We lived in Chicago Illinois for 5 years and try to get back to visit every few years. We always return with a full schedule of Chicago restaurant plans: a combination of old favorites along with exploring places that have opened since our last trip. We are often asked where to eat in Chicago. At the top of our list is what Chicago is known for: deep-dish pizza.
Finding the Best Chicago Pizza
Ask any Chicagoan about the best deep-dish pizza (deep-dish pizza has a thick crust topped with lots of mozzarella, toppings, and chunky tomato sauce) and you will get a lot of different answers. It depends on your mood. And if your restaurant plate is full, many places offer a half-baked pizza to-go that you can finish baking once you reach your home city. Or, many of these places will ship directly to your home. Here are some of our favorite pizzas in order of priority for us.
We stop here every time we visit Chicago. The decor hasn’t changed since we first discovered it right after it opened in 1972. Nor has the food…and that is a good thing. And this is one of the few popular pizza places that hasn’t opened multiple locations or created a commercial frozen version for the grocery store. Nor do they have a traditional deep-dish pizza.
What they serve is pizza with a twist–literally. The “pies” come in half-pound and one-pound bowls that have the cheese on the bottom, the crust on top and a very good meat sauce, and a large mushroom in the middle. When it arrives, the server turns the bowl upside down, pries the crust from the bowl, and plops it onto the plate. As good, and as filling as the pizza is, don’t skip the Mediterranean Bread–an oiled soft flatbread loaded with parmesan cheese and Mediterranean spices. While we used to stand in line to get in, they now take reservations. If you go, bring cash as they don’t take credit cards at this Lincoln Park favorite. (And by the way, as you will see from the menu, the restaurant is across the street from the site of the Chicago Massacre.)
Gino’s East is a Chicago Pizza institution. No, don’t think of the Gino’s Pizza you can get in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Go to one of its locations in Chicago. We usually go to their flagship restaurant on the Magnificent Mile. Our favorite is a very good large cheese, sausage, mushroom, and bacon pizza on a delicious buttery crust. The atmosphere is almost as good as the pizza with graffiti on every possible surface.
Ike Sewell invented the Chicago Deep Dish Pizza in 1943 and opened Pizzeria Unos. It was so popular that he opened a second location and called it Pizzeria Due. The rest is history. You might even have Uno’s in your city. But to go to the original is like going to Mecca. Sure they have items other than pizza, but why?
We have had mixed feelings about the very popular Lou Malnati’s. We have had very good pizzas with their delicious “buttercrust” and we have walked away saying thinking “good but…”. The advantage is that you don’t have to travel far to find one of its over 60 Chicago locations.
Chicago is More Than Deep Dish Pizza
Chicago is also known for its hot dogs (Hot Doug’s). And while we used to love grabbing gyros, they are increasingly difficult to find. But don’t despair as Chicago has many other places to eat.
The following is an alphabetical compilation of some of our favorite Chicago restaurants. We’ve been to many of them multiple times over the years. Not every dish or every visit is a winner. After all, menus and chefs often change and even a great place can have an off-day. Plus covid and staffing have created their own challenges. But these are places that we feel are worth taking a look at.
Alinea is not easy to get into. Nor is it for anyone on a budget (think $300-$500 per person without beverages). But if you are lucky enough to score an almost impossible-to-get reservation and have a lot of money in the bank, it is well worth it. It is easily one of our favorite restaurants in the world. Chef Grant Achatz has created a dining experience that combines a delicious multi-course meal with a bit of theater in the presentation. As the food continually changes, we’ll just say that it deserves its 3 Michelin stars rating.
Another place we have been to several times with mixed results. We began with an amuse bouche of beet soup with buckwheat, accompanied by salmon skin chips. This was followed by a rather disappointing seared foie gras with sunchoke puree and Meyer lemon caraway and two orders of nice butter-poached Maine lobster with carrot, pecan, and a too-small dab of lobster bisque sauce. We had these with a bottle of William Fevre French Chablis. Overall, it was pretty good, but less than a compelling meal.
We enjoyed a nice, fast lunch of mixed sashimi plate and poke bowl at this Wicker Park location.
When we entered the immensely popular, packed restaurant, the music and the crowd were so loud that we could barely hear our friends. Thankfully, we were seated at an upstairs table that was much less noisy. The food was varied and all very good. We started with three crostinis (crab, heirloom tomato, avocado, and apple aioli; shrimp, avocado, cilantro, and tomato; and Manchego, fig, and Marcona almond). We then shared an appetizer of sliced, braised octopus with marinated bell pepper, heirloom potato, black olive, basil, arugula, and pimento lemon dressing. Then came two good entrees: branzino with balsamic glaze, snow peas, fig, and olive oil mashed potatoes; and grilled, smoked rosemary lamb chops with herbs de Provence, goat cheese, and chive gnocchi, roasted honey, and thyme eggplant. While service lapsed when the server mistakenly poured half of our bottle of wine to another table, they more than made up for it by more than replacing the wine and by offering free deserts. We opted for the chocolate pot de crème with praline and vanilla cream, and a mixed berry crostata with vanilla mascarpone, Cointreau syrup, and fresh berries.
Frontera Grill is Rick Bayless’ casual Mexican restaurant. Since its opening in 1987, he has expanded his restaurant empire into multiple venues. We have eaten here several times for lunch and dinner, as well as at his more upscale Topolombompo. On our most recent visit, we fully enjoyed our ceviche, tropical tuna cocktail (with guacamole and fruit salsa), and raspberry guacamole (although we did expect the raspberries to be blended into the guacamole, rather than placed on top). Tom loved his duck in Green Peanut Mole. The duck breast was done perfectly–medium rare and had a smokey flavor. The mole was tangy, without being spicy. It was served with a polenta-like tamal, green beans, and roasted beans. Tom’s job was to take appropriate portions of each, wrap them into a tortilla, and then devour the delicious combination. Joyce was not quite as thrilled with her Mexico City-Style Quesadillas: Jack Cheese and guacamole in chile-spiked corn-masa turnover. Since the turnover was much more doughy than she expected, she ended up deconstructing the dish and spreading the cheese and guacamole out of the turnover and wrapping it in one of Tom’s tortillas. Be sure to enjoy margaritas with the meal. The summer margarita is an enhanced version of the classic drink. We find the prickly pear version a bit sweet and fruity for our taste.
We had a very good and very reasonably priced multi-course lunch here. Although the oyster po’boy sliders that we initially received were small and terribly overcooked, the manager replaced them with a new order of huge, perfectly cooked oysters on brioche. This was followed with fried smelt, a very good soy-marinated tuna poke, tuna BLT, clam chowder, and key lime pie. And for those who want a bit more zing with their meal, you can add a choice of three of the chef’s own hot sauces—burn, scorch, and smolder.
We’ve also enjoyed a brunch meal with a sinfully-rich brioche French toast with vanilla cream anglaise maple syrup and lobster benedict, which after an overcooked misfile, was rich and quite good.
The Half Shell is quite literally a family-owned hole in the wall that serves a wide range of raw, steamed, and fried seafood–no broiled, grilled, or asked–only raw, steamed, and fried. No reservations and cash only. But boy is it good and is a place we return to when we get the chance.
On our most recent visit, we began by sharing an incredibly inexpensive shrimp cocktail with six of the largest, tastiest shrimp we have had in a long time. We followed this up with two of our old favorites–a large (refreshingly not overly salty) serving of steamed Alaskan king crab legs and a heaping platter of fried seafood, consisting of perch, smelt, frog legs, and clams. Although the wine list is certainly nothing to write home about, the food is always wonderful. Even better, the restaurant now provides an option to sit outside rather than in the dark, rather claustrophobic basement.
We generally enjoyed the sausage-stuffed quail, crab, and fava beans at this restaurant located in Logan Square. But we were less impressed with the octopus and especially, the excruciatingly slow service.
We had mixed experiences at this tiny, North Lincoln Park Spanish restaurant. We enjoyed the Iberico ham, ham croquette, and smoked trout toast preparation. But we can’t say the same about the hen of the woods mushroom and pork and veal meatball dishes. The wine was a middling Rioja.
We shared several dishes at this upscale, small-plate Asian West Loop restaurant. Among our favorite dishes were tuna crudo with garlic shoyu, turnip, and crispy buckwheat; purple sea urchin sushi; chicken liver pate with soba toast; grilled quail with quail egg; and Ochazuke which was miso-marinated tuna with furikake, and wasabi. The food went well with a bottle of Drunken Snapper Junmai sake.
We had two wonderful dishes with equally good service. We began with the goat cheese Caramulla, housemade pasta in a delicate aged balsamic sauce with morels and English peas, followed by a whole, salt-crusted roasted Branzino with heirloom tomatoes, aged balsamic, and basil. We enjoyed both with a Tenuta Vino Nobile do Montepulciano Riserva. And as an added bonus, we had a ringside, Rush Street seat for people watching.
The menu at this Korean/American restaurant is filled with unusual and interesting dishes. We sampled four of them on our visit. Our two starters were a baked potato “Bing” bread stuffed with bacon and large pieces of scallion, and deviled egg stuffed with smoked eel and topped with panko crumbs. We then had two larger dishes. Maeuntang is a moderately spicy fish stew with yellowtail snapper, littleneck clams, enoki mushrooms, and ramps, into which you mix rice. (flavorful, but not especially interesting), The standout was a bowl of udon noodles with Dungeness crab, guanciale, and fava beans in a rich, creamy sabayon sauce—delicious. Our wine was a Le Briseau Patopon Pinot d’Aunis Loire Valley relatively light-bodied Chenin Noir with strawberry, acid, pepper, and a bit of tannin that was perfect with the food..
The menu has so many interesting-looking dishes that we decided that we could explore more options by focusing on small plates, rather than doing an entree. The hamachi crudo, with black garlic, almonds, and citrus was light, subtly seasoned, and delicious. Chicken liver pâté with blueberries and sourdough bread was sinfully, and deliciously rich. The “small” (not very) charcuterie plate was a mixed bag: it consisted of genoa salami, pork pie, head cheese, Moreau sausage, and very thinly sliced smoked duck breast, along with cornichons and assorted mustards. We both enjoyed the salami and sausage. While the duck and pork pie (sans the crust) were pretty good, neither of us cared for the head cheese. That, however, was a matter of personal taste, rather than anything against Pubican’s version. The biggest treat of the meal was a cheese plate. We selected three: Dante Wisconsin sheep cheese was soft, buttery, and tangy; delicious, and it would have been even better if it were left out of the refrigerator a bit longer. The Cabot Jasper Hill cheddar was another winner: milky, with a bit of caramel, and just the right amount of sharpness. The only disappointment was an Italian Brescianella Stagionata cow cheese, which was a bit grassy and nondescript for our taste. We finished with a small, sinfully buttery maple crème eclair. Overall, a very good, and relatively inexpensive meal that we enjoyed with a bottle of Barbera.
This is a very popular, one-star Michelin a la carte restaurant from Grant Achatz, the maestro behind the three Michelin-starred Alinea. We began our limited exploration of the compact menu with an intriguing and rewarding appetizer: clam chowder dip with Applewood smoked bacon and celery with Lavash crackers. The star of our dinner was the signature chicken & chamomile (with sunchokes). We could choose a half or whole chamomile-brined chicken whose breast was cooked sous vide and then grilled, with the rest of the bird being fried in a delicate and delicious batter. Practically every table seemed to be ordering this dish (our server estimated that 60% of patrons order it). While served with two sauces, we became rapidly addicted to the sinfully rich chicken broth butter sauce that perfectly complemented the delicate meat. Our only, albeit very minor disappointment, was the roasted maitake mushroom with gruyere cheese, cipollini confit, and brioche. The acidity of the nice, but still very young Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir complemented the rich chicken and sauce.
The Shanghai Terrace is a Cantonese restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel. If the weather is nice, reserve space on the lovely outside patio. The atmosphere and service are what one would expect from this top-rated hotel. The lovely scallops with bok choi were tasty and very filling.
We’ve eaten lunch at this popular Michigan Avenue restaurant several times with mixed results. For example, we have had huge and delicious bone marrow which is sinfully delicious slathered on generously buttered toast. And we have had other times when they were watery and had little taste.
In the past we have enjoyed its grilled octopus with green beans, fingerling, and salsa verde; salted-roast beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette; and Cape Cod mussels with pancetta, crème fraiche, and marjoram. But one dish we do not recommend is the pig’s ear with flash-fried kale and pickled peppers, topped by a fried egg. The idea was to break the yolk, cut the egg into small pieces and mix it in with the small strips of fried pig ear. The fried strips tasted like fried skin: that is, they had little taste except for the oil in which it was fried and the salt sprinkled on it. Mixing it with the kale and egg, however, gave it all a pleasant, albeit not especially complex taste. Not something we would reorder.