River North is a perplexing place: You love it. You hate it. The restaurants are great. The restaurants are annoying. It’s great 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. How to deal? 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 vibe is key. From over-the-top steakhouses to hot dogs on-the-go, here are spots we keep going back to in River North.
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 is all things seafood in a refined dining room. It’s a great place to come with the family and have a comfortable, upscale meal. The more casual oyster bar is also a great option – go heavy on the little shucked ones and appetizers and you could skip entrees all together, if that’s your mood.
Originally opened in 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 and vibe. Joe’s proves there’s no better way to do surf and turf than steak and stone crabs.
Stuffy dining has fallen by the wayside, particularly in River North where everything is a scene, but Brindille didn't get the memo. We kinda forgive them, though, because they pull it off in a classic French restaurant kind of way on a street that's otherwise full of tourists and clubby bars. This place isn’t for everyone, but it’s good if you’re looking for a nice, special, quiet meal.
You could tell us Chuck Norris’isms about Rick Bayless and we wouldn’t blink an eye. 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. That aside, Topolobampo is Rick’s modern Mexican restaurant that serves a fancy tasting menu, and it's always an interesting experience.
DAMN YOU GIULIANA RANCIC. Your steakhouse may feel like an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but the food is excellent. And to that we say 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 others, 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 time and again. It's cool and lively without being super obnoxious, and, most importantly, they're serving excellent food. From the lamb hashwi to the pork confit to a burger that's excellent when eaten at the bar. Add in one of the best rooftops around and Bernie's is putting this west side of River north on the map.
You either love Sunda or struggle with the idea of going here because it’s pretty-people overload. And we respect both sides of that argument. Sunda is basically one big Underground pregame, but we stand strong on the fact that it serves great Asian-fusion food. From the duck fried rice to the pork buns to the sushi, it won’t disappoint.
Giuliana Rancic’s back again. Everything we said about RPM Steakhouse holds true at her Italian restaurant too. It’s quite the scene, but it’s a fantastic choice if you’re craving all kinds of delicious pastas.
Chicago Cut feels like a corporate outing, probably because it’s at the bottom of an office building that houses prestigious corporations and a lot of rich guys in suits. But the food is top notch even if it costs a small fortune. It’s also your best bet for celebrity spottings in Chicago – Charles Barkley, where you at?
Gilt Bar is a dark restaurant with hearty food that’s great for dates. It's particularly great for holing up in the winter with heavy favorites like tenderloin steak startare, truffle pasta, and pork belly. You'll forget about everything going outside when you're deep in dimly lit Gilt Bar.
Tanta is a breath of fresh air in what can feel like an otherwise-stale River North dining scene. The Peruvian food here is exciting enough to get your heart racing just looking at the menu. Make sure at least one ceviche is in the mix.
Bavette’s is another steakhouse, but it’s a Brendan Sodikoff production (Au Cheval, Gilt Bar, Green Street Smoked Meats), which means there’s something more-than-average about it. It’s like the kid in high school who wore cool clothes, listened to The Smiths, and smoked menthol cigarettes. There’s just enough vibe to make it different than your traditional steakhouse without trying too hard.
If you're looking for a heavy dose of seafood without spending a fortune at a fancy seafood restaurant, GT Fish & Oyster is the move. 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, and more.
All of the Italian food at this River North trendsetter will treat you well, but the order of best dishes goes wagyu meatball, wagyu meatball, and then wagyu meatball. The thing is massive. That being said, you should probably order some other items to share like pastas, pizzas, and pretty much anything else that sounds good.
Frontera is Rick Bayless’ flagship restaurant and it’s not quite as fancy as Topolobampo. It’s a bit more accessible but still involves excellent Mexican flavors that constantly push boundaries. Also, it’s important to know that Rick Bayless can kill two stones with one bird. And Rick Bayless counted to infinity – twice.
Bohemian House is a modern take on Bohemian food, which means dishes influenced by the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria, which means a lot of meat. This place isn’t for the faint of heart. Load up on knackwurst and pork schnitzel, and then say schnitzel ten times fast.
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 (Mexican sandwich), or a hot caldo (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 week for lunch, or weekends for a great brunch. But it’s also a trendy spot for dinner (without being annoyingly so). Overall, it makes for a versatile and quality restaurant. No matter what time you come here, order dessert.
Ema is like a Mediterranean Beatrix, partially because it's owned by the same people and only a block over. But they're also similar in the sense that Ema can feel both casual and trendy at the same time, which makes it good for almost any occasion. 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.
Portillo’s can do no wrong. This is our go-to spot in River North for hot dogs, Italian beefs, and cheese fries.
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 much more 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 yourself.
The Shake Shack burger has grown on us, a lot. We've reached the point where a shack burger, cheese fries, and shake is pretty much irresistible, 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 and doesn't take reservations - two reasons we often overlook it. But that's a mistake. Despite having been around for a while, the Midwest-Mediterranean dishes are still excellent. The most impressive part? That a menu this big has zero weak links, even with a wide array of dishes from crispy pig's ears to Greek taramasalata to a giant turkey leg confit. 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 best girl friends at Quartino yet then odds are you’re new to town. Quartino is simple 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, which makes it a good place to know.