The McCormick Place Survival Guide

You have a conference at McCormick Place. Here’s what you need to know.
The McCormick Place Survival 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 (or consider trekking further into the South Loop or Chinatown), 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 11 restaurants you need to know about that are within walking distance of McCormick Place.


photo credit: Kim Kovacik


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Apolonia is a Mediterranean restaurant conveniently located among the many hotels near the convention center. It’s bright and airy, which will be a welcome change after an afternoon spent in a windowless room learning about A.I.’s impact on the weather. Every dish at this upscale spot has multiple layers of flavor, like buttery truffle puff bread and fiorentini topped with a pork sugo. Even “the pistachio,” a dessert with only one main ingredient (albeit in gelato, pastry, oil, and candied form), is surprisingly complex. After dinner, you can head next door to VU Rooftop for drinks and one of the best views of the city.

For anyone who needs to impress a client with a fancy tasting menu and beer pairing, there’s Moody Tongue. The 12-course meal in their intimate dining room has dishes like sea urchin with lobster bottarga and roast duck with ground cherry. But if a $285 meal (plus $85 for beverage pairing) sounds a bit much, they have a separate, much more casual bar area. There, you can order scallops and crispy pork shank a la carte, while drinking a fruit lychee IPA or a churro porter. But honestly, stopping by alone for their 12-layer chocolate cake and some networking decompression time is a totally valid (and recommended) move.

This Chinese hot pot chain is famous for its robot servers and noodle dancers. There are nine soup bases to choose from and a variety of things—like white shrimp, cocktail sausages, or pork belly—begging to be dunked into boiling broth. The condiment bar is as robust as the menu, and at the end of your meal, Haidilao will give you a free soft serve. More importantly, they take reservations, and the large, bright space is divided into sections, so it’s perfect for group dinners with your entire team. 

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.

photo credit: Fatpour Tap Works

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Your attempts to convince your colleagues to visit Au Cheval for a fantastic burger aren’t working (blame the three-hour wait). But you can all walk to Fatpour Tap Works, a sports bar across from Wintrust Arena with a long beer list, TVs in every direction, pizzas, and pub food that satisfies the Just Fine Chicago Burger Regulations. Fatpour is more like a permanent corporate Happy Hour venue than a neighborhood watering hole. But when you’re looking for a place to gossip with your most tolerable teammates about your least tolerable teammates, it’s exactly what you need.

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 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’s 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.

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 wander 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 has 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.

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 and entrees like chicken fried mushrooms, confit duck leg, and shrimp and grits.

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.

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