Chicago is a food enthusiast's dream. Maybe this isn't news to you. But if it is, it's possible you've been doing it wrong.
Chicago is known as a "city of neighborhoods," each one with its own vibe, history, and ethnic influences. You can see these in our architecture - yes, that amazing skyline, but also those rows of brownstones and bungalows, brick cottages and clapboards - our music scene, the way we treat visitors ("Gawd y'all are so nice!"), the way we cook and eat, and of course, our restaurants.
If you want to eat like a local, your first move is to go where the locals are. And the locals ain't in the Loop or on Michigan Avenue, unless it's the lunch rush on a weekday - in which case, best for you to sneak away and get a table at some not-downtown hotspot while all the locals are at work!
Chicago is known for an array of foods: pizza (specifically deep dish), Chicago-style hot dogs, and all manner of meats (after all, we used to be the "hog butcher to the world"). We also see a ton of tourists - folks looking to kick off a night on the town with some fine dining, and families looking for an easy meal that's also fun for the kids.
If you're visiting us and looking for any or all of those types of places, they're not hard to find. But walk in, and you'll find yourself surrounded by other people who aren't from here. If you're looking to eat like a local, here are five places to hit where I promise you'll be in good Chicago company.
#1. PIZZA: Marie's Pizza & Liquors in Albany Park
We know you know about deep dish. And I'm not saying not to eat it. But real talk, deep dish is mostly for special occasions and, ironically, when family or friends are visiting. (So much for keeping them away from the touristy stuff.)
If you're looking for the kind of pizza that Chicago eats on its days off, its Friday nights, its Netflix-binge afternoons, it's thin crust, tavern-style pizza.
A few features to notice: cheese that's well-caramelized and distributed almost all the way out to the edge, and oooooh yes that square cut! The crust is cracker-thin and the cheese is generous.
You can find pizza like this at a lot of classic pizza pubs that serve old-school, non-craft beer on tap and always have The Game (any game! all the games!) on one of a few TVs mounted over the bar. Square cut is the default; I haven't tried, but I suspect you might get a funny look if you request triangles. Just don't do it.
Marie's in the Albany Park neighborhood is one of the best tavern-style pies, and they've been serving it since 1940. Come for the pizza, stay for the magnificent red vinyl banquettes and mirrored walls. Although their sausage is laced with a glorious amount of fennel seeds and is traditional on a classic tavern pie, mega bonus cred is awarded for ordering your pizza topped with Italian beef and hot giardiniera (essentially combining two Chicago standbys: pizza and Italian beef sandwiches).
#2. HOT DOGS: Kimski in Bridgeport
Okay, okay, so I'm actually not steering you toward an actual hot dog joint for this one. Here's the thing: I do want you to eat a Chicago-style hot dog when you're in town. Get it "dragged through the garden" - that includes tomato, pickle, neon green relish (don't ask questions), celery salt, sport peppers, chopped onions, and yellow mustard. If you're trying this for the first time, skip the ketchup for once in your life.
HOWEVER: once that's out of the way, you've gotta get down with some other encased meats. Chicago has a long history and a swooning love affair with all manner of meats (see next category), and boy do we know how to stick it in a sausage. Generations of immigrants from all over the world - Polish, German, Italian, Korean, Mexican, the list goes on - have shown us an entire cosmos of meaty goodness.
For flavor combinations you might not have seen before, head south to Kimski in Bridgeport. Attached to Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar - where Maria herself in all her eyeliner'd, hairsprayed, queen-of-the-universe-forever glory still cards you at the counter in the bottle shop - Kimski is a mashup of all the best things about Korean and Polish flavors. Think lots of plays on spicy-sweet-sour, beer- or soju-based condiments, and fermented stuff for days. Maria's Standard is what you want: their house sausage on a soft roll, topped with pickled red cabbage (or what chef Won Kim calls kraut-chi), scallions, and a sinus-clearing soju mustard.
If you've got room, throw on an order of kopo wangs [sic] and some scallion pancakes. Maria's also has an outstanding craft beer lineup that's criminal to skip. (If you ask real nice they'll even make you a flight.) Once the sausage and beer coma has set in, grab a Fernet on draft to settle things down.
#3. STEAK: Boeufhaus in Ukrainian Village
My grandfather was a meat man; he owned a meatpacking company in Chicago for decades. Which meant that I grew up eating a LOT of steak. So these days, while I can't ever say no to the wood paneled, cigar smoked, mashed potatoed 'n green beaned atmosphere of those venerable steakhouse institutions in Chicago, I'm ambivalent about all the pomp and circumstance and testosterone while I sit and work hard to suppress questions about whether I'm paying for quality or just cachet.
Enter Boeufhaus, on the border of Ukrainian Village and Humboldt Park. Behind its unassuming storefront you'll find a more modern take on the steakhouse concept, which may in fact not feel much like a steakhouse at all, but in the best way possible. It's made richer by some French influence and more delicious by carefully raised, carefully sourced meats.
The menu is refreshingly well-edited (read: small), featuring an a la carte selection of cuts. But instead of feeling at sea about all the possibilities, clutching your napkin and kicking yourself for not just toddling over to Gibson's like your old college roommate told you, as you read through the menu you get the sense that everything kind of goes with everything - which all but guarantees the meal will feel cohesive no matter what you pick out.
Of course, you can't go to a steakhouse - even a new-school, hipstery one - without having a cocktail or three. Boeufhaus' cocktail menu is on point, offering a similarly small but smart lineup of shaken and stirred booze masterpieces. I'm a sucker for brown liquor mixed with herby/woodsy stuff, so you'll find me with a Haus Smash or Strasbourg in hand, but you can't go wrong with anything on the list.
#4. FINE DINING/PRIX FIXE: Schwa in Wicker Park
Let's face it: if you're coming to Chicago with a beau/bae/bb/boo, you're gonna try to fit in some special-time, okay? They may tell you that any old bar is fine, that they just like being with you, that you don't need to spend a ton of cash just to prove your love. And all of those things might be true. You're pretty great.
But here's the thing: YOU'RE IN CHICAGO. One of the best food cities in the world. If you came all the way up here just to hit up a burger special, I'd rather you go home and come back when you're ready for this. Make the most of your time here and live it up!
That's not to say that you need to drop a grand on dinner or try to put on some fake formal vibes if jeans and a t-shirt are more your style. Chicago has a pretty strong lineup of fine dining spots with prix fixe (pre-set) menus that take blowing your mind seriously without being stuffy or cold.
Schwa is emblematic of all the things I love about Chicago: BYOB. Best kept secrets. Underdogs. Working class work ethic. White-collar food. Miles of mysterious mom-and-pop-looking storefronts with dim or darkened windows. The merry surprises just on the other side of those storefront doors: endearing bookshops, warm coffee havens, or, you know, Michelin-starred dining destinations that pipe in hip-hop and punk and where your food is brought to you by the dudes who just cooked it.
Forest course / image from chicagomag.com
Yes, you heard me: it's BYOB. That means you can pick out your favorite beverage buddies at a bottle shop down the way and twirl right on in with them for a fraction of what you'd pay for a custom pairing. Don't be intimidated by the nine-course menu; no one is expecting you to know what to pair with an "olfactory journey" or a dish that lists "pine, snail, moss, and mushroom" as its flavors. You might pay $140 per person for the menu, but with a few bottles of halfway decent red and a pack of PBR for snack-drinking in between courses, you still come out ahead (and may have gained some cred with the staff).
In fact, when people have complaints about Schwa, it's that it's too informal. Butts were not sufficiently kissed; noses not sufficiently wiped. If white-glove service is more your speed, there are tons of other places to get it. (But we all know that's not why you're reading this.) You'll be treated with friendliness and maybe a bit of cheek at Schwa, which is just how I like it.
One final note about this place: DO call them as soon as you think you might want to come for dinner. Reservations are a bit hard to get, so be flexible if you can. (If you've got a weeknight in town, that's your best bet.)
See what I did there??! Hittin' you with the one-two punch! Why hole up at the Rainforest Cafe when Chicago is a) literally thousands of miles from the nearest rainforest, and b) beckoning to you with its lakefront and stunning skyline, just blocks away? Also, life's too short to eat at big chains when you travel.
Pastoral's Loop location is an easy walk from Chicago's world-famous Millennium Park, and if anyone knows how to set you up right with solid picnic sandwiches and snacks sourced from local producers, it's these folks. Their super friendly, super knowledgeable staff can give you (all of you) a taste of whatever cheese/s pique your interest, tell you about the flavors in any of their eighteen (!!) artisan sandwiches, and get this: you can even pre-order a picnic selection ahead of time to pick up at the shop on your way to the park. (You can see the whole menu on their website.)
Once you get to the park, set up camp at the Pritzker Pavilion - a nice, open expanse that's great for the kids to blow off steam from a day of sightseeing and museums. If it's summer and there's a concert going on, so much the better - they're fantastic and they're free. Once you've eaten your fill, trot over to The Bean (okay, Cloud Gate) to admire your satiated, happy face in the sculpture's undulating reflection, and check out the Crown Fountain just down the way to see the faces change every few minutes.
With this option, you're still right in the heart of tourist heaven - most of the museums, shopping, and landmarks of downtown Chicago are just a few blocks or a quick bus/pedicab/taxi/Uber ride away - but you're still getting a taste of the local food scene.
Home cook sensei. I write about recipes that are way more than the sum of their parts, usually with only 5 ingredients or less. I'm also the person you call if you're hungry and in Chicago.