Welcome to Chicago’s “Greatest Hits” List.
Obviously you’re familiar with the concept of a “greatest hits” album, but unlike the best Jock Jams out there, this is one you actually need in your life. This is a short and carefully selected collection of places in Chicago that you should hit first if you’re new to town - restaurants that are essential to the Chicago experience, from classic pizza, hot dogs, and steakhouses, to modern staples.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce someone to Freddie Mercury and Queen without playing them “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we wouldn’t send someone unfamiliar with Chicago to a new hot spot without sending them to these restaurants first. You shouldn’t either.
There’s really no other way to put this: Alinea is famous as f*ck as far as restaurants go. And there’s a reason why it’s so famous. Being considered one of the best restaurants in the world is a ridiculous idea, but Alinea constantly garners that kind of attention. And yes, it’s worth it, because the culinary spectacle performed by the team at Alinea is so unique, so mesmerizing, and so delicious, it’ll leave you with a childlike wonder you haven’t felt in a while.
The Publican strives to honor the three major food groups: pork, beer, and oysters. The giant wood communal tables make the dining room feel like a Medieval European feast, but one with less swords and more Midwest niceties. Most places don’t do meat, fish, and veggies so well, but most places aren’t The Publican.
Big & Little’s serves fish tacos, meat tacos, sushi grade poke tacos, burgers, soft shell crab po’ boys, deep fried grilled cheese (yes, you read that correctly), and foie gras covered french fries (yes, you read that correctly too). And it’s all crazy good. This is the funkiest cash-only joint ever on a weird stretch of Orleans between Chicago Ave. and Division St, and dollar for dollar is one of the best meals in town.
In the age of famous TV chefs, none has had a better run than Stephanie Izard. She turned a Top Chef victory into a ridiculously successful Chicago restaurant career starting with Girl & The Goat. And it’s successful because it’s so good. Girl & the Goat isn’t life altering in that it’s a crazy tasting menu or a strange novelty, but it serves a number of goat-based items in a comforting and familiar way. The delicious food combined with both the familiar and bit of excitement keeps you interested and always coming back for more.
Au Cheval is home to the best burger in the world. We aren’t just saying this either. There are very few things we are sure about in life. In fact, most of the time we feel totally lost. But the one thing we can rely on is that a better burger does not exist, and anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to engage us in an argument they will most certainly lose. The decadence of the double patty, life-changing bacon, and buttery bun is unmatched. Period. Exclamation mark.
There’s a lot we can say about Chicago hot dogs and Italian beefs, and many places we can endorse for them. But as far as a Greatest Hit List, we’re sticking to our guns with Portillo’s. Old timers might complain that Portillo’s has “gone commercial” and the prices are too high, but they’re the same people who complain about millennials and yell at clouds. The pageantry, decor, and ordering process alone make for a show at Portillo’s, and the classic Chicago food items are great.
We considered adding Monteverde to our Greatest Hits List the week it opened, but it seemed smart to let the honeymoon phase pass. That seems like forever ago, and for us this addition was never in doubt. The West Loop Italian restaurant sounds generic on paper, but there’s nothing generic about it when you experience the food. Pasta here may look like pasta elsewhere, but it tastes way better. You can even watch the noodles get made in-house before you stuff them in your face. And with vibes perfect for literally everyone and every occasion, you have all the makings of a greatest hit.
Logan Square might be one of the most popular neighborhoods for restaurants today, but even recently that was far from true. Lula put Logan on the map as far as mainstream goes. This is both a neighborhood hang and a destination-worthy spot for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As for the food? It’s fairly straightforward American, but you can get everything from a good turkey sandwich to pasta with cinnamon and feta.
Calumet is the special kind of fish smokehouse that doesn’t really exist anymore. They’re smoking shrimp, whitefish, salmon, trout, catfish, and a whole lot more in their little wood smoker out back. It’s literally a shack on the 95th Street bridge over the Calumet River, wedged between Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyway. Yes, Anthony Bourdain has been, and yes, this is the bridge from the original Blues Brothers movie, but don’t think for one second Calumet has relied on either to stay in business since 1948. It’s the fish that makes this place special.
Giuliana and Bill Rancic have us in a mental pretzel, mainly because they have two really good restaurants in town. There are a million good Italian spots around and everyone adamantly defends their personal favorites. But RPM bottles up the sexy new style of River North with the comforts of traditional Italian dishes, and together that makes it an all-around great place. Go hard on the pastas and you’ll have an ideal night.
We could write an entire thesis analyzing pizza in this city. But we’re lazy, so we’re not going to do that. Here’s the bottom line: if you want to go out for deep-dish pizza, Pequod’s is the move. It feels like an old Chicago dive bar, so it’s a cool place to hang, and you’re obviously going to love the pizza. Delivery deep-dish involves a whole other set a rules, something we’ll get into another day.
Deep-dish this, thin crust that. What about pizza pot pies? They’re a thing of beauty, and nobody else (that we’re aware of) serves pizza pot pies other than Chicago Pizza And Oven Grinder Co. It’s kind of like a giant bread bowl stuffed pizza, but even that explanation doesn’t do it justice. The food, coupled with the old space on the ground level of a Lincoln Park brownstone where gangsters used to hang, gives it serious Chicago history and appeal. You need pizza pot pie in life.
We’ve long wanted to ball out as rich American businesspeople at the casinos in Macau. It sounds mysterious, and it would also mean we are rich American businesspeople. Casinos were also the only thing we knew about Macau until Fat Rice came along. Now we know about Macanese food, which has heavy influences from Portugal and China, plus Africa, India, Latin America, and more. The European and Asian flavor combinations mesh together so well, and the excitement of trying new dishes makes Fat Rice a can’t miss. It’s way better than the casino allure.
The words “pie” and “biscuits” in any restaurant name should foreshadow good things to come. And that’s especially true with Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits. If it was strictly a pickup spot for biscuits and breakfast sandwiches, this place would be awesome. If it was stricly a bakery where you could get delicious pie, this place would be awesome. If it was just a friends house where you could come hang out in the backyard, this place would be awesome. But Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits is all of those things, which is why it’s especially awesome. You’ll want both a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit and a slice of pie, and hopefully you can eat it outside.
Parachute is impressive. Parachute is exceptional. Parachute makes us walk out of a meal thinking it was more enjoyable than most of the meals we’ve had at other restaurants, and we eat at a lot of restaurants. The Korean American concoctions aren’t exactly Korean, nor are they American, but it’s not fusion either. There are no rules at Parachute, only creativity that you should judge from a clean slate.
Athenian Room has been making American-Greek specialities in Lincoln Park since the ’70s, way before Tina Fey talked about it or the neighborhood was a fancy place to raise a family and a designer dog. If you want to know where locals like to eat a casual, sit-down meal, this is the spot. It’s not your Friday or Saturday night out restaurant, it’s the restaurant that helps you survive the day-to-day.
Chicago politicians have been shaking hands, kissing babies, and eating pastrami sandwiches at Manny’s on election days since 1964. That also means they’ve probably done a lot of illegal sh*t here, because that’s what our politicians do. Manny’s is the last remaining Chicago restaurant with classic Jewish deli roots, or at least the only one we’re willing to recognize. The cafeteria style food line and seating makes it an easy place to pop in and out of, and a recent facelift has cleaned the place up and added a ton more tables while still maintaining the old-timey charm.
There are approximately 349875937845 steakhouses in Chicago, many of which have opened in the last couple years. Before you start working your way through all of them, which we advise you do, there is one you must get to first: Gibson’s. Between the Viagra Triangle location, star-studded wall, and desserts the size of the Bean, it’s a must visit.
If you want to try a newer steakhouse, or at least newer than Gibson’s, then Bavette’s is the spot. And truth be told, if your sole goal is eating the best piece of steak you can possibly find, then Bavette’s is where you should be. They do an exceptional job of cooking meat in a dark room that feels like a low-key cabaret club minus the show. But you don’t need a show when the steak is this good.
Rick Bayless is like The Godfather of modern Mexican food around here, parts I and II at least. We all know Godfather III sucks, so comparing him to that would be mean. Not only was Frontera Grill way ahead of its time with exciting takes on Mexican cuisine beginning in 1987, but it continues to push the envelope with new and excellent dishes all the time. That’s tough to do.
There are a couple reasons that Avec is a must-visit. One of those reasons is bacon stuffed, chorizo wrapped dates. And another is their focaccia filled with taleggio and ricotta cheese, topped with truffle oil and fresh herbs. On top of their two signature dishes, Avec always serves great food in a cool and sleek space. It’s one of the best restaurants in town to eat at the bar, which is usually more comfortable than the small tables. There’s nothing else like it in town.
Parson’s finds its way onto our greatest hits for one reason in particular - it has the best patio in town. That’s a bold statement, but we can back it up. Nowhere else has the combination of food, fun, and a sense of civility that doesn’t feel like a ridiculous spring break. Add in the fact they serve fried chicken and negroni slushies, and you have the makings of a great place.