River North is a perplexing place: You love it. You hate it. The restaurants are great. The restaurants are annoying. It’s great for people-watching. These people are the worst.
This neighborhood is full of contradictions—it has a lot of stressed-out businesspeople and cheerfully drunk tourists, along with the best views of the river and the worst smells in the city. River North also has some of our favorite restaurants in Chicago. So when you can’t decide where to eat in between all the fancy steakhouses, Italian beef joints, and hyped-up party spots, this guide is here to help.
Bavette's Bar and Boeuf
Bavette’s is our favorite steakhouse in Chicago. First, because the actual steak here is the best in the city. Second, because the speakeasy atmosphere and 1920s jazz music make it feel different from a traditional Chicago steakhouse, as does the fact that you can come here, not order a steak (entrees like the fried chicken and the lamb chops are outstanding), and still have a fantastic meal. Still, though, you should definitely get a steak, and an order of buttery mashed potatoes and truffle mac and cheese that might as well come with a defibrillator.
Fueled by solid ramen, long drink list, and an omnipresent hip hop soundtrack, Ramen San is a laid-back alternative to the upscale, menus-as-big-as-your-torso, River North spots. Their ramen comes with thin wavy noodles and a variety of flavorful broths, from the vegetable ramen with mushrooms and tofu, to the chicken shio with buttery corn, to our favorite: creamy tonkotsu with fatty chashu and a gooey soft-boiled egg. The energetic atmosphere and large dining area works for a meal with friends, or end-of-the-week drinks with your coworkers. You all can snack on crispy karaage nuggets or sweet pork buns as you host your own whiskey tournament and rank all 24 of their Japanese varieties.
Chicago is the fifth location of this casual Spanish restaurant that opened in D.C. back in 1993, and the brightly lit, busy space can definitely give you chain restaurant vibes. But that concern will disappear fast thanks to the attentive service and great food. The menu includes tapas, paellas, sangrias, and a long list of Spanish wines. And the crowd—while a mixed bag of tourists—is clearly having some fun. It’s contagious, so even if you come here in a bad mood, you’ll be joining them soon. It’s a great spot for dinner and drinks before going out downtown, or if you just want to get together with some friends and not worry about how loud you’re being.
photo credit: Amy Ulivieri
Penelope's Vegan Taqueria
Just off the Chicago Brown Line spot is Penelope's, an immediately noticeable bright pink Mexican spot covered in a collage of painted flowers. What’s not immediately noticeable is that all of the food here is vegan. And their variety of Mexican dishes, from burritos to chilaquiles, will make even the most meat-centric eater second guess the vegan-ness of it all. Our favorites are the Beyond Meat asada tacos, and the enchiladas. These crisp, rolled tortillas come loaded with spiced potatoes, and are topped with spicy red salsa and smooth vegan sour cream. Come in for a relaxed solo bite or grab some takeout with your pet teacup pig.
Ciccio Mio is an Italian spot from the same team as Bavette’s and Gilt. In fact, it’s located right in between those two places, and also has consistently excellent food. You’ll find dishes like antipasti, pasta, and larger entrees—and everything from the phyllo-wrapped cheese to the crispy chicken parmesan is delicious. Even better, the dining room (filled with old-timey pictures) feels a little like the setting for a murder mystery party, but here you can pick your own fake persona.
If you’re wondering where the name Obelix comes from, it's a French cartoon character who is a sculptor with an insatiable appetite. And while you can leave your chisel at home, you should probably come here hungry because Obelix’s menu is full of fantastic French food. You'll find classics like French onion soup and poulet roti with buttery potato gratin. But some of the most memorable dishes are the ones that fuse French tradition with other international flavors—from their steak tartare with a spicy and pungent shio kombu, to their impressively complex foie gras taco (aka foie-co). Combining a white-tablecloth experience with pulsating hip-hop music, dinner here makes for an exciting group meal or date night.
Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Originally from Miami, Joe’s has officially become a Chicago classic, too. This location does a great job of incorporating its signature stone crabs with an otherwise traditional steakhouse menu. You’ll find all the steakhouse sides you’d expect (there’s a whole section devoted to potatoes and plenty of creamed spinach), along with seasonal fish and shellfish. Joe’s proves there’s no better way to do surf and turf than steak and stone crabs.
While the food here may not necessarily be life-changing, in the context of bar food at a ping pong spot, it’s pretty good. Spin is a sprawling space with 20 ping pong tables that you can reserve online by the hour, or just walk in and grab a table—if you’re there when they open at 4pm you should be able to snag one easily. The pulled pork sandwiches are tender with bright vinegar slaw, and the smashburger is juicy with a tangy tomato bacon jam, and you can snack on things like nachos. There’s plenty of space to eat at the dining table or the bar, but there are also counters by the sidelines for grabbing bites between sets. It’s perfect for a birthday, post-work hang, or a casual date night.
Friends Station is an energetic AYCE shabu shabu spot, where colorful plates of ingredients zoom past you on a conveyor belt, loud music blasts from the speakers, and diners hectically stack empty plates to try to make the most of the 80-minutes allotted for eating. It’s chaotic yet exhilarating. Once you’ve chosen your broth (vegetable kumbu or sukiyaki shoyu), you can start picking plates off of the conveyor belt and cooking your ingredients in your own individual pot. Our favorites are the thinly sliced lamb shoulder, black pepper marinated pork, and ribeye, especially when topped off with some spicy, garlicky hua lampong sauce. Also great is the serotonin boost you get when you emerge victorious against your friend after racing to snag the same plate of beef.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse
Eating here usually feels like a corporate outing, probably because it’s at the bottom of an office building that houses prestigious corporations and successful-looking people in power suits. But the food (especially the bone-in prime rib) is excellent, and the space has an impressive view of the Chicago River. It’s also a great place for a general celebratory meal—because even if you’re not a fancy business person, you’re still a celebrity to all 312 of your Instagram followers.
This casual Croatian cafe has become our favorite place to get some work done in the neighborhood. It’s not just because Doma is quiet, has strong wifi, a cute side patio, and a soothing Scandinavian furniture store aesthetic (and vintage chairs for sale). No, it’s also because the food is excellent. It’s open for breakfast and lunch, and the menu has dishes like must-order ćevapi wrapped in fluffy flatbread with clotted cream and a roasted pepper spread, a spicy breakfast sandwich, and tasty soups and pastries. All of which are likely to distract you from whatever reports you’re supposed to be typing on your laptop.
You probably either love Sunda or find it obnoxious, because –late at night or on the weekends, at least—it can be tourist overload. And we respect both sides of that argument. Sunda is basically one giant scene, but we stand firm in our belief that it also serves great food. From the duck fried rice to the pork buns to the sushi (especially the rolls), it won’t disappoint.
Nothing says “going out to dinner in Chicago” like a River North steakhouse with giant booths that’s owned by a former reality show star. And RPM Steak checks all those boxes. It also has excellent service, and really good food. This includes some very expensive cuts of steak (there’s a whole section of wagyu and kobe on the menu), along with small plates, salads, and seafood dishes that deserve equal attention on your table.
This counter-service spot is part of a Midwestern chain serving Mexican and Korean fusion food. Seoul Taco has an energetic hip-hop playlist and is packed with plenty of tables for small groups or solo diners. The menu has tacos, burritos, and rice bowls filled with chicken, spicy pork, bulgogi, and tofu. But the best thing here is an upgraded version of a similarly-named fast food item: the Munchwrap Seoulpreme. It’s a whirlwind of flavors and textures, wrapping your protein of choice in both a crunchy tortilla and a soft flour tortilla, along with refried beans, green onions, kimchi, cheddar, and crema. Come here for a quick bite before a night out in the neighborhood.
Avli River North
We were initially skeptical when we heard Avli opened a restaurant in River North. After all, we weren’t particularly impressed with the Greek food at their small Lincoln Park location location. But this location is actually pretty great. It has a slightly different menu, with dishes like astakomakmaronatha (a lobster pasta in a great ouzo-tomato sauce) and chicken souvlaki—tender chicken breast skewers on top of a bed of fries topped with feta and yogurt sauce. Plus, the large two-level space is perfect for groups, while also being quiet enough to have a conversation.
This is the second location of Avec, and is about 56 times larger than the original in the West Loop. Other notable differences are that it doesn’t have communal seating, and has a longer menu full of Avec classics (like the chorizo-stuffed bacon-wrapped dates and taleggio flatbread), along with a lot more small and large plates, pastas, and pizza. And because the space here is bigger and everyone gets their very own seat, this is the better Avec for a group or business dinner when you don’t want to ask the boss to move whenever you need to go to the restroom.
Tzuco is an upscale Mexican restaurant that feels a little like a trendy installation at a desert art museum, and we mean that in the best way possible. The food here is flavorful and well-executed, from their tetela with tinga de pollo, to chorizo and mussels in a saffron beurre blanc, to delicious cochinita pibil. This spot is a great alternative to the usual suspects in the neighborhood if you’re planning a business dinner or a group outing.
Portillo’s can do no wrong. This is our go-to spot in River North for hot dogs, Italian beef, and cheese fries. Don’t skip the chocolate cake shake.
If you’re into fancy fast food, you’ll really like Big & Little’s. The menu has all kinds of things that might make you feel like Guy Fieri is going to pop out at any moment. You can get giant soft shell crab po’boys, sushi-grade ahi tuna tacos, and/or foie gras topped fries. It’s one of our favorite casual spots around.
The large Peruvian menu at Tanta has sections devoted to ceviche and skewers as well as main dishes like the aeropuerto or the pollo a la brasa. Everything is great, so the best strategy is to come with a group so you can try as much food as possible. This place is perfect for a weekend date, a nice dinner during the week, and during the summer when you can eat on their fantastic rooftop.
Frontera has been in River North since 1987. And even though it’s way past the point of “hot and new” it’s still a good option if you’re looking for Mexican food in the neighborhood. Particularly things like enchiladas, tacos, carne asada, and moles - which are all done very well. The brightly colored space is casual, the service is always friendly, and they have a cute sidewalk patio that’s great for people watching.
Sushi-san in River North has wooden tables, loud rap music, and the menu is a mix of sushi and Japanese small plates. Sure, this place has a poop emoji instead of a bathroom sign, but the food here is no joke—it’s really really good. Sushi-san is also both reasonably affordable for the neighborhood, and a fun spot for a group dinner. Order a “San-set” (an assortment of sushi), and make sure you get the Japanese pancakes for dessert.
Good Measure has the atmosphere of a funky dive, plus an interesting menu of great food ranging from Nashville hot fried duck livers to corn agnolotti to a very good burger. Everything is thoughtfully plated, and not at all what you might expect to be eating in a bar where the main design elements are rockabilly skeletons and neon red lights. The cocktail list is well-rounded and also affordable, with drinks priced around $12. Stop here after work when you want a low-key hangout in the neighborhood.
In a sea of loud and crowded spots, Bernie’s can feel like an oasis. The dining room never gets busy but doesn’t turn into a sh*show, and we really appreciate the relaxed covered rooftop. The tables here are far enough apart to make it feel extra spacious, and they expanded their awning so you can hang here even when it rains. Plus, their food is good - they have tasty pizzas, elotes, and a truly excellent burger.
As you might suspect, RPM Italian is the sister restaurant to RPM Steak, and everything we said about its steakhouse sibling holds true for their Italian restaurant, too. It’s the opposite of laid-back, but it’s a fantastic choice if you’re craving delicious pastas and don’t mind seeing and/or being seen. The bucatini here is some of the best in Chicago.
Ema is a Mediterranean small plates restaurant, and all the dishes are designed for sharing. You can keep it simple with basics like hummus and kefta, or order some of the more interesting dishes like the farro "risotto" with sweet corn. Whatever you do, make sure you order extra housemade pita—it’s excellent. Also good to know? There are plenty of round tables that can easily seat mid-sized groups, and they have a nice sidewalk patio, too.
Gilt Bar is a dark restaurant that feels a little like a speakeasy and is great for dates. It’s particularly great for holing up in the winter with favorites like tenderloin steak tartare, truffle pasta, and pork belly. You’ll forget about, well, everything, when you’re deep in the bone marrow at Gilt Bar.
Shaw’s has all things seafood in a refined (slightly stuffy) dining room. It’s a great place to come with the family and have a comfortable, upscale meal. You can’t go wrong with any of the fish or crab dishes, but the more casual oyster bar is also a great option—go heavy enough on the oysters and appetizers, and you can skip entrees altogether.
There’s a phenomenon that occurs in Chicago—one where city blocks slowly get taken over by a series of restaurants all owned by the same people. This is the case with Frontera Grill, Xoco, and Topolobampo, which are all right next door to each other on Clark Street. And now the alleys aren’t safe either, thanks to Bar Sotano, a cocktail bar right behind all those spots. Luckily, the Mexican food here is great. The menu has a mix of bar snacks (like habanero-glazed fried chicken bites), plus entrees like a burger and a wagyu steak with pureed sunchoke. So it’s definitely improving the alley.
Incredibly upscale establishments have fallen by the wayside in River North. But Brindille - a classic French restaurant on a street that’s otherwise full of tourists and clubby bars - doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. We forgive them, because they definitely pull it off. The food is exceptional and very expensive, so this place isn’t for everyone. But it’s good if you’re looking for a fine dining experience in the neighborhood.
Gene & Georgetti
Gene & Georgetti quintessential old-school Chicago and we love it for that. It’s technically a steakhouse—in fact, it’s Chicago’s oldest steakhouse, since it’s been around since 1944. But it was opened by two Italian guys, which means this is a great spot to get Italian food, too. Come here and split items like steak, sausage and peppers, and a giant bowl of spaghetti with meatballs.
The Rick Bayless River North trifecta ends here, and Xoco is the most casual and convenient of the bunch. Xoco is great for lunch—pop in for a quick torta, a bowl of tortilla soup, and some churros and hot chocolate. Not necessarily in that order.
Parlor Pizza Bar
The original Parlor Pizza in the West Loop is surprisingly club-like for a pizza place, so it’s not surprising that the one in River North has the same kind of upbeat atmosphere. Also like the original, this one is huge, with a nearly-identical menu of wood-fired pizzas, salads, and bar snacks. The pizzas are solid (the “bee sting” with hot honey and ’nduja is really good), and there’s a big bar in the center of the restaurant that’s perfect for watching sports.
If you’re looking for seafood but don’t want to spend a fortune at a fancy spot, GT Fish & Oyster is here for you. The menu is meant for sharing, which means it’s a great spot for date night or small group dinners with people who are into fresh oysters, po’ boy sliders, octopus, and mussels.
On the surface, Siena Tavern has all the traits of a typical River North spot: it’s trendy, always crowded, and it has giant booths. And it also happens to be a really great Italian restaurant. You can order the pizzas here half and half (our favorite combo is the prosciutto and pear with the pepperoni), and you can’t go wrong with any of the pastas, like the gnocchi, or the squid ink linguine with lobster.
Beatrix is a handy utility player. The all-day menu has a variety of solid options for brunch, lunch, and dinner, and there are a lot of gluten-free options on the menu (like a roasted brussels sprouts and apple salad, chicken tortilla soup, and halibut tacos). But, they also have a pastry case that’s full of fantastic baked goods. Get the apple oatmeal cookie on your way out.
When GT Prime first opened, it was more of a meat-centric small plates restaurant that served steak in sliced tasting portions. We’re glad they changed their minds and decided to go full-steakhouse, serving their high-quality red meat in normal cuts. You’ll find fuzzy bar stools, animal heads on the walls, and giant leather booths that help show you this is a bonafide USDA River North restaurant. And if you do miss the sliced portions of steak, you can always order the “carnivore,” which has 8oz servings of filet, bison, wagyu, and NY strip for $270.
So you need a place for food and lots of alcohol, but feel like you only have two choices in River North: an expensive Big Night Out at a steakhouse, or a club with complicated cocktails that take an hour to make. Don’t worry—there’s also Centennial, a low-key place where you’ll feel like you’re eating in the hull of an old ship, if old ship hulls had great craft beer selections and tasty bar food. You’ll find dishes like fish and chips, lamb kefta, mac and cheese, and a solid burger. The space doesn’t get too busy, so you can eat at the bar and still leave feeling relaxed.
If you haven’t been to a birthday or big group dinner at Quartino yet, odds are you’re new to town. Quartino is a popular (read: very busy) restaurant that serves Italian small plates. You can dabble in everything, including pizza, pasta, salads, and meats, and make it as filling or snack-like an outing as you please. It’s great for any occasion, and usually easy to get a same-day reservation, even for a larger group.
The Smith is a mini-chain based out of New York, and this is the kind of place designed to appeal to the largest amount of people possible. You’ll find a range of options like burgers, salads, pizza, pastas, fried chicken, bibimbap, steak, and mac and cheese. The food isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it won’t make anyone angry, either. You can almost always get a table, and there’s a large bar area in case one of the people you’re trying to please tends to order wine as their lunch.