was an expensive detour, and might not have happened if you had ordered some food. Or maybe you’re planning a date with someone you still don’t know too well - you’re not ready to commit to dinner, but there’s also a good chance you’ll talk long enough over drinks to get hungry. You need a bar that has great food, just in case. Here are 28 of your best options.
It’s 5pm, and you need a buffer of wine and food before heading back to your apartment, where your roommate’s brother is still (inexplicably) sleeping on your couch. Head to Joe’s, an easy-to-get-into neighborhood wine bar with tasty small plates like meatballs, parmesan puffs, and burrata. It will give you the sustenance you need before asking when, exactly, your houseguest is going back to his wife and kids in Niles.
Bar Sotano is a cocktail bar in the alley behind Frontera Grill, and it’s owned by the same team. It’s one of those hidden underground situations, but unlike the last basement you hung out in where you played Xbox and drank Rolling Rock you stole from your brother, here you can have fantastic mezcal cocktails and Mexican small plates. The menu has plenty of bar snacks, like habanero-glazed fried chicken bites, charcuterie, and whatever the taco of the day is. What we’re saying is, this is a basement where you can spend a lot of time without getting depressed.
City Hall in the West Loop is a theme bar that’s good at its gimmick, so it doesn’t feel forced or over-the-top. The theme is literally “City Hall,” which means the menus are made to look like municipal forms, the bill arrives like a parking ticket, and cocktails have names like the “Alderman’s Choice.” The drinks and food are fine (with bites like sliders and pigs in a blanket) and the space is huge, including an outdoor patio and plenty of tables. It’s a great place for just hanging out, or for lots of different activities, like bags or giant beer pong with trash cans.
This casual all-day Mexican spot in Logan Square has a nice front bar area, friendly bartenders, and very good drinks. While you’re here, make sure to get an order of the nachos or the chili con queso (which is tasty enough to impress your impossible-to-please friend from Austin). And if you realize that you want to keep the night going but want a change of scenery, check out Golden Teardrops, the basement bar downstairs.
This cocktail spot is hidden behind a tiny record shop in Wicker Park, and while technically you can buy records here if you want, you should just go in and tell them you’re looking for Dorian’s. Once you get to the back, there are plenty of tables and comfortable seats, and the short food menu has a collection of great Asian-inspired small plates, like a short rib banh mi and a delicious pork belly larb. All in all, this is a fun, upbeat spot for an early-in-the-game date (provided the person you’re meeting doesn’t get lost easily).
The West Loop can be overwhelming, with lots of crowded places full of people who seem like their entire lives are hinging on the amount of fun they’re having tonight. This is not the case at Eleven Eleven, an upscale spot that’s relatively relaxed. They have a long wine list, and (if you want) the bartenders will talk to you extensively about the the selection. But there’s also a very good food menu, with options like lamb sausage stuffed peppers, cheese and charcuterie, and a collard green grilled cheese that tastes like something your stoner roommate who’s also a very good chef would make after a night out.
Logan Square has a lot of dark bars and sports bars. But if you want something different in the neighborhood, you should know about Young American. This small spot has plenty of windows, neon lights, and is even bright enough inside to keep some plants alive. The food and drink menu includes ingredients like leek ash, activated charcoal, and CBD - a lot of trends from two years ago. But the cocktails are great, and they’ve got some tasty dishes like Goth Bread (served with a garlicky “smudge butter,” whatever that means) and small plates like pickled okra with popcorn grits.
Bandit is a smallish spot in the West Loop that feels like a party, but isn’t a total sh*tshow. This place is perfect if you don’t want to shout the details about your day at work, but not so quiet you feel compelled to talk about this month’s book club selection, either. The best things on the menu are the warm pretzel with Merkts cheese spread, the fried halloumi, and the charred carrots. Come here before a Big Night Out in the neighborhood, or with your friend who just had a baby, and wants a Big Night Out bunny hill.
For somewhere that’s still fun but not as sceney as Bandit, check out Funkenhausen in West Town, a German-inspired spot that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This restaurant has a large bar area, a long menu of German beers and wines, and delicious bar snacks like rib tips, a schnitzel sandwich, and a warm pretzel, which is a must-order. If you leave without getting that pretzel, you need to take a long look in the mirror and wonder how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong.
We can’t really decide if we like Good Measure more as a bar or a restaurant, since it succeeds equally at being both. But it doesn’t matter - either way, this is one of our favorite spots in River North. It’s a little divey inside, with neon red lights and a big wooden bar that looks like it belongs in Classic Chicago Bar Magazine. But there’s also an interesting menu of great bar food, ranging from Nashville hot fried duck livers to sunflower hummus to a fried Polish sausage - which in no way falls into the “light bites” category, but is delicious nonetheless.
Like Good Measure, this Wicker Park spot definitely feels more like a typical Chicago bar than a restaurant, mainly because the bar itself dominates the space. But despite appearances, Tricycle is definitely a full-on restaurant, with a long food menu that includes bacon-wrapped dates, smoked wings, and a deconstructed chicken pot pie that’s really delicious. In other words, the “light bites” here can very easily turn into a full meal.
If you find yourself in the Loop on a weeknight or weekend, you’re probably there for business or because of an event downtown. Whatever your reason for being in the neighborhood, you probably shouldn’t tackle it hungry or completely sober. Head to Fisk & Company, a seafood-focused restaurant in the Hotel Monaco. This casual spot has a large bar that’s perfect for killing time before seeing The Nutcracker with your colleagues from Iowa. So have some beer, oysters, or the fantastic crab dip. And start practicing your small talk.
The West Loop gets so busy that at some restaurants, it’s not unheard of to run routes like a wide receiver to get to the bar. The Press Room isn’t one of those spots. It’s a wine bar in the basement of a building on a secluded side street, and it keeps a low-key ambience even when it’s crowded. They have a great selection of wines, really good cocktails, and a short small plates menu (with things like chicken liver mousse) that goes well with both. It’s an easy place to hang all night, even when you were planning on just stopping in for a minute.
At first glance, you might think Beatnik in West Town is only about atmosphere. That’s understandable - the whole place looks kind of like a set from The Darjeeling Limited, and there’s a gimmicky-seeming cocktail menu with stuff like cognac slushies. But the creative drinks are actually really well done, and the food is also tasty and easy to share. You’ll find dishes like veal kebabs, beet hummus, and Cornish hen tagine. Just know you may be eating them on an ornate daybed from Bali.
If you’re one of the hundreds of people working at Google in the West Loop, you might already be aware of Cold Storage, the casual seafood spot attached to Swift & Sons. If you’re about to work in the West Loop thanks to all the new development, and don’t know about this place yet, plan to come here, grab a drink, and have some exceptionally good oysters at the raw bar.
This Logan Square spot looks like an old tavern, but in the same way your hipster friend looks like a Charles Dickens character. Under the surface, both are actually pretty modern. Billy Sunday is designed for someone who recently became interested in “mixology” - they have a solid menu with interesting drinks, and even offer classes on the “history of spirits.” It’s not all about the drinks, though - there are solid small plates like smoked oysters and duck rillettes, too. Come here with anyone you’d consider giving barware as a present.
It’s up for debate where The Delta’s food falls on the “light bite” spectrum - most of the Southern tamales the restaurant specializes in are heavy (except maybe the vegan one), but they’re definitely small, so as far as we’re concerned, they count. You’ll also find a bunch of different “smashes” (cocktails made with crushed ice), plus cocktail “vases” that are excellent for sharing with a group. If it’s summertime, be sure to snag a spot on their back patio.
This River North spot is themey - it’s a tiki bar serving tropical cocktails in mugs shaped like pineapples, conch shells, and mermaids (among other things). You can also get island-inspired dishes like coconut shrimp and pork skewers. It feels like a beach party, and is a great place to go with friends on a night when you want to forget you live in a city that has winter for six months of the year.
We’re always looking for reasons to be at Avec, and one of the many situations it’s perfect for is ordering glasses of wine and Spanish small plates at the bar. It’s worth knowing that many of the large plates, as well as their bacon-wrapped dates, can be made into half orders. Sample a few of the menu’s greatest hits while saving your budget for more wine.
Scofflaw in Logan Square feels like the drawing room of a Victorian house - it’s dimly lit and cozy, with old-timey chairs around a fireplace. The drink menu focuses on quality gin cocktails, and they also serve solid food, including fresh-baked cookies that only become available after midnight. So in other words, if you make it to midnight, you get a reward.
Arbella is right next to Tanta, and owned by the same people. Tanta is Peruvian, but Arbella’s drinks and food are more global, and the map-like cocktail list looks less like a menu and more like something you’d use to find Carmen Sandiego. The cocktails are inspired by various countries on the map, like the “PB&J” (peanut butter infused vodka and jelly ice) for the US, or a “snow cone” with sake, pisco, and Red Bull syrup for Antarctica, which helps explain why no one lives in Antarctica. As for food, you can expect bar snacks like shawarma empanadas, and small dishes like Korean fried chicken, tacos, and bao.
Lone Wolf is in the West Loop, and surrounded by busy restaurants, so a lot of people just use it to kill time. But that’s a mistake - it happens to be a great destination in its own right, with a large bar, plenty of comfy booths, and tasty snacks to tide you over while you wait for that table at Au Cheval. It’ll be available any time now, we’re sure.
This place in River North has everything you need for a good one-two-punch situation. Start out at Leviathan, the cocktail bar that overlooks Portsmith’s dining room, for sea monster-themed cocktails in elaborate glassware. Then head downstairs to Portsmith for raw and “lightly cooked” seafood dishes - including a few types of oyster preparations (raw, fried, or “fancy,” with caviar, for example). It’s all inside the Dana Hotel, and it’s upscale, but not a scene, making it great for avoiding the sh*tshow this neighborhood can turn into at night.
The Violet Hour in Wicker Park is a good destination cocktail bar. This place might seem like it’s trying hard to be cool - from the unmarked door, to the “House Rules,” which ban baseball caps, Cosmopolitans, and any drink that’s a -bomb (jager or otherwise). It doesn’t come off as obnoxious, though, because the craft cocktails really are good, and the food is from the team behind Avec and The Publican. Expect expensive drinks and small but delicious plates like truffled chickpeas.
This place is a “vintage sports bar” that brags about having “the most Instagrammed interior of 2017” (yes, still), which probably gives you a good idea of the general feel. It’s designed to look like a turn-of-the-century gymnasium, and has a retro camper on the patio that functions as a bar. These somewhat cutesy touches aside, Park and Field happens to be an excellent spot for grabbing craft beers, eating stuff like burgers or buffalo chicken nuggets, and yes, watching sports. Their huge patio has a firepit that makes it comfortable well into fall, and if you want you can play bocce.
This spot is on the border of Chicago and Evanston, and it’s a great, not-too-well-known option if you’re getting together with your friends who live up north. It feels a little like a dive bar, but it’s too clean to actually be a dive. Inside it’s dark and small, with wooden floors and walls, and reclaimed church pews for seats. Cocktails are straightforward, and the drink menu focuses on excellent renditions of the classics, like Old Fashioneds. Food-wise, you’ll find charcuterie and sandwiches, as well as a fantastic chocolate cake that’s good enough to make the drinks an afterthought.