For restaurateurs on the road, dining out is never just a quest for a delicious meal. It’s a mission to gather inspiration and intelligence from other concepts—from operational gurus to the competition. This is the dining guide for you.
Quintessential Chicago spots …
Bob Chinn’s Crab House
Still, after more than 30 years of operation, the volume at this Wheeling, Ill. seafood restaurant is something to see. Even with more than 700 seats, there’s often a wait. The restaurant itself spans multiple rooms, from the foyer to different bars and dining areas. Velvet ropes and arrows on the floor make it easier for staff to direct and corral the swarms of people moving throughout. Yet despite the sheer number of guests, the focus is on providing a quality experience. You’ll often see the 91-year-old Bob Chinn himself taking time to go around and chat with tables. It’s well worth the 40-minute drive, if you have access to a car.
393 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling, Ill. bobchinns.com
The line almost always wraps around the corner at this self-proclaimed “encased meat emporium” in Avondale. Owner Doug Sohn has built on the love of a Chicago staple—the hot dog—and introduced reimagined versions of dogs and sausages featuring nontraditional meats and toppings. For a more down-and-dirty dog, head to the Weiner Circle in Lincoln Park. The real experience rolls out after midnight when people gather for the over-the-top, non-PC-by-design attitude, from the crowd and servers alike; it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Hot Dougs: 3324 N. California Ave., Chicago. hotdougs.com; Weiner Circle: 2622 N. Clark St., Chicago. wienercircle.net
Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria
It’s hard to go wrong with pizza in Chicago, but if you truly want to eat like the locals, seek out thin-crust pizza, not deep-dish, despite what rumors say. Slinging thin-crust pies on Chicago’s South Side, this longstanding restaurant features an old-school Italian-American vibe, complete with plastic pitchers and a staff that seems to know most of the guests (clearly regulars) by name. Embracing classic Chicago flavors and ingredients not traditionally found on pizza, diners can opt to build an Italian beef-style pizza topped with sliced beef and hot or mild giardiniera. But don’t expect them to bring the pizza up near McCormick place. One of Vito & Nick’s mottoes since the 1960s has been, “We will never deliver; if they want a truly great pizza, they will come in for it.”
8433 S. Pulaski Road, Chicago. vitoandnicks.com
This new Italian eatery is Chef Paul Kahan’s first at a hotel, the Thompson Chicago in the city’s ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood. From the crudo prepped to order, to the antipasti, pasta and market dish of the day, seafood is the specialty. Kahan’s legacy of success at Blackbird, Avec and The Publican continues at Nico, and the place is buzzing and busy. Ask for one of the high-demand seats at the counter to watch the chefs in action in the open kitchen.
1015 N. Rush St., Chicago. nicoosteria.com
Paris Club Bistro & Bar
The newly redesigned Lettuce Entertain You concept, run by the younger branch of the Melman dynasty, aims to “take diners on a quick vacation to Paris,” says Chef-partner Doug Psaltis. Formerly called Paris Club, the restaurant played second fiddle to the nightclub upstairs. Now the 280-seat eatery has its own entrance, an open kitchen and a cozy lounge featuring a salvaged zinc bar. A menu of bistro classics and a deep French wine list are designed to attract Francophiles, says Psaltis. His French technique, honed while working with Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, is showcased in such dishes as Trout Amandine and Daube de Boeuf. While the bistro is open only for dinner, a ramen bar is being built out downstairs that will have its own entrance and serve lunch and dinner. The Studio Paris Nightclub upstairs will still cater to night owls.
59 W. Hubbard St. Chicago. parisclubbistroandbar.com
Worth a walk from McCormick Place …
Popping up all over the city, this fast-casual burger chain now operates seven Chicago-area locations. Stealing a page from Five Guys, the burgers (along with the turkey burgers, chicken sandwiches and portobello sandwiches) are completely customizable, from the cheese to the toppings to the bun. It sets itself apart from its competitors, though, by boasting “a more mindful burger.” It heavily promotes that its ingredients aren’t processed, appealing to consumers’ increased desire to eat all-natural food that still is reasonably priced and sold in a quick, casual setting.
517 S. State St., Chicago. epicburger.com
The pizza chain’s president Marc Malnati courted national media attention earlier this year when he took to YouTube to challenge Jon Stewart’s Daily Show dis of Chicago-style pizza—and eventually snagged an appearance on the show. But Malnati’s is plenty well-known and well-loved by locals already: It was crowned best deep dish pizza last month, unseating Pizzeria Uno, by Eater.com’s poll of 50,000 Chicago readers.
805 S. State St., Chicago. loumalnatis.com
Chains changing the game …
Native Foods Café
With more consumers opting to cut some meat from their diets, this fast-casual vegetarian chain (with four units in Chicago plus more in Washington, D.C., and on the West Coast) found a way to make meat-free food appeal to the masses. The trick: using high-quality ingredients and alternate proteins to create menu options reminiscent of familiar dishes, such as an Italian meatball sub made with seitan meatballs and Baja Blackened Tacos with tempeh instead of ground meat or fish.
218 S. Clark St., Chicago. nativefoods.com
Among chem lab-like brewhouses, Intelligentsia, which first opened here 18 years ago, has had a great year. There were three new shops—one being a full remodel of its flagship Lakeview space that doubled the seats and added a tea bar. Plus 2013 marked its introduction to New York City with a shop in the High Line Hotel.
3123 N. Broadway, Chicago. intelligentsia.com
New twists on top trends …
3 Dots and a Dash
To see what Lettuce Entertain You did with the empty space below its Bub City barbecue joint in the River North area, you have to head down an alley off of Hubbard Street. Inside, the island-themed tiki bar, complete with an ample rum selection, totem poles and a straw canopy-shaded bar, caters to an upmarket crowd and fully embraces this trending tiki theme. Don’t be surprised to find groups of women snapping photos of their elaborately garnished cocktails or sipping from one of several straws in a sharable for-the-table beverage served in skull- or treasure chest-shaped vessels.
435 N. Clark St., Chicago. threedotschicago.com
If you haven’t made it to a LYFE Kitchen in California, now’s your chance to see one. The restaurant exemplifies green design. It also embraces technology, using a location-based pager system to deliver food to tables with minimal disruption. The menu at the health-forward concept from former McDonald’s USA President Mike Roberts and Chicago’s own Art Smith aims to make better-for-you food both approachable and appealing. And it caters to a growing number of diners with dietary restrictions, denoting items that are gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian.
413 N. Clark St., Chicago. lyfekitchen.com
Bang Bang Pie Shop
Yes, the seasonal pies are handmade daily, but we suggest you visit this popular Logan Square shop for the Midwest-style biscuits, made with a sour-cream base and served warm from the oven. Each comes with a housemade seasonal jam and butter. For something heartier, opt for one of the biscuit sandwiches, such as the Bacon Biscuit Sandwich with egg, collard greens and Fresno chile hot sauce or the Ham and Biscuit Sandwich with egg, pimento cheese, grits and pepper jelly. Even with the recently announced departure of two of the original three owners, there’s usually a line and plenty of people lusting after one of the few brightly colored chairs inside. When you do make it to the front, check out the iPad used for transactions, complete with built-in “buttons” for suggested gratuity.
2051 N. California Ave., Chicago. bangbangpie.com
This upscale, urban distillery and cocktail bar in the West Loop is on the edge of the mixology movement, elevating the experience beyond just a tour of the stills and a sample of what’s being concocted in-house. A craft cocktail menu lists house cocktails, classic cocktails and dessert cocktails with housemade spirits such as cinnamon-infused vodka and Earl Grey-infused gin, along with its Carafe Service that includes seven ounces of cold vodka, rye bread and pickles. But that’s not the only food offered. Taking a cue from the popularity of brewpubs, CH Distillery put together a chef-driven menu of small plates, meats, cheeses and spiced nuts to pair with cocktails.
564 W. Randolph St., Chicago. chdistillery.com
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Green Street Smoked Meats
Look for a mural painted on a brick wall down an alley in the Randolph Row corridor to find this hipster barbecue joint by Chicago golden child (and Richard Melman protégé) Brendan Sodikoff. Head to either the bar area or the food line, where meats are pulled from the smoker and cut to order in front of you. Next pick from seven sides, including spicy pickles and broccoli salad, and load up your tray with options from the barbecue-sauce pumps. Just in the mood for a beer? Next to the bar, self-serve tubs filled with ice and bottles of beer make it easy to grab a quick brew. Just don’t expect to take a seat at one of the picnic tables until you order some food; servers will shoo you away.
112 N. Green St., Chicago. hogsalt.com
While this 38-unit chain has branched out to other states, its best known for its quintessential Chicago foods—including the hot dog topped with a pickle, tomatoes and bright-green relish and the Italian beef which many locals order “wet” (dipped in jus). Skip the lines inside and experience the drive-thru—your taxi driver won’t mind—to see an operation so efficient it rivals air-traffic control. The trail of cars may look daunting, but a flood of order-takers and a well-oiled system keep things moving quickly.
100 W. Ontario St., Chicago. portillos.com
This location of the six-unit, fast-casual chain serving steamed Asian buns is carved out of a tiny corner near the entrance of Chicago’s tourist mecca, the Water Tower Place mall on North Michigan Avenue (home to a giant Lego Store and American Girl Place). Self-serve kiosks let busy patrons place orders for bao, salads or rice bowls (or suggested combos under 300, 400 or 500 calories) and housemade ginger ales, and pay without stepping up to the counter.
835 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago. wowbao.com
Others get more buzz, but these may be better …
Lockdown Bar & Grill
Better-burger restaurants are everywhere in Chicago, so this Ukranian Village joint takes some of the best elements from popular hotspots, including buzzed-about Kuma’s Corner, and does them one better. For example, instead of just playing rock music like many do, the restaurant has created a virtual concert space, investing in high-end speaker systems and 14 televisions to play previously recorded rock and metal concerts. It also has fully embraced its prison theme, with a dark color scheme, prison bars and metal-covered windows to the décor. But there’s an equal emphasis on the menu as on the atmosphere; the large selection of craft beers and gourmet burgers with prison-theme names keep Chicagoans coming back.
1024 N. Western Ave., Chicago. lockdownbar.com
Charlie Trotter alumnus Bill Kim has been referred to in Chicago as the Rick Bayless of Asian cuisine. He was a pioneer in bringing now-trending, high-end ramen to Chicago, first opening Urbanbelly in the Avondale neighborhood more than five years ago. The restaurant outgrew its original space and 150-square-foot kitchen, so it recently relocated to a larger spot in the Randolph Row corridor near another Kim restaurant, BellyQ. While BellyQ often gets more attention, Urbanbelly’s counter service and communal table is a better choice for a casual, low-key Kim experience that doesn’t require reservations.
1400 W. Randolph St., Chicago. cornerstonerestaurants.com
Even more Chicago concepts to scout
From prosciutto to coppa to soppressata, charcuterie is increasingly appearing on menus across Chicago. While many of the salumi programs are interchangeable with one another, Quartino is adding its own spin—making it by hand, a technique Chef John Coletta says is a return to the way it was originally made. Meat is hand-cut, then manually cranked into a natural casing. While this preparation takes four times as long, the price remains comparable to other offerings around the city. And with 10,000 to 12,000 covers coming through the door every week, it’s clear that this River North hotspot has found a way to handle the demand.
626 N. State St., Chicago. quartinochicago.com
Lucky’s Sandwich Co.
If a client trip takes you up near Wrigley Field, head to Lucky’s for a Hulk-size meal. Get ready to unhinge your jaw to take a bit of the concept’s overstuffed sandwiches, made with deli cuts and other proteins, along with tomatoes, oil-and-vinegar slaw and hand-cut fries, all stacked on thick-cut French bread. And be prepared to see some serious eaters. Since appearing on an episode of Man vs. Food, it’s not uncommon to see a hungry diner taking the Lucky’s Challenge: finishing three sandwiches in less than an hour. Since opening in 2004, Lucky’s has expanded to three locations.
3472 N. Clark St., Chicago. luckysandwich.com
While it may be off the beaten path, Cemitas Puebla still brings in a high volume of traffic. Maybe it’s because the family-owned Humboldt Park joint aims to make its meals taste “just like home.” That is, the owner’s home of Poblano, Mexico. To ensure an authentic flavor, some ingredients are even brought in fresh from Mexico. Plus, it’s the only place in Chicago to get the namesake Cemitas sandwich. That is, until the second location opens in the Randolph Corridor in the near future.
3619 W. North Ave., Chicago. cemitaspuebla.com
Wonder where all of the diners are during the workweek? Head to Mariano’s, and you’ll find them. The Milwaukee-based grocery-store chain that emphasizes freshness and quality as part of its mission statement has been popping up around Chicago with some frequency in recent months, gaining even more ground since Dominick’s, one of the top grocery chains, pulled out of Illinois. Many have flocked to Mariano’s as an alternative to dining out, thanks to its ready-to-eat meals, bar (that serves wine while you shop), gelato cafe, wood-fired pizza oven, sushi bar, coffee counter and more, in addition to the large grocery selection. Some locations even offer seating, so guests can dine in-store.
Various locations. marianos.com
OSB at L&E
Longman & Eagle is one of the highly publicized hotspots in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, meaning that there’s usually a long wait. To get a taste without the line, head to The Off Site Bar at Longman & Eagle, located adjacent to the main property. The 16-seat, 30-person space offers a selection of bites from the Bar Snacks portion of Longman & Eagle’s menu, along with oysters and other options. To take full advantage of this second space, Longman & Eagle’s sous chef and pastry chef team up every Sunday to transform it into the Sunday Donut Shop pop-up, serving classics along with seasonally inspired pastry creations.
2657 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago. longmanandeagle.com/garage/
Surprising spots extending business with brunch
This popular Italian chain with 20 units in and around the city doubles as a brunch spot at two of its locations: Francesca’s Forno in Wicker Park and Mia Francesca in Lakeview. Despite its reach, each location feels unique to its community and has slightly different variation on the name. The menu features many traditional brunch options with an Italian twist.
Lakeview: 3311 N. Clark St., Chicago.; Wicker Park: 1576 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. miafrancesca.com
Embracing the service style of a Brazilian churascara even during brunch hours, chefs walk around with dishes such as crab cake Benedict, chicken and waffles, roasted turkey and bottom sirloin to slice off unlimited samples tableside.
739 N. Clark St., Chicago. zed451.com