Home to more than 40 James Beard Award-winning chefs and restaurants, Chicago has a thriving culinary scene that rivals that of any U.S. city. But accolades alone don’t define the best restaurants in Chicago. So while the recommendations below include plenty of award winners, I’ve also listed several restaurants visitors simply must experience to get a true taste of the Windy City.
The Best Restaurants in Chicago
The following Chicago restaurants are an eclectic mix of fine dining, romantic, ethnic, and historic eateries that Chicagoans love dearly and dine at frequently themselves.
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Perched on the tree-shaded shores of North Pond, the eponymous “earth-to-table” restaurant offers a dining experience memorable for both its setting and food. North Pond occupies a former ice skaters’ warming house built in 1912, with stunning views of the park and Chicago skyline beyond. Multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Bruce Sherman creates seasonal, contemporary American cuisine, including a six-course tasting menu featuring creative preparations of quail, venison, snapper, and pork tenderloin. The wine list showcases American small vintners. Dinner and Sunday brunch are served year-round, with lunch added from spring through fall.
Chef Rick Bayless and his wife Deann changed the landscape of Chicago restaurants when they opened their authentic Mexican eatery in River North in 1987. Today, foodies are still hungry for Frontera Grill‘s regional Oaxacan cuisine, including carne asada, mole poblano chicken enchiladas, wood-grilled shrimp tostadas, and tacos. Tortillas are handmade from organic heirloom corn from Mexico. Pair your heaping platter with a killer margarita.
Maple & Ash
This swank Gold Coast restaurant in a sliver-thin high-rise offers a modern twist on Chicago’s traditional steakhouses. From the ground floor’s Eight Bar, where well-coiffed bartenders craft dazzling martinis, guests take the elevator up to the dining room with views of chefs roasting steaks and seafood over licking flames. Caviar atop wavy potato chips, glistening seafood towers, prime cuts of dry- and wet-aged steaks, and fluffy coconut cream pie tempt patrons to Instagram their dishes before digging in.
Urban grit meets veggie-centric gourmet at the bohemian Lula Cafe, a pioneering restaurant in Logan Square. Husband/wife co-owners Jason Hammel and Amalea Tschilds started serving sustainable, farm-to-table food more than 20 years ago. Seasonal ingredients dictate what’s for breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner—but menu staples include lake trout and arugula scrambled eggs, milk-braised pork cheek, and tender baby squid atop black risotto. Save room for dessert (the creamy carrot cake is particularly popular). The modestly priced wines, craft beers, and cocktails are another reason why locals consider Lula Cafe one of the best restaurants in Chicago.
The constant line snaking out the door of this tiny West Loop restaurant says instantly that it’s one of the best places to eat in Chicago. Both the rustic space and food are designed to share, with diners seated at communal tables. The lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch menus feature Mediterranean small plates like grilled butcher’s steak, steamed mussels, chorizo-stuffed dates, and chardonnay vinaigrette-drizzled apple salad. Braised lamb, smoked whitefish pizza, and paella come in bigger portions. Wines hail from boutique vineyards in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as do cheese plate selections.
This romantic French restaurant on the 40th floor of the Loop’s Chicago Board of Trade Building has been one of the best restaurants in Chicago for more than 30 years, racking up multiple James Beard Awards, AAA Five Diamonds, and Michelin stars. Everest owner/chef Jean Joho is from Alsace, France, and creates edible art on every plate, from roasted Maine lobster to Caspian Sea caviar. The roast rabbit preparation is based on a recipe served to King Louis XIV. The museum-quality art collection and views of Chicago’s glittering skyline make dining at this Relais & Chateau restaurant especially memorable.
Girl & the Goat
If it’s adventurous dining you’re after, this West Loop restaurant is your go-to. It’s owned by Chicago chef Stephanie Izard, a Bravo “Top Chef.” Creative food combinations and Chicago craft brews are served in a comfortable loft space with exposed brick and wood beams. Share the green garlic pierogies with charred scallion sour cream and smoked tomato-rhubarb relish, and brave the bacon-tamarind sauced escargot ravioli and duck tongues. Goat meat appears in empanadas and liver mousse. End simply with the honey and pine nut tart.
The splurge-worthy Spiaggia has been a local favorite for special occasions and romantic nights out for more than 30 years. Innovative pasta preparations achieve gourmet heights, such as the black truffle gnocchi bucatini tossed in saffron, honey, truffle, and caviar. The grilled bistecca alla Fiorentina porterhouse for two rivals anything you’d find at Chicago’s best steakhouses. The wine list includes some 700 Italian bottles. Located in a skyscraper on North Michigan Avenue, Spiaggia offers sparkling Lake Michigan views.
For a taste of Chicago culinary tradition, head to the Loop’s fourth-generation, family-owned restaurant The Berghoff. One of the best restaurants in Chicago, The Berghoff opened in 1898 and was the first local establishment awarded a liquor license after Prohibition. That’s reason enough to sip a Berghoff-brewed beer at the historic bar. In the Century Room, surrounded by original murals depicting Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair, office workers, shoppers, and families dine on wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, knockwurst, and house-made apple strudel. Kids love the giant Bavarian pretzels and draft root beer.
Romance is always in the air at Le Colonial, as are the tantalizing aromas of authentic French-Vietnamese cuisine. Patrons seated at cozy tables inside the dining room and on the seasonal outdoor patios dine on Vietnamese specialties such as shrimp chao tom and sesame beef atop rice noodles. The affordable, international wine list offers many by-the-glass selections.
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—Original reporting by Kit Bernardi