If you are up for a culinary adventure, the three Michelin-starred Alinea is surely one of the most exciting restaurants in the country. Chef Grant Achatz, previously of the French Laundry, combines haute cuisine, science and art in set menus that change frequently and come in three different "experiences." The most casual boasts 10-12 courses, while the most exclusive is a meal at the Kitchen Table, for six guests only. The ingredients may be unfamiliar, the flavor combinations unconventional—butterscotch and bacon, quince and foie gras, soy and chocolate—but the result is simply delicious and wholly unforgettable. And the presentations are so exquisite, they’re almost too pretty to eat.
The decor is elegant and the service warm and incredibly precise; at one point at a neighboring table, six servers worked in tandem to make sure the six diners were served simultaneously. Allow two to three hours for dinner, come hungry, and reserve at least two months in advance.
Oowned by Paul Kahan, Avec is a local favorite for its creative cuisine. It’s also tiny, narrow and cramped, with wooden tables packed together and a communal atmosphere (and, due to its no-reservations policy, a reliably lengthy wait list). Open for weekday lunch, Sunday brunch and until late for dinner, it offers a choice of mouthwatering small plates (burrata with smoked persimmon and a walnut-anchovy vinaigrette; chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates) or large ones (braised lamb neck with charred brussels sprouts; roasted mushroom pizza with butternut-squash pesto and arugula) prepared by chef Perry Hendrix. There’s also a wide selection of wines and eight artisanal cheeses.
Floriole Café Bakery
This Lincoln Park bakery is a delightful place for a quick bite or sweet pick-me-up. The bi-level space is bright and airy, with display cases exhibiting the French-style pastries and terrific sandwiches on house-made bread. The crowd includes well-heeled residents picking up a rustic fruit tart to serve at a dinner party later on and families enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the flower-bedecked sidewalk patio. If the Peanut Butter & Jelly Cookies are among the day’s offerings, you’d be remiss not to order a few.
An inventive Mexican restaurant owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless and his wife, Deann, Frontera Grill was a hot spot even before it won the 2007 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant in the United States. It takes very few reservations, and tends to be packed and cacophonous.
This cute tile-floored French brasserie serves staples like steamed mussels with white wine, pâté de campagne, boudin noir with caramelized apples and boeuf à la bourguignonne. It’s a good choice for an early dinner after shopping Bucktown & Wicker Park.
This farm-to-table institution is beloved by locals and took inspiration from Chez Panisse for its seasonally driven fare. Though the dishes are of the same caliber as Chicago heavy-hitters Avec or Sepia, the ambiance (and pricing) are of a relaxed neighborhood eatery. The menu changes constantly but has included ocean trout with brandade-stuffed peppers and short ribs with cauliflower three ways. Staples like the satisfying pasta “yiayia” (bucatini, cinnamon, feta, garlic and brown butter) and beet bruschetta remain year-round. Note that this no-reservations joint is perpetually mobbed on the weekend, but makes a peaceful venue for a weekday lunch.
Founded in the Wicker Park neighborhood by well-known pastry chef Mindy Segal in 2020 (after running beloved Chicago restaurant Hot Chocolate for 15 years), Mindy’s Bakery serves up carbs in a variety of deliciously baked forms, both sweet and savory: seasonal bialys, coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, croissants, brioches are all on offer. One carry-over from Segal’s Hot Chocolate, of course, is the hot chocolate itself.
Opened in late 2015, former Spiaggia chef Sarah Grueneberg’s long-awaited restaurant is one of Chicago’s hottest eateries (just try making a last-minute reservation). The Top Chef runner-up puts a personal twist on Italian classics, and pastas are the heart of her menu, with the noodle offerings divided into two sections: Atipica and Tipica. The latter includes such sublime dishes as corzetti discs in a rich duck ragu, while the former boasts untraditional dishes like wok-fried orecchiette and cacio e pepe augmented with creamy whey and four types of peppercorns. If you sit at the bar, you’ll witness pasta-makers crafting pappardelle, tortelli and the like for your own enjoyment.
Because of its off-the-beaten-path location—not only is it in Lincoln Park, but you actually have to walk through the grounds to get there—locals consider North Pond a beloved hidden gem. Its rustic Arts and Crafts design and lake view make it a romantic spot on a summer evening. Chef-partner Bruce Sherman, a native Chicagoan, prepares market-driven cuisine that makes the most of unusual ingredients: shaved foie gras with cocoa-beet jam, for instance, and cider-brined pheasant with rainbow chard, pear and sweet potato rosti. The spot is fitting for an intimate date, and also serves a delicious Sunday brunch.
RL, situated on the ground floor of the Ralph Lauren store, feels like the library of an English gentleman’s club—dim lighting, wood paneling, leather chairs and lots of books—except that most of the patrons are chic women. Many are fresh from shopping jaunts on the Magnificent Mile; others are meeting girlfriends for lunch. The walls are chockablock with gilt-framed paintings and contemporary black-and-white photographs, a provocative mix that somehow works perfectly. The crowd is buzzing, the whole place cacophonous and fun. Such classics as Dover sole and club sandwiches share the menu with great salads, like the arugula with pine nuts and shaved Parmesan in a tangy champagne vinaigrette. There’s also a small mahogany bar up front.
Opened in July 2007 by Emmanuel Nony, a charming Frenchman who looks a little like Sting, Sepia is still buzzing. The charming restaurant, housed in a restored 1890s print shop, has a warm ambiance, with exposed brick walls, custom Art Nouveau tile floors and communal tables. “We tried to keep a lot of the original architectural details,” Nony explains. “Like the setting, the cuisine is inspired by tradition and craftsmanship; it’s rustic and simple but prepared with the best materials.”
The contemporary American menu is constantly changing, but you might start with fresh scallops with grapefruit and pig ears, and progress to the delicious duck breast with apricots and mushrooms. The cocktail program turns out tempting homemade specialties, like the well-balanced Ginger Ninja (George Dickel whiskey with fresh ginger).
It comes as no surprise that Chicago’s most innovative tipples are the work of celebrated chef Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next). The Aviary takes craft cocktails to new levels of whimsy and drama, and even the reservation system is unique—patrons buy tickets in advance for limited reservations, much like purchasing a seat at the theater. At the swanky West Loop lounge, you might imbibe a warm Rooibos tea cocktail boosted by gin and maraschino, or perhaps opt for the Truffle, a black truffle–enhanced negroni. The bartenders often employ ice chefs, slingshots and Bunsen burners to prepare the various concoctions. In any case, much like dinner at Alinea, many foodies consider a cocktail at the Aviary a defining experience in this booze-mad town.
Modeled after a European beer hall, The Publican boasts rustic décor and a farmhouse-inspired menu that changes daily. The menu is focused on oysters, hearty meat dishes and beers from around the world.
The Purple Pig
At this crowded spot on the Magnificent Mile, diners are welcomed by the following words: “Cheese, Swine & Wine.” With a menu light on green items and teeming with adventurous plates (crunchy pig’s ear, anyone?), the tag line is fitting. The meaty delicacies attract nose-to-tail fanatics, but also young couples, groups of friends and post-shopping ladies who happily lunch at the communal tables. Sadly, The Purple Pig doesn’t accept reservations, and wait times can stretch beyond two hours.
Three Dots and a Dash
Tucked off a quiet alleyway, Three Dots and a Dash is a Hawaiian oasis in the midst of the city. Tropical concoctions are served up in elaborate tiki glasses alongside island-inspired small bites.
The adjoining sister restaurant to Rick Bayless’s casual Frontera Grill, Topolobampo offers a more elegant dining experience. The atmosphere is a touch more refined, though still funky, with walls covered in museum-quality Mexican artwork in eye-popping colors. The menu, which guests choose from to create three-, five- or seven-course tasting menus, features elegant Mexican cuisine such as chayote salad with Oaxacan chiles and enchiladas with black truffles, roasted organic vegetables and huitlacoche. Always available is an impressive selection of ceviches such as lime-marinated Hawaiian blue marlin with jicama) and the Sopa Azteca, a heavenly chicken soup with pasilla chiles, avocado and grilled chicken.
Bayless is a strong proponent of organic and sustainably raised ingredients and Mexican regional specialties, and the gracious, informed waiters are happy to talk about the meticulous sourcing that goes into different dishes. You can learn how the frothy hot cocoa on the dessert menu uses dark-roasted chocolate made by hand by a family in Oaxaca—or you can just lean back and savor the rich, spicy, sublime flavors with a sigh.