A Windy City Food Tour :: Where to Eat in Chicago

Octopus and chimichurri at Tanta.

It was my parents’ third visit to Chicago. They’d seen the Bean, taken the architecture boat tour, watched baseball at Wrigley, eaten massive slices of Chicago-style pizza and perused the shops on Michigan Avenue. In other words, they’d done Chicago’s Must Dos for Tourists. So when I asked what they wanted to do while they were here for the weekend, they half-jokingly answered, “We want to eat!” Challenge accepted.

I wanted to take them on a food tour of Chicago to show them the range of Chicago restaurants, all without venturing too far from downtown. Touring the city through food is easy, in a way, because there are so many outstanding restaurants. But that’s also the hard part. Where could we eat in one weekend to get a taste of Chicago’s food scene? Not just the iconic foods Chicago is known for but also notable restaurants or dishes the city does well.

Our weekend food tour ended up being a compilation of some of my favorite restaurants in Chicago that I’d recommend to any visitor (or local). Just plan to walk to each restaurant to justify everything you’ll eat!

A Food Tour of Chicago

1. Au Cheval :: the best burger in the country

Au Cheval burger in Chicago.
Au Cheval’s cheeseburger is simple, but sensational.

We started with the best of the best for two reasons: 1. Au Cheval is the best burger in the country so for burger fans, it’s a must-try. (Side note: is anyone not a burger fan?!)

And 2., going to Au Cheval requires some strategic planning because the wait times regularly exceed 5 hours. So after my parents checked into the Radisson Blue at the Aqua Tower on Friday, we headed to Au Cheval around 1:30 pm, put our name on the wait list (only a 2 hour wait!), then killed time tasting beers across the street at Haymarket Brewery. Pro tip: close your tab asap — Au Cheval only gives you a 10 minute warning to get there with your whole party before your table’s gone.

As usual, the burgers were incredible: double patties stacked with unbelievably thick slices of “bacon” (actually pork belly), dripping with cheddar cheese (Kraft singles, if you can believe it!) and dijionaise sauce on a perfectly toasted bun hearty enough to hold the juicy burger but soft enough to avoid any distractions. Per-fection!

 

2. Tanta :: amazingly creative fusion

Chicken skewers with sweet potatoes and huacatay at Tanta.
Chicken skewers with sweet potatoes and huacatay at Tanta.

When I planned our weekend of eating out, I didn’t realize we’d still be full from our late lunch at Au Cheval come dinner time. But weeks before my parents’ visit I had fallen in love with Tanta, the Peruvian-Asian small plates restaurant in River North, and had to show it off to my parents. So we planned to take advantage of the small plates menu by having a light dinner.

It should come as no surprise that we did not have a light dinner, in any sense of the word.

Tanta’s menu is an amazing array of Peruvian-Asian fusion, with Peruvian dishes like ceviches (called cebiches) with sashimi-grade fish (a nod to its Japanese influence), pork fat fried rice with an unimaginable amount of flavor, plus short ribs, empanadas and others Peruvian favorites. Everything was incredible. My dad swears it’s one of the best meals he’s ever had (and I can’t argue with that). Both my parents talked about it the rest of the weekend.

Tips for Tanta :: reservations are a good idea. Also don’t forget they have a rooftop that’s perfect for pre-dinner cocktails, like their pisco sour.

 

3. Crisp :: fried chicken at a hidden gem

Seoul Sassy fried chicken at Crisp in Lincoln Park.
Seoul Sassy fried chicken at Crisp in Lincoln Park.

On Saturday we ventured outside of downtown to Lincoln Park for my dad’s one request while in Chicago: to return to the Korean place we went last summer, Crisp. The casual hole-in-the-wall is famous for their fried chicken and the best part is they serve it with rice (my favorite), kimchi (my dad’s favorite) or onion rings (Kyle’s favorite). The cramped, communal tables required us to belly up to strangers that we inevitably started talking with while downing chicken as fast as we could to free up our seats for everyone nearby waiting for a table.

After an order and a half of crispy, sticky, slight sweet wings, we wandered around Lincoln Park checking out the beautiful houses, cute shops and even stumbled upon a cathedral.

The best way to get to Crisp in Lincoln Park is to ride a Divvy bike along the lakefront from downtown. Not only is it a beautiful ride, but it preemptively burns off all the calories you’ll consume via fried chicken. If the weather isn’t right for riding, the red line gets you nearby or an uber always does the trick.

 

4. U.S. Cellular Field :: Chicago dog with a side of baseball

A loaded Chicago dog with all the classic toppings.
A loaded Chicago dog with all the classic toppings.

Outside of Chicago, Chicago-style hot dogs are as famous as Chicago-style pizza, the only difference is that there aren’t a ton of places actually serving Chicago dogs here — at least not downtown. Since we had tickets to the White Sox game, Kyle assured my hot dog-loving Dad that the Chicago dogs at Comisky U.S. Cellular were actually decent.

The consensus? Dad reported his Chicago dog as amazing, especially considering we were drinking beer and watching baseball (oh, and the White Sox won).

If your weekend takes you to Wrigley, the food pickins are a little slim in the stadium. Opt to eat at one of the nearby restaurants in Wrigleyville. Or if you want a Chicago dog without the baseball, head to Portillo’s downtown.

 

5. Gage :: awesome house-made sausage

Eggs Benedict at Gage in Chicago.
Eggs Benedict with apple cider pork belly and brie-topped potatoes.

Brunch is the best excuse to start your day with a ton of food, plus it’s acceptable to drink alcohol before noon. What makes brunch even better? When the food is made with the same dedication and precision as dinner.

On Sunday my parents and I walked to Gage for Mother’s Day Brunch. Every part of our meal was well-executed, from their incredibly tender home-made sausage to the side of potatoes cooked to a crisp and topped with melting brie. Eggs Benedict balanced with thick slices of pork belly and homemade corned beef hash also stood out as amazing. Gage’s dinner is good, but their brunch is that more memorable.

Gage is conveniently located on Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park. Make reservations and try to snag a table outside on the patio and plan to walk through the park after brunch.

 

6. City Winery :: wine with a view 

Wine along the Chicago River in front of Marina City.
Wine along the Chicago River in front of Marina City.

On a beautiful sunny day, nothing beats sipping on locally-made wine with a view of the Chicago skyline, the Chicago River and its traffic of boats and kayaks. The City Winery on the Chicago Riverwalk is relaxing, yet entertaining, and they serve delicious wines by the glass or carafe (enough for about 3 glasses) and little bites to nibble on if you get hungry.

After walking off our brunch around the park, the City Winery was the perfect place to kill time and take advantage of the warm weather. I also declared the City Winery my hangout spot for the summer.

 

7. Momotaro :: incredible Japanese food

Nigiri at Momotaro.
Nigiri at Momotaro.

Dinner on Sunday gave us a bit of a dilemma. We started the day with a heavy brunch at Gage and had tickets to see The King and I in the evening (6:30 pm), but wanted to eat something light before the show. The answer? Sushi and Japanese small plates at Momotaro, which starts serving food at 4:30 pm.

Momotaro has both incredible sushi and an amazing range of Japanese dishes, including izakaya bites and traditional dinner dishes. We shared a smorgasbord of small rice bowls (like eel and wagyu beef), yakitori skewers (chicken and wagyu beef) and nigiri (uni, salmon, mackerel). Each bite was so flavorful we couldn’t help but savor it, making it the perfect (almost) light meal to avoid a food coma mid-musical.

Again, reservations at Momotaro are a good idea but if you can’t snag those, check out their Izakaya downstairs, modeled after Tokyo post-war black market bars.

 

8. Ramen-San :: a savory bowl of ramen

Shoyu ramen with braised short rib.
Shoyu ramen with braised short rib.

On my parents’ last day in Chicago, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Eggy’s, the tiny diner with the huge menu hidden near the Radisson. We spent the rainy Monday avoiding the weather, then decided the perfect last meal before they left was ramen. I took them to Ramen-San for my favorite bowl of noodles in the Chicago in a setting that would remind my parents of the ramen shops we visited in Japan.

We cheers-ed Kirin beers to a weekend well spent while slurping savory noodles and luscious broth. Then, sadly, it was time for them to head back to Salt Lake City.

While I couldn’t convince my parents to move to Chicago (trust me, I tried!), I got to share some of my favorite restaurants with them and at least that left a good taste in their mouths.

 

And, if we would have had time…

23 layer chocolate cake at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse.
23 layers of chocolate goodness at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse.

If we would have had another day or even another few hours, I would have loved to have Spanish tapas at Mercat a la Planxa or Chicago deep dish at Lou Malnati’s and for dessert, 23-layer chocolate cake at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. If we were in a drinking mood, I’d definitely go for molecular gastronomy cocktails at The Aviary or show off the whiskey selection (with excellent small plates) at Untitled Supper Club.  

 

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