Where To Have a Unique Dining Experience In Chicago

Head to these Chicago restaurants for a time you’ll actually remember.
Where To Have a Unique Dining Experience In Chicago image

photo credit: Jiang Niu BBQ

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 15 places that will remind you why people post things on social media.


photo credit: Matthew Gilson


Lincoln Park

$$$$Perfect For:Fine DiningImpressing Out of TownersSpecial OccasionsUnique Dining Experience


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In a perhaps not-very-surprising turn of events, Chicago’s most famous restaurant is also one of its most unique. If you have a fancy restaurant bucket list, Alinea is probably on it. The $325, 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.

If you’ve ever thought, “I’d like to experience a rapid-fire omakase in a Lincoln Park hotel suite,” Sushi Suite 202 is the answer to your very specific prayers. You have exactly 75 minutes to enjoy your $140, 17-course (mostly straightforward nigiri) omakase at this speakeasy. There are better sushi restaurants in Chicago, but the real draw here is the novelty of eating in a second-floor room of the Hotel Lincoln. It makes for a casually intimate meal, ideal for dates with a hard stop trying to make a Second City show. Or, take over the whole suite with a group and pretend you have your own bartender and personal sushi chef, at least for an hour.

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-$215 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.

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. 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.

Like the pumapard or extremely rare wholphin, Sideshow Gelato is a hybrid that’s hard to wrap your mind around. This Lincoln Square gelato spot/magic show venue/dime museum looks like an old-timey circus exploded in an ice cream shop—complete with cars from everyone’s favorite carnival ride (the Scrambler) mounted to walls as seating. Plus, nearly everyone working behind the counter is an amateur magician or performer, so a scoop of gelato will probably come with a sleight-of-hand trick. The gelato itself leans a little icy, but there are lots of unique flavors that are quite tasty, plus a variety of vegan options too.

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.

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.

This Middle Eastern-themed clubstaurant in the West Loop may belong in a grown-up version of Epcot, but it works well for big (and small) groups looking for dinner, entertainment, and a little dancing all in one. Show up after 8pm on weekends for huge kabob platters piled high with rice and mezze accompanied by belly dances and variety shows. An hour or two later, things really ramp up once the multi-level main dining room turns into a dance party complete with strobe lights and a DJ.

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.

Dubbed a “living classroom,” this pseudo-fine dining spot across from the Art Institute is run by Kendall College culinary students and their instructors. The $45, three-course prix fixe menu is what you’d expect from a school—generally tasty dishes that are technique driven and technically perfect, but lacking a little in the creativity department. The real draw, however, is the view into the open kitchen and the ability to watch may-be-famous-someday chefs. That, plus witnessing the endearing awkwardness of students working front-of-house for the first time. It’s basically an opportunity to be part of a lower-stakes version of Top Chef’s infamous Restaurant Wars, without all the yelling and knowing looks from the Judges’ Table.

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.

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 huevos rotos, or gulf shrimp, 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.

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.

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.

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