Food & Drink

The Best Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurants in Chicago

Published On 09/24/2015 Published On 09/24/2015
Hewn Chicago
Kailley Lindman/Courtesy of Hewn

If you’re a vegetarian, dining with someone who is, or just attempting a meatless Monday, navigating Chicago’s dining scene for vegetarian-friendly options can be intimidating at best and disheartening at worst. Fortunately, there are some veggie sanctuaries among our meat market of a city: from a suburban bakery touting hearty meatless sandwiches to a triple Michelin-starred tasting menu, these are the best spots to indulge in a meat-free meal.

The Chicago Diner

The Chicago Diner

Lakeview, Logan Square

Touting the slogan, “Meat free since ’83,” this time-tested favorite is a no-brainer for all things carnivore-unfriendly (see what we did there?). The expansive menu covers all the bases, from seitan “wingz” doused in a chili lime marinade and paired with Sriracha ranch dipping sauce, to a portobello truffle melt oozing with vegan mozzarella -- but the real standout is the quinoa chili, a protein-rich take on classic chili best enjoyed with jalapeño corn fitters, diced tomato and onion, sour cream, cheese, and avocado.

Salero

West Loop

This stylish Spanish resto in the West Loop ditches tapas in favor of starters and entrees, and offers one of the heartiest, most satisfying vegetarian entrees you’ll ever try. The current seasonal rendition of the confit potatoes a la plancha includes crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside confit potatoes, wild mushrooms, a mushroom demi-glace, and queso tetilla, and is finished with a perfectly cooked sunny-side-up egg. Team it with the Catalan gazpacho and churros for dessert for a complete meat-free meal that doesn’t skimp on flavor.

Grace Restaurant

Grace

West Loop

This three-star Michelin restaurant offers both a meat-focused menu (“Fauna”) and a vegetarian-friendly menu (“Flora”), thereby making it one of the only Chicago restaurants of its caliber to deliver a tasting menu experience that doesn’t alienate guests who choose not to eat meat. Both menus change based on seasonal availability of ingredients, but recent courses include asparagus with brioche, black olive, and sorrel, beets with goat cheese, cider, and red amaranth, and a chocolate-based dessert made with pistachio, lemon, and mint.

Kailley Lindman/Thrillist

River Roast

River North

Don’t let its penchant for roasted meat fool you: this riverside concept is actually exceptionally vegetarian-friendly, as evidenced by the section of the menu dedicated to “roots, shoots, and veggies.” Indulge in roasted carrots tossed with pumpernickel crumb “dirt,” goat cheese, and balsamic; turnips au gratin; Mexican street corn; and more. Make sure not to miss the aptly named Boatload of Veggies entrée, which currently features a giant poblano pepper stuffed with creamy purple cauliflower “risotto.”

Summer House Santa Monica

Lincoln Park

Given its cool SoCal appeal, it’s no surprise that this Lincoln Park hotspot has more to offer vegetarians than just salad. If you’re looking for a protein fix, the quinoa and Forbidden black rice bowl is tops. Craving something hearty? Try the wild mushroom enchilada stack, which comes with crispy tortillas, pickled red onion and cucumber salad, and cumin-scented crema. And whatever you do, don’t miss the brown butter rice crispy treats for dessert.

Freds at Barney's New York

Fred’s at Barneys New York

Gold Coast

Whether you’ve instigated a retail therapy session or you’ve simply been dragged along, one thing’s certain: you’re going to need to refuel. Fortunately for you, Fred’s is located above Barney’s New York -- right in the heart of Chicago’s preeminent shopping district -- and offers a bounty of vegetarian-friendly dishes ranging from roasted vegetable vegan pizza stacked with roasted veggies and vegan cheese on a whole-wheat crust and an assortment of salads to a seasonal vegan soup that changes at the chef’s whim.

Handlebar

Wicker Park

Hipster-to-the-core Handlebar is Wicker Park’s casual go-to for made-from-scratch vegetarian and vegan comfort food, and as expected, it sources most of its ingredients from local purveyors and brews fair-trade coffee. Stop in during breakfast, lunch, or dinner to feast on fried avocado tacos stuffed with cabbage slaw, tomatoes, queso fresco, refried beans, house-made ranch, brown rice, and salsa verde; veggie chili mac and cheese; and pepita scrambled eggs.

Beatrix

Beatrix

River North

Chef John Chiakulas knows a thing or two about how to prepare vegetarian-ready eats, as evidenced by dishes like escarole and potato ravioli with jumbo asparagus, Parmesan, and white truffle; a mushroom and quinoa burger; and yellow tomato gazpacho. These dishes are so well-executed and flavorful, they’ll convert even the most devout of carnivores to vegetarianism, if only for just one meal.

Sunda

River North

No need to scour Sunda’s lengthy menu for meatless options: upon request, guests may receive a dedicated vegan menu spanning nearly 20 dishes, including salads, dim sum, sushi, and more. Abbreviated versions of the menu are also available for lunch and brunch services. Standouts include the restaurant’s coveted crispy Brussels sprouts salad and the fish-less sweet potato caterpillar roll off the maki menu.

Flickr/Stephanie

Green Zebra

West Town

The tasting menu at this upscale vegetarian resto changes based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, but you can always count on it to showcase a bright, colorful mix of veggies. The current five-course lineup features sweet corn soup, blistered shishito peppers, squash risotto "beggar's purse," and more. Not feeling the prix fixe experience? Check out the expansive a la cart menu, which is almost entirely vegetarian-friendly.  

Tandoor Char House

Lincoln Park

The menu at this Indian concept may be of epic length, but a helpful “V” notation next to vegetarian items makes reading it a breeze. The vegetarian samosas packed with potatoes and peas are non-negotiable, and the “vegetarian treasures” portion of the menu is loaded with meatless items like the popular chana masala comprised of sautéed chickpeas, onions, and tomatoes amped up with an assortment of herbs and spices.

Kailley Lindman/Thrillist

Boka

Lincoln Park

Executive Chef Lee Wolen has a knack for transforming seasonal produce into culinary works of art that taste every bit as great as they look. While his menu changes regularly, you can always count on the heirloom carrots with pistachio, vadouvan, dates, and smoked feta to be there. Other veggie-friendly highlights on his current menu include white gazpacho with almonds, radish, and ricotta salata and ricotta ravioli prepared with corn, maitake, blueberry, and goat gouda.

Hewn

Evanston

Steps from the Purple Line, this suburban bakery is one of the North Shore’s best-kept secrets, and happens to be both easily accessible from the city and exceptionally vegetarian-friendly. Swing by for a spicy eggplant and arugula sandwich made with Sriracha, cilantro, chopped tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella on Hewn’s hand-forged ciabatta, a light and refreshing orzo salad tossed with cucumbers, MightyVine tomatoes, peppers, fresh feta, and house-made lemon-honey dressing; don’t leave without a loaf of bread.

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Kailley Lindman is a contributing writer for Thrillist Chicago, as well as a freelance food photographer, food blogger at KailleysKitchen.com, and recovering vegetarian. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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1. Chicago Diner 3411 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60657 (Boystown)

This hometown hero in Boystown prides itself on its slogan: meat free since '83. And they live up to it -- Chicago Diner's been serving the comfort and familiarity of diner food without the health risk and guilt that comes with over-produced meats. You'll never find the booths at this brick and worn-wood joint empty since this place has become a bit of a legend over the decades. It's probably due to the award-winning vegan milkshakes, country fried seitan steaks, quinoa chili, and vegetarian takes on your favorite sandwiches.

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2. Salero 621 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661 (West Loop)

With modern takes on traditional staples like roasted beef short ribs, seas bass and potatoes a la plancha (translation: pan fried), and grilled flat iron steaks, Salero is a little piece of Spain right in the Chicago's West Loop. Helmed by Chef Ashlee Aubin, this stylish restaurant and bar avoids the trend factor of tapas and sticks to starts and main courses, so for once you won't have to feel the selfish guilt that one can only get when refusing to share their sweetbread.

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3. Grace 652 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661 (West Loop)

With three well-deserved Michelin stars, Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser’s Grace is a destination for the highest end fine-dining in the West Loop. An evening at Grace is an experience in culinary performance: the white tablecloth-dressed tables are angled towards the glass-enclosed kitchen, encouraging guests to watch tweezer-wielding hands compose dishes with whimsy and precision. At Grace, elegance is defined by exemplary service, refined New American menus, and the wondrous presentation of Duffy’s dishes. The two multi-course tasting menus are called Flora and Fauna (you can guess the highlight of each), and Muser’s wine pairings are highly, highly recommended. (His cellar is impassioned and versatile in origin and price, if the pairings don’t strike your fancy). The menus present dishes wherein complex technique and molecular gastronomy are downplayed -- but still very much in place -- to make the ingredient the star of the plate. And just an aside, at some point during your multiple hour meal, you’ll find that the bathrooms are themed to the seasons. Big spenders, this one’s for you.

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4. River Roast 315 N LaSalle St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

On the north bank of the Chicago River is River Roast, an upscale tavern that combines traditional British roasts with new American ingredients. The menu revolves around roasted proteins -- fish, beef, chicken, pork -- that are carved table-side for two. There are also a variety of small plates and vegetables to share. The large space includes two bars and an expansive riverside patio.

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5. Summer House Santa Monica 1954 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

From Lettuce Entertain You, Summer House Santa Monica brings Chicago a much-needed dose of SoCal flavor. The restaurant goes full force with its Angeleno theme, from the beach house-meets-garden party decor to the expansive list of California wines. Seafood and vegetable plates shine on the menu -- which also includes tacos, sushi, and burgers -- but the most notable dishes, like wild mushroom enchiladas and king crab orecchiette, are found under the speciality "Things We Love" section. Pro tip: top off your meal with a bacon chocolate chip cookie from the bakery counter at Summer House's sister restaurant, Stella Barra Pizzeria, which is right next door.

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6. Fred's at Barneys New York 15 E Oak St, Chicago, IL 60611 (Near North Side)

The sleek interior and contemporary Italian fare at this Near North Side spot are every bit as fashionable as the designer clothing sold in the retail giant it's nestled within. With a price point to match, a tuna tartare appetizer and chicken milanese main with a glass or half bottle of white wine will set you back significantly, even at lunch hour. You pay in equal parts for delicacy and presentation -- small portioned dishes plopped right in the middle of massive white plates, dripped and drizzled and garnished until it looks less like food and more like modern art.

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7. The Handlebar 2311 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Wicker Park)

This hipster-approved restaurant and bar in Wicker Park serves a vegan and vegetarian menu of American classics. Breakfast is served daily until 3pm (don't worry, there are plenty of egg dishes) but expect seitan sausage instead of bacon. The rest of the menu (it serves lunch and dinner too) is filled with meat-free bar bites like fried avocado tacos, chili cheese fries (available with vegan queso), soy-based sloppy Joes, all of which taste especially good when paired with a drink in the beer garden.

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8. Beatrix 519 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

A local restaurant and coffeehouse, created by chef partners John Chiakulas, Rita Dever, and Susan Weaver, put together a menu inspired by Lettuce Entertain You's test kitchen. In the morning stop in for their honey & cinnamon latte, and finish off your evening divulging in their chili & chocolate glazed salmon. Also be sure to taste their raved about "Oh My! Caramel Pie" with shortbread cookie crust for dessert.

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9. Sunda 110 W Illinois St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

Toeing the line between swanky hotspot and sophisticated dining destination, this Asian fusion concept from Rockit Ranch Productions is a worthy choice for an undeniably hip meal out in River North. The menu offers some seriously interesting eats (duck breast kimchi, oxtail pot stickers) and includes sushi, sashimi, and plenty of wok dishes. The beer list is heavy on the Asian pours, and there are sake and speciality cocktails as well. Sunda's decor feels just as sleek as the menu with polished black bamboo and high wooden tables.

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10. Green Zebra 1460 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (West Town)

Noble Square’s Green Zebra practices the art of vegetarianism as a sensory experience, parading small plates whose presentations are as unique as the locally produced seasonal fruits and vegetables that unite them. Asian influence abounds on the menu with items like spring rolls, pot stickers, Szechuan green beans, and soba noodles, and the dining room has a complementary zen-like vibe with dark green booths punctuated by bamboo sticks and palm fronds.

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11. Tandoor Char House 2652 N Halsted, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

Brothers Fahim and Faraz Sarharia founded this restaurant inside a bi-level 1900s-era Park West apartment building out of love for their Indian and Pakistani background and the culinary arts. Thus, Tandoor Char House was born, along with its menu full of staples like tandoor meats marinated for 24 hours, Karhai signatures like chicken tikka and lam saag, and a selection of Italian and American fusion dishes, including spiced t-bone steaks and tamarind wings.

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12. Boka 1729 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

Romantic enough for a date night and inventive enough to surprise even the most jaded of palates, this time-tested and Michelin-starred favorite in Lincoln Park promises good food in a good atmosphere. Crafted by visionary Lee Wolen, Boka serves a contemporary menu (heirloom carrots with pistachio crumbles, bulgur, and smoked goat cheese, for example) available Ă  la carte or as a seven-course tasting. Make sure to order cocktails and dessert -- both are downright indulgent.

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13. HEWN Artisan Bread 810 Dempster St, Evanston, IL 60202 (Evanston)

Appropriately named, Evanston's Hewn is bringing back widely forgotten break-making techniques -- kneading dough for 30 minutes, letting it ferment overnight, and then baking for a total 20 hours of fermentation every singe day, master bakers create the fresh bread that goes into every single one of their cheddar or pumpkin seeds baguettes, scone, croissant, and sandwich. The offering's a little different each day, but the online bread schedule should keep you in the loop.

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