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It's a story that's all too familiar: friend visits restaurant, friend raves about restaurant, you want to visit said restaurant, restaurant becomes popular, reservations aren't available at the restaurant for the next three months. Sigh. Talk about the epitome of a first world problem.
I was fortunate enough to try three of these types of hotspots during my last trip to Chitown, and while they absolutely lived up to the hype and my own set of high expectations, I've rounded up three less-popular alternatives that will also hit the spot. Check them out!
With Chef Stephen Gillanders at the helm, you know this Pilsen-based establishment is bound to draw the likes of Chicago's most eclectic of eaters. Offering a modern perspective to classic American delights such as fried chicken, short rib, and pork chops, Gillanders has orchestrated a menu that balances familiarity with innovation. The result: a unique dining experience that capitalizes on nostalgia while introducing new and exciting flavors. Each dish was also visually arresting in its presentation and explained thoroughly and enthusiastically by one of the most accommodating restaurant staffs I have encountered in years (We hugged our server and newfound friend, Shawneice, upon leaving.).
What to Get: Everything. Seriously. The restaurant offers an exceptionally-priced prix fixe that allows you to enjoy standouts like roasted red chili pork belly and a phyllo-crusted salmon served with fresh broccolini and a heavenly sambal butter. It's also BYOB, which is almost unheard of in a space with cuisine of this quality.
The Back-Up Plan: Goosefoot—You're going to be shelling out a lot more cash at this joint, but the Lincoln Square gem is also BYOB and chock-full of contemporary plays on traditional American ingredients.
Your basic brunch gets an upgrade with Chef Lee Wolen's Gold Coast treasure. Unsurprisingly, the Avroko-designed space is nothing short of stunning, boasting sophisticated metallics, deep leathers, and muted woods that warm the room like a hug. Whether it's to booze or binge, this is the place to impress out-of-towners with a little sophisticated Windy City charm.
What to Get: Though offerings appear to be understated in their descriptions, they are by no means a prerequisite to anything less than bold and memorable tastes. The egg dishes are fantastic, utilizing only the freshest of organically-sourced ingredients like garlic sausage, purple potatoes, and tomato jam. Do not leave without getting the Meg Galus-curated pastry basket. I still salivate over the morning bun, which paired sinfully well with an aged rum hot chocolate and chartreuse marshmallows.
The Back-Up Plan: Kanela Breakfast Club—It may have lost its authenticity with the expansion to six locations, but this is a menu you want to see during a Sunday a.m. hangover. From sweet to savory, pancakes to sandwiches, there is an option for every preference and personality and the chefs always deliver.
This isn't your Nonna's traditional Italian food. In fact, she may scoff at the Giant team's ability to take a notoriously simple dish and elevate it to something entirely different (in a good way, of course). Giant has become synonymous with comfort, and with a menu highlighting clever variations of handmade pasta, baby back ribs, onion rings, and waffle fries, it's no surprise that winter-weary diners are rushing to snag a coveted table. Indulging is not just celebrated, but encouraged, so order a bottle of wine, maintain this mindset, and you won't leave disappointed.
What to Get: The uni shooter and noodles may be the restaurant's signature dishes, but do not overlook the complex and crave-worthy sweet and sour eggplant. It's a texture lover's dream with the crunch of peanuts atop silky Japanese eggplant and juicy plums, melded together (and in harmonious fashion) by literally seven+ Asian sauces and pastes. This course will make you consider vegetarianism, if only for a fleeting moment.
The Back-Up Plan: Scofflaw—an inviting neighborhood bar that offers creative cocktails, a rotating punch, and an unfussy dinner menu with a cheeseburger as its star. It's by no means groundbreaking, but the Giant-adjacent property is the absolute best (and most reliable!) place to go if the wait next door is too long. Opt for the cozy armchairs closest to the door and strike up a conversation with one of the friendly doormen.
Joey is editor-at-large at Chowhound. When he's not writing or eating french fries, he's probably listening to Beyonce, playing volleyball, or practicing his stand-up comedy routine. You can order his debut cookbook, BASIC BITCHEN, at bit.ly/BasicBitchen.