I wouldn’t consider myself a foodie, not even close, but living in a city like chicago presents itself with enough tummy-appeasing, happy-making, mouth-watering culinary opportunities that you just cannot avoid good eats. From quick bites to fine dining (while still on a budget), I’ve made some really special memories with the people in my life and the food we’ve shared. Here are my all-time favorites.
SENZA – My boyfriend and I went to Senza on a special reunion date after a three-month long period of being apart (him in Berlin, myself in Chicago). He wanted a molecular gastronomy experience, and after looking up literally over twenty restaurants, Senza won out with its combination of unique and delicious sounding cuisine at an actually reasonable price. For $50 a person for a well-portioned prix fixe four (sans wine pairing), I probably had the best meal of my life. Granted, I don’t do fine dining (Alinea? I can only dream…) but seriously. It’s like I forgot how delicious/heavenly/amazing the last bite was just before each new bite I took. The scallops course (pictured) was to die for with its integrated flavors of chargrilled onion, blueberry, and that onion caramel. Also really loved the parsnip soup with apple, lobster, caviar, and soy sauce flavors. Very molecular gastronomy-y, especially since the apple flavor came in the form of a blob of greenish foam. We had a bonus course of humboldt fog ice cream (with strawberry shortcake and basil) that inspired my newfound love for the cheese, and the “oatmeal” dessert was probably my favorite course.
GINO’S EAST – I grew up and went to school (elementary through high) in this township in Michigan that was about a half an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor. Naturally then, a lot of my childhood and high school friends go/went to the University of Michigan and I’m constantly getting visits from them in Chicago. What better place is there to go than Chicago when you wanna get away from Michigan, but don’t want to spend the time and energy and money to get away too far? Gino’s East is one of the go-to places I bring my friends to; their deep dish pizza is the ultimate Chicago taste and experience! Having tried a variety of Chicago deep dish joints (Giordano’s, Lou Malnati’s, Pizzeria Due’s), Gino’s East is still hands down the best to me. Plus the restaurant itself is half the fun. Diners write and scribble over all the walls creating a cool, graffiti-inspired eating space.
DIMO’S PIZZA – Another pizza place, Dimo’s is definitely somewhere I tell people to go when I want to impress them with my less touristy knowledge of Chicago eats. It’s in Wrigleyville, literally a couple of minutes from Wrigley Field, always a vibrant, young, fun place to be. Dimo’s is unique as a pizza place because you can find just about any kind of meal there… on pizza. The picture shows slices of mac & cheese, philly cheesesteak, sausage penne alfredo, and florentine PIZZA. My first draw to the place though? Their s’mores pizza. Mmmm.
L’APPETITO – This place!! I love it so much I think because of it’s distinctively European charm. It’s as unassuming as it can possibly get, considering that it’s located at the base of the John Hancock Observatory. Probably because there’s a shiny Cheesecake Factory right across from it which steals most of the attention. (Not that I have anything against the Cheesecake Factory, I’ve definitely been known to grab a slice to go after a day of shopping up Michigan Ave heh). In one corner, L’Appetito has everything from perfectly grilled caprese paninis to arancini to cold pastas and salads to a selection of sausages and meats and cheeses. There’s also a little market if you just wanna grab something really quick to go or stock up the pantry. And then on the other side, desserts! The most adorable pastries and sweets of all imaginable kinds behind glass, and a nice selection of gelatos. Fabulous place for a fast break in the middle of a busy day downtown. I’ve been here a million times.
XOCO – Chef Rick Bayless is brilliant. XOCO is a little pricey for the amount of food you get, but I definitely think it’s worth it to check out at least once. Or twice. Or maybe it’s a daily temptation that you have to fight off because it’s only about a five minute walk away from the office. (That’s me.) I’m not sure I’ve ever had Mexican cuisine elsewhere that has the same depth of flavors that Bayless has accomplished in his tortas. Possibly because not many chefs around here have dedicated over six years to culinary research in Mexico like him. He definitely has developed an expertise on the authentic flavors which he (thankfully) brings back to us here in Chicago. Even his salads are unique and delicious (my favorite has the best dressing of avocado and lime) and the Mexican hot chocolate, sinfully rich and deep. You can also go more upscale and eat at his Topolobampo or Frontera Grill restaurants. They’re all literally right next to each other.
LAO SZE CHUAN – So the “Lao” restaurants are all part of Chef Tony Hu’s Chinese food empire. Look him up, his story’s pretty interesting. This one’s all the way down south in Chinatown, and it has all the weird Chinese foods you won’t see in most mainstream Chinese restaurants. It’d be really fun to go with a friend and see how daring you guys can be together… :P I’ve only been once, but my boyfriend and I had the best time with their hot pot! My love for hot pot definitely is connected with my Chinese roots; I have fond memories of a sweltering hot Beijing summer, sitting around with my family, sweating and crying over a hot and spicy hot pot meal. Lao Szechuan has an all-inclusive option that literally includes everything. From the normal thin slices of beef and lamb and veggies and tofu skins to filets of fish and assorted seafood balls and noodles and more. We were really impressed with the selection, and it was so much fun teaching Hunter how to eat hot pot.
BOURGEOIS PIG – It’s been a long time since I last visited this place; it’s also a bit out of the way. But it’s definitely my first choice for the Lincoln Park area. The place is cool and hip on top of delicious and sandwiches are named after famous literary works and authors. “The Sun Also Rises” (one of my favorites) is made with sundried tomato bread, fresh homemade hummus, oven roasted boars head turkey, fresh tomatoes, swiss cheese, red onions and alfalfa sprouts (yes, I just looked that up). There’s also “The Old Man and the Sea” which features tuna and “The Catcher in the Rye” on… rye bread, among so much more. Really fun, clever, and so good. I think I need to go back soon.
MOLLY’S CUPCAKES – So when I think of Chicago eats, I generally think of deep dish pizza, the Chicago dog, froyo and cupcakes! There’s a bounty of yummy cupcake shops all around downtown, and I’ve tried a few that are supposed to be the best. Sprinkles is known for being the first place (or one of them?) to have cupcake vending machines. Their cupcakes are really tasty, and very uniformly presented. It’s a little disconcerting. As a girl who loves to bake in her own kitchen, I’m not used to seeing everything look so perfectly alike ahah. Then there’s Crumbs, with their massive and fun-flavored cupcakes. Too big for me; it makes me feel a little sick. Molly’s cupcakes though. Beautifully presented, each cupcake is its own work of bakery goodness, and they all have different creams for their filled centers and pretty decorations to match. Plus I loved my Molly’s cupcakes because they were a graduation present from one of my best friends. We shared each one of them.
CAFFE BACI – I’m sure this isn’t the absolute best cafe that Chicago has to offer, but I’ve been brought back here so many times in all sorts of circumstances, that it really has a special place in my heart. Conveniently located right across the street from Millennium Park, it has been a haven for me to rest, refresh, or thaw my popsicle legs during cold winters. There’s a wonderfully wide selection of eats and drinks here, but I’ve personally never tried their pizzas/soups/salad/sandwiches. I usually go in for the hot chocolate or chai lattes, sometimes grabbing a biscotti with coffee, or to sit outside with their gelato in the summer.
Phew. So there you have it. My favorite Chicago eateries compiled together in one list. Hoping that one of you guys out there will read this list and try one of these places as per my suggestion and fall in love with it too! I’d be pleased. Chicago’s truly a fantastic city to dine in; to everyone, happy eating!