AOL PICK from our Editors
You can complain about the weather, you can make fun of the Cubs, you can refer to the "L" as “the subway”—just don’t try to claim that Chicago restaurants are anything less than the best. On a first-time visit, trying Chicago-style pizza (deep-dish, with a top crust and more cheese than a Barry Manilow concert) is mandatory; so is having a Chicago hot dog (that is, with mustard, onion, pickle relish, pickle spear, tomatoes, sport peppers and celery salt—and never, ever, any ketchup). But once you’ve gotten those gustatory requirements out of the way, go further afield and you’ll be rewarded. What makes this such a great eating city is that the top places to eat in Chicago aren’t just uber-posh four-star places, but also authentic ethnic joints and greasy holes-in-the-wall. In the last five years or so the city has also become a hub of the molecular gastronomy movement, which uses technology and chemistry to bring out flavors in novel ways. Top Chicago restaurants are almost everywhere in the city, and definitely everywhere visitors will be most likely to find themselves. If you like ethnic food, just a few of your choices are Chinatown and Uptown (specifically, the area around the Argyle Red Line stop) for Chinese and Vietnamese, Lincoln Square (for German), Pilsen (for Mexican), and Greektown (for…you guessed it). Meanwhile, you’ll find the majority of upscale restaurants downtown, in Lincoln Park or (to a slightly lesser degree) in Wicker Park or Lakeview.
Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive
Loosely modeled on a Brazilian steakhouse, ZED451 offers what it calls a “continuous dining experience.” That is, you pay one price ($44; drinks and dessert are extra); make as many visits as you can handle to a buffet laden with salads, breads and charcuterie; and sit back while the wait staff offers you selection after selection of grilled beef, lamb, seafood, poultry and game. Of the buffet selections, we love the wild mushrooms with feta dressing; of the innumerable meat options, we prefer the buttermilk-marinated bottom sirloin. Go early, and the dining room is pleasantly serene. Go later, or sit in the lounge, and it’s more of a busy, young-and-trendy singles scene.
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Neighborhood: Lincoln Park Price: Expensive
If you dine at Alinea, don’t bother making any additional plans for the evening. For one thing, you won’t have time: Dinner here consists of either 12 or 26 courses (which run $150 and $225, respectively) and lasts a minimum of three to four hours. A meal at Alinea—named “Best Restaurant in America” by Gourmet—is all the entertainment you’ll need. Chef Grant Achatz has created what is indisputably the most creative dining experience in the city, with dishes such as a tiny goat’s-milk cheesecake with onion cotton candy, served on a pillow filled with lavender air that gradually releases its scent as you eat. If you don’t think of tobacco and bubble gum as food flavors, well, you will after you dine here. And, amazingly, none of it is too weird to be delicious. Make your reservations a minimum of three months in advance, and wear your finest.
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Neighborhood: Wicker Park Price: Expensive
As you might expect from the name, Hot Chocolate (the creation of locally legendary pastry chef Mindy Segal) takes its desserts very seriously. But no matter how sweet your teeth are, we suggest you not rush dinner—not with a seasonal menu that might include gruyere mac-and-cheese, house-made pappardelle or a burger named the city’s best by Chicago magazine. (Get it with the fried egg on top). The desserts themselves tend to be elaborate in everything but name: Our favorite is “Chocolate #1,” which consists of a chocolate soufflé tart, salted caramel ice cream and house-made pretzels. Mindy’s also known for her brioche doughnuts and “black and tan” hot chocolate (a combination of one part hot fudge and two parts hot chocolate). The place draws a fairly posh crowd, but the atmosphere is convivial and hip rather than hushed and somber. You don’t absolutely need a reservation, though the place does get pretty full on weekends and holidays.
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Neighborhood: West Loop
A quick cab ride west of the Loop, on West Randolph Street, lies a stretch of moderate-to-fancy eateries sometimes collectively referred to as Restaurant Row. One of our favorites is De Cero, an upscale Mexican joint known for its à la carte tacos, which are stuffed with fillings like ahi tuna, chorizo sausage and battered shrimp. A plate of eight for $30 makes a meal for two people. If you need something heartier, there are also entrees, of which the priciest, at $17.75, is carne asada with bacon-mashed pinto beans. Whatever you get, do make room for the duck confit nachos appetizer. De Cero is something of a young-urbanite scene—it can get loud and crowded, especially after work, when the pineapple-jalapeño margaritas are flowing.
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Neighborhood: Andersonville Price: Budget
This Andersonville spot could be described as “slow food meets Southern cooking,” with traditional dishes cooked using seasonal, local ingredients and served in a low-key, but still white-tablecloth, setting. Start with a Dark & Stormy cocktail (rum with house-made ginger beer), proceed to a starter of delicate fried green tomatoes, and continue to an entrée such as pulled pork with fried okra or our favorite, blackened catfish. To our dismay, the fried-green-tomato BLT has been taken off the menu, but a waiter recently confided that the kitchen will make it on request. Among the desserts, the red velvet cake wins hands-down.
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Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Budget
Why are we including what’s essentially a food court? Because this self-described “urban dining venue” on the lower level of shopping mecca Water Tower Place is one of the very few places to grab an inexpensive but delicious lunch or dinner on the Magnificent Mile. This is how it works: As you enter, a worker hands you a plastic card that looks like a hotel room key and shows you where your reserved table will be. You browse the 14 different food stations (which include options from sushi to cheeseburgers), order what you like, and have the counterperson charge the food to your card. After you dine, the cashier at the exit swipes your card and charges you for the total. Simple but effective. Expect to pay $10 or so for an entrée and beverage.
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Neighborhood: Avondale Price: Budget
A destination hot-dog restaurant? Only in Chicago. Owner Doug Sohn has drawn a cult following at his self-described “Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium” with creations like smoked applewurst pork sausage with sweet curry mustard and goat cheese; smoked duck sausage with cherry mustard; and brown-ale-and-chipotle buffalo sausage. It’s a testimony to Sohn’s skills that Chicagoans have embraced these fancy-pants dogs with as much ardor as their beloved traditional Vienna Beef version. The duck-fat fries here (available Fridays and Saturdays only) have become a cult unto themselves. Best of all, you’ll shell out just $1.75 - $9 for your meal. Hot Doug’s is open Monday-Saturday, 10:30AM to 4PM only, and the lines routinely stretch around the block.
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Neighborhood: Magnificent Mile Price: Budget
Everyone has a favorite joint for Chicago-style pizza. Ours is this legendary spot—the original location of what’s become a local chain—on Superior Street, just east of the Magnificent Mile. For the uninitiated, imagine a regular deep-dish pizza with a second, buttery crust over the toppings, and additional sauce and cheese on top of that. Sausage is the most traditional topping, but feel free to throw in some vegetables, too, in hopes of counteracting some of the grease-bomb effect. Be warned that the pizzas take about 45 minutes to bake, and Gino’s doesn’t take reservations—so get there early and bring some diversions for any kiddies in tow. Pizzas range from $14.95 to $27.95, but one or two pieces are all most people can manage in one sitting; two people can easily eat for less than $10 each.
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Neighborhood: Uptown Price: Budget
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Just around the corner from the Argyle stop on the Red Line in Uptown, Sun Wah’s unassuming storefront belies the incredible and incredibly reasonable dining experience that can be all yours—with a little advance notice. Call a few hours ahead to reserve your duck then show up hungry with some company. You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful, plump, crispy, glistening duck, expertly carved and served family-style. Just when you’re done eating the duck slices with the accompanying steamed buns, duck sauce and julienned vegetables, out come two additional courses—duck-bone soup and duck fried rice, followed by a scoop of pineapple sorbet. The grand sum: $30, meaning that all you have to do to make this a bargain meal is invite two people along. There are also lots and lots of other cheap dinner options, like barbecued spare ribs with honey ($7 for a medium portion). But get the duck. Really.
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