I’ve lived in Chicago for over 15 years and the city never fails to surprise me with its food options. Like New York, the restaurant scene is always changing. Just within the last 15 years, as the city has developed more in different neighborhoods, new restaurants have come in with interesting flavors. For example, a street that only had a Pizza Hut as its main restaurant 10 years ago is now home to a British pub that specializes in Indian food.
As much as I love trying the new restaurants in the city, I also always enjoy going to the restaurants have been engrained into Chicago for years – restaurants that you know will be around for a while. These restaurants are particularly special to me since they are full of memories from when I started college all the way to my first real job and now to post-grad school life. Here are my favorite go-to restaurants that I highly recommend if you prefer well-known and praised establishments.
I’m constantly debating with my friends and new people I meet in Chicago which is the best tapas place. A lot of people are big fans of Cafe Ba Ba Reba and Emilio’s. Cafe Iberico, however, is my top tapas place for two reasons: the patatas bravas (potatoes) and the sangria. For those of you not familiar with tapas, tapas is Spanish food served in small dishes. You typically share these small dishes with the table. Cafe Iberico’s patatas bravas have the perfect balance of spices, while the sangria tastes so fruity you forget there is alcohol in it. Besides the patatas bravas, I particularly like their mushroom dish and their goat cheese sauce /garlic bread combo. Even though the dishes are supposed to be small, Cafe Iberico always gives generous portions and you are never left hungry. A good attestment to the quality of this restaurant is the massive lines it still draws after 15+ years in business. My only real complaint is that recently they shut down a section of the space, so the dining area has become a bit smaller. Not sure the rationale for this decision – the place is always hopping- but I hope they eventually open the space back up.
For all you non-Chicagoans, repeat after me: “Giordano’s is not the only pizza place that serves delicious pizza in the city.” I say that as anytime I have someone who is coming from out of town, Giordano’s is the first place they mention. No one seems to know other pizza places. I used to go to Giordano’s pizza all the time in college. Post-college, I realized the pizza was too cheesy. If you want to try some pizza that isn’t overwhelming with its cheese but is also flavorful, I recommend Lou Malnati’s. Their pizza has a nice butter crust that combines well with the tomato sauce and vegetables. I never leave disappointed after eating at Lou Malnati’s.
Being a vegetarian can be limiting at times. The only vegetarian items on a menu are often just salads or sides, which aren’t really filling or healthy. That’s why Chicago Diner is a veggie person’s dream restaurant. Every item is vegetarian. The protein they offer is all for those who enjoy fake meat. Their menu has different options that simulate the meat taste. My personal favorite was the Sloppy Joe (which they seemed to have gotten rid of recently), but the restaurant also has a fake chicken sandwich and radical reuben. Lastly, you can’t leave Chicago Diner without trying one of their milkshakes. My words won’t do them justice, but the best way i can summarize it is by saying they are soooooooooo good.
Another tapas place, but this time the Italian version of it. Like Cafe Iberico, Quartino’s offers generous portions of its food even if in small plates. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’ve not always been a huge fan of salads. However, Quartino’s led me to give them a second chance. Their Baby Spinach Salad – with pears, walnuts, and ricotta salata – is delicious. While many of their plates are the standard Italian dishes but in smaller portions, I have always appreciated the restaurant’s ambiance. They have a bar area at the front that is good place to wait and socialize before heading to dinner. The restaurant does get busy, but is particularly fun during the summer, when you can sit on the patio and people-watch outside.
Rick Bayless is the chef everyone knows in Chicago. His Frontera Grill has been around since 1978 and well known for its different spin on Mexican food. While Frontera Grill is a sit-down, XOCO – which is right next to Frontera Grill – is a hybrid model of sit-down and fast food. You go to the cashier to order food, but can only order whenever there are enough tables to sit down. While this unusual sitting model can lead to confusion and jams at points, the food is worth it. XOCO’s main items are the tortas (Mexican sandwiches) full of things such as chicken chipotle mayo, or pork and black beans. The best vegetarian option is the Woodland Mushroom, full of mushrooms, goat cheese, and black beans. I’ve oversimplified how flavorful all these sandwiches really taste, however, since Bayless’s spices make them more than just a mere sandwich. I love the Woodland Mushroom sandwich because of the tangy, lemony taste. It tastes even better with the hot sauces that come with it. Besides the food items, are the memorable drinks. I love the lemonade because it tastes authentic and not like concentrated, artificial mixes you taste elsewhere. The Aztec chocolate drink, while extremely rich in sweetness, has a nice kick to it. I recommend sharing this drink with a friend given how sweet it is.
Proud to be a book nerd but also love talking and writing about TV. My favorite shows are those that have complex and multi-dimensional characters. Other hobbies include going to classical music concerts, trying new restaurants, and visiting art museums.