The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In Chicago guide image

photo credit: Kim Kovacik

CHIGuide

The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In Chicago

Not every great restaurant in Chicago—just the ones you should have on your list while you’re getting acquainted.

You’re in Chicago for the first time ever. You’ve got 72 hours and an appetite for everything. Where do you start?

That’s a question we get asked a lot, and it’s a hard one to answer. But we’re gonna try so that you don’t return home having only sampled our finest mozzarella sticks from the food court at Navy Pier.

There’s no doubt you’ll spend time wandering up and down the Magnificent Mile and checking out the West Loop. And while there’s great food there (some of which is on this list), don’t confine yourself to eating all your meals in these areas—you’ll miss some of the best restaurants in the city.

This isn’t meant to be a definitive list of Chicago’s best restaurants—it’s just what we’d do if we were in your shoes. Speaking of shoes—hopefully you brought something comfortable. You’ve got a lot of ground to cover.


THE SPOTS

Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf imageoverride image
8.9

Bavette's Bar and Boeuf

$$$$

218 W. Kinzie St, Chicago
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Bavette’s is our favorite steakhouse in Chicago. First, because the actual steak is delicious. Second, you can come here, not order a steak (entrees like the fried chicken and the pork chop are outstanding), and still have a fantastic meal. Third, the 1920s jazz music playing in the windowless dining room makes this place feel like it exists outside of the normal space/time continuum. Which is convenient, because to get a reservation at a decent time you should have made it about 100 years ago.


You may or may not know it, but Chicago has an absurd number of Top Chef alums. One of them is at Monteverde in the West Loop, which also happens to serve some of the best Italian food in the city. It’s reasonably priced, nice but you don’t need to get dressed up (unless you want to) and every pasta dish is fantastic - especially the cacio e pepe. If you want to try the ragu alla napoletana (a giant plate full of fusilli, sausage, meatballs, and a large braised pork shank), just plan on trying to stuff the inevitable leftovers in your hotel mini-fridge.


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Need a brunch spot? Go to Kasama. Looking for a great tasting menu? Kasama. Whatever the meal, this Filipino cafe/fine-dining hybrid needs to be a part of your Chicago itinerary. During the day, they have options like an incredible longanisa breakfast sandwich, and an arsenal of pastries that’ll transform an oversleeper into a morning person. At night, the narrow restaurant is softly lit, setting the mood for a $235, 13-course dinner, with dishes like umami-packed mushroom adobo with mussel emulsion and pear granita halo halo. It’s a tough reservation to book, but it’s worth planning 45 days out and waiting for the Resy page to go live at midnight—or else you might have to stand outside and hope for Kasama scalpers. 


Lincoln Park isn’t exactly a hot neighborhood. Lovely as it is, it definitely falls into the “old news” category. But Galit is one of the newer spots in Lincoln Park, and one of the most exciting in the city. It’s a Middle Eastern small plates restaurant with across-the-board great food, from the creamy hummus (the one topped with brisket is fantastic), to roasted carrots, to a rich and spicy shakshuka. The large dining room works well for both groups and dates. It can be hard to reserve a table, but the bar is walk-in only and is absolutely worth a try.


Lem’s has been around since 1951, and is probably the barbecue restaurant your uncle who has visited here exactly once knows about. History aside, this iconic spot in Chatham makes some of our favorite barbecue in the city. The ribs are aquarium-smoked (a method unique to the South Side of Chicago) and the sweet, vinegary mild sauce (also unique to Chicago’s South Side) is a perfect counterpart to the fatty meat. Also, the ribs come on a bed of fries that soak everything up, which is just wonderful.


We probably don’t need to tell you that Chicago is known for deep dish pizza. And if you’re here for the first time, you absolutely need to try some. But where to go? Start with Pequod’s in Lincoln Park. They serve pan-style deep dish with a “caramelized” crust (a.k.a. the burnt edges of crispy cheese around the outside of the pie). These pizzas are delicious, to the point that a meal here might start a decades-long feud between you and your friends in New York.


Yes, deep dish is the type of pizza that Chicago is known for. But much like how Queen’s “We Will Rock You” was originally a B-side to “We Are The Champions”, Chicago’s legendary cracker-style thin crust can’t be ignored. And that’s what you’ll find at Vito and Nick’s in Ashburn. This place has been around since the 1950s and is an institution worthy of the Chicago Pizza Hall of Fame (which doesn’t actually exist, but probably should). Their pizza is super thin and crispy, with bubbly browned cheese and a spicy tomato sauce. Inside, it’s a total dive: drop ceilings, neon beer signs, and wood-paneled walls. And we hope that never changes.

This iconic family-run Italian deli and sub shop in the West Loop has been around since 1937, long before the West Loop was the Disney World of restaurants. The industrial-looking exterior hasn’t changed since the neighborhood was full of meatpacking warehouses, and inside they’re making some of the most delicious Italian subs and sandwiches in the city.


After visiting Chicago, you can count on people asking you about deep dish and the burger at Au Cheval. So when you interrupt them to talk about the momos at The Momo World, a casual counter-service spot in University Village, they’ll be surprised. But it’s your sacred duty to spread the word about the fantastic dumplings here. There are a lot of different preparations, including the classic steamed, jhol (served in a spicy soup), and creative options like the momo chaat or tandoori, which are steamed, fried and then grilled. They’re all delicious, and each order is under $14. So, spread the good news.


It’s in the Chicago Constitution that you can’t leave the city without visiting at least one steakhouse. For a classic Chicago steakhouse experience, go to Gibsons in the Gold Coast. It’s the most iconic one, encompassing all the things people love about these institutions: great steaks, great sides, an entire section of the menu devoted to potatoes, and attentive service. It feels a little dated, but in a charming way, and despite the fact that it’s in the Gold Coast, it isn’t too stuffy. The crowd’s a mix of regulars, tourists, and locals celebrating birthdays or anniversaries with (literally) six-pound desserts that will absolutely have to be placed in checked baggage at the airport.


5 Rabanitos in Pilsen is one of our favorite restaurants for showing off Chicago’s great Mexican food scene. There’s no wrong way to order here—get the tacos, anything from the huge vegetarian menu, the carne asada, or the very spicy ahogada torta. The menu is long, and the service is so friendly you won’t want to leave. Even when they (very politely) ask you to because they’re closing for the night.


Cabra imageoverride image
7.8

Cabra

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If you’re a first-timer in Chicago, there’s a 99% chance you end up in the West Loop at some point during your trip, and a 98% chance of eating at a restaurant in the “Goat” empire. You should choose Cabra, from the same team as Girl & the Goat. This spot is on the roof of The Hoxton hotel, has a fantastic view, and also serves some very good Peruvian-inspired food. The best things on this small-plates-focused menu are the ceviches (the bass with leche de tigre and the duck are standouts), a tender and spicy skewered beef heart, and the delicious fried pork shank, which is so large that you might want to consider getting it a room at the hotel.


If you tell someone you’re coming to Chicago, they’ll probably tell you to go to Au Cheval in the West Loop—whether or not they live here. And they’ll be right. This place has the best burger in Chicago (maybe even the best in the entire country). They don’t take reservations and it’s always crowded, so plan on killing time. The Lone Wolf next door is handy for this purpose. When and if you do get a table, plan on friends and family asking if the burger “lives up to the hype.” It does.


Daisy’s is our favorite Hyde Park restaurant. With a busy dining room filled with jazz people eating great food and drinking Hurricanes, this casual New Orleans-inspired spot improves our mood more effectively than a subscription to Headspace. There are plenty of tables for groups of all sizes, plus a bar that’s perfect for dining solo. And considering it’s from the same team behind Virtue, a fantastic Southern spot down the street, it’s not surprising that the gumbo and fried chicken at Daisy’s are delicious. But the best things here are their po’boys. Whether you get the shrimp, roast beef, or fried green tomato, when sandwiched between their crackly bread imported from New Orleans, you’ll hardly notice you decided to visit when it’s 25 degrees outside.


This spot in Lakeview is perfect for a weekday breakfast. It’s great on the weekends, too, but it tends to get slammed, so take advantage of a calmer morning if you can. Everything here is made in-house, and tastes like it - we particularly like the grown-up pop tart and the bread pudding pancakes. Get some baked goods to go, too. They’re ideal for late-night snacking at your hotel.


Chiu Quon in Chinatown is the original location of this classic Chinese bakery (the other is in Uptown). And though we love them both, we can’t think of a better place to stop for a snack while walking around Chicago’s Chinatown. Anything from their pastry case will be delicious, such as the pork buns, sponge cakes, sesame balls, egg custards, and much more. Plus, everything is made fresh daily. It’s cash only, so be prepared.


You should make sure your trip includes at least one meal at a big, sceney River North restaurant. The trendy kind with giant booths, clubby music, big menus that will knock over your wine glass, and surprisingly great food. RPM Steak meets these requirements. It’s a downtown Chicago restaurant at its best: over-the-top, a little ridiculous, and very enjoyable. And under all the scene, it also has some of our favorite steaks in the city.


If you just want a meal that’s guaranteed to put you in a good mood, go to Soule. The upbeat atmosphere and delicious soul food (like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, and peach cobbler) will comfort you whether or not you actually need comforting. This place is small and gets really busy, so you should call ahead for reservations (847-986-5980) or plan to wait for a table. Just remember to pick up some wine and beer (Lush is a nearby liquor store that we like) since they’re BYOB.


You’re in town for a wedding - instead of doing a hangover brunch at some spot downtown, consider heading to QXY in Chinatown instead. It’s nice and casual (the interior looks like it came from a Swedish design magazine), and specializes in delicious broth-filled dumplings you can get steamed, boiled, or fried. You’ll see the kitchen making everything to order, which is way more entertaining than the three-hour-long ceremony you had to endure. Try and bring a group so you can order as many combinations as possible.


MingHin is our favorite place in the city for dim sum, for a few reasons: the food is consistently good, you can almost always walk in and get a table, and the Chinatown location is open from 8am-12am every single day of the year. So if you’re in Chicago over the holidays and have a late night craving for BBQ pork, sesame balls, and a salted yolk bun, this is where you should go. Follow it up with a visit to one of the karaoke bars in the neighborhood.


There are now two Avecs—the original in the West Loop, and a newer (much larger) River North location. They have almost identical menus, but the classic Avec is our favorite, mainly because we’ve had so many incredible meals there. The Mediterranean small plates here are consistently delicious, so order whatever sounds good to you. Just make sure the bacon-wrapped dates and the taleggio flatbread are on your table. And get a side of honey to go with the flatbread, trust us. Just be aware, the space is small and narrow, with a long bar and several communal tables. So if you have a large group, this might not be the right Avec for you.


If you want to go someplace you won’t find advertised in the back of a taxi, consider the Edgewater location of Huaraches Dona Chio, a tiny cash-only garden-level spot on a quiet side street of the North side neighborhood. You should definitely order the namesake huaraches, but anything here involving their housemade masa is delicious. You get to pick your toppings (with options like pastor, steak, or calabaza) plus your salsa (red or green), and there’s really no wrong decision. There are only six tables here, but if you’re visiting in the summer, you can eat on their cute side patio.


Italian beef sandwiches and hot dogs are almost as important as pizza in Chicago, and the Portillo’s in River North does both very well. And yes, Portillo’s now has multiple locations, but it started here—so as far as we’re concerned, it’s a must-stop. Make sure you get both a hot dog and an Italian beef, and if you know to order a chocolate cake shake, too (which now, you do), you’re basically a Chicagoan already.


This is one of the most famous restaurants in the world, and its tasting menus can cost anywhere between $200 and $500 per person. So you definitely need to plan ahead if you want to come here. Your meal won’t just be expensive—it’s also guaranteed to be pretty dramatic (expect lots of theatrics, like edible balloons and fog machines). In other words, dinner here feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And yes, we realize that’s a lot of pressure to put on a restaurant.


For an upscale-but-not-too-fancy dinner while in Chicago, consider booking a table at Jeong in West Town. The atmosphere is relaxed (people might be wearing jeans and you can expect an Indie rock playlist), but the food is incredible. This Korean restaurant serves an eight-course tasting menu for $135, and we promise it will be one of the best meals you’ll have all year. The menu changes regularly, but with dishes like a simple salmon tartare with creme fraiche to kanpachi shaped like a rose—everything is always excellent.


If you’re looking for a fun, casual restaurant with great food and service, you’ll find it at Giant in Logan Square. The food at this little restaurant is, to put it simply, f*cking fantastic. To put it less simply: you’ll find interesting and complex dishes like perfectly seared scallops on top of crispy masa with oranges and cotija. Or, roasted peppers, aged provolone, and everything-seasoned butter served with anchovy bread that - when combined - tastes like a Tostino’s pizza roll, but in the best way. The narrow restaurant recently added plexiglass between the tables, but they also have a charming back patio, too.


Daisies is a Midwestern pasta-focused restaurant in Logan Square. And while “Midwestern pasta” might conjure up nightmares of things like tuna noodle casseroles, here it means delicious non-Italian pastas made with local ingredients. The menu feels inspired by your friend who has a (successful) garden, with seasonal dishes like a fantastic beet agnolotti, or the gnocchi made with pickled chard and bacon. Basically, it’s exactly the kind of farm-to-table place that will make a visitor realize we’re in a city surrounded by actual farms.


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