A culinary guide to Chicago
From deep-dish pizza to Michelin-starred tasting menus, this is a city that caters to all-comers.
Chicago has been called many things: ‘the great American city’, ‘the Windy City’, ‘the second city’… And although the latter was intended as an insult when New York-based writer A J Liebling penned it in a 1952 travelogue, Chicagoans have embraced the epithet, if only to disprove it by showing their city is second to none — especially when it comes to dining.
Perched on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago has access to so much fresh produce that farm-to-table isn’t so much a novelty but more an expectation — particularly at high-end restaurants. Over the past two decades, the most interesting of these have moved from the central business district, known as the Loop, to the former industrial area, now called the West Loop. Here, on weekend evenings, diners wander the likes of Randolph and Fulton Streets, stopping for cocktails while they wait for their tables.
Yet, Chicago, as the cliche goes, is a city of neighbourhoods, and some of its best and most beloved restaurants are located in residential areas, away from downtown. Many of them share a deliberate lack of snobbishness and a willingness to mix fine and casual dining. Michelin-starred Kasama, for instance, is a cafe in West Town that serves exceptional pastries and breakfasts by day and a 13-course Filipino-inspired tasting menu by night. Meanwhile, Moody Tongue, in Bronzeville, serves as both an elegant, experimental restaurant and a brewery.
As with many major American cities, Chicago has been shaped by immigrants, as well as arrivals from elsewhere in the US. Deep-dish pizza is a beloved local speciality — which, of course, evolved from the Italian version — but there’s much more besides. The city has one of the largest Mexican populations in the country, and in areas such as Pilsen and Little Village good birria (a meaty stew), tacos and carnitas (slow-cooked pork) are never far away.
Puerto Rican immigrants in Humboldt Park, meanwhile, invented the jibarito — a sandwich typically containing meat, salad and aioli, with fried green plantains instead of bread. It’s now one of the city’s signature foods. The city’s Greek Americans, popularised gyros, spit-roasted lamb and beef in pitta bread.
And black migrants from the Deep South developed ‘mild sauce’ — a mildly spiced blend of barbecue sauce, ketchup and hot sauce that’s a key accompaniment to the fried chicken served at rival chains Harold’s and Uncle Remus.
While Chicagoans might disagree over where to get the best chicken, one opinion isn’t up for debate — this city, however you look at it, is first-rate for food.
A day in Hyde Park
Seven miles south of downtown, squeezed between Washington Park and Lake Michigan, Hyde Park is a gateway to Chicago’s South Side, dominated by the spires and squares of the University of Chicago.
Start your day with breakfast at Plein Air Cafe on the U of C (as it’s known) campus, where options include pastries and coffee, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, and mascarpone-stuffed French toast. Spend the rest of the morning exploring the university, particularly the Seminary Co-op Bookstore and its less scholarly sibling, 57th Street Books. Other attractions include the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House, and the Oriental Institute — a small museum with a wonderful collection of Near Eastern artifacts.
Grab lunch at Medici on 57th, a cosy neighbourhood institution with great burgers, then head east towards the lakefront. If the weather allows, admire the views of Lake Michigan from Promontory Point or ramble through the gardens, woods and meadows of Jackson Park before stopping for a pick-me-up at Build Coffee, a cafe that doubles as a community hub. If you’d rather stay inside, visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which contains, among other things, a chicken hatchery, a coal mine simulator and vintage aircraft.
In the evening, walk up to 53rd Street for drinks and dinner at Virtue Restaurant & Bar, where chef Erick Williams’ menu is based on traditional Black American cuisine. Don’t miss the blackened catfish, cornbread with honey butter, or fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp remoulade. Alternatively, head around the corner to superb Jade Court for crisp-skinned Peking duck. End the day as generations of South Siders have done, with a drink at the Woodlawn Tap, known to locals as Jimmy’s, after its founder.
A day in Logan Square & Avondale
Logan Square, a sprawling residential enclave on the Northwest Side, emerged in the noughties as the epicentre of Chicago’s food scene, which has since expanded into neighbouring Avondale. The major streets are lined not just with restaurants, bars and cafes, but urban farms, breweries and coffee roasters — plus a weekly farmers’ market between June and October.
Begin with a very early lunch at Honey Butter Fried Chicken, an Avondale favourite that’s open from 11am (closed Mondays) and celebrated not just for its eponymous signature dish, but also its mac and cheese. If that doesn’t appeal, try TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop, a newcomer offering deliciously overstuffed Midwestern sandwiches such as the ‘horseshoe’, an open-faced burger covered in fries and cheese sauce. For a sweet finish, try one of the doughnuts in inventive flavours such as chocolate and French fries.
Hire a kayak from Wateriders Chicago and spend a few hours paddling along the Chicago River, a journey through parks and woodlands that will make you forget you’re in the middle of a big city. Afterwards, explore Logan Square, with its gorgeous, 19th-century homes, or the shopping strip of Milwaukee Avenue — including Bric-a-Brac Records & Collectibles, a trove of 80s memorabilia, and Adornment + Theory, a jewellery shop that stocks pieces created by women and people of colour.
Stop for a drink, perhaps, at Quality Time, a casual neighbourhood bar that serves excellent cocktails along with handmade tamales. Then, for dinner, pay a visit to Mi Tocaya Antojería, where chef Diana Dávila puts her own stamp on traditional Mexican dishes, including duck carnitas, enchiladas and an exceptional steak burrito. Alternatively, check out Lula Café, a welcoming spot serving a creative farm-to-table menu.
End the day by picking up an ice cream pop at Pretty Cool Ice Cream on your way to knock over a few pins at Fireside Bowl, or to settle in on a stool at Rosa’s Lounge to listen to some Chicago blues.
Lou Malnati is sometimes given credit for inventing Chicago’s famed deep-dish pizza (above) back in 1943, when he was a cook at Uno’s, the original deep-dish restaurant. Whatever the truth, Malnati put a new spin on the form when he opened his own place by adding a buttery crust and a sausage patty covering the entire pizza. Lou Malnati’s now has dozens of branches across Chicago and beyond.
Pequod’s specialises in pan pizza, which has a thicker and chewier crust than deep dish. What makes it a cult classic among Chicago pizza lovers is the extra sprinkling of mozzarella between the crust and the pan, which creates a ring of caramelised cheese around the edge.
Vito & Nick's
While deep dish gets most of the attention from visitors, Chicagoans tend to only eat it occasionally. Usually, most turn to crispy thin crust, cut into squares. Each neighbourhood has its favourite, but Vito & Nick’s has the pull to draw visitors from all over the city to the far South Side.
Hot dog stands
Chicago’s strict food-handling codes mean street food such as hot dogs has had to move inside, usually to tiny, counter-service restaurants. At first, there was no seating for customers — hence the term ‘stand’ — but now most have stools or plastic booths.
An authentic Chicago dog consists of a Vienna beef frank sausage — either boiled or charred on a grill — topped with mustard, onions, pickle relish, a dill pickle, tomatoes, sport peppers (a type of hot pepper), and a dash of celery salt, all served in a steamed poppyseed bun. Ketchup is strongly discouraged (Chicagoans argue it ruins the balance of flavours). Find an excellent specimen at The Wiener’s Circle, also famous for its sharp-witted counterwomen, who insult rude late-night customers.
At some stands, notably Jim’s Original, you can find ‘Polish sausage’ — spicy kielbasa topped with grilled onions and mustard. And don’t miss the Italian beef sandwich, a Chicago classic comprising thin-sliced spicy roast beef covered in giardiniera (a pickled relish) and dipped in jus. It was allegedly invented, and definitely perfected, at Al’s Beef.
One particularly charming variation on the hot dog stand is Superdawg, an old-fashioned drive-in where carhops (wait staff) bring food out to you. Look for the giant anthropomorphic hot dogs on the roof.
Bartender Julia Momosé serves American cocktails with Japanese ingredients, plus a selection of small-batch sakes. Equal care goes into her ‘spiritfree’ non-alcoholic drinks, which feature unusual ingredients such as Tasmanian pepperberry and purple sweet potato vinegar.
A year into its existence, this Black- and queer-owned neighbourhood LGBTQ+ bar has already garnered national attention, both for its inventive cocktail menu, which features spirits from Black- and queer-owned breweries and distilleries, and for creating a space centred around women and femmes.
A ‘slashie’ is a liquor store attached to a bar, and Maria’s upgrades the concept with rare craft beers (including its own house brew) and impeccably mixed bottled cocktails. If you get hungry, owner Ed Marszewski also runs the two restaurants next door, including Polish-Korean fusion spot Kimski.
At Chicago’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, chef Grant Achatz and his team use foams, emulsions, smoke, fog, edible balloons and plain old high-quality ingredients to create an immersive and playful dining experience unlike anything else in the city.
Tucked away on a quiet industrial street, Oriole may not look like much from the outside, but don’t be deceived: it’s one of Chicago’s finest restaurants. The menu is forever changing, but you can expect lots of seafood, exquisite plating and attentive service.
Having begun as a stall in a suburban food court, Jeong now has its own minimalist, bricks-and-mortar space. Here, chef Dave Park blends Korean and European ingredients to create a multi-course meal of modern dishes, such as chawanmushi (savoury egg custard) with Osetra caviar.
American Airlines, British Airways and United fly nonstop from Heathrow to Chicago.
Where to stay
Chicago Athletic Association hotel offers doubles from $215 (£186).
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers five-nights’ room-only at the Millennium Knickerbocker from £720 per person in March 2023, including flights.
Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022/23) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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