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Known as the king of Italian beef in the Chicago area by those in the know, Johnnie’s has been slinging beef since 1961. Have cash, an appetite, and patience for the line.
Bourdain loves it because: “Either on my way into town or out of town, I’m going Italian beef at Johnnie’s.”
Beer and pizza go hand in hand here at this raucous, bustling restaurant. The beer: medal-winning brews from the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. The pizza: thin crust modeled after the Neapolitan styles popularized in New Haven that can ordered with toppings from Honey Butter Fried Chicken and the departed Hot Doug's.
Bourdain loves it because: “I don’t think we included it in the final cut. I had actual thin-crust pizza. Really, really delicious. Thinner crust than most Italian pizza. It was just very good, wood-fired, non-deep-dish pizza. I hate the deep dish. It annoys me that a great city like Chicago... they should be identified with their strongest suit, not their weakest. One of the things I know is that no Chicagoans I know eat that shit.”
Stephanie Izard’s restaurant busted out of the gates fully packed due to her victory on Top Chef Season 4. Try goat any which way from goat milk ricotta on bruschetta to goat loin with smoked apple-potato purée. Reservations may be hard to come by, but showing up at the beginning of service to snag a table is achievable.
Bourdain loves it because: “Girl & the Goat is awesome. I love her and I love her food. For me that’s the very picture of a tough, determined Chicagoan. That’s a very hard-working chef.”
Local politicians eat and hobnob with reckless abandon at this smorgasbord-style counter service joint.
Bourdain loves it because: Of the meatloaf and mac & cheese. “Two of my guilty pleasures on one plastic tray.”
At Sze Chuan Cuisine, a newer spot in Chinatown that specializes in heat, Bourdain is accompanied by Stephanie Izard -- having recently opened Duck Duck Goat -- on a visit for Parts Unknown.
Bourdain loves it because: “One of my favorite dishes in the world. Mapo Dofu. Yes. A tofu dish. Stipled with pork and a burning, numbing, 9 ½ Weeks-style exercise in sadomasochism that will start you thinking some deeply disturbing thoughts.”
Mediterranean-inspired, tiny, and featuring a dish -- chorizo-stuffed dates with piquillo pepper sauce -- that will never, ever come off the menu (lest they incite a riot).
Bourdain loves it because: Bourdain has never been shy about his deep admiration and respect for Paul Kahan and his establishments, here again citing this one as a “terrific restaurant.”
You’re here for the sandwich that has made national headlines. A skirt steak that gets breaded and fried, slapped on a Turano French roll after getting dredged in meat sauce. It’s Chicago, not LA... eat the sandwich. You’re welcome.
Bourdain loves it because: “I liked that sandwich. Now that was something that everyone should be proud to have on their flag. It is very, very good.”
Paul Kahan’s beer hall-style tribute to pork and oysters anchors a now bustling block of restaurants in the ever-receding meat packing area of the city.
Bourdain loves it because: When asked in our interview what makes The Publican so good in his eyes, Bourdain simply said: “Great food.” Reaching back to his old Travel Channel show, The Layover, he was a bit more verbose describing the spot as a “big, loud beer hall with a tendency towards pork.”
The Tuscan-style kitchen in the heart of Old Town has traded on a lively atmosphere and friendly staff for nearly 30 years. The menu hits the expected spread of rich pastas and desserts along with hot bread and a kitchen sink salad. The grand second-story dining room is perfect for parties, and the terrace is coveted for days above 60 degrees.
Bourdain loves it because: "Topo Gigio is a massive Italian-American joint that serves -- much better than you would think -- old-school stuff."
1. Johnnie's Beef7500 W North Ave, Elmwood Park
2. Piece Brewery and Pizzeria1927 W North Ave, Chicago
3. Girl & The Goat809 W Randolph St, Chicago
4. Valois1518 E 53rd St, Chicago
5. Sze Chuan Cuisine2414 S Wentworth Ave, Chicago
6. Avec615 W Randolph St, Chicago
7. Ricobene's252 W 26th St, Chicago
8. The Publican837 W Fulton Market St, Chicago
9. Topo Gigio Ristorante1516 N Wells St, Chicago
How is this Elmwood Park institution (accessible from the city via the North Avenue bus) different than your neighborhood beef place? Well, unlike yours, it has the city's BEST Italian beef and BEST Italian ice. The beef at Johnnie's is smothered in a spice-rich, complex gravy and the sausages are juicy every time. Have cash, an appetite, and patience ready (there will be a line and it will be worth it).
Chicago might be known for its deep-dish pizza, but this bustling joint in Wicker Park makes phenomenal thin-crust pizza. The paper thin, New Haven-style pies are topped with red sauce, parmesan, oregano, and toppings that run the gamut from BBQ sauce and goat cheese to peppers and Italian sausage. Piece brews award-winning craft beer in its seven-barrel brew house. There's probably no better place to go in Chicago if you're in the mood for pizza and beer.
Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard's West Loop restaurant is a perennial hot spot that defines the Chicago food scene. The menu is filled with incredibly innovative meat, vegetable, and fish small plates meant to be shared and devoured. Of course, a meal at Girl & the Goat isn't complete without an order of goat, served a variety of ways (in empanadas, as carpaccio). Reservations are hard to muster but you'll snag one eventually and find that the wait is so worth it.
This cafeteria-style diner has been around since 1921 and is a favorite of Hyde Park’s most famous resident, President Obama. Valois serves quintessential greasy spoon American food all day long, but breakfast is the highlight. The menu includes a list of Obama's favorites, and Favorite #1 (NY steak & eggs) comes highly recommended. The counter-service spot is cheap but cash-only.
This Chinatown eatery specializes in Szechuan dishes that might be the hottest in Chicago. Most items on the menu come with an excruciatingly high spice level, like the Ma Po Tofu, recommended by both the chef and Anthony Bourdain. If hot and spicy isn't your jam, don't worry, Sze Chuan has mild meat and vegetable dishes, plus familiar appetizers like egg rolls, steamed buns, and beef satay.
With celebrity chef Paul Kahan at the helm of this tiny West Loop restaurant, it's not a surprise that Avec continues to draw crowds of devoted regulars, first-time tourists, and everyone in between. The Mediterranean menu is all about small plates, and the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates are a perennial crowd favorite that hopefully will never come off the menu. Everything works and tastes beautifully with the comprehensive wine list featuring selections from Southern France to Portugal.
This family-owned Italian-American counter-serve is a South Side staple for its pizza, subs, wings, and, most famously, its breaded steak sandwich. Ricobene's occupies a large food-court like space with fluorescent lighting and minimal ambience, but you're not here for the decor, you're here for the fried skirt steak covered in mounds of warm mozzarella and soaked in red sauce on a French roll. Sit and stay or take your order to go, but whatever you do, be prepared for a messy meal.
Paul Kahan's West Loop restaurant feels like the Midwest; big and welcoming with communal tables, it's a farmhouse and a beer hall at the same time. The menu focuses on three things: beer, pork, and oysters, but you'll also find vegetable and fish alternatives. The beer selection features brews from all over, with a fair share from Belgium and Chicago.
This Tuscan kitchen in the heart of Old Town has traded on a lively atmosphere and friendly staff for nearly 30 years. The menu serves rich pastas and solid Italian-American hits that define comfort food. Be sure to order dessert -- the tiramisu, cheesecake, and cannoli are addicting. The grand second story dining room is perfect for parties and the terrace is coveted for days when the temperature falls above 60 degrees.