While I love a lot of things about Denver, food is the one thing I miss the most about Chicago (besides my family, of course). Denver’s dining scene will never hold a candle to the diversity and breadth of amazing restaurants in the Windy City. Arguably one of the best food cities in the country, Chicago’s top restaurants are longtime staples that have withstood the test of time and insane turnover. These are the essential restaurants and dining experiences that guarantee a great meal whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit to Chicago.
Best Restaurant in Chicago – Period – Alinea
Chicago’s only three Michelin star restaurant, Alinea has been around almost 15 years and still books up months in advance. The brainchild of acclaimed chef Grant Achatz who became one of the best chefs in the world despite battling tongue cancer, that’s just one of their impressive feats. It was the first restaurant to pioneer the concept of prepaid ticketed reservations, pricing meals on a sliding scale based on date and time (Friday at 7 p.m. would be more expensive than Tuesday at 5 p.m.) in order to show that dining is an experience akin to the theatre. The menu is as innovative as it is playful with everything from edible balloons to lobster and wagyu.
Best Innovative Dining Experience in Chicago – Next
The most forward-thinking restaurant in the country, in my opinion, Next is another ticketed experience from the team behind bucket-list worthy Alinea. Every quarter they completely reconceptualize the space and food from Paris 1906 to Thailand 2020 and even had a whimsical Childhood menu with edible finger paints. The buzz definitely justifies the hype.
Best Deep Dish Pizza in Chicago – Giordano’s
The best deep dish in Chicago is a hotly debated topic, but it really comes down to whether you prefer your ‘za saucier or cheesier. Personally, I’m a coat that pie in as much tomato sauce as possible kind of girl. If you’re all about that cheese life, Lou Malnati’s will be more your style. If you want the OG though, give UNO’s or Gino’s East a try. Others also swear by Pequod’s for their caramelized crust, but personally, it’s too crispy for me.
Best Thin Crust Pizza in Chicago – Piece Brewery
Chicagoans really only eat deep dish on rare occasions (ie. they have a guest in town) because it’s too dense to consume all the time (even during hibernation season). But that doesn’t mean we still don’t love our pizza year-round.
Also Try: Coalfire, Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder, Eately
Best Restaurant Group in Chicago – Boka
One of the most awarded restaurant groups in the country, Boka’s portfolio includes plenty of James Beard nominees and Michelin Stars. You’re guaranteed a solid meal at any of their restaurants although Girl & the Goat (Stephanie Izard, Top Chef winner’s original spot) and Boka are personal favorites.
Best Hot Dogs in Chicago – Portillo’s
Just say yes to sport peppers and celery salt and hard pass on the ketchup, which is a cardinal sin around these parts. Chicago dogs aren’t hard to come by in Denver, but that trifecta of beefy goodness, cheese fries, and gluttonous chocolate cake is and my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Someone please open a franchise out West – help a girl out.
Also Try: Superdawg Drive-inn, Wolfy’s, Devil Dawgs
Best Italian Beef in Chicago – Al’s Beef
Another Chicago staple that could probably be its own food group, Italian beef is a go-to lunch in the loop. Just know how to order so you don’t hold up the line. They’ll ask if you want it dry, wet, or dipped which refers to how juicy it’ll be (dipped is the most socially acceptable in the Windy City) and whether you want it topped with hot or sweet peppers (giardiniera is the correct answer).
Also Try: Mr. Beef, Tony’s Italian Beef
Best Steakhouse in Chicago – Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
We’re still a meat and potatoes Midwest town so there’s no question that Chicago does steak well. Bavette’s puts a French twist on the classics with peppercorn, mushroom, gorgonzola, and butter or garlic crusts, and crab Oscar and bone marrow sides.
Also Try: Chicago Cut Steakhouse, Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
Best Burgers in Chicago – Kuma’s Corner
If you like your burgers with a side of heavy metal (and ridiculous mac and cheese), Kuma’s your guy. Just don’t be alarmed ordering the Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden.
Also Try: Au Cheval, DMK Burger Bar, Shake Shack
Best Italian Food in Chicago – Piccolo Sogno
Can you say squid ink pasta and homemade ravioli? The name translates to “Little Dream” because yeah it is.
Also Try: Davanti Enoteca, Sienna Tavern, Spiaggia, Formento’s
Best Mexican Food in Chicago – Topolobampo
Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless is a genius, pure and simple. Whether you go to his high-end haunt or one of the more approachable lunch options (Tortas Frontera, Xoco, or Frontera Grill), the cuisine is modern, seasonal, and elevated.
Also Try: Mercadito, Takito Kitchen, Big Star
Best Brunch in Chicago – The Bongo Room
White chocolate, caramel pretzel pancakes, I dream of the day I’ll be reunited with you in Wicker Park. Known for their outrageous and oversized pancake, Benedict, and French Toast creations, their sweet and savory breakfast menu was designed for sharing (and you can actually order half portions). Snooze is Denver’s cheap imitation, and nowhere near as good as those sinful syrups.
Also Try: Lula Café, The Publican, Meli Café, Ann Sather, Yolk
Best Chinese Food in Chicago – Sun Wah BBQ
Peking duck served three ways and carved tableside, $30 for a meal for four is virtually unheard of in this day and age. Just remember you must preorder at least 24 hours in advance.
Also Try: Duck Duck Goat, literally anywhere in Chinatown
Best Bagel in Chicago – New York Bagel
This may sound random, but you have no idea how hard it is to find a good bagel in a predominantly Christian, red state. To give you an idea of how bad the demand is, the one non-Einstein’s within Denver proper just opened to 45-minute waits (albeit they did build their own water treatment system to match NYC’s quality). This Jew girl needs her schmear, and preferably with lox.
Also Try: Chicago Bagel Authority
Best Vietnamese in Chicago – Tank Noodle
My go-to comfort food in Chicago, Tank has the best Banh mi’s and pho around. Not fancy by any means, the hole-in-the-wall Asian gems on Argyle are generally family style seating with lazy Susan’s for passing the sauces and toppings.
Also Try: Saigon Sisters, Le Colonial
Best Korean Food in Chicago – Cho Sun Ok
Not exactly known for their ambiance or service (especially if you’re white), you’ll have to look past that for how good their Korean BBQ is. Basically a giant meat feast with a table full of sides, it’s enough to feed an army…and then some.
Also Try: San Soo Gab San (late night), Gyu-Kaku (especially good for groups)
Best Sushi in Chicago – Arami
The best sushi really depends on what type of experience you’re looking for. Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill has by far the most Instagrammable presentations (going crazy with elaborate sauce designs). There are also a few all-you-can-eat spots that are also great deals (and filling if you’re not looking for the best fish) like Sushi Para M.
Also Try: Sunda, Coast, Mirai
Best Late Night Diner in Chicago – Tempo Café
Chicago’s my kinda town with bars generally open until 4 a.m. That means late night grubbing is an essential part of the going out experience – the greasier the better.
Also Try: Hollywood Grill, Melrose Cafe
Best Seafood Restaurant in Chicago – Shaw’s Crab House
Despite being landlocked, Chicago manages to pull off seafood pretty well, especially shellfish with many of these serving up daily fresh catches.
Also Try: Calumet Fisheries, GT Fish & Oyster
Plan Your Trip: Where to Stay in Chicago
For a local’s guide on what to do with 48 hours in Chicago, check out this post.
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