Navy Pier is generally full of bad food, tourists, and stores with rotating displays of keychains that have other people’s names on them. If you live in Chicago, you’ve probably been avoiding coming here. But eventually you’ll need to take your cousin visiting from Omaha on the ferris wheel, or the time will come when the only Imax theater showing Jurassic Park 7: Raptors in Space in 3D is the one at Navy Pier.
When these things happen, don’t panic. This guide has all the best places for eating and drinking nearby (i.e. within a 15-minute walk or five-minute car ride), and even some not-terrible places at the Pier itself.
The very best strategy for handling hunger at Navy Pier is to leave. Take a five-minute walk to The Purple Pig, which is still in a tourist-heavy area, but serves Mediterranean small plates so good they’re even worth a trip across town. If your cousin is still trying to find his way through The Amazing Maze when you get hungry, know that the bar at The Purple Pig is great for dining alone, too. You’ll be back before he’s done - hopefully.
Don’t let the fact that you’re on a pier fool you - you’re approximately 796 miles from the nearest ocean, and the big-name seafood restaurants at Navy Pier are truly terrible. Luckily, though, there’s also Fish Bar, the sit-down spot right next to Burger Bar. Order the shrimp and crawfish po’boy (it’s the same excellent sandwich that’s at the location in Lakeview), or the fried fish sandwich. And yes, you should get should get a shake here, too.
The Michigan Ave location of Billy Goat Tavern is a Chicago institution, and within walking distance of the Pier. But in case you’re here with a New Yorker who’s only accustomed to walking tiny city blocks, the Navy Pier outpost is an acceptable alternative. Whichever location you pick, make sure to order the double or the triple burger - the bun’s too thick for a single patty. Eat something iconic here and then do a lot of Chicago-y things, like riding the ferris wheel and trying to avoid being pick-pocketed.
Giordano’s is a deep dish pizza chain. While it’s not our favorite (that would be Lou Malnati’s, it’s still very satisfying. And this is a perfectly valid choice if you decide to stay at Navy Pier. The pizza here is stuffed deep dish, which means it’s double crusted, with tomato sauce on top and about 25 pounds of cheese inside. It also means you should probably avoid riding the Wave Swinger after eating it.
The original Original Rainbow Cone is in Beverly, and has been around since 1926. The Rainbow Cone stand at Navy Pier doesn’t have the same history, but it serves the same thing. That thing would be the rainbow cone itself, which has layers of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer house (vanilla with walnuts and cherries), and pistachio ice creams, plus orange sherbet. Just make sure that when you’re here, you get it in a dish instead of a cone - Navy Pier is hard enough to navigate without babysitting a melty, multi-layered ice cream cone through the crowd like a contestant on American Ninja Warrior.
Ron of Japan is about four blocks away from Navy Pier. It’s a lot like a Benihana, but more of a local micro-chain (the other location is in Northbrook). Given the location, it actually has fewer tourists and giant groups than you might expect, but it’s still really lively, and everyone will have a good time - you’ll be sitting at a communal table as you watch the chef flip shrimp tails into his hat. No guarantee he’ll flip them into anyone’s new “I Love Chicago” hoodie, though.
You got ice cream at Rainbow Cone before your movie at the Imax, and then you ate a $72 box of popcorn supplemented with some Junior Mints. If you’re still hungry, you might be in the mood for something kind of healthy. Walk to the Streeterville Beatrix, where you’ll find plenty of salads, plus entrees ranging from chili and chocolate glazed salmon to a cauliflower steak.
Let’s get this out of the way - the food here isn’t great. That being said, there are worse places to eat at Navy Pier. Tiny Tavern’s menu has gastropub-style appetizers like truffle fries and cheese curds, and there’s also a long cocktail list with drinks like the “Sobourban” (bourbon, amaro, orange liqueur, and ginger beer). It’s good enough for killing time with the overseas colleagues you’re entertaining before that boat cruise - the cocktails here on land are better, and they should really have some fried cheese while they’re in the Midwest, anyway.
After spending time at Chicago’s version of the Mall of America, it might be nice to balance everything out with some culture. Do so at Marisol in the MCA. It’s the spot on this list that’s the furthest from Navy Pier (an 18-minute walk, or six-minute drive), but it’s an excellent restaurant, and it’s still close enough that you should know about it. You’ll find things like sunflower seed hummus, housemade pastas, and a fried quail with date honey that tastes like a fancy version of chicken and waffles. Plus, Marisol is right next to Water Tower Place, just in case you (or the people you’re with) haven’t had enough of Chicago malls for one day.