If there’s one thing Midwesterners like to do (aside from complain about the weather – be it too hot or too cold) it’s eat, and Chicagoans are no exception. While the heartland of the United States is known for more simple, “meat-and-potatoes” cooking, bigger cities like Chicago stand out as dining meccas, shining beacons that represent just how amazing, delicious and creative food can be.
One of the greatest joys of dining in Chicago is the diversity. You’ll find your swanky, old-school steakhouses that serve up cuts of beef so tender you don’t even need a knife, and you’ll find a whole slew of chefs who create plates so whimsically avant garde that the dining experience is transformed into theatre. But alongside those “destination restaurants” you’ll find casual corner places that are quietly, without much hoopla, using local and seasonal ingredients to make food your grandparents would still recognize (though they never had it this good), as well as a United Nations-worth of international cuisines from around the world.
If you’re looking to taste the best of Chicago, bring your appetite and some stretchy pants and check out some of these quintessential dining experiences in Chicago.
The great pizza debate
Tourists generally associate Chicago with one of three things – one of which is deep dish pizza. Why it was created isn’t clear (maybe another attempt to one-up New York?) but we do know that Chicago’s famously filling pizza was born at Pizzeria Uno in 1943, created by chef Rudy Malnati, whose son, Lou, went on to open his own pizza shop later. Today, several pizzerias compete to be the best: Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Original Gino’s, and Gino’s East are the big ones but you’ll find a pizza parlor with its own deep dish style in just about every neighborhood in the city.
But deep dish – with its thick cornmeal crust topped with cheese and meat or veggies and then covered with a thick layer of chunky sauce – is not the only pizza available. If you prefer a lighter pie, there’s Piece, a pizzeria and brewery in Wicker Park, and it’s worth waiting in line for the thin-crust pizzas at Great Lake in Andersonville. From dough to mozzarella to sausage, the components are all made in house from farm-fresh ingredients of the highest quality. It’s not fast food, but pizza elevated to haute cuisine.
Chicago-style hot dogs
Hot dogs tend to be the second staple on a tourist’s list of must-eats in Chicago. Since the first Vienna Beef frank was served in Chicago in the late 1800’s, it’s been a favorite food of locals. The Vienna Beef isn’t the only variety of hot dog, but it’s the most popular; the company has been based in Chicago since 1894 and produces more than 200 million hot dogs per year. The dogs are “dragged through the garden” (covered in onion, tomato, relish, cucumber, celery salt, a pickle spear, and mustard – never ketchup!) and served on a poppyseed bun.
There are more than 1800 restaurants and hot dogs stands in the city of Chicago. For a sit-down meal downtown, head to Portillo’s (which offers other things like ribs and Italian beef sandwiches as well); come late night, the most entertaining spot to be is at the Wiener’s Circle in Lakeview, where the staff are known for their (R-rated) attitudes.
For the foodie version of the classic, join the crowd waiting in line (just like Anthony Bourdain did) at Hot Doug’s. At Doug’s, the “Encased Meats Emporium” just northwest of Wicker Park and Bucktown, along with the basic Chicago dog you can try more unusual tubular meats like kangaroo sausage with yellow pepper aioli or smoked shrimp and pork sausage with grits.
>> Work off those food calories! Try a bike tour of Chicago’s hot dogs, pizza, beer, and cupcakes
Completing the trifecta of “what tourists know about Chicago” (depending on the tourist, of course) is the Windy City’s impressive roster of celebrity chefs known for pushing the culinary envelope, and consistently winning accolades and awards. There’s Chef Homaro Cantu who uses everything from liquid nitrogen to smoke and lasers to create the futuristic food at Moto; Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, who interprets familiar dishes as creative small plates at her farm-to-table-focused Girl and the Goat; and perennial favorite Grant Achatz who now has three endeavors: the original Alinea; the new (and nearly impossible to get into) Next, which changes menu and concept every three months and operates on a ticketing system; and the Aviary, which puts the Achatz spin on cocktails and small plates.
Of course, not all of the city’s finest restaurants are helmed by a chef in the spotlight or cost a month’s mortgage payment to enjoy. Publican, a communal downtown space with a focus on meat-centric dishes, Longman and Eagle, a farm-to-table gastro pub in Logan Square, and HB, a cozy Boystown BYOB serving New American cuisine, are just a few of the standout restaurants offering consistently fantastic food, with little fanfare and at very affordable prices.
A true melting pot
Chicago is home to cuisines from around the world, with large populations of Italian, Mexican, German, Scandinavian, Chinese, Korean, Greek, Indian, Turkish, Serbian, Irish and Ethiopian immigrants bringing their traditional foods to the city’s table. Chicago even has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw. For adventurous eaters this means an incredibly diverse range of flavors to choose from in neighborhoods like Andersonville, on Devon Street, in Greektown, on Taylor Street, and in Chinatown.
Many of these foods are celebrated at street festivals around the city. It seems nearly every weekend from May to October you can find a neighborhood festival devoted to a particular cuisine or culture, ranging from Turkish and Irish festivals to events celebrating pizza or ribs. One of the biggest food events of the season is the Taste of Chicago, the largest outdoor food festival in the world, which is held every year at the end of June. You can also sample several tastes of the city by taking a food tour of one of the neighborhoods, or by visiting one of the summer farmers markets.
There are two Top Chef winners, 23 Michelin-starred restaurants and more than 7000 total restaurants in Chicago, so no matter what you’re hungry for, Chicago is sure to satisfy your craving.
- Katie Hammel
Check out the Insider’s Guide to Chicago for more ideas or browse Viator’s Chicago tours and things to do, Chicago attractions, and Chicago recommendations. Or book a private tour guide in Chicago for a customized tour!