Maybe you’re going out to dinner with your loving but critical parents, or someone from corporate in Highland Park made a surprise visit to the Chicago office. Or you’re meeting your fiance’s sister who’s allegedly “very chill,” but a carefully curated social media presence leads you to believe otherwise. In other words, you need to pick a restaurant for someone who’s acting like it doesn’t matter, but you know very well that it does.
Somewhere that’s reliably good so you know what to expect, and nice without looking like you’re trying too hard. Plus you want the option to make reservations, because no one is OK with waiting hours for a table, no matter what they say. You need one of these 12 spots.
If tasteful linen pants were a restaurant, they would be Daisies in Logan Square. This charming spot in Logan Square is bright and airy, and focuses on pastas using seasonal local ingredients. So when your mother-in-law visits who (you’re pretty sure) hates Chicago, take her here to show that this city has more going on than meat, cheese, and dark bars. It’s the kind of place where the servers tell you all about the produce you’re about to eat - like the farm it came from and its 23&me results. The menu has dishes like beet agnolotti and mushroom pappardelle. But (just to prove your mother-in-law right), there are also appetizers like fried cheese curds.
When you’re having a celebratory meal for an occasion someone claims isn’t a big deal - like a birthday they’re too excited about, or for a promotion they think was long overdue - consider Etta. This restaurant is a good example of what Chicago does very well: large, crowded restaurants that are always busy, hosts with earpieces, and general managers wandering around with a chambong and/or a stroller depending on the night. But most importantly, it has great food. Order any of the pizzas, pasta, or something (like the steak or roast chicken) from the wood-fired hearth.
Galit is great for several reasons. One, the Middle Eastern food is absolutely fantastic. Two, it’s not very expensive (almost everything on the shareable menu is around $13-$18). Three, it feels casual enough that no one will suspect you had to reserve a table a month in advance. So, when you need a place to impress your company’s “Hey everyone just relax - I’m a regular person just like you!” visiting CEO, take them here. In fact, just to be safe, you should always have a reservation in your back pocket for any impromptu trips they make to fire someone from the Chicago team.
You keep hearing about how nice and what a talented artist your co-worker’s best friend is. So, you want to ask her if she’d be willing to design your (self-published) novel’s cover art. Head to Passerotto in Andersonville. It’s a likable restaurant (for example, it has cute drawings of French bulldogs on the wall), with fantastic Korean food and extremely nice servers and bartenders. In other words, this spot will hopefully make up for the fact that your book’s theme is the futility of existence, and how life is a meaningless cipher of nothingness spiraling to nowhere.
Bebu is a busy pizza place that’s an excellent choice when you need a spot for anyone with children they insist “can go wherever - they’re great at restaurants.” Luckily, just because they’re delusional doesn’t mean you can’t go somewhere kid-friendly that still has great food. And while this isn’t in the most scenic section of Lincoln Park (it has a view of DSW), the thin-crust pies here are amazing. There’s a long menu full of options like meatball with ricotta or soppressata with Calabrian chili honey. Plus their side dishes (like roasted sweet potatoes) are way better than they have any right to be. And while Johnny screaming at his iPad might be annoying, at least the pizza is objectively outstanding.
Consider Amaru as a secret weapon restaurant. It looks like your typical neighborhood spot in Wicker Park when you walk in - meaning small and narrow, minimally decorated, with a bar dominating the space. In other words, whoever you take here probably won’t be expecting the food to be as fantastic as it is. Everything on the Latin American menu is delicious and is very affordable. In fact, the giant $13 bowl of ceviche is some of the best we’ve had. And thanks to extra touches like flaming cocktails and the fact that they play old-school hip hop, a dinner here always ends up feeling like a good time.
You’d like to impress your boyfriend’s parents by having them over for dinner, but your oven is used mostly for storage - in fact, you never turned the gas on after you moved. Going to Lost Larson in Andersonville can be the next best thing. A meal at this bakery/cafe feels like eating what you imagine someone cooks after a trip to the farmer’s market - dishes like strawberry salads, spiced sweet potatoes, and excellent Swedish meatballs in a delicious cauliflower gravy. Get some pastries to-go (this place mills its own flour) and hope you have some clean plates back at your house.
It’s easy to miss Parachute - it’s on a quiet street in Avondale, with only a “P” above the door to let you know it’s there. But the Korean/American food here is always excellent, and while it’s great for a weeknight dinner, it’s also a good bet for impressing out-of-towners. The menu constantly changes, but you can expect dishes like ddukbokki with pork sofrito, perfectly fried japchae tempura, and a seafood bibimbap that’s always delicious. Parachute also has the kind of service that will remind you why Midwesterners have a reputation for being very nice.
There are roughly 1,698 restaurants in the West Loop, most are crowded, and the good ones are very hard to get into. In other words, it’s a difficult area to attempt a breezy “let’s just go wherever” meal. But when your friend who’s going through a break-up needs to get together, Bad Hunter can work. It’s usually easy to get a reservation and has an enjoyably bright plant-filled environment that at the very least won’t add to her depression. The menu is full of great vegetable-focused dishes (like fried green apples and chickpea agnolotti), plus they have a great selection of cocktails.
While not as overcrowded as the West Loop, Logan Square has gotten a lot of great restaurants over the past few years. But before them all, there was Lula Cafe. It opened in 1999 and had a farm-to-table menu before that was even a thing. You can get everything from a smoked trout scramble to broccoli salad to dishes like tagine with freshly baked bread. The feel here is very “urban garden-meets-cafe,” and it’s the perfect spot to take anyone for breakfast, lunch, or dinner who you don’t want knowing you do most of your shopping at 7/11.
Au Cheval always has a long wait, and there is nothing low-key about Bavette’s. That’s why if you have someone you need to subtly impress (like an uncle you want to borrow money from), you should know about Gilt Bar. It’s owned by the same team, but it’s been around longer and is essentially a shortcut to some of the best things on both other spots’ menus. It has a great ribeye, the exact same tenderloin tartare, and even a replica of the Au Cheval cheeseburger. The dimly-lit environment is also very similar, and you can almost always just walk in and get a table. Plus the good judgment you show picking this place might convince him that you’re responsible enough to repay the loan.
Between the fantastic Ethiopian food and incredibly friendly service, it’s scientifically impossible to leave Ras Dashen in a bad mood. So, anytime you need to get together with people you really want to get along - like a last-minute dinner with your roommate and your new boyfriend - keep this Edgewater spot in mind. It’s the kind of place where you’ll see the owner cooking in the kitchen and your server will tell you (truthfully) their favorite dishes on the menu. Not to mention that all the sharing involved in eating a meal here will help lay the groundwork for all the space the three of you will be sharing. At least until your lease is up.