It's Worth Getting Sloppy For This Grilled Cheese Taco
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.
1. Piccolo Sogno464 N Halsted St, Chicago
2. Bistro Campagne4518 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago
3. Mixteco Grill1601 W Montrose Ave, Chicago
4. Tanta118 W Grand Ave, Chicago
5. Arun's4156 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago
6. Taxim1558 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
7. Sun Wah BBQ5039 N Broadway St, Chicago
8. Kai Zan2557 W Chicago Ave, Chicago
9. Vera1023 W Lake St, Chicago
10. San Soo Gab San5247 N Western Ave, Chicago
11. Bavette's Bar & Boeuf218 W Kinzie St, Chicago
12. Chicago Diner3411 N Halsted St, Chicago
13. Au Cheval800 W Randolph, Chicago
14. Portillo's Hot Dogs100 W Ontario St, Chicago
Piccolo Sogno in River West checks all the boxes for a great Italian restaurant. From homemade pastas and hand-tossed pizzas to a thorough, Italian-only wine selection some 400 varieties strong, the rustic menu is approachable and intriguing enough to keep you coming back for more. The eponymous ravioli, stuffed with four cheeses and tossed with pine nuts, butter, and Marsala glaze is a house signature. As for ambience, the garden patio is one of the best in Chicago.
Get your French fix at Bistro Campagne. Check it out with a date for a romantic dinner, or go for the mimosa-fueled brunch menu. Pick from crepes filled with caramelized brandied oranges, duck confit over potato hash, and brioche French toast with peach compote. As you'd expect, they keep the champagne flowing but there's also a Bistro Bloody Mary with Bordelaise sauce to be had.
Mixteco Grill is all about flair, from the walls' warm golden tones to the Oaxacan-inspired dishes. Don't expect anything less from the Lakeview Mexican spot, which may have you turning colors with its habanero salsa.
Tanta celebrates Peru’s diverse culture by injecting Japanese and Spanish flare into an otherwise Peruvian street-food-centric menu. In addition to traditional street anticuchos (skewers), there's a selection of ceviche, nigiri, and causitas, or whipped potatoes fused with seafood. The restaurant's lively atmosphere -- and creative menu -- tempts you to indulge in fruity, colorful cocktails made with pisco brandy made in the wine regions of Peru.
Fine dining destination Arun’s has long set the standard for Thai in Chicago, picking up countless accolades and awards over the last 30 and counting years. If you’re willing to splurge a little more than usual on Thai, the tasting menu is the move. It's always changing, but you're likely to find creative takes on Southwest Asian fare as well as traditional courses like spring rolls and panang beef curry among its 10 or 12 courses.
Boasting Wicker Park's first rooftop patio ("To Hayati"), Taxim is a modern Greek restaurant serving upped Mediterranean cuisine, authentic small plates, and regional wines. Popular dishes include lamb gyros, wood-grilled octopus, and blood orange-braised pork stuffed cabbage.
Nowhere on Uptown’s Sun Wah BBQ’s menu will you find its most sought-after dish, the three-course Beijing duck feast. The Chinese restaurant’s worst-kept secret, the duck is expertly carved, plated, and served to you by one of the chefs in a jazz-like rhythm of slicing and dicing as the bird’s tender, juicy meat falls off the bone and barely hangs onto its glistening, crunchy skin. The remainder of the duck is then syphoned off into duck fried rice and duck soup for subsequent courses. While you in no uncertain terms come to Sun Wah for the duck, there are other delectable options for those who duck meat altogether, like the Singapore noodles or black mushrooms with fried tofu.
With precision and technique, brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde create non-traditional, neighborhood izakaya at Humboldt Park’s Kai Zan. The sophisticated Japanese-style dishes and marble countertops -- where you can watch the mesmerizing knife skills in action -- are antithetical to the restaurant’s unpretentious, inviting atmosphere. Kai Zan is a 22-seat space on West Chicago Ave., where the seats fill up fast, no small thanks to the playful, composed dishes -- like oyster and uni shooters served in ponzu sauce and topped with a quail egg and caviar -- and $50 omakase menu.
This Spanish-leaning wine bar offers seasonally rotating vinos alongside shareable plates like bacon-wrapped dates, ceviche, paella, and charcuterie.
Mix up the routine and take your cooking skills outside the home: this Korean BBQ lets diners cook their own meat! Don’t let its humble looks fool you: beyond an unassuming façade lies a Korean BBQ gem equipped with charcoal grills on your table for a fun DIY dining experience. Meat and seafood options include marinated beef short ribs, pork ribs, and baby octopus.
More a promise than a clever name, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf unapologetically delivers an abundance of whiskey and slab-after-slab of expertly prepared meat. Bavette's 24 oz. bone-in ribeye may be the best piece of meat your money can buy in Chi-town, but, if steak's not your thing, they also offer fresh oysters, Southern-style fried chicken, and double-cut Berkshire pork chops. And because nothing goes together better than a rare steak and a fine whiskey, Bavette's offers more than 50 whiskeys to stir into classic cocktails like mint julips, rye Old Fashioneds, and modern alternatives like spicy picklebacks.
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.
This upscale West Loop restaurant is known for its European flair and sophisticated American diner-style eats. Au Cheval usually has a wait out the door at peak dinner hours because it's home to iconic signature items like the fried house-made bologna sandwich and the so-called single burger, which actually comes with two thin patties and is topped with American cheese, house Dijonnaise, pickles, and if you know what's good for you, the optional bacon and fried egg add-ons. The brasserie-like space includes an open kitchen and a bar where local, domestic, and international beers are all on tap.
Local favorite Portillo's specializes in classic Chicago-style hot dogs and an otherworldly chocolate cake that keeps fans coming back for more. They know what they're doing when it comes to hot dogs: the first Portillo's hot dog stand opened in 1963. They also know what they're doing when it comes to chocolate cake: they put it in milkshakes. That's right -- their chocolate cake shake comes blended with generous chunks of the lauded dessert. It's truly a masterpiece.