Where To Eat When You’re Visiting A College Student In Chicago
This is your time to bond, and give them a break from instant ramen.
You’re here for the first (or second, or 15th) visit since your mostly-grown-up child started college, and it’s time to make sure all that hard work in high school and/or debt being accrued isn’t going to waste. Or maybe you’re the college student, and you don’t know what to tell your parents about where to eat in a neighborhood you’ve barely had time to explore between orientation, classes, and figuring out what to do with that tiny fridge.
Here’s our guide to restaurants near major Chicago college campuses, ranging from casual lunch and dinner places to upscale spots where you can sit down and discuss things like time management and how to make your own doctor appointments. We’re starting with four schools - DePaul, The University of Chicago, Northwestern, and Loyola - but will be adding more.
Blue Door Farm Stand
Cheese curds are the gateway drug to the Midwest, and the ones at Blue Door Farm Stand are excellent. Plus, lots of plants and little watering cans make the interior here feel like a farmhouse, which fits with the Midwestern food being served. You’ll find stuff like fried chicken sliders (with an excellent pimento cheese), pork loin, and seasonal vegetable dishes. In other words, after lunch or dinner here, your kid is probably never moving back to the East or West Coast.
Chicago has a lot of expensive and kind-of-fancy Italian restaurants. But if you just want to eat some solidly good pasta in a casual atmosphere, Pasta Palazzo is the place for that. The food is affordable (pastas range from $8-11), but it’s still nice enough in here that you can have a glass of wine while your 18-year-old pretends he’s never heard of alcohol in his life. Definitely get the penne bolognese, or one of the handmade pastas like the gnocchi or ravioli.
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You can pretend you’re in Chicago to see how college is going, but we all know that’s a lie. You’re here because you want the thick, perfectly caramelized crust that you can only get from the deep dish at Pequod’s. Just accept it - no one’s going to think less of you.
This neighborhood Greek restaurant is one of our favorite spots in all of Chicago. The thing to order is the chicken kalamata dinner, but other dishes (like the gyros and the spanakopita) are just as good. Plus, Athenian Room is very reasonable (with prices ranging from around $3-12), so if your student hasn’t discovered this place already, they’ll most likely add it to their rotation pretty much immediately.
The Chicago Diner
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to eat three hot dogs a week to keep up your residence in the city of Chicago (student or otherwise). There are plenty of good vegetarian and vegan restaurants here, including Chicago Diner, which serves (as the name suggests) diner food. Everything on the menu is great, no matter how skeptical you might be about a vegan reuben. Trust us, it’s good.
Juno is a laid-back spot serving quality sushi that doesn’t feel overpriced. Focus on the sashimi and nigiri, but make sure you try at least one of their smoked fish specials, which are presented tableside under a glass dome.
photo credit: Sandy Noto
Summer House Santa Monica
If you looked up the Farmers’ Almanac prediction for this coming winter and you’re suddenly asking yourself why DePaul ever seemed preferable to USC, go to Summer House Santa Monica. It’s a nice, bright restaurant with a huge skylight and a California-inspired menu. Order some fish tacos or a kale salad, and pretend the winter coats you packed in the car are just beach kaftans that dared to dream.
The University of Chicago
Plein Air Cafe & Eatery
Plein Air is a light, airy cafe in a building next to the university bookstore, and the menu has French-inspired tartines, salads, and kind-of-healthy grain bowls. It’s good for a quick stop in between meeting everyone in the dorms and discussing the pros and cons of doing a year abroad in Europe.
Valois is an old-school cafeteria, complete with old-school cafeteria food (like meatloaf), plastic trays, and people who will yell at you if you move too slowly through the line. It’s also famous for being one of President Obama’s favorite spots in Hyde Park. Remember to bring cash - they don’t take cards here.
BBQ Supply Co.
BBQ Supply Co. doesn’t make the best barbecue in Chicago, but they do have very good brisket. So order that, and make sure to go heavy on the sides as well - they’re fantastic, particularly the custard-filled cornbread and truffle mac and cheese.
Nella Pizza e Pasta
This is where you go for excellent Neapolitan pizza in the neighborhood. It’s owned by someone who used to make pies at Spacca Napoli, one of our favorite pizza places in the city, and while there are some cheesy design elements (like cans of tomatoes and a bright yellow Vespa dangling over the bar), the most important thing here is the wood-fired oven, because that’s what makes the pizza so damn good.
This neighborhood classic has been around for more than 50 years. It’s a casual counter-service operation, known for its gigantic triple-decker sandwiches (particularly the corned beef and pastrami). So maybe only come here if you have time for a nap afterwards.
Medici on 57th
Medici is a Hyde Park/UChicago staple, and it has a menu almost as long as The Cheesecake Factory’s. Come here when you’ve been getting on each other’s nerves, and can’t decide what kind of food you want. There are options ranging from pastries and egg scrambles to pizza, burgers, and quesadillas.
College is all about trying new things (or at least that’s what people keep telling you). So this is a good time to branch out with at least one new style of pizza. Go to Union Squared, which specializes in Detroit-style pies (basically a hybrid of the pan-style ones you get at Pequod’s, and the deep dish from Lou Malnati’s). There’s not a ton of space here, but hopefully it’s still nice enough outside that you can sit on the back patio.
You’ve been out of school for too long to put up with bad college bar food. Luckily, that won’t be a concern at Bat 17, where the usual suspects (like burgers, sandwiches, and fries) are made with high-quality ingredients and taste really good. The space is full of TVs, pool tables, and foosball - basically enough activities that you can leave your kid there, and they won’t even notice that you’ve gone. Just like when you dropped them off at kindergarten.
Tomate Fresh Kitchen
Tomate Fresh Kitchen is the only place on our guide where you can’t sit down, but it’s so good that we’re including it anyway. It’s a carry-out spot with great Latin American food, from burritos and gorditos to tacos - including interesting vegetarian options like sweet potato with caramelized onion, and yucca chimichurri. Whatever you order, you can count on it being fantastic. Maybe just plan to eat it in the car for extra bonding time.
Taco Diablo is a Mexican restaurant with a short menu consisting mainly of, yes, tacos. There are 12 kinds, including lamb barbacoa, a chorizo made from duck and pork, and classics like carne asada. They’re all delicious, and they come three to an order (you can mix and match) with family-style beans and rice for the table. The dark cantina-like space also has a large bar with excellent margaritas - so after a quick goodbye hug at the dorm, consider coming back here to finish your night.
Edzo's Burger Shop
If all of this college stuff is making you nostalgic, try Edzo’s. It’s an old-school burger joint that serves fantastic griddled diner-style patties, hot dogs, and fries. The orange, yellow, and brown color scheme reminds us of a puffy winter coat from the 1980s, adding to the retro charm of the place. Make sure to get an order of their specialty fries (like buffalo with bleu cheese, or the chili fries), and an Oreo shake. Then launch into some stories about using microfiche to research term papers before the internet.
Dollop Coffee + Hoosier Mama Pie
The emphasis at Hoosier Mama is on pie, and all the options - from chocolate cream to whatever fruit flavors they have that day - are exceptionally good. There are also delicious savory things on the menu, like quiche, sandwiches, and salads. The space is cozy and filled with natural light, and it’s a great spot to have a real conversation.
There’s a good chance Indie Cafe has already become your college student’s reliable neighborhood sushi spot. It has you covered for big, complicated sushi rolls (like deep fried ones with shrimp tempura and cream cheese, covered in BBQ sauce), and there’s a Thai food menu as well, with a satisfying massaman curry and solid noodle dishes like pad see ew and pad thai. There’s also a great patio area for when it’s warm out. Plus, it’s BYOB.
There are two locations of Bop N Grill in Chicago, and this is the original (the other is in Lakeview). It’s a counter-service spot that does two things - burgers and bibimbap - and does them both very well. But we come here primarily for their burgers, which are just the right kind of hard to eat (i.e. sloppy but still manageable). Also make sure to get their fries topped with caramelized kimchi and cheese, which somehow manage to stay crispy the whole time you’re eating them.
Mango Pickle is a small neighborhood spot serving great Indian food. They have some of the best chana masala we’ve ever had, plus seasonal dishes like seared scallops with cardamom beets. It’s cozy and quiet here, and an easy place to talk - so use it when you need to tell your daughter you’re turning her bedroom into a pottery studio.
Turns out your kid blew past being vegetarian and is now a full-blown vegan. Thankfully there’s Alice & Friends’, a vegan restaurant with great Asian-inspired food. The menu is long, with things like dumplings, seitan satay skewers, and spring rolls. The food here is enjoyable enough for for non-vegans, too, but be aware that you will be surrounded by motivational quotes like “share the world with all beings.” If that kind of thing irritates you, plan ahead and be sure to BYOB.
Dak is permanently closed
This counter-service Korean spot is one of our favorite places for chicken wings in Chicago. Other dishes here, like the bibimbap and bulgogi, are perfectly good, but the jumbo wings are what you want. They’re huge, perfectly crispy, and served with a ginger glaze that tastes delicious and never makes the wings soggy.