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. Oh my god, these people are the worst.
This is the roller coaster of emotions you’ll experience whenever you find yourself in the neighborhood. But there’s an easy way to deal with it: Know exactly what you’re looking to get out of your meal, and choose a restaurant accordingly. Whether you’re with friends and family, potential significant others, or work people, picking a place with the right ambience is key. From over-the-top steakhouses to quality hot dog spots, here are the restaurants we keep going back to in River North.
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 place like Chicago Cut, or a sceney sh*tshow 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 interesting bar food. Many dishes here have an Indian twist, like the pulled chicken sandwich with curry and yogurt, but you’ll also find a great standard burger and mac and cheese. The space doesn’t get crazy, so you can eat at the bar and still leave feeling relaxed.
Big & Littles is funky as hell, and if you’re into fancy fast food, it’s awesome. The menu has all kinds of things that might not sound like they belong in the same kitchen, and we’ll warn you up front that you may feel like Guy Fieri is going to pop out at any moment. But somehow this restaurant, where you can get giant soft shell crab po’boys, sushi grade ahi tuna tacos, and/or foie gras topped fries, pulls it all off, handling the ingredients in those dishes better than many of the “nicer” places in town. It’s one of our favorite spots around, casual or otherwise.
Think of this spot as a less expensive but still trendy alternative to RPM Italian. Bar Lupo calls itself an “Italian pub,” and in addition to its solid food, it has plenty of televisions and a long beer and cocktail menu. The atmosphere in general feels like a party that hasn’t quite gotten going yet. But we don’t mind - it’s actually nice that the space feels low-key, despite its loud music and somewhat dark interiors. You’ll find solid bar snacks, decent pastas, and red sauce classics like chicken parmesan, making it a great option for casual Italian downtown, or just grabbing drinks and a bite after work.
Portsmith is a seafood-focused restaurant in the Dana Hotel, and has one of those menus that seems a little all over the place the first time you look at it. (You’ll find everything from a foie gras and donut appetizer to a cacio e pepe with uni butter.) The space is also a bit awkward, with tiny two-tops that barely fit more than one dish. The good news is that the food really is good. So good, in fact, that we suggest brushing up on your Tetris skills and trying as much as you can.
Chain restaurants aren’t our first choice when we’re eating downtown, but Roka Akor (which has locations all over the US) is an exception. It serves upscale Japanese food like sushi and steaks, plus some interesting fusion dishes. It’s expensive every step of the way, but feels worth it - and it’s not quite as much of a scene as other spots nearby.
3 Greens Market is basically a superhero in restaurant form. It’s a coffee shop where you can hang and work all day, there are both hot and cold food bars (that are actually good) perfect for a quick meal, they serve delicious Small Cheval burgers, and it becomes a bar and hangout place at night. We wish we were good at that many things.
Shaw’s has all things seafood in a refined 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 there and you can skip entrees altogether, if that’s your mood.
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.
Upscale establishments have fallen by the wayside in River North, where it seems like every new spot is a scene, 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.
Rick Bayless is such a famous Chicago chef that he has his own urban legends: When Rick Bayless chops onions the onions cry. Rick Bayless can put a kitchen fire out with gasoline. If it looks like chicken, tastes like chicken, and feels like chicken, but Rick Bayless says it’s beef, then it’s beef. You get the point. Topolobampo is Rick’s Mexican restaurant that serves three different seasonal tasting menus (starting at $90 and going to $120), and the food is so good, it will remind you why he has his own holiday - OK, we made that up.
Damn you, Giuliana and Bill Rancic. On the surface your steakhouse looks like everything we expect in a mediocre River North restaurant - giant booths, crowded, and a total scene. But the food and service are excellent. Touché.
We’ll stand by this classic Italian steakhouse even if there are mumblings that it gets by on reputation alone. The spot doesn’t have the ritz and glamour of some of the other places on this list, but it’s quintessential old-school Chicago and we love it for that. Split the traditional items like steak, sausage and peppers, and spaghetti with meatballs.
The Mediterranean-inspired menu at Bernie’s continues to impress us. This place is cool and lively without being super obnoxious, and it really does have excellent food - from the lamb hashwi to the pork confit to a burger that’s ideal for eating at the bar. Add in one of the best rooftops around, and Bernie’s is a dark horse in the competitive River North dining scene.
You either love Sunda or find it obnoxious, because - late at night or on the weekends, at least - it’s pretty-people 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 Asian-fusion food. From the duck fried rice to the pork buns to the sushi (especially the rolls), it won’t disappoint.
The Rancics are back again. Everything we said about RPM Steakhouse 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.
Eating here feels like a corporate outing, probably because it’s at the bottom of an office building that houses prestigious corporations and successful people in power suits. But the food is top notch, even if it costs a small fortune. It’s also a safe bet for celebrity spottings in Chicago, in case you’re wondering how Charles Barkley likes his steak cooked.
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 heavy favorites like tenderloin steak tartare, truffle pasta, and pork belly. You’ll forget about everything going on outside when you’re deep in the bone marrow at Gilt Bar.
Tanta is a breath of fresh air in the River North dining scene. The Peruvian menu is large and interesting, with sections devoted to ceviche and skewers as well as mains. The best strategy is to come with a group so you can try as much food as possible, and make sure that you order the aeropuerto (pork fried rice).
Bavette’s is another steakhouse, but it’s a Brendan Sodikoff (of Au Cheval, Gilt Bar, and Green Street Smoked Meats) production, which means there’s something above-average about it. It’s like the kid in high school who wore cool clothes, listened to The Smiths, and smoked menthol cigarettes. The large leather booths and 1920s jazz music make it feel different from your traditional Chicago steakhouse, as does the fact that you can come here, not order a steak (entrees like the mushroom stroganoff and the pork chop are impressive), and still have a fantastic meal.
If you’re looking for a heavy dose of 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.
All of the Italian food at this popular River North spot is good. That being said, you should make sure you order at least one pasta, and one of their creative pizzas (all of which can be ordered half and half), like the pear and prosciutto or the roasted brussels sprouts with sausage.
Frontera is Rick Bayless’ flagship restaurant. It’s not quite as fancy as Topolobampo (this is not a tasting-menu spot), so it’s a good option when you don’t want to go all out - but it still does things like guacamole, tacos, and moles exceptionally well. Also, it’s important to know that Rick Bayless can kill two stones with one bird.
This place does a modern take on Bohemian food, i.e. dishes influenced by the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria. And it’s not for the faint of heart - you’ll be having a very meat-heavy meal. Load up on pork schnitzel, and then get a potato pierogi instead of a salad.
The Rick Bayless River North trifecta ends here, and Xoco is the most casual and convenient of the bunch. Xoco is all about Mexican street food – pop in for a quick torta, or a hot soup in the colder months. Also, Rick Bayless can squeeze orange juice out of a lemon.
Disclaimer: Beatrix could easily be categorized as both casual and trendy. It’s casual in the mornings for a cup of coffee and a baked good, any day of the week for lunch, or on weekends for a great brunch. But it’s also a trendy spot for dinner, especially since the menu includes a lot of ingredients like quinoa and kale. Overall, it makes for a versatile, quality restaurant.
Ema feels like a Mediterranean Beatrix, probably because it’s owned by the same people and right next door. You can keep it simple with Mediterranean basics like hummus and kefta, or order some of the more interesting dishes like sweet corn and bulgar risotto or braised lamb shoulder with dates and cherries. Whatever you do, make sure you order extra housemade pita - it’s excellent.
Portillo’s can do no wrong. This is our go-to spot in River North for hot dogs, Italian beefs, and cheese fries. Don’t skip the chocolate cake shake.
The last thing Chicago needs is another steakhouse, right? Wrong. The GT Fish & Oyster crew decided to get into the red meat game, and we’re not complaining, because GT Prime isn’t the usual hunk of meat and side of potatoes steakhouse. Instead, the menu is filled out with a lot of other small plates, and the steaks all come in sliced 4oz or 8oz portions. It’s a great dynamic for sharing, especially when a steakhouse sounds good but you’re not trying to eat a whole cow by yourself.
The Shake Shack burger has grown on us, a lot. We’ve reached the point where a Shack burger, cheese fries, and a shake is pretty much an irresistible combination - not to mention the curveball in our lives that is their chicken sandwich. Don’t get a hot dog, though. This is still Chicago, and there are much better versions around.
The Purple Pig is located just off Michigan Avenue, so it’s full of tourists, and it doesn’t take reservations - two reasons it’s often overlooked. But ignoring this place is a mistake. Even though it’s been around for a while, the Midwest-Mediterranean dishes are still excellent. The most impressive part is that a menu this big has zero weak links, even with a wide array of dishes from crispy pigs’ ears to Greek taramasalata to a giant confit turkey leg. Always try and get a bar seat - they’re the best in the house.
If you haven’t been to a birthday or big group dinner for one of your friends at Quartino yet, odds are you’re new to town. Quartino serves simple Italian small plates – and 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.