The Best Restaurants in Chicago

Finding a place to eat in Chicago is easy with these tried-and-true suggestions.

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little Photography

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Neil Burger

Photo By: Jason Little

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little

Photo By: Jason Little

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Matthew Gilson

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Galdones Photography

Photo By: Andrea Donadio

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Welcome to Chicago

Chicago has always been considered a meat and potatoes town, a down-home Midwestern respite for hearty appetites. But these days those potatoes are likely to be soaked in clarified butter, gilded with black truffle and perched on a custom-designed steel pin ready to be dropped into a bowl of silky vichyssoise (as is the case at the international destination restaurant Alinea). Chicago is now a world-class food city, ripe with incredible mom and pop diners, tantalizing taquerias and some of the best prix-fixe vegetarian meals found anywhere. Check out this city guide to see what the Windy City dining scene is truly all about.

Editor's note: This guide has been updated with the latest information on these restaurants as of June 2021.

Pizza: Pequod’s

Gino, Giordano’s and Malnati’s — all legendary sellers of slices so thick you need to eat 'em with a knife and fork. But the pizza spot that towers over all of them is Pequod’s, purveyor of a focaccia-style crust baked in cast-iron pans blackened with decades of seasoning. Don’t let the cheesy lingerie-clad whale logo deter you. These pies are serious and sprinkled with so much cheese that it oozes toward the edges during baking to emerge as a caramelized, nutty halo of crisp goodness. There are plenty of toppings to choose from, but the quintessential Chicago combo features thick knobs of fresh sausage and sweet white onion.

Icon: Superdawg

Capone, Sears — err, Willis — Tower, deep-dish pizza, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Chicago was built on icons, though many of those culinary icons now trade on nostalgia, rather than flavor. One true exception is Superdawg. This old-school drive-in featuring statues of hot dog mascots Maurie and Flaurie, carhops, thick cement shakes and fabulous golden crinkle-cut fries has plenty of history on offer. But they also serve up one of the best salad dogs in town. The namesake Superdawg is a thick, snappy beef frank — a superior departure from the typical Vienna dog served elsewhere. It bears the mustard, neon-green relish, onions and sport peppers — and a pickle — present on all great Chicago-style dogs, but it also comes with a secret weapon, a spicy, tangy pickled green tomato you’ll wish they sold by the jar.

Go to: Superdawg Drive-In

Pie: Hoosier Mama

These pies are so good, the shops move up the pre-order windows for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Though they work to expand capacity, they find themselves shutting down the pre-order window earlier and earlier as well. What fans know is no matter how hard they try, they can’t rival the intricate woven lattices, the shattery pastry, the burbling glossy local fruit filling, the velvety citrus curds and creamy chess variations that owner Paula Haney and her crew turn out like child’s play.

More info: Hoosier Mama Pie Company

Hot Spot: Giant

A few years ago, Chef Jason Vincent was on top of the world. After earning numerous awards and accolades, Vincent gave up his job at the highly rated, but now defunct, Nightwood to raise his daughter. In 2016 he came back with Giant, named after a Shel Silverstein poem he used to read to his daughter. Giant, as its name suggests, is a huge success. It’s packed every night with people seeking creative culinary inventions. Though Vincent is a top talent, he’s eschewed fine dining in favor of turning out mostly simple classics.

Go to: Giant

Neapolitan Pizza: Paulie Gee’s

Given the longstanding rivalry with New York for civic supremacy, and the fact that we’re talking about some of Chicago’s most-essential spots, it might seem weird that a Brooklyn-born pizza joint would make this list. But Paulie Gee’s turns out some of Chicago’s best Neapolitan-style pizzas, easily passing the Friday-night craving test. Which is to say, when your inhibitions are down, Gee’s pies are the ones you crave. The wood-fired and blistered crusts of their Neapolitan pies feature a cross-section of airy bubbles that look more like a croissant than a pizza.

Sandwich: Al’s Beef

Don’t call it a roast beef, a Philly or a French dip. Chicago’s Italian beef doesn’t come with cheese, and it ain’t served with horseradish sauce or au jus. It comes on a crusty Italian loaf, is sweet or hot (topped with green bell pepper or chile-spiked giardiniera), and is dipped (in the roasting juices) or dry. Sometimes it’s even a combo, topped with a link of Italian sausage. At the original Little Italy location of Al’s, the beef is rubbed with a secret blend of herbs and spices (likely including nutmeg), and it's roasted until it falls apart into silky shreds. While the beef’s sweet spice profile makes it unique, its particular blend of nuclear-hot giardiniera, studded with celery, carrots and other vegetables, puts it over the top.

Go to: Al's Beef

BBQ: Smoque

The myths of great barbecue are legion. Some suggest great ’cue only exists in the south, that it must be produced by a grizzled veteran, or that a manual smoker stoked with hand-chopped hickory is the only way. The iconoclastic Smoque challenges most of those conventions while turning out some of the best smoky meats in the Midwest and beyond. Purists might scoff at the use of an automated smoker, but the product, glistening salt and pepper-rubbed brisket, toothsome ribs, featuring a lacquered sweet bark and tender pulled pork, are the real deal.

Pasta: Daisies

Daisies makes fantastic pastas, but the best pasta is, technically, not on the menu: hand-cut tajarin or tagliatelle-like noodles glazed with butter and dusted with parmesan, devised to satisfy picky kids. Those who stick to the menu will be well rewarded with toothsome options tossed with fresh produce from Chef Joe Frillman’s brother’s farm. Frillman’s definition of pasta is wide-ranging.

Biscuit Brunch: Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits

The dining room is tiny and, appropriately, wedge-shaped like a slice of pie. Despite that diminutiveness, every weekend lines of folks spill out on the sidewalk biding their time, waiting for their chance to sample fluffy biscuits.

Modern Deli: Steingold’s

If you’re looking to recapture the nostalgic bite of your bubbe’s babka, look elsewhere. Owner Aaron Steingold is certainly inspired by delis past, but innovates in a way that suggests he is its future. You may encounter astrami here is made from high-end Wagyu beef that’s been slow-smoked for six hours and rubbed with a secret spice mix. Said pastrami can be piled high on locally baked Publican rye bread and crowned with smoked sauerkraut and a gooey lick of Russian dressing. Kimchi, a nod to Steingold’s Korean sister-in-law, may make an appearance on another pastrami sandwich with anchovy mustard, and latkes can be made with traditional potato, but also spiked with a touch of nutty parsnip.

Fried Shrimp: Haire’s Gulf Shrimp

Chicago is nowhere near an ocean and yet, fried shrimp shacks dot the landscape almost as much as Italian beef joints or deep-dish pizza parlors. Most places serve thick under-salted flour-laden clumps. Haire’s, however, purveys a light, golden crispy battered and butterflied shrimp so addictive, it can be eaten like popcorn. Though it needs no celebrity endorsement, Chance the Rapper has been spotted at this Southside gem.

Haute Chinese: Duck, Duck, Goat

Chinese food in Chicago was generally considered quick, cheap and good takeout fare. That is, until Top Chef champion and Chicago master chef Stephanie Izard, who grew up making Mandarin pancakes and moo shu pork with her mom, got involved. At Duck, Duck, Goat, Izard reinvents dishes like Szechuan chicken by getting rid of the tongue-searing heat that blows your palate in favor of grassy low-heat shishito peppers. When available, her char siu, or barbecue ribs, are cooked sous vide until tender, then brushed with bourbon-and-honey-infused hoisin. Noodles are hand-pulled and have a soulful chew.

Go to: Duck, Duck, Goat

Italian Deli: Tempesta Market

Take the traditional Italian market, add some rock-and-roll references plus the pursuit of quality inherent in a stalwart deli like Ann Arbor’s Zingerman’s and you’ve got Tempesta Market. Appetizers may include (Sympathy for the Meatballs) Berkshire pork meatballs glazed in tomato basil sauce, and gem lettuces tossed with rosy-hued curls of roast beef, shiny curds of stracciatella and a lustrous herb vinaigrette. Sandwiches can include the likes of the Southside Johnny featuring sourdough stuffed with juicy rosemary broth-splashed porchetta, grilled Wisconsin cheese, verdant broccolini, and spicy garlicky chimichurri that kick the butt of your average Italian hero.

Thai: Rainbow

Great Thai places in Chicago are often revered for their secret menus and adherence to regional specialties like fermented chile-flecked Issan sausage, limey banana blossom salads and blow-your-head-off jungle curries. Fantastic versions of all of these exist at Rainbow, but ironically what sets it apart is the generally more mainstream pad see ew, which can be bland and gummy elsewehre. At Rainbow, you order it extra-crispy and get sweet fried noodles blistering with bubbles that crunch like fried chicken skin tossed with soy-lacquered beef and tufts of broccoli spears for a delicious reinvention of a classic.

New Orleans in Chicago: Ina Mae Tavern

Chef Brian Jupiter has the soul of the bayou running through his blood. Unlike any cook before him, he has somehow found a way to bring a taste of The Big Easy to Chicago at Ina Mae Tavern. Chargrilled oysters can bubble with butter, while fried crawfish tails can be as addictive like popcorn shrimp. Po' Boy-style sandwiches stuffed between crusty bread channels the best of New Orleans’s stalwarts like Parkway Bakery and Domilise’s.

Midwestern Middle-Eastern: Aba

Nationally, there’s been a run of chef-driven Israeli and Middle-Eastern restaurants including Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans. Chicago gets in the game with Aba, from C. J. Jacobson. If you’re used to snack packs of commodity grocery store hummus, you will be blown away by Jacobson’s velvety version made from fresh-ground chickpeas. Jacobsen offers a variety of toppings on his hummus, but none is better than the one piled high with crispy short ribs dripping in gravy. Aba also has what might arguably be the best patio dining in Chicago, a huge veranda studded with couches and all kinds of greenery that overlooks downtown’s skyscrapers. If you don’t arrive when Aba opens, you’ll be waiting two or three deep at the bar waiting to score an outdoor spot later in the evening.

Modern Mexican: Mi Tocaya Antojeria

Innovation in Chicago’s Mexican cooking scene has historically been confined to Rick Bayless restaurants and the occasional fast-food promotion. But Diana Davila’s Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Logan Square is rooted in tradition — like soulful rich moles — but also punctuated by furiously creative touches.

Polish (and Korean) Sausage: Kimski Dog

Chicago has a long history of 24-hour joints serving up grilled reddish kielbasa links overflowing with sunburst-yellow mustard and golden caramelized onion, aka the Maxwell Polish. Chicago is also a melting-pot town, and it was only a matter of time before the Polish influence was mixed with a little Korean spice to produce a hot dog that someday might rival the classic dragged-through-the-garden Chicago hot dog. Behold the Kimski dog, a thick hunk of Polish sausage topped with soju-liquor-spiked mustard and fermented kimchi sauerkraut stuffed into a pillowy split-top, lobster roll-style bun. The richness of the meat is foiled by the mustard and kimchi brightness, providing a hot dog that bursts like flavor fireworks.

Go to: Kimski

More Than a Steakhouse: GT Prime

Normally we’d stay away from the meat-and-potatoes cliches that often define Chicago, but in the case of GT Prime, it’s mandatory. That’s because, though it bills itself as a steakhouse, GT Prime is really more like a fine-dining restaurant that just happens to also serve top-shelf meat. You won’t find 2-pound hunks of rib eye; instead, reasonable 4- to 12-ounce portions of top-class wagyu strip steak or grass-fed bison already cut for you are on offer. You’ll supplement those manageable beef portions with a selection of elegant sides, soups, salads and appetizers.

Go to: GT Prime

Cocktail Bar: Aviary

A funhouse of modern potables, Aviary’s cocktail craft is unparalleled. Whether they're serving a margarita with ice cubes made with Fresno chile juice, or a Manhattan encapsulated in a frozen sphere cracked tableside with a custom-designed "slingshot," mixologists don’t create drinks as much as liquid performance art. The kitchen chefs work some magic, too, and can be serving tiny complementary bites like a sea-salt-flecked dark chocolate candy bar filled with whipped foie gras nougat. Ask the right person and you might just find yourself whisked down to the Office, a basement speakeasy where the chief bartender will create custom cocktails tailored to your tastes or offer a pour of unique, rare and vintage liquors from Aviary’s rare spirits cabinet.

Go to: Aviary

Tacos al Pastor via the Sea: Lena Brava

Taquerias are pretty much on every corner in Chicago, and many of them serve good tacos al pastor, aka spit-roasted pork topped with a bit of roast pineapple. Not every corner, however, has golden god of Mexican cuisine Rick Bayless modernizing regional Mexican food like he does at the corner of Randolph and Peoria. Menu items may change, but expect dishes to feature a smokey, flame-licked flavor.

Go to: Lena Brava

Scandinavian: Elske

Because of the overt influence of Noma, Danish cuisine conjures visions for many people of food wrapped in hay or edible algae. But the Danish-inspired Elske is less about crazy ingredients and techniques, and more about celebrating the spirit of hygge, or the Danish pursuit of cozy contentment. From the roaring patio fireplace to dishes that may include a comforting bowl of roast mushrooms swimming in pear cream, contentment is exactly what you get. Chefs David and Anna Posey push boundaries, serving up creations that may include a shot of smoked fruit and vegetable tea or savory-skewing desserts like sunflower-seed parfait, but their creative efforts are always inspiring and never alienating.

Seafood: MFK

Though it’s subterranean, landlocked and tiny, MFK, with its whitewashed walls and penny tiles, evokes a seaside hideaway in Barcelona. Those lucky enough to score one of the handful of tables will be rewarded with perhaps a beautiful pour of nicely acidic and crisp txakolina and a plate of boquerones, pristine anchovy fillets marinated in vinegar and topped with curls of shaved fennel and zingy piquillo peppers, all perched on smoky grilled baguettes. Diners can expect to find things like the cataplana, a tomato-and-anise-flavored stew larded with flaky bits of cobia collar and fresh buttery shrimp farmed in, of all places, western Indiana. Like the stories from its namesake, celebrated food writer MFK Fisher, this restaurant will transport you to another place.

Go to: MFK

Cheap Eat: Fatso’s Last Stand

Though known for icons like deep-dish pizza and a hot dog dragged through the garden, Chicago, a city surrounded by fresh water, has a long history of fried shrimp houses. While Fatso’s isn’t a dedicated shrimp shack like some others in town, it serves up incredible gigantic garlic-battered butterflied and fried shrimp so good you might think you were vacationing in the Gulf. Though Fatso's is a shack, almost everything is made in-house, including macaroni and cheese featuring al dente cavatappi dripping with cheddar. Also on offer, char dogs and juicy cheeseburgers that channel the soul of the West Coast’s In-N-Out Burger, making Fatso’s one of Chicago’s greatest cheap-eats destinations.

Go to: Fatso’s Last Stand

Nepalese: Chiya Chai

Any good food city worth its salt has sushi, pizza or a good taqueria, but how many of them have world-class Nepalese? Chicago certainly didn’t, until the launch of Chiya Chai from Nepalese tea importers Swadesh and Saujanya Shrestha and their wives, Rajee Aryal and Nadine Schaefer. The chai tea — far from the syrup-based stuff found at coffee chains — is made from freshly ground spices and top-class tea leaves. Foodwise, items may include Chiya’s chile potatoes that feature a yin yang of tangy vinegar and sweet honey, plus a little pepper heat.

Go to: Chiya Chai

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