Where To Have a Unique Dining Experience In Chicago
Head to these Chicago restaurants for a time you’ll actually remember.
Whether you've decided to put in actual effort into your next date or want to impress your hard-to-impress out-of-town friends, one thing is clear: You're ready for something new. All the spots in this guide are as much about the experience as they are about the food. From a hot pot restaurant with elaborate light projections to a gas station-adjacent taqueria, here are 12 places that will remind you why people post things on social media.
photo credit: Matthew Gilson
In a perhaps not-very-surprising turn of events, Chicago’s most famous restaurant is also one of it’s most unique. If you have a fancy restaurant bucket list, Alinea is probably on it. The $295, 15-course mish-mash of flavors is devastatingly good with Thai, Mexican, and French inspirations all at play. And a meal here is also guaranteed to be an experience—with theatrics (like fog machines), molecular gastronomy (egg "yolks" that transform into bread), and great servers (who are genuinely funny) that you won’t easily forget.
A BYOB policy, a hip-hop playlist, a bathroom in the middle of the kitchen, and chefs that take shots with you—Schwa feels like a party in a studio apartment. That said, this Wicker Park spot very much falls into the fine dining category, serving a $165-$195 12-course meal. Its tiny space only seats 26 people, with just enough space for chefs (who are also the servers) to casually drop off delicious things like rich quail egg raviolo or foie gras pancakes like it's nothing. Fine dining dishes mixed with an aggressively casual atmosphere could be unhinged chaos, but, Schwa is one of the best (and most interesting) restaurants in the city.
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photo credit: Kirsten Kaiser
Normally, Taqueria Chingón is, well, a taqueria. It’s a small counter-service spot in Logan Square with no tables inside, just a little side patio that feels like a neighbor's backyard party. But one Monday a month, that counter transforms into a candlelit fine dining space, and serves a 13-course BYOB "tacomakase" dinner that’s unlike anything else in the city. There’s room for about eight people, who are served course after course of incredible dishes that involve corn, like duck tamal with mole, shrimp and pastor-fat grits, or a popcorn choco taco that’s as delicious as it sounds. Much like a regular omakase, you get to see the chefs in action from your table. Each will give a little talk about their dish before they lovingly place a dish that’s about to change your life in front of you. It’s pricey ($175 per person), there are only two seatings a night, and you can only buy tickets after they announce on Instagram—but it’s worth it.
photo credit: Kim Kovacik
El Tragón Taqueria
Gas station restaurants aren’t unique in and of themselves. But when a spot attached to a Mobil makes food that’s worth seeking out even when your tank is full—that’s special. Enter El Tragón. Everything on this Mexican restaurant’s menu is fantastic, like juicy quesabirria, crispy chilaquiles, and a bistec taco with fried cheese and green onions that’s one of the city’s best. It’s impossible to pick a favorite dish at this Lincoln Park restaurant. The space is small, but the vibrant atmosphere from the colorful paintings, upbeat music, and welcoming staff make El Tragón a fun place for a casual meal. Plus, it’s BYOB, so bring your favorite six-pack and get ready to explain to your friends why you told them to meet at a gas station for dinner.
photo credit: Nathan Media
The X Pot
The X Pot is a futuristic hot pot restaurant in the South Loop. What makes it futuristic? Robot servers, along with elaborate light projections and thematic soundscapes. So yes, this place is a rather absurd production, but it's also fun and the hot pot is good. While the robots might bring you your selection of ingredients, humans are on hand to take orders. And, presumably, to rescue you from the robots should they gain sentience and revolt.
photo credit: Susie Lacocque
The Wiener's Circle
This iconic Lincoln Park spot is more famous for its take-no-sh*t staff and wild late-night scene than its hot dogs. Go ahead and watch this classic sketch from the Conan O’Brien Show to get an idea of the type of dining experience you can expect. But along with some good-natured verbal abuse, this place also has very tasty Chicago-style dogs. One recent change this spot has made in the past 30 years is that it now has a spacious back patio. The partially-covered backyard has a full bar, mini basketball court, ping pong table, TVs, tons of tables, and heaters. Just be aware you can’t order food from the bar, so hit up the regular ol’ Wiener Circle for a char dog and a dose of humility, then head towards the back.
Superdawg in Norwood Park is an old-fashioned drive-in that’s been around since 1948, and it remains a true drive-in with carhop service. Pull up to any carport, place an order through the old-school-looking menu/speaker box in front of you, and blast your favorite John Mellencamp song while you wait for your food. The wait staff doesn’t come out on roller skates, but they will hook a tray with all of your food onto the edge of your car window. Plus, there are giant plastic hot dogs on top of the building. You’ll either think "that’s a really cute plastic hot dog couple," or they’ll give you nightmares for days.
No place takes humanity’s desire to conquer the elements as seriously as Frontier. As the name suggests, this place has a theme: it’s decorated like a cabin from the 1800s. In keeping with that idea, there’s a lot of game on the menu. For a celebration, consider arranging one of their whole animal meals—you can choose from things like roast pig or alligator. And there’s a lot of space outside. During the winter, the outdoor patio (complete with huge fireplace) is enclosed, and you can order from a menu with things like rabbit and venison that will make you feel like you’re possibly on the Oregon Trail. Just with less typhoid and dysentery.
Jiang Niu BBQ House
This big, bright AYCE fusion spot in Chinatown specializes in Dongbei-style BBQ. This place is a little silly and a lot of fun: you’ll find robot servers, and ridiculous add-ons like a ferris wheel full of ingredients, and a raw meat cake which sounds terrifying but we promise is kind of cute. As far as the food goes, the BBQ is similar to Korean, but the marinade doesn’t include doenjang, so it’s a little lighter. Plus, Jiang Niu’s long menu also has options to throw on the gas grill—like enoki mushrooms, sweet potato, lettuces, and pineapple to name a few. Everything comes with suggested cook times, so you don’t have to worry about the structural integrity of your cabbage.
Bordel is from the same people who own Beatnik, and this cocktail bar has an equally over-the-top atmosphere. It’s a cross between a speakeasy and a bordello, so you can expect a hidden entrance, a DJ, a lot of dark rich velvet, and whirling tassels. Food options are somewhat limited, but there are shareable plates like croquetas, charred octopus, or tuna tartare, supplied from downstairs neighbor Mama Delia. But that’s fine because you’re mostly coming here for drinks and to catch a performance—depending on the night, you may see flamenco dancing, sword swallowing, a burlesque show, a magic act, or some combination of the above.
photo credit: Stay And Play Cafe
Stay And Play Game Cafe
Sure, you can host game night at your place, but then you’d have to shop, clean, and find that missing Professor Plum card from Clue that's buried somewhere in your closet. Or, you could go to the Stay and Play in Irving Park. It’s the perfect place to hang out with friends (or a date) and try endearing yourself to them by dominating one of the 600+ games available. As you enter into the second hour of your campaign to take over all four railroads in Monopoly, you can choose from a variety of Puerto Rican dishes including a very tasty steak jibarito. Or, if you’re the one who always ends up bankrupt in the first 30 minutes, there’s a long menu of rum-based cocktails to enjoy while you make friends with the people sitting at the table next you. Maybe they’ll let you join their game of EL: The Chicago Transit Adventure (yes, this is real, and you can play it at Stay and Play).
photo credit: James Murphy Trainman Photography
Chicago Magic Lounge
Calling Chicago Magic Lounge merely a "lounge" is a disservice. It’s a speakeasy-style theater dedicated to the lost art of Chicago-style (read: close-up) magic. That means that once you find your way into this Andersonville theater—hidden behind a fake laundromat—you’ll have magicians coming up to your table to keep you entertained with card tricks and sleight-of-hand illusions. The drink menu has above-average cocktails like a Sazerac, and there are snacks like beef tenderloin sliders or fig and pancetta flatbread. The food isn’t going to melt your mind, but that’s what the stage magic during the second half of the show is for.