Food & Drink

An editor's guide to eating around town

Published On 05/03/2013 Published On 05/03/2013
Thrillist Senior editor Matt Lynch eats mozzarella sticks from Roots Handmade Pizza in Chicago

Chicago's food scene runs the gamut from the humblest of hot dog joints to the forefront of fine dining, with a whole mountain of caloric goodness in between. Metaphorically speaking, of course, as it's actually quite flat here. To make sure that even the slightest incline will leave you gasping for air, Thrillist Senior Editor Matt Lynch is bringing you his picks for grubbing around town. Favorite Restaurant: Avec never lets me down, whether it's the new dishes they're constantly rolling out or the chorizo-stuffed dates that I am physically incapable of not ordering. I tried to go another route one time and the server wisely talked me out of it. The "deluxe" focaccia oozing Taleggio and ricotta is also hard to pass up. Best Burger: Au Cheval. I recommend the single (which is actually a double) with an egg on top. Extra bread and butter pickles on the side. Also, their thick-cut bacon is amazing, but if you get it on the burger, it kind of takes over the show. I rarely say this, but go bacon-less (or get it as a side). Best Pizza, Chicago-Style Division: Yes, they're all over, but Lou Malnati's is my pizzeria of choice if I'm craving a heavier cheese payload. Best Pizza, Skinny Division: Coalfire works fantastic texture and flavor into their crust, and loads a crazy amount of prosciutto onto their prosciutto pizza. The taste makes up for the lack of creative nomenclature. Best Non-Pizza Cheese Delivery System: The mozzarella sticks at Roots are what you see me ever-so-delicately consuming in the photo up top. They make their own mozz in-house. The taste difference is evident. Trust me. Best BYOB: Ruxbin is right down the street from my apartment, possessing an incredibly friendly staff, food delicious enough that the staff could be kind of mean if they wanted, and the single coolest restaurant bathroom I've ever been in. Best Late-Night Eats: The Diner Grill on Irving Park is a very simple establishment, as late-night places should be. It is a diner. With a grill. Counter, no tables, just a no-frills greasy bacon double cheeseburger, or, if you're brave, a Slinger, which is an unholy combination of eggs, cheeseburger patties, hash browns, grilled onions, and a whole lot of chili. Best Cheap Eats: Really, any proper hot dog joint in this town is a good bet for cheap eats. I like Phil's Last Stand. You get a char dog wrapped up with a healthy amount of fresh-cut fries for four bucks. Though I recommend springing the extra $1.25 for a side of Merkts cheddar, because, well, cheese. Best for Work: Proper business has to be conducted over steaks, right? Chicago Cut does them right (I got to see the inside of their aging room!), and has a damn-fine view of the river, especially during the six weeks of the year it's nice enough to sit outside on the patio. Best Italian: I couldn't physically eat the entire menu at Davanti Enoteca, but I'd try, if given the opportunity. I'd start with the truffle egg toast with Fontina though. Wouldn't want to miss that one. Best Italian... Beef: I have a sentimental attachment to Mr. Beef going back to when I had an internship nearby. A Mr. Beef lunch meant a highly unproductive afternoon. This was also in the running for best late-night, but Italian beef deserves a category unto itself. Best Sandwich: So many sandwiches... I'll say the one I most consistently go out of my way to acquire is the Milanesa from Cemitas Puebla. Everything on there, the avocado, the chipotle, the thin fried pork, and the huge mound of shredded queso, works in perfect harmony with the custom-made rolls. Best Lunch: I'm not much for a big, long production at lunchtime... I'm a busy man! But when I can get away for a bit, everything I've ever had at Publican Quality Meats has been tasty enough that I thought about giving them the Best Sandwich nod as well. Best Brunch: Jam pretty steadily nails both the sweet and savory ends of the spectrum. I'm more of a savory guy, but they sometimes make me think twice. Also: rotating bacon specials! Best Fine Dining: Shockingly BYOB (though I picked Ruxbin on that front because you don't need a reservation there), Schwa is really a singular fine dining experience, from the controlled chaos of different members of the kitchen staff running plates out to you to the distinct possibility you might end up doing a shot of whiskey with said kitchen staff. Yet the incredible, inventive food is something you'd expect from a much stuffier place. Yes, the notoriously fickle reservations process can be a hassle. Yes, it's worth it. Best Food Truck: Though the city is trying, it's still way too restrictive when it comes to food trucks. But that hasn't stopped Duck N Roll from making its five-spice duck taste duck-licious. Or quack-tastic, if you prefer. Best Gluttony: It requires some advanced planning and some friends, but the whole animal roast at Frontier is pretty epic. By the time you've gotten down on the Caesar salad with giant cornbread croutons and the five-cheese mac, you're feeling pretty full, and then it's like, oh yeah, they also roasted an entire freaking goat. Or pig. Or boar. Or alligator. They will cook a lot of different animals for you. Best Donuts: Chicago's in the midst of a donut boom, because, apparently, all the hot dogs, Italian beef, and pizza were deemed calorically insufficient. I consider the old-fashioned to be the best test of a place's chops (not the cocktail, that would be strange criteria), and Doughnut Vault has my favorite. Taking the time to use the old-timey spelling speaks to a certain attention to detail. Best Non-Donut (or Doughnut) Indulgence: Bang Bang Pie Shop is always changing whatever pie they're serving (usually 3-4 at a time), but it really doesn't matter, it's going to be good. I tend to gravitate towards whatever has the graham cracker crust (they actually make the graham crackers from scratch, THEN make crust from them). Also, the biscuits are so good that simply calling them "biscuits" is almost an injustice. Do not make big plans after a trip here.

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1. Au Cheval 800 W Randolph, Chicago, IL 60607 (West Loop)

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.

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2. Coalfire 1321 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (West Town)

This thin-crust pizzeria in West Town (with a larger location in Lakeview) takes its name from the 800-degree coal-fired oven that cooks its perfectly blistered pizzas. Every pie comes out of the oven with a charred crust and a myriad of topping like pepperoni, whipped ricotta, stracciatella, and sausage. Coalfire is a quintessential family-style joint where the pizzas are meant to be shared and devoured.

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3. Roots Handmade Pizza 1924 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (Ukrainian Village)

Helmed by the people behind The Fifty/50, this deluxe corner spot in West Town is slinging "Quad Cities-style" pizza. The hand-tossed crusts are infused with the same malt you taste in your beer before they're lathered with homemade sauce, doused in mozzarella, topped with your choice of fresh ingredients and cured meats, fired, and sliced into thin, easy-to-eat strips. Perfect for big family outings and group nights, the bar and patio seat more than 300.

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4. Ruxbin Kitchen 851 N Ashland, Chicago, IL 60642 (Ukrainian Village)

Edward Kim’s Ruxbin is an eccentric ode to culinary dissonance. Not much about the New American restaurant makes conventional sense: interior walls are papered with torn out book pages, a square dining room has rounded edges, and there is perhaps a bit too much orange in the color palette. Then there’s the menu. Heirloom beets meet spiced yogurt, cured egg yolk, and pickled mussel; country fried celeriac is escorted by white bean “ranch,” rooftop greens, tomato confit, and brussel sprouts. But the dishes are most compelling because they are ephemeral; the roster rotates within the season, meaning you won’t see the same thing twice. But don’t get ahead of yourself’; with a no-reservations policy in place, you’ll be fortunate if you can even get seated a second time around.

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5. Diner Grill 1635 W Irving Park Rd, Chicago, IL 60613-2526 (Lakeview)

Slinging diner-style fare in Lakeview, The Diner Grill features 'merican grub staples like burgers and breakfast.

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6. Phil's Last Stand 2258 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (Ukrainian Village)

Phil's does hot dogs well: Get a char dog wrapped up with a healthy amount of fresh-cut fries for four bucks, and add on $1.25 for a side of Merkts cheddar because... cheese.

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7. Chicago Cut Steakhouse 300 N LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

A steakhouse hit among the power meal set, Chicago Cut attributes its quality cuts to the Colorado cattle it raises 1,300ft above sea level. The beef is dry-aged for 35 days then butchered on-site, and no matter what you order (the bone-in prime rib is knockout good), expect dense muscle and an intense flavor. The 225-seat space, outfitted with red velvet booths, overlooks the river.

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8. Davanti Enoteca 1359 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL 60607 (Little Tuscany)

Davanti's Italian menu's loaded with sharable snacks, including mini Mason jars ("vasi") filled with everything from chicken liver pate to ricotta w/ honeycomb; mascarpone polenta topped with a "ragu of the day" (braised pork cheeks, etc); and Ligurian-style focaccia w/fresh cow's cheese.

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9. Mr. Beef Chicago 666 N Orleans St, Chicago, IL 60654 (Near North Side)

Nationally famous for its Italian beef sandwich, the menu features a wide array of Italian/American comfort food.

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10. Cemitas Puebla 3619 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Humboldt Park)

Cemitas Puebla is known for those eponymous sandwiches, and other traditional Mexican dishes and pastries round out the menu.

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11. Publican Quality Meats 825 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 (West Loop)

Publican Quality Meats is something of a triple threat: equal parts butcher shop, café, and speciality grocery store, it features an awe-inspiring selection of sausages and cured charcuterie meats, served individually from the butcher case or in sandwiches made with house-baked bread. The lunch menu is often changing, but the Parm #2 features a beautifully crisp chicken cutlet nestled into a brioche bun, while the sausage plate lets you sample three of the house-made specialities with sauerkraut and breadcrumbs. A breakfast menu includes ham and egg biscuit sandwiches and a pork belly breakfast burrito, though if you're in the mood for something less savory, there are pastries and coffee, too.

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12. Jam 3057 W Logan Blvd, Chicago, IL 60647 (Logan Square)

You haven't brunched in Chicago until you've brunched at Jam, a sleek Logan Square daytime-only restaurant that's won consecutive Michelin Bib Gourmand awards for its sweet and savory plates like peach pancakes, malted custard French toast, and hot chicken & waffles. Jam's breakfast sandwich -- made with a heap of pulled pork shoulder, eggs over easy, ricotta salata, and plum preserves -- is one of the best in the city, and its house burger, topped with a sunny-side egg, tastes great for a late, or early, lunch. The restaurant serves brunch all day (from 7am to 3pm, that is), and there's a fine selection of house cocktails, including a daily punch special and bacon-infused Old Fashioneds.

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13. Doughnut Vault 401 N Franklin St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

This wildly popular fried-dough purveyor in River North (it has a second location in West Loop and a "Vault Van" that changes location every day) breaks hearts with its limited amount of fresh-baked donuts. DV only bakes a certain amount of donuts every day, and once they run out, they're gone 'til the next morning. The dense, old fashioned-style donuts come in flavors like buttermilk glazed, toasted almond, and lemon-poppy seed. Stop by on the early side (it opens at 8am on weekdays, 9:30am on weekends) for the best selection and the shortest lines.

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14. Bang Bang Pie Shop 2051 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Logan Square)

Logan Square's Bang Bang Pie Shop is a reminder of a simpler time, when everyone's favorite neighbor Ethel would let her pies cool on the windowsill. The pies at this bright and buzzy corner bake shop are handmade daily using the freshest seasonal ingredients, and their comforting scent alone will have you floating through the entrance. There are classics like key lime and apple, plus unique recipes like butterscotch meringue and maple bourbon pecan. You won't want to miss the small-batch sour cream biscuits either, which are served with ginger-sage sausage, gravy, a poached egg, and a side of seasonal jam.

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15. Schwa 1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 (Wicker Park)

Schwa is an elusive, 24-seat prix fixe restaurant in Wicker Park, where the staff is notorious for rarely answering the phone (read: screening calls) to take reservations. If you somehow manage to lock one down (lucky you), you're invited to bring your own alcohol (and encouraged to bring some for the kitchen), and enjoy an ever-changing, nine-course menu with heavy metal playing in the background. The restaurant is run by a small team led by Chef Michael Carlson, each of whom cooks, serves, pours, and washes dishes. If they like you, they'll invite you into the kitchen for some of that liquor you so generously brought them.

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16. Frontier 1072 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60642

It may not be the final frontier, but with ice-taps pouring 16 traditional and seasonal brews, a meat heavy menu featuring specialty sausages, steaks, and "Animal Service", flat screen TVs, and a beer garden, you won't need to explore any further. Allied: Ready yourself for Animal Service with some Smith & Forge, the hard cider that's built strong -- built from Apples and built to Refresh.

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17. Avec 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661 (West Loop)

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.



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