Since I get regular emails on this subject, I thought I might as well create a whole post on restaurants (and a smattering of bars) in Chicago that I think are worth recommending.
The first of these is Elizabeth Restaurant ($$$), run by my friend Iliana Regan and her excellent staff. I chanced on an extra seat back when she was doing dinners at her apartment and ever since I’ve been a fan. I love her intricate approach to showing off what the woods and fields of the region have to offer. She has three menus, the ones that are probably the most interest to a visitor are the Owl, which is focused on Midwestern agriculture, and the Deer, which is focused on foraging and hunting. I’ve had bear, venison, raccoon, wild mushrooms, and other unique local woodland products here, all presented beautifully in multi-course formal tasting menus. You have to pre-buy tickets to this restaurant to secure your seats.
Salmon wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth
People who have serious food allergies who read this blog will be delighted to learn of the existence of Senza ($$$ previous post), a fantastic restaurant staffed by many veterans of Chicago’s most respected fine dining institutions that happens to be very strictly gluten-free, which is a boon for anyone with celiac disease. Unlike other gluten-free restaurants, the cuisine is more focused on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables than gluten-free bread and pasta that dominates the less accomplished restaurants of this genre. Tasting menu only, but it’s a perfect way to experience the talents of the kitchen.
Two less formal restaurants I frequent are Vera ($$) and La Sirena Clandestina ($$) in the West Loop, which is really the hub of the food scene here. Vera is a seasonally-focused Spanish-inspired wine bar. Sit at the Otro bar and enjoy delectable deviled eggs topped with creamy uni, the famous jamon iberico, the most perfectly cooked crispy brussel sprouts with anchovy dressing, and a glass from their very long list of sherries. Menu items change often as the seasons change, so I can’t recommend any one thing, but be sure not to miss ordering something each from the meat, the seafood, and the vegetable sections of the menu.
Bacon wrapped dates in blue cheese fondue and kale salad at Vera
La Sirena Clandestina is a romantic little South American-ish spot. I think some of my readers will enjoy it because the chef uses cassava flour for things like pao de quijo, which are cheese puffs (also found in Lakeview at Cassava, a gluten-free cafe), and fried smelt, which are little fish served with an aioli-like made with Brazillian malagueta peppers. I personally have an addiction to the empanadas, which are always filled with something new and interesting like spicy duck chorizo. Seafood dishes are a highlight here and there are lots of little appetizers that are surprising hits like the cilantro coconut risotto. Don’t miss the excellent cocktail program. I think the pisco sour is one of my favorite drinks in the city.
Cassava battered smelt at La Sirena
Another good option in the West Loop closer to the city core in Embeya ($$$), which has a nice selection of Southeast Asian dishes like this sausage stuffed squid and excellent drinks. If you are wheat-avoidant there is hardly any on the menu.
For Lunch, Blackbird ($$$ except for lunch special) is a great place to get a tasting menu that’s not very expensive. $22 will get you an excellent three-course menu that varies with the season. If you want something a little less formal, Publican Quality Meats ($) is a butcher shop that has a variety of really great options, like the butcher’s meal, which lately is Cocido, a Spanish blood sauage, cumin, and chickpea stew. I also go to Au Cheval sometimes for their chopped liver, which is so far my favorite liver in the city.
In my own neighborhood, which is above the West Loop and is usually called West Town, I am a huge fan of Ruxbin ($$), which is just really wonderfully cooked comfort foods with unique, often Asian-influenced, touches. One of the best dishes I had here was a perfectly cooked steak with miso-butter rice “tots” and the best crispy savory broccolini I’ve ever had. The catch is that it’s impossible to get into on Sunday, which is reservations only, and the rest of the days there are no reservations, so sometimes the wait can be long and unpredictable. I suggest putting your name down and heading to Noble Rot or Lush where you can get great beer or wine to bring back when your table is reading since Ruxbin is BYOB. I need to try more of the Mexican options in Chicago, but I typically go to the dive called Taqueria Traspasada ($), which is on the corner and open late, for simple good tacos.
For lunch, the local butcher shop, The Butcher and the Larder, serves up delicious sandwiches and soups. Other neighborhood staples for me are The Green Grocer, a small grocery store which has an excellent selection of pretty much everything I like, and Nini’s, a little Cuban-Lebanese deli that has an assortment of homemade and high-quality goods.
In Wicker Park I like Carriage House ($$), which features low-country Southern Food, Violet Hour ($$) for cocktails (but on weekends there is often a very long line to get in), and Trencherman ($$) for brunch and cocktails.
Logan Square is another food-lover’s mecca. I really enjoy the cocktails at Billy Sunday($$) and the Japanese-influenced food at Yusho ($$), particularly the savory egg custard known as chawanmushi. Longman & Eagle has delicious tallow fries.
Up north in my old neighborhood of Lincoln park I recommend The Peasantry ($$), which is very rich and delicious dishes inspired by street food, and Rickshaw Republic ($$), which is oddly enough Indonesian street food. I guess it makes up for Chicago’s anemic food truck scene,a consequences of draconian regulations here. For drinks in that area I recommend Barrelhouse Flats for cocktails and Deliahs for beer.
If you are willing to go further north, there are very good Indian, Thai, and Korean restaurants. For Korean I usually go to Dancen ($), which is a Korean dive bar where you can get cod roe soup that is really made with cod sperm sacks. It’s better than it sounds, but if that’s not your style, the seafood pancake is also really really good. For Thai I love Andy’s Thai Kitchen ($) and Sticky Rice ($), which have many authentic dishes, one of my favorites being the fermented sausages.
If you are willing to go way out of the way, Bridgeport is a fun artsy neighborhood further South that has Maria’s ($$), home to a truly impressive beer list and cocktail program, and Pleasant House ($), where they have managed to give British food a good name with their delicious flaky savory pies.
The more central areas of the city are not my preferred place to go, but if I have to be there, I will go to The Purple Pig ($$), a gastropub that is sometimes impossible to get into, Gyu Kaku ($), tasty Korean-Japanese barbeque with many offal options, Slurping Turtle, and Xoco ($), which has good hot chocolate and Mexican caldos (soups). For drinks I like Sable’s cocktails. I keep meaning to try Sumi Robata bar and will report back since that looks really awesome too.
That’s a lot of places, so if you want other recs for other neighborhoods or other types of cuisine, let me know in the comments. Also there are still places I need to try, so I will add more to this as I think of things or find new things.
Also don't forget to try the local Chicago-Swedish spirit, Malort, which I bet all of you will really really enjoy. It's a must!
If you want to know some underground dining options, you can email me privately.