We might not have an ocean, but we do have a giant lake. And during the summer, it’s our sacred duty to run, bike, and walk alongside it, and to take pictures on its many “beaches” to pretend we’re on the coast. All that activity and forced fun can make you hungry. Here are 18 places to eat and drink that are either a short walk from the lake or right on the beach, and casual enough that you won’t even need to change.
You never won that trip to Palm Springs by reaching your “adventurepreneur” sales goal, but Shore Club is here to help you pretend you did. This place on North Avenue Beach has a cabana-style atmosphere with loungy daybeds and some not-terrible Mediterannean food. And unlike that resort in Palm Springs, you don’t have to come here with your boss.
Castaways Bar & Grill
If you’re wondering where people who auditioned for The Real World hang out, they’re at Castaways. Yes, this place is a total sh*tshow, but if you want a burger after drinking on North Avenue Beach all day, this is where to order it. The location is inside a fake ship that’s right on the beach, and if you happen to be in party mode, it’s a decent option. Especially if you’re a little sad you never got to see Sisqo perform live during MTV’s Spring Break in 2001.
If Castaways is MTV Spring Break, Waterfront Cafe in Edgewater is Nancy Meyers’ spring break. This outdoor cafe is attached to a coach house next to the Berger Park Cultural Center mansion. It’s quiet and has food like nachos, red pepper spread, and sandwiches. There’s also live acoustic music. It’s basically the beach restaurant equivalent of linen pants.
As hard as we try to pretend it is, Lake Michigan is not an ocean. That said, there are some spots along the “beach” that manage to convince you that you’re closer to the Jersey Shore than to Gary, Indiana. The Dock at Montrose Beach achieves this - it’s a cafe right on the lakefront sand. And while the burger might be mediocre, the convenience definitely isn’t.
We don’t blame you for being skeptical when we say that a dark basement bar decorated with permanent Christmas lights and a few plastic tables has great crab legs, especially when we’re about 760 miles away from the nearest ocean. But Half Shell in Lincoln Park does, and there’s nothing better for your sunburn than darkness and clarified butter.
Del Seoul is a casual Korean fusion spot in Lakeview. Their specialty is Korean tacos (make sure you get the shrimp ones), and they have excellent kimchi fries, too. There’s a serious takeout operation going on here, so consider swinging by during your run to see if tacos will be more motivating on mile five than packets of GU.
If you’re anywhere near Belmont Harbor, head to Crisp for their excellent Korean fried chicken. In fact, the Seoul Sassy wings at Crisp are our favorite chicken wings in Chicago. If fried chicken is somehow not your thing, they also do some solid bi bim bop. But actually, just get both.
The Wiener's Circle
Like flying a kite at night, there’s something that feels a little strange about going to The Wiener’s Circle in Lakeview when it’s not 4am. But the hot dogs are very good, and stopping here in the afternoon is allowed. Sober or not.
Theater On The Lake
Theater On The Lake is (unsurprisingly) right on the lake, which means you have a close view of Lake Michigan and the pretty stretch of lawn right next to the path. This is both a restaurant and an event space, and as far as food goes, stick with appetizers like the chips and guacamole, or order the burger, which is pretty good too.
Right around when the pyramids were being built, Lettuce Entertain You was opening RJ Grunts in Lincoln Park. Since then, they’ve opened about 75,894 other places. But if you’re by the lake with your family and want to go somewhere with a good burger and a salad bar that has over 50 ingredients (that’s not an exaggeration), come here.
This is by far the most upscale place on the list, so only consider it if your lakeside stroll is the kind that involves paparazzi-style engagement photos. North Pond is a special occasion spot right in the middle of Lincoln Park. The space and view will make you feel like you’re in a really nice cabin, and the seasonal American food is always outstanding.
Caffe Oliva is a respectable outdoor restaurant on Ohio St. Beach. It’s kind of like ordering food at a hotel pool, with options like calamari, coconut shrimp, and pita and hummus. Are you going to call all your friends after eating here to tell them about the food? Probably not, but it gets the job done when you don’t feel like moving farther from the sand than absolutely necessary.
Medici on 57th
If you’re by the lake in Hyde Park, go to Medici. It’s a UChicago staple that serves all three meals and has a Cheesecake-Factory-length menu. This place is perfect for large groups, with options ranging from pastries to egg scrambles to pizza to burgers to quesadillas. They also have deep dish and thin crust, so feel free to get a mix of both. In fact, turn the whole table into an Old Country Buffet while you’re here - after playing beach volleyball that’s probably what you’ll want to do.
Flo & Santos
Flo & Santos is part Polish-American restaurant, part pizza spot. The pies here are thin crust tavern-style, and you can also get things like pierogis. It’s a short walk from Museum Campus and also has a little patio area in case you didn’t get enough sun outside the Shedd.
Reggies is a very casual rooftop music venue and bar. You can expect standard bar food options like burgers, fries, and wings, but you’re not here for that - you’re here for the party atmosphere, and to stand around in shorts and Tevas without anyone judging you. Even if they should.
Eleven City Diner
Eleven City Diner is another spot near Museum Campus. Come here for deli classics like reubens and matzo ball soup, or all-day breakfast dishes like omelets and their black and white french toast made with challah.
Even if you’ve done your due diligence and made sure that that your friends visiting Chicago know to call you after they’ve gone to the Bean, you’ll still probably have to meet up for food and drinks nearby. So if you find yourself by the part of the lake that’s near the Loop, head to The Gage. The menu is full of upscale bar food like bison tartare, poutine, and fish and chips. If your friends haven’t had enough of being outdoors, sit outside.
Lou Malnati's Pizzeria
In case wandering around in the summer heat wasn’t enough to put you to sleep, there are a couple of Lou Malnati’s near different parts of the Lakefront Trail. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to alert you to the one near Grant Park, because there are plenty of hotels close by in case you need to take a nap after polishing off a 16” pizza.