The Ultimate Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Killing Time at O’Hare International Airport
A concourse-by-concourse guide to the best pre-flight meals and activities at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
The holiday season in Chicago has its fair share of wholesome pastimes. There’s the Santa-worthy Holiday Train, the mulled wine magic of Christkindlmarket, the ice skating in Maggie Daley Park. Oh yes, and there’s the mad dash through the airport, just you and a few hundred thousand of your fellow travelers. It’s a tale as old as time, and a ritual as tried-and-true as your go-to eggnog recipe, but fortunately for those shuffling through long TSA lines—and dodging snow-induced delays—there are plenty of ways to bide the time and soothe those travel pangs.
In Chicago, O’Hare International Airport is the ultimate double-edged sword—the kind of massive international hub that conveniently links passengers to just about every other airport on Earth, while also inconveniently necessitating long lines, crowded planes, and wintry delays. A necessary evil when traveling any time of year in and out of Chicago, the city’s main airport at least takes pity on its passengers by offering a plethora of dining, drinking, entertainment, and leisure activities, from celebrity chef restaurants and museum stores to spas, barber shops, and yoga rooms. So, should you find yourself running through O’Hare this holiday season, Home Alone-style, here is your ultimate guide to killing time on your next layover.
Closest gate: B8
If you’re looking for a souvenir dinosaur fossil while in transit, you’ve come to the right place. A pared-down counterpart to the colossal Field Museum in the South Loop, the Field Museum Store at O’Hare is the next best thing for those who don’t have the time to make it to Museum Campus. The big thing here is merchandise inspired by Sue, the world’s most complete T-Rex fossil at the museum, along with other singular trinkets worth perusing, like unique jewelry, kids’ clothes, stuffed animals, books, and toys.
Closest gate: B12
Traveling is stressful as is. Traveling through one of the biggest and busiest airports on Earth? That calls for a pedicure. Fortunately, the Terminal Getaway Spa is a soothing balm for all your travel woes, offering a tranquil space for deep tissue massages, manis, pedis, and everything in between.
Closest gate: B10
For anyone who’s wandered into the bowels of Macy’s on State Street, the name Barbara’s Bookstore bears familiar resemblance. An iconic local mini chain, with outposts throughout Chicagoland, the indie bookstore has a few locations at O’Hare, including this front-and-center spot in Terminal 1. True to form, it’s a bibliophile’s dream, filled with literary treasures old and new, including a wide array of entries from local authors. So whether or not you’re still looking for the Britney Spears tell-all, or a local’s guide to Chicago’s best restaurants, Babs has you covered.
Closest gate: C19
The name is a bit of a misnomer—don’t come here expecting French Quarter-style live music—but the leisurely Jazz Bar is a breath of fresh, boozy air nonetheless. The pint-sized watering hole keeps it simple with a music-themed atmosphere and a menu of beer, wine, and snacks. Craft beer is its bread and butter, boasting an impressive lineup of bottled brews in particular, including one of the few places in the airport where you can snag a Sam Adams.
Closest gate: B10
After winning Chicagoans over with his take on traditional Mexican eats at several venues throughout the city, chef Rick Bayless brought those flavors to ORD with three locations, the first being Terminal 1’s Tortas Frontera. Travelers can taste their way through tortas, soups, salads, and, of course, the restaurant’s famous chips and guac. And like the merciful Top Chef-winner that he is, the Bayless spot offers margaritas and other boozy beverages to-go, which helps soften the blow of hearing the gate agent delay your flight.
Closest gate: C21
When it comes to dropping some serious coin at an airport, you could do a lot worse than the precious metals on display at this Indigenous homage. Native American jewelry is the order of the day at Spirit of the Red Horse, a sleek and stylish storefront specializing in meticulous, hand-crafted jewels and stones, like turquoise rings, sterling silver, and gold accessories.
Closest gate: C1
Gone are the days of needing to reach your final destination to dive into impressive plates of nigiri and sashimi—and that’s thanks to this sushi staple, which showcases a fleet of Asian-inspired favorites. Choose from more than 20 different kinds of maki, including a dozen specialty rolls with heightened add-ons (think beef tenderloin or chicken teriyaki). And then there’s the sake menu, an entire page of pairing options for dinner and dessert (aka Green Tea Tiramisu).
Closest gate: C17
You’ll feel instantly cosmopolitan upon entering this sleek wine bar, which also operates locations in Brussels, Paris, and Miami. Four different pour options (from a three-ounce taste to the whole bottle) make it easy to assemble a pre-flight “flight” that travels the globe with vintages from Spain, Italy, South Africa, and beyond. When hunger strikes, pair up those sips with any of the small plates, including a medley of specialty salads and sandwiches (think: cheese plates, charcuterie boards, and shrimp cocktail).
Closest gate: C18
A Chicago institution, Billy Goat Tavern was first established right across from what is now the United Center all the way back in 1934. Although known for their famous “Cheezborger,” the tavern slings other all-day delights, too, like Steak and Eggs, Corned Beef Sandwiches, Polish Sausages, and more. Just remember—no Coke, Pepsi!
Closest gate: C26
This restaurant first opened doors in Chicago’s Loop in 1898 and has been frequented ever since for its authentic German fare and classic pub vibes. And when the team launched its ORD outpost 20-odd years ago, they modeled it after the original location in terms of both menu and décor (right down to the stained-glass Tiffany windows), featuring specialty salads, omelets, and hand-carved sandwiches served on bread baked fresh daily at the main restaurant. Don’t miss the beer (or root beer)—it arrives fresh off the spout from the team’s Adams Street Brewery.
Closest gate: E5
Spending time with balloon dogs, glass frogs, and Yoda is time well spent. Such is the vibe at Hoypoloi An Uncommon Gallery, an art space that lives up to its whimsical moniker with a quirky collection of funky art, toys, jewelry, and gifts. Local artists are well represented in the gallery, along with works inspired by the likes of Dr. Seuss and Star Wars.
Hilton Chicago O’Hare
If you’ve got an extended layover, hop on over to the Hilton Chicago O’Hare hotel, accessible via Terminal 2, for a shave and a haircut. A traditional men’s barber shop, it offers all the requisite grooming treatments for the on-the-go gentlemen, including neck trims, razor lines, hot shaves, and specialty haircuts—so you can arrive at your destination looking all prim and proper.
Just like its perennially packed Lincoln Park location, this Lettuce Entertain You venture focuses on fresh California-style cooking, offering travelers a lighter, healthier alternative to standard on-the-go fare. Case in point? Bright and sunny options like spinach and kale omelets, cauliflower hummus, and grilled fish tacos. It should also be noted that, just like its Lincoln Park outpost, Summer House ORD supplies some epic cookies, which make for a great meal alternative if you’re having one of those days.
Mezzanine level rotunda
Wellness and zen can be tall orders at most any airport, but especially one as frenzied as O’Hare. The Yoga Room, then, is a saving grace. The free studio is a cozy and calm room, comprising bamboo floors, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and a wall of frosted glass that allows for natural light without any passersby looking in at your downward dog. Exercise mats are stocked, and while you won’t find any instructors, self-sufficient yogis can bend, stretch, and meditate to ambient music and video displays of soothing nature scenes. There’s a restroom nearby for changing in and out of yoga clothes.
Closest gate: H4
There’s plenty to celebrate at this festive wine bar, where all things sparkling take center stage—including the effervescent personality of the resident piano player. Choose from seven different fizzy flutes or sparkling cocktails (or from a handful of less-effervescent red or white options), then spring for any of the small plates, like cheese and charcuterie. From there, sit back and relax to the sounds of the player piano—a feature bound to beckon even the weariest of travelers with its upbeat siren song.
Closest gate: K1
An offshoot of one of Chicago’s most celebrated New American outposts, this inviting outpost from One Off Hospitality serves fantastic grab-and-go snacks as well as sit down all-day fare with a robust selection of craft beer and wine. If you have the time, consider snagging a table and lining it with tasty items like like Frites, Spicy Pork Rinds, Fish Sandwiches, and Avocado Salad. This is probably also the only airport restaurant to offer Potted Rillettes and nonna-worthy Ribollita Soup. Despite its low-brow locale, this handsome addition manages to deliver without skimping on quality or service.
Closest gate: K2
The airport is a lawless place; if you want Fettuccine Alfredo for breakfast at 6 a.m., just know that you are seen and supported at Macaroni Grill. Pasta is the name of the game at this sit-down Italian chain, which maintains locations across 15 states nationwide. No matter how ungodly the hour of the day, opt for heavy-hitters like Stuffed Mushrooms, Chicken Parmesan, or Lasagna Bolognese, and Lobster-stuffed Ravioli drizzled with Chardonnay cream sauce.
Closest gate: L10A
Chicago is now home to a bevy of breweries, but Goose Island continues to soar as one of the biggest and brightest. Saddle up at the bar to quaff a few of local musts—312 Urban Wheat Ale or Green Line Pale Ale—and make sure to try the food, too, which spans sandwiches, salads, and wings.
Closest gate: L4
Get your old-school Chicago Dog on over at Gold Coast Dogs. Among their long list of offerings you’ll find favorites like Jumbo Dogs, Char Dogs, Chili Dogs, and Cheddar Chili Dogs. No matter what you order, make sure to leave the ketchup out of it—you may be at an airport, but this is still Chicago, pal.
Throughout the International Arrivals corridor
Nowadays, if an international flight should find you killing time at O’Hare, at least there’s professional-grade eye candy to keep you company. The newest addition to the airport is a $3.5 million collection of airport art, displayed along the International Arrivals corridor from more than 20 local artists. Curated by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the lavish collection is like a mini Art Institute in layover form, featuring works like Buffalo Chart by Bernard Williams, a Lake Michigan homage by Assaf Evron, and Wherever You Go There You Are, a collection of Chicago photographs and ephemera by Krista Franklin, designed to resemble Rorschach tests.
Closest gate: M11
If you’re in the international terminal, en route to Italy by chance, you can get a headstart with a meal at Tocco. The handsomely appointed restaurant, which is far swankier than most airport standards, offers a comfortable place to swirl wine glasses and pasta. Shareable flatbread-style pizzas are a convenient go-to, and the deftly curated wine list features a solid representation of Italian vino.
Closest gate: M10
Nationally acclaimed restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You has been, yes, entertaining since 1971—and travelers can now get a taste of the Lincoln Park original that started it all. The best part? Between crowd-pleasers like Burgers, Chicago-style Dogs, and Chicken Strips, the menu is bound to have something for everyone in your in-flight entourage.
If you’re the type of responsible traveler who arrives hours early, and you have a hankering for a pre-TSA Tandoori Chicken Wrap, you’re in luck. This local mini-chain, beloved for its bevy of wholesome all-day eats and snacks, set up shop with this curated cafe offering breakfast, lunch, and pastries. You’ll find healthier options to choose from, like wraps, salads, and yogurt parfaits, along with less-healthy alternatives like BBQ Brisket Sandwiches, Thai Chicken Flatbreads, and Zucchini Bread.
Closest gate: M10
While the River North OG spot is beloved for its late-night eats, tunes, and bottle service, Hub 51’s airport spinoff reads a bit more casual. Their menu sports an array of eclectic comforts, from Chopped Salad and Guac to a Roasted Chicken French Dip. Go for the Pulled Chicken Nachos—with its mound of guac, jalapeños, and two kinds of cheese, the Everest-sized portion is the menu’s bestseller.
Closest gate: M11
Frills-free Chinese food is a requisite airport comfort, but just in case you’re looking for a little more culinary credibility in your Kung Pao, Big Bowl has your back. A crowd-pleasing mainstay in River North’s most touristy nexus, the pan-Asian brand offers a pared-down selection of wholesome bites and bowls here, like Potstickers, Egg rolls, Orange Chicken, and Emperor’s Tofu.
Closest gate: M10
A visit to Chicago isn’t complete without a stop at Garrett, the popcorn emporium that’s been attracting out-the-door lines at any of its downtown locations for nearly 75 years. While the cheese or caramel flavors do just fine on their own, there’s no topping the Garrett Mix—a combination of the two mixed in perfect proportions by the popcorn masters themselves. There are additional Garrett Popcorn Shops in Terminals 1 and 3, so you’re never far from a finger-licking snack.
Closest gate: M16
At once convenient and deliciously snackable, steamed bao buns are a wholesome way to bide the time if you’re awaiting your next departure. A far cry from standard airport snack fodder, like granola bars and candy, Wow Bao slings doughy buns stuffed with the likes of Kung Pao Chicken, Whole-Wheat Edamame, and—for that sweet tooth—Coconut Custard. See also: bowls, potstickers, ginger ale, and Thai iced coffee.