Your birthday is coming up, and you don’t want it to be a big deal. It seems a little childish now that you’re finally at a point in your life where you no longer need to steal someone else’s HBO Go password (but you do anyway). Above all, you definitely don’t want to be one of those annoying people who has a “birthday month.” Also, you’re still getting over that malfunctioning mechanical bull incident from a past celebration. You might even go so far as to tell people not to bother planning anything.
But as the day looms closer, you realize you’ve made a terrible mistake. There’s a difference between a big deal, and no deal at all. What do you do? Don’t worry, it’s not too late. You can start dropping hints like crazy, or take matters into your own hands - starting with this guide. Below are places that are nice but not too fancy. They’re good for groups, and don’t require much advance planning (or, in some cases, any). And none have mechanical bulls, so you’re all good there.
Not only is the food here excellent, but generally speaking, The Publican is a great spot for get-togethers, birthday or otherwise. The giant communal table works for groups of all sizes, and the ambience is casual, so no one will feel like they have to dress up. Although it wouldn’t kill them to put on some nice shoes, either. The menu is well-rounded (with equal space devoted to vegetables, seafood, and meat), and the dishes are reasonably priced - meaning everyone can afford to bring you a present. Not that you’re expecting one or anything.
Part of “not making a big deal” about your birthday is being flexible. But wandering aimlessly around a neighborhood with no plan at all is a bit too flexible. This Pilsen spot is where to go if you want options. Have dinner at Dusek’s (order the mussels), get drinks at Punch House, the vintage-themed bar downstairs, and/or go next door to Tack Room, where there’s live piano music on the weekends. (All three places are owned by the same people.) If the birthday gods are smiling on you, there might even be a concert worth seeing at Thalia Hall - also next door.
Unfortunately your birthday is in January, when most of your friends have a post-holiday resolution they’re still trying to keep. Rather than being forced to listen to everyone complain about how hard it is to go out to eat on Whole30 (or feeling pressured to have a birthday spin class instead), make a group reservation at Summer House. It’s a restaurant with plenty of kind-of-healthy options, plus a bakery case of treats you can take to-go. Eat them later by yourself, or with your other friends.
It seems like nobody in your group plans their birthdays anymore. Someone needs to end the dry spell, and it might as well be you. You’re really doing everyone a favor. So pick someplace that’s fun, but not a lot of effort to arrange. The Asian fusion dishes (like kimchi-stuffed empanadas) at Mott Street are delicious and interesting, reservations are easy to get, and the communal seating and large outdoor patio make it ideal for group dinners. Maybe everyone else will have such a good time, they’ll stop their birthday moratoriums - so yours can go back into effect.
Meeting up for a birthday brunch instead of dinner gives everyone the chance to day drink (fun), or continue with their errand-filled weekends (less fun). Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba in Lincoln Park is a good spot for this purpose. It’s a low-key Spanish tapas restaurant, and their brunch (with dishes like sausage and paella rice with a poached egg, and a Bloody Mary bar) is lively and affordable. It gets crowded, but tables turn over quickly, so you won’t need to wait long.
You’re pretty sure you might have found a grey hair, and the office’s Doogie Howser just got the promotion you were counting on. In other words, you’re not really feeling the “getting older” thing this year. Luckily there’s Mi Tocaya, a neighborhood restaurant in Logan Square. It’s one of the best places in Chicago to visit when you want to forget about your problems. The Mexican small plates, like beef tongue with a spicy peanut sauce, are great for sharing, and the lively environment might take your mind off the fact that no one wanted to check your ID. So you can focus on what’s actually important: your birthday dessert (order the tres leches cake).
Thanks to Facebook, everyone in your office knows today is your birthday. You weren’t going to say anything about it, but now they want to take you out to lunch, and you get to pick the place. Quartino in River North has decent Italian, as well as an inexhaustible supply of dining rooms - so your entire office can come, and you won’t have to wait for a table. You won’t have to pay, either (we hope). Win-win.
Even though your original plan was to spend your birthday alone, binge-watching Quantum Leap with a bottle of Arbor Mist, you now regret not planning something. Two ideas for you: One, wait a few minutes and see if the feeling passes. Two, get everyone together for botanical beers and elevated bar food at Forbidden Root. The space is cool (it’s in a renovated theater) and quiet enough that you can hold a conversation, and the drinks are way better than screw-top wine from the grocery store. Save that for your cat’s half-birthday.
Bavette’s is fantastic, but going there is definitely a big deal. It’s not cheap, and reservations are hard to get. Gilt Bar is right next door, has the same speakeasy feel, and is owned by the same people - so you’ll find a lot of the same dishes on the menu (like the tenderloin tartare). It’s much easier to get into, and there’s even a downstairs area called The Library that can be reserved if you decide that your birthday is kinda a big deal after all.
You secretly miss getting a little obnoxious and drunk on your birthday. Bar Siena in West Loop is an excellent place to do this. It has a trendy crowd and atmosphere, reliably good Italian food, and a huge bar area that’s perfect for acting like you’re turning 23 (no matter which birthday this really is). No one will notice, judge, or care.
Your feelings are a little hurt that no one planned anything for you. You told literally no one it was your birthday, and you deleted your Facebook account three years ago, but still. Have some friends meet you at The Delta in Wicker Park, which has a Southern menu ideal for casual drinking and snacking. Get their “vase” cocktails (basically pitchers), and try their specialty: tamales simmered in a chile broth instead of steamed. It’s small (it looks kind of like a nice hallway), but they have a surprisingly large back patio, which is where you should try and sit - assuming your birthday isn’t during Chicago’s nine months of winter.
Remember when you were little, and kids with summer birthdays got to have pool parties? This place doesn’t have a pool, but you can channel the same idea with a backyard BBQ-style get together. Plan to start off at the huge bar in the center of the restaurant (since you can’t make a reservation). Once you secure a picnic table, get in the cafeteria-style line, which moves quickly. Then, you’ll have all the time in the world to eat ribs and be glad you’re not relying on your drunk friends to man the grill.
You’re at the point in your life where having servers sing you “Happy Birthday” and blind you with sparklers in a piece of cake seems more like a fire hazard than a celebration. So go to La Storia, an Italian restaurant in the Gold Coast that’s nice, but still relaxed. Plus, there’s a courtyard patio with twinkly lights that’s great for hanging out with friends, pastas, and pyrotechnic-free desserts.
Some spots are good for groups without being obvious about it - meaning they aren’t full of giant tables, or neon signs you’ll want to take pictures under, or crowds of people holding gift bags waiting for their tables. Ema is one of those spots. Its menu of affordable Mediterranean small plates is designed for sharing, and there are plenty of round tables that can easily seat mid-sized groups. It is a total sleeper birthday spot. Also sparkler-free.
Fancy sushi restaurants are generally too expensive for an NBD birthday dinner. What you need is a casual, neighborhood spot. Raisu has great sushi - much of their fish is flown in daily from Japan - and their omakase starts at $50 (it’s tailored to your budget from there). Have your friends pool their resources to make sure you can have 12 courses of exclusively uni and toro. After all, it is your special day.