Chicago is known as the Windy City. Many don’t know this nickname originally had more to do with the politics of the 19th century, but the moniker means a lot of different things today. Weather references aside, dining trends blow through the city with all the force of a 22mph gust and are gone just as quickly – anybody remember the cronut craze?
However, what remains is Chicago’s reputation for excellent food. The restaurant landscape may change, but the quality, diversity, and innovation of Chicago that draws chefs (and diners) from around the world remains the same.
From the edgy, upscale restaurants that are revitalizing the West Loop to the world-renowned dining establishments that make the Gold Coast truly rich, Chicago is a dining destination that should be on the bucket list of any serious foodie.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to highlight just a few of our favorite Rewards Network restaurants in the city. We’re focusing on both well-known Southside gems and new Northside spots, but really it’s best to just get out there and start eating!
1. Café Press
You’ll find this cozy little coffee shop right in the heart of Printer’s Row in the South Loop. Café Press’ location is ideal: walk a few blocks west of Michigan Avenue’s hustle and bustle and you’ve suddenly found yourself an oasis. They serve specialty coffee and teas from Sparrow Coffee Roastery, a local “green and organic micro-roastery.”
The proof is in drinks like the Proof, served from the espresso bar as a ristretto or lungo, and the White Out, a white mocha concoction that can be flavored with syrups and extras like rosemary and caramel. If you’re not crazy about the bean, there are some great smoothie options. Try the Red, a mix of beets, carrots, pear, ginger, honey, and the dairy (or non-dairy) add-in of your choice.
The same attention that they give to the drinks goes into the food. You’ll want to sample the smoked salmon and dill mascarpone sandwich for breakfast and the tamarind BBQ pulled pork and Asian slaw sandwich for lunch or dinner. On rare days when you’re not on the run, grab a macaroon from the pastry case; you can sit in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the city go by in slow motion.
2. Mother Hubbard’s Sports Pub
Who knew that in the midst of the polished River North area, you could find an elbows-on-the-table, buffalo-wing-slinging sports pub? For over 20 years, Mother Hubbard’s has been the answer for out-of-towners looking for a place to catch the big game and locals dropping by to root for the home team and unwind after a long work week.
The stats here are out of this world: 45 televisions, 28 satellite feeds, an exhaustive beer list, and a kitchen that’s open ‘til the wee small hours of the morning (3 a.m.). If you think you can handle it, try the Francheezie, a jumbo Vienna hot dog wrapped in bacon and covered in cheese. It’s a Chicago original and Mother Hubbard exclusive.
3. mk The Restaurant
You may want to remove your elbows from the table at this point because we’re headed north of Navy Pier to the Near North Side for a fine dining experience at mk. The “mk” stands for Michael Kornick, founder and owner. He’s also a phenomenal chef with a reputation for innovative dishes that feature fresh, seasonal ingredients. In 2008, he handed the reins in the kitchen over to Executive Chef Erick Williams and Pastry Chef Lisa Bonjur.
The dishes here are bold, New American-creations that take center stage in the reserved, elegant dining area featuring urban touches in the form of exposed brick walls and graffiti-like artwork. While there isn’t a bad dish on the carefully planned menu, we suggest the pheasant.
The roasted Macfarlane pheasant breast served with glazed French green beans, breakfast radish, and cauliflower bagna cauda is a work of art. Finish it with the cheekily-named dessert “when life gives you lemons…”; it’s a delicious lemon custard dish with snickerdoodle crumble, caramel sauce, crème fraiche, winter citrus, and meringues.
4. Luella’s Southern Kitchen
Luella’s Southern Kitchen in the Lincoln Square neighborhood represents several stories in one. There’s Chef/Owner Darnell Reed’s culinary journey from cooking in hotels like the Palmer House Hilton to traveling the world for inspiration before settling in Chicago.
There’s also his great grandmother, Luella Funches, who moved to Chicago from Morgan City, Mississippi, bringing with her a flair for southern cuisine. And then there’s the restaurant itself, a storefront space transformed into a warm, welcoming BYOB that truly feels like a slice of the South served warm for northern palates.
The menu at Luella’s Southern Kitchen is full of simple southern favorites like shrimp and grits, buttermilk fried chicken, and shrimp po’boys – all recipes that Reed learned from Luella herself.
What might also catch your eye is the braised short rib mac and cheese. Reed elevates this classic comfort food with a mornay sauce and tops it with buttered bread crumbs. This is a local favorite for brunch, so come early on the weekends and be sure to order the andouille sausage quiche with caramelized leeks and fresh farm eggs. Don’t be surprised if a little southern twang slips into your speech before you leave.
5. Izakaya Mita
“Izakayas” are Japanese pubs, and what you’ll find at the best izakayas (besides sake) is great food served in simple preparations, putting the emphasis on nuanced flavors and fresh ingredients. It’s a formula that Izakaya Mita in Bucktown takes to the next level. There’s no kitsch here; the minimalist décor of dark wood paneling, the occasional paper lantern, and softly flickering tea lights tell you that the focus is the food.
The menu offers classics like chukka iidako (marinated baby octopus) and gobo kinpira (burdock root salad with carrots) alongside sashimi and rice sliders. And while we could stop there, you’ll want to try their ramen. This classic comes in a variety of preparations, though we recommend the chashu marinated pork with bamboo shoots, soft boiled ajitsuke egg, negi, and benishoga.
Finish your meal with a Throw Away Your Books and Rally in the Streets—a cocktail of el bujo, honey miso syrup, Kenbishi Kuromatsu, lime, and orange bitters.
If you’re not a morning person, it can be hard to rise and shine in the a.m. Here’s where Yolk comes in: picture a sunny yellow and blue dining room with plenty of windows for people watching, and a plate of challah French toast with warm maple syrup on the table in front of you.
This fabulous place making mornings worthwhile is practically a Chicago institution. With seven locations scattered about the city, including the South Loop and Lakeview, you’re probably only minutes from enjoying a Santa Fe frittata.
We could run down a list of all the awards this breakfast and lunch spot has picked up over the years (for instance, it was voted best “Breakfast in Chicago” twice), but it’s always best to drop by and see for yourself. To really start your day right, try the California omelet: five eggs, smashed avocado, sautéed mushroom, green onion, tomato, jack, Swiss, cheddar, and sour cream. It’s only fair to warn you—you ruin cereal for yourself after this.
7. Sono Wood Fired Pizza
It’s almost a cliché to mention the words “Chicago” and “pizza” in the same sentence, but Sono Wood Fired Pizza is a revelation. Equal parts rustic Tuscan trattoria, wine lounge, and neighborhood pizza joint, this Lincoln Park spot is steps away from the North and Clybourn Redline stop, Steppenwolf Theatre, and ArcLight Cinemas.
There are no checkered tablecloths or bottles of Chianti hanging from the ceiling here, but instead you’ll find six types of bruschetta, including the fig with gorgonzola dolce, balsamic figs, apples, crisp coppa, and micro arugula. There’s also hand-made mozzarella antipasti and a lamb meatball appetizer in a roasted garlic tomato sauce that’s worth writing poetry for.
The main event is the pizza: thin, crispy crust; made-to-order, hand-pulled mozzarella; and garden-fresh toppings. We recommend the spinaci with garlic spinach, ricotta, goat cheese, and toasted garlic chips – it’s the perfect treat for before or after a great film/show.
8. Chicago Diner
Have you ever heard someone say that a dish was, “pretty good for vegetarian food”? Well Chicago Diner, “Meat Free Since ‘83”, is looking to change foodie outlooks, one glorious vegetarian (or vegan) entrée at a time. The food here is just plain good, and let’s be honest, that’s a hard sell in a city that’s known for Vienna Beef, gyros, and steakhouses.
There are two locations, one in Logan Square and the other in Lakeview, and both are cozy spots with friendly faces and a menu that will make you reconsider stereotypical vegetarian food. Have a taste for country fried steak? They’ve got a battered seitan filet that’s topped with gravy and accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and perfectly seasoned vegetables.
Everything from the Radical Reuben™ to the chicken shawarma plate tastes as good, if not better, than the meat version. So eat your fill, leave the guilt for meat eaters, and please don’t forget to sample a vegan shake (four words: cookie dough peanut butter).
Want to hear more about how the Chicago Diner caters to the meatiest of all holidays — Thanksgiving?