Taste Test: How to Cool Down a Spicy Mouth
Best Italian: Piccolo Sogno
“Little dream” is right: with its picture-perfect patio and casual-yet-sophisticated dining room, this urban oasis sets the scene for a weekday power lunch, romantic date night, and everything in between. The eats are seasonally driven, rustic, and approachable, while the all-Italian wine list is one of the most thorough and impressive you’ll find in the city. Don’t miss the signature ravioli “Piccolo Sogno,” which features house-made four-cheese-stuffed ravioli tossed with tossed with pine nuts, butter, and Marsala glaze and finished with delicate Parmesan curls or the “sapore” di mare.
Best French: Bistro Campagne
From charcuterie and escargot drenched in garlic-Pernod butter to steak frites and profiteroles, a meal at this charming neighborhood bistro is about as close to a Parisian escape as you’ll find in the Windy City.
Best Mexican: Mixteco Grill
Helmed by Frontera Grill veteran Raul Arreola, this charming BYOB eatery slings an array of pan-Mexican specialties showcasing Oaxacan moles, fresh salsas, and some of the most succulent slow-roasted pork in town. Plus, it’s open seven days a week and serves a knockout South-of-the-border brunch (huevos a la diabla, anyone?) so you can get a fix whenever a craving for Mexican hits and boozy Taco Bell won’t suffice.
Best Peruvian: Tanta
This Downtown hotspot brought Peruvian fare to the mainstream when it opened in 2013, and has remained the city’s preeminent destination for the vibrant South American cuisine ever since. Go for the pisco-soaked cocktail program; stay for causitas, tiraditos, and our favorite: the hearty pork fried rice with a shrimp tortilla and spicy garlic.
Best Thai: Arun’s
If you’re willing to throw down a little more cash than usual on Thai, nothing tops the ever-evolving tasting menu at this upscale concept on the Northwest side. Over its 30+ years in business, the restaurant has accrued countless accolades for its outstanding service and hallmark blend of creative Southwest Asian fare and traditional Thai specialties, and shows no sign of slowing.
Best Greek: Taxim
Regional Greek cuisine is the name of the game at this Milwaukee Ave gem, so if you’re looking for a basic lamb gyro, you’ve come to the wrong place. Here, the gyros come bursting with spit-roasted duck breast and leg rubbed with pastourma spices and topped with mint, yogurt sauce, pomegranate reduction, and pickled chard -- all cradled in Pontian satz bread, just one option on a menu so steeped in Grecian culinary tradition.
Best Chinese: Sun Wah BBQ
When it comes to real-deal Peking duck with supremely crispy skin, nothing tops this Hong Kong-style barbecue joint in Uptown. The whole-roasted waterfowl is brought to the table, meticulously carved, and served with steamed bao and hoisin sauce.
Best Japanese: Kai Zan
From uni shooters and yakitori-glazed duck skewers to grilled scallop nigiri, you can’t go wrong with anything you order off the menu at this always-packed 22-seater, but the chef’s choice omakase experience is undoubtedly the way to go, provided you’re feeling adventurous. Pro tip: it’s nearly impossible to get in here as a walk-in, so your best bet is to plan ahead with reservations.
Okay, we’ll concede that there are plenty of higher-echelon American restos that arguably deserve this title, but when the raw grit and glory of Chicago staples come into question, no one does it better than Portillo’s. Don your best stretchy pants and bask in the bliss of a Chicago-style jumbo dog, a note-perfect Italian beef, and a so-wrong-it’s-right chocolate shake mixed with chunks of the Chicago-based chain’s famous chocolate cake.
Best Spanish: Vera
There are a handful of truly exceptional Spanish restaurants in Chicago, but thanks to its unparalleled sherry selection, this intimate, chef-driven tapas joint edges ahead of the rest. Settle in for a cozy meal loaded with beef tongue, grilled octopus, chef’s selection of cheeses and charcuterie, and the ever-changing but always-on-point daily paella.
Best Korean: San Soo Gab San
Don’t let its humble looks fool you: beyond an unassuming façade lies a Korean BBQ gem equipped with charcoal grills for superior DIY grilling action. Why charcoal? Because it seals the meats with a smoky, caramelized char that’s unattainable on conventional electric tabletop grills.
Best steakhouse: Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf
Chicago’s teeming with quality steakhouses, but there can only be one king of carnivory, and that king is Brendan Sodikoff’s unequivocally great speakeasy-style steakhouse. Have your boeuf any way you want it (with frites, bone in, dry aged, smothered in bearnaise), and when asked if you’d like to “enhance” it with roasted bone marrow, the answer is always “yes.”
Best vegetarian: The Chicago Diner
Touting the catchphrase, “Meat free since ’83,” earns well-deserved bragging rights as not only Chi’s best, but oldest vegetarian restaurant. The menu is loaded with meat-free spins on Thai chili wings, chili, gyros, and a Cuban sandwich -- many of which also include dairy- and egg-free extras to make them vegan friendly.
Best burger joint: Au Cheval
The wait times exist for a reason, people: the coveted single burger, which originated at Brendan Sodikoff’s West Loop goldmine and confusingly comes with two patties, is worth the often extreme lengths it takes to procure it. What makes it so great? A winning combination of a perfect meat-to-bun ratio, Kraft American cheese (we kid you not), house Dijonnaise and pickles, thick slabs of bacon, and a runny fried egg.