CHIGuide

The McCormick Place Survival Guide

You have a conference at McCormick Place. Here’s what you need to know.

The McCormick Place Survival Guide guide image

photo credit: Sandy Noto

McCormick Place is the largest convention center in the United States, and if you’re in Chicago for a conference, there’s almost a 100% chance it will be here. We’re going to be direct with you: the food situation near McCormick Place is grim. The best strategy is to get into an Uber and head elsewhere, but you might be too busy, too tired, or stuck with your boss who refuses to leave the building just in case they get asked to do an emergency TED Talk.

Here are the 15 restaurants you need to know about that are within walking distance of McCormick Place.

The Spots

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Il Culaccino

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We can’t stress this enough: there are a lot of great restaurants all over Chicago. But we’re not here to talk about those, we’re here to talk about what you can eat in between Morningstar Investment panel discussions. Il Culaccino is one of these - it’s an Italian restaurant that’s right across the street. It’s a place that feels one unlimited breadstick away from being in a mall parking lot, but the huge portions of pasta and tasty appetizers are better than what you’ll find at most chain restaurants. Opt for the spicy shrimp arrabbiata or the gnocchi al forno - it’s cheesy, tasty, and exactly what you want from a red-sauce pasta.


Reggies is a bar and music venue with a great rooftop deck, and every time we’re here it feels like a Chicago neighborhood block party - an experience we want you to have. This casual spot has cold beer, burgers and wings, daily live music, and games like bags (which is what we call cornhole in the Midwest). And unlike the hotel your company put you up in, the flat-screen TVs at Reggies will work.


Considering how many out-of-towners are wandering around McCormick Place, there’s a criminally negligible amount of classic Chicago pizza spots nearby. But there is Pizano’s, a local chain that’s been around since 1991 and happens to have a location right across the street from the convention center. This spot has both thin crust and deep dish, though we’re going to suggest you go with the thin. We appreciate the buttery cracker crust, and we always order it with pepperoni. If it’s nice out, sit on the patio.


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Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen

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We’re big fans of the real Manny’s in the South Loop. And because you have a breakout session on global security in 20 minutes, it’s useful to know about the outpost of this deli inside McCormick Place itself. Order one of the huge corned beef sandwiches and be grateful you found somewhere that won’t feel like a regional airport’s food court.


There aren’t a lot of upscale spots near McCormick Place to grab a drink. Vu is a nice rooftop bar on the 22nd floor of a nearby building, and since it has both firepits and retractable windows, it works no matter what season the Society of Neuroscience decides to have its annual conference. There’s a long menu of small plates like mushroom tostadas, chorizo and shrimp toast, and steak tartare.


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There are a few locations of this reliably good Thai spot in the city, and thankfully one of them is near McCormick Place. The space is nice and quiet, which is a pleasant change of pace from the mic’d up trade show reps you’ve been listening to all day. Have a relaxed meal here and see how much leftover pad thai you can stuff in the hotel mini fridge.


If you have a corporate card and a relaxed accounting department, make the trip to Acadia. They have a seven-course tasting menu in the dining room, or if you’re not in the mood for a fancy dinner, you can come here and eat at the bar (where you don’t need a reservation). That’s where they serve their excellent burger, which is actually still pretty fancy - it has gruyere, bacon onion jam, and a truffle mornay.


14 Parish is an upscale Caribbean restaurant, and it’s worth seeking out if you’re in the neighborhood. You’ll find dishes like jerk chicken and catfish, oxtails, and vegetarian curry. The food here is really good (especially if you like your food spicy) and the service is really friendly. Just be aware that they do a lot of private events here, so the atmosphere can feel scattered if you come during a graduation, birthday party, or the Society of Neuroscience’s casino night.


The only thing that can make three days of loud patterned carpet and fluorescent lighting more bearable is enduring it with a belly full of fried chicken. Make this happen at Harold’s Chicken Shack. There are a few of these casual counter spots in the city, and they all focus on the same delicious fried chicken and fish. Round your meal out with fries, coleslaw, and some spicy wings.


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Chicago Oyster House

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Would we suggest that someone from Vancouver or Maine come here? Probably not. But if anyone in your party is visiting from a landlocked state, consider Chicago Oyster House a valid option. They have a variety of decent oysters, along with things like crab legs, sushi, and steak in an upscale space. Get the fresh oysters, anything fried, and skip the sushi.


Amber from HQ likes margaritas. Amber also likes ordering the sort of fajita platter that arrives sizzling like a meteorite and takes up the entire table with all its fixings. So if you have post-conference plans with Amber, you should know about La Cantina. This sit-down Mexican spot has the usual suspects like nachos, enchiladas, burritos, and, yes, fajitas. Come here for an upbeat group dinner, and watch your fingers around the hot skillet right by your drink.


If you would like to visit a neighborhood coffee shop that doesn’t have its own app or an entire pumpkin spice agenda, go to The Spoke & Bird. This place has a nice outdoor patio and a short food menu that includes sandwiches and salads. You’re probably not going to miss this place as soon as you land back in Newark, but you’re not going to leave here with a stale cake pop or a tin of mints you don’t need, either.


Your attempts to convince your colleagues to trek to Au Cheval for a fantastic burger and a three-hour wait isn’t happening. But you can all walk to Kroll’s, a dimly lit sports bar that has a selection of burgers that satisfy the requirements of the Just Fine Chicago Burger Regulations, which we believe were ratified by Barack Obama and Rick Bayless. We made some of that up, but the important thing is that the burgers here are pretty good.


If you want sushi, then South Coast is a solid option. The space is sleek and upscale, and while there are a few other locations (One in Evanston and a BYOB spot in Wicker Park), this is one near McCormick Place with a full bar. Get a few small plates to share (like gyoza and edamame) and the spicy tuna roll, or the white dragon maki with sweet potato tempura. Then be prepared to forget all about them as soon as you leave the building.


McCormick Place is very close to Chinatown. It’s a bit of a hike to walk, but both neighborhoods are right off the Red Line. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance you can convince your hungover colleagues to skip the morning presentation and go to QXY, which is right across from the Cermak-Chinatown stop. This spot focuses on delicious broth-filled dumplings that you can get steamed, boiled, or fried, with a variety of fillings. It’s a long shot they’ll be convinced, but worth a try.


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