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You can’t beat classic Chicago staples like Giordano’s or Gino’s East, but these days the city is becoming known for more than its deep-dish pizza and hot dogs when it comes to cuisine. Neighborhoods around town are one-upping the other with new additions on the food and drink scene spanning all sorts of menus, from Midwestern spins on European staples to tucked away lounges with a new take on cocktail culture. While travelers could spend weeks trying out all of the top places the Windy City has to offer, TPG contributor Lane Nieset takes us on a whirlwind foodie tour of a few of Chicago’s favorites on every foodie’s list.
Top Place for Dinner: Girl & the Goat Restaurant
While the BRG Group has a number of incredible restaurants to choose from, including GT Fish & Oyster and Balena, one of our favorites is Chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat Restaurant. It’s the kind of place you want to head to for a late Friday night dinner when the bar is bustling and then cozy up at a table to indulge in dishes from all three parts of the menu: vegetable, fish and meat. Standouts include the pan-fried shishito peppers, grilled baby octopus with brussels leaves and pistachios, and crisp braised pork shank. Of course, there’s also goat, if that’s what you fancy, with everything from goat carpaccio to goat ribs. Across the street is Izard’s other spot, Little Goat Dinner, a diner, bakery and coffeeshop that opens early and closes late.
Best Restaurant for Beer & Belgian Cuisine: Publican
Part European beer house, part Southern farmhouse, the Publican in the West Loop is the perfect mix of porkcentric dishes and European staples, like Belgian-style mussels. The atmosphere has that down-home, Southern feel with communal tables and booths designed like pig pens, winning the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant design in 2011. Stop by for brunch on Sunday and have a Publican mimosa (Blanche de Bruxelles Belgian white beer and fresh-squeezed orange juice) while you wait for a table. Don’t miss the Burton’s maple syrup-braised Publican bacon and the red wine poached eggs.
Best Spot for Small Plates: Avec
Avec has become a popular spot in the West Loop–that’s not too formal–to gather with friends. It started with a wine focus and now spans a menu of small and large Mediterranean plates. The modern, cedar-draped eatery has communal tables adding another European element, and the restaurant boasts 130 bottles of wine to choose from, mostly from smaller producers in regions in Spain, France, Italy and Portugal.
Best Spot for Burgers: Au Cheval
Chef and owner Brendan Sodikoff’s burgers at Au Cheval have received plenty of buzz over the past two years, continuing to appear on lists as one of the top burgers in the country. The single cheeseburger is a bit deceiving as it is really two prime beef patties served between a simple, toasted bun topped with cheddar cheese, dijonnaise and dill pickle; optional egg on top (but highly recommended). Not only is the food sensational, but the atmosphere is too—a low-lit, diner-inspired restaurant with counter seating and a laid-back feel.
Top Spot for Mexican: Big Star
At Big Star in Wicker Park, you’ll feel like you’re hanging at a friend’s backyard—if that friend made mean bourbon-based cocktails and Mexican food. Housed in a gas station from the 1940s, the laid-back, late-night spot serves up a Mexican streetfood-inspired menu that is well worth the wait since the restaurant gets slammed on weekends. Be sure to try one of the house bourbons, served straight from Big Star’s hand-selected single barrel collection.
Best Place for Donuts: Firecakes Donuts
One of the newer donut joints in town is also one of our favorites combining traditional options with inventive new flavors. River North’s Firecakes Donuts offers everything from classic jelly and vanilla iced donuts to triple Valrhona chocolate cake, peanut butter cup, and even gluten-free Valrhona chocolate. Plus, Firecakes has seasonal specials lining its trays like the apple fritter pumpkin pie donut or ice cream donut sandwich. As if these weren’t selling factors enough, Firecakes also serves La Colombe pure black coffee. In essence, the perfect breakfast pick-me-up. And if you need a late-night fix, and flavors aren’t already sold out, the spot is open until midnight Thursday through Saturday.
Top Speakeasy Lounge & Bar: The Violet Hour
Wicker Park’s The Violet Hour has an old world feel reigning through the speakeasy bar and lounge, with “house rules” declaring no Jager-boms, no light beer, no Budweiser, no Grey Goose and no Cosmopolitans. Noted. Instead, try the classic Juliet and Romeo, a mix of Beefeater, mint, cucumber and rose water, one of the most popular drinks on the menu.
Best Bar for Gastronomic Cocktails: The Aviary
Not the kind of bar you can stumble into on a night out on the town, The Aviary in the West Loop takes its cocktails and culture seriously, so make this the highlight of your evening and reserve a spot far in advance. Chef Grant Achatz welds his background in molecular gastronomy into these libations that smoke from tea pots or are formed by burning beads of alcohol over a burner. Cocktails hover in the $20 to $30 range, but the experience is well worth it. If you happen to be selected for an exclusive invite downstairs to the invitation-only bar dubbed The Office, you’ll find a cozy, speakeasy setting with an Old Havana vibe and another round of standout cocktails. Count yourself lucky and try not to cringe too hard when you look at the bill.
Where to Stay: Rated the best hotel in Chicago in the 2014 Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, the Waldorf Astoria Chicago is a luxurious option downtown with furnished outdoor terraces, soaking tubs and fireplaces (rates start at around $395 or 80,000 HHonors Points for a room). Near Navy Pier, Magnificent Mile and many of the city’s museums, W Chicago Lakeshore overlooks Lake Michigan with some of the best views from the suites on the 30th and 31st floors. Rates start at $172 or 13,333 Starpoints.
In the Gold Coast neighborhood, Ian Schrager’s 285-room PUBLIC hotel caters to the younger set who love a good scene (Schrager is the mastermind behind Studio 54, after all) with a hopping bar and restaurant helmed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Plus, the minimalist rooms are chic and an affordable rate (starting at $175 per night). The new Thompson Chicago has also moved into the Gold Coast neighborhood with sleek rooms boasting floor-to-ceiling windows showing off some of the best views of downtown (rates around $430). This summer, the exclusive 40-room Soho House Chicago opened in the West Loop district in a six-story warehouse from 1907, once the Chicago Belting Factory (rates start at $220).
Getting There & Around: Chicago has two main international airports—O’Hare (17 miles from downtown) and Midway (10 miles from downtown)—with taxis costing $40 to $50 from O’Hare to downtown (shuttle vans are around $25) or around $30 to $40 from Midway (shuttles are around $15). Another low-cost way to get to or from the airports is by the Chicago Transit Authority “L” train, which takes 45 minutes from O’Hare (and costs $5 or less) and 25 minutes from Midway ($2.25 or less). Amtrak trains also stop in Chicago at Union Station.
While parts of Chicago are walkable, travelers can access neighborhoods further out easily by rail or bus, or opt for a taxi or car share service like Uber or Lyft. If you want to explore landmarks by boat, hop on a one of the water taxis with stops in places like Chinatown and the Sears Tower, or take a water taxi tour.
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What are your favorite restaurants in Chicago?
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