There are excellent restaurants to be found all over Chicago, in a range of prices and cuisines. Unfortunately, some of the restaurants in the downtown and Magnificent Mile area trade more their location than the fact that they serve really good, inventive food. While many of these are just fine for a casual meal (I’m looking at you, tourist mecca Cheesecake Factory), they don’t really showcase the best of Chicago. If you’re looking for a truly memorable dining experience close to the downtown, check out one of these options:
West of the Loop, the Fulton Market area is home to food warehouses that bustle in the early hours and become shuttered and quiet in the evenings, when the trendy, foodie-focused restaurants in the area start to get busy.
The Publican is a feast for foodies, at least those who eat meat. It’s pork-centric. It’s pork-tastic. It’s really all about the pork…okay and oysters, and craft beer from around the world. If spicy pork rinds, a platter of oysters, sweetbreads and suckling pig sounds like an ideal dinner to you, this is the place to come.
You know those chefs who make a meal not just a meal but an adventure, an event? That’s Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto. You don’t just eat your food here, you experience. Expect edible paper menus, unexpected surprises, and either 10 or 20 courses of unforgettable food.
Moto’s little sister, Otom showcases larger portions of familiar favorites with a twist. Appetizers, sides and entrees are served a la carte rather than as part of a tasting menu, and most entrees are under $30 so the experience is much more affordable. The menu changes seasonally and incorporates fresh ingredients from the market.
Many of the Loop’s eateries cater to busy workers on the go and therefore serve only lunch or don’t offer much in the way of ambiance. But there are some good hotel dining options
A favorite of the pre-theatre dinner crowd, Rosebud rarely wows, but it does deliver consistently good and affordable (entrees range form $9 to $16) Italian meals.
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With a prime location across from Grant Park and a lovely outdoor patio for people watching, the Gage is always hopping. The food is upscale bistro-pub – mussels, pate, oysters, poutine, salad and burgers share the menu with dishes like roasted saddle of elf, Amish chicken, and seared Big Eye tuna.
State and Lake
Located in the trendy Wit Hotel at the corner of State and Lake streets, State and Lake serves giant fresh salads, small plates like potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu or grilled maya prawns with a bacon-butter vinagrette, and entrees based on seasonally-available ingredients. The cocktail list is inventive and the wine list extensive.
River North (west of Michigan Avenue)
Just north of the Chicago River from the Loop, the tourist hustle and bustle dies down and you’ll fine some excellent restaurants that cater to both tourists and locals alike.
Part of the Lettuce Entertain You family of restaurants, Quartino brings Italian to the masses (literally, the restaurant is huge, yet always full) with Italian-influenced small plates perfect for sharing. And while their slogan “where the wine is cheaper than water” isn’t technically true, the wine is pretty cheap.
Owned by Chicago personality Billy Dec, Rockit is a see-and-be-seen type of place that also offers excellent food (and the chance for some celebrity spotting). Don’t miss the cripsy rock shimp in a firy lime sauce for an appetizer.
It’s not exactly authentic tapas, but the food at Cafe Iberico will satisfy any cravings for some Spanish small plates. Dishes are meant for sharing and reasonably priced, so you can sample multiple dishes and a few pitchers of sangria and not bust your budget.
Topolobampo or Frontera
Celeb/Top Chef Masters chef Rick Bayless cranks out an ever-changing menu of Mexican specialties for rabid fans who line up before the restaurant even opens. Make reservations weeks in advance or prepare to wait at least an hour for dishes like pork taquitos, salsa-simmered lamb shoulder, and Swiss chard and mushroom tamales.
Most of the dining options along Michigan Avenue fall into two categories: nationwide chains or quality, but unremarkable hotel dining rooms. On or just off the Magnificent Mile you’ll also find all the big tourist draws – like hot dogs and deep dish pizza.
For a special occasion of upscale dining experience, Les Nomades delivers with classic French cuisine, candlelight, impeccable service, and a romantic atmosphere.
One of the first molecular gastronomy restaurants to get national attention, Tru offers multiple options depending on your budget and taste. Give yourself over to the whims of the chef with the multi-course tasting menu, order a la carte, or come just for a multi-course dessert tasting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, PJ Clark’es sits one block north of the River and two blocks west of Michigan Avenue. Offering classic pub food like sliders, salads and sandwiches, it’s a low-cost and low-key option in the area.