9 Places to Eat in Chicago

To get to be one of my favorite cities in the US, you’ve got to be one of my favorite places to eat.  Chicago certainly is that, which is the main reason I keep going back—as a Cleveland sports fan, it certainly isn’t for their wretched baseball teams.  I also go to visit some good friends, but this isn’t an article about my nine best friends in Chicago; I’m talking about food. So if you do go to Chicago—and I pray that you do—go hungry. There’s a lot to eat.

1. Portillo’s

While the huge building in the middle of downtown may scream “tourist trap,” Portillo’s is a great one-stop shop for most of the Chicago food you need to experience.  They have a solid Chicago-style hotdog, which includes mustard, relish, celery salt, onions, tomatoes, a pickle spear, and peppers (and no ketchup, just the way god intended).  Also not to be missed is their Italian beef sandwich, topped with giardiniera (basically a chunky Italian relish) and either drizzled with gravy or “dipped”—completely submerged in the gravy.  I suggest the latter. 100 W. Ontario, Chicago, IL 60610

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2. Pequod’s Pizza

You’ll never get a full consensus on where to go to get the best pizza in Chicago, or if you even should eat the pizza in Chicago.  A lot of east coasters balk at the pies, but I prefer pizza in Chicago—if you want a meal, that is. If you just want a little snack, stick with your thin New York pizza.  In any case, you can hit any of the big names: Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, Giordano’s, etc. But I’ve found, and have a few locals backing me on this, that Pequod’s is one of the best places to stop in the city.  It’s a little out of the way from downtown, but airier crust and caramelized cheese on the sides will make the trip worthwhile. 2207 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

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While any of the Rick Bayless empire would be worth stopping into, XOCO is a little less upscale and a bit more traveler-friendly if you’re just breezing through.  The fully-dressed guacamole (with spicy roasted poblano, chicharrón, grilled onion, smoky bacon, tomato, queso fresco, and pumpkin seeds) is worth snacking on while you wait for your order, and their caldos (hearty soups) will revive you from the worst of drunken nights (I’ve seen it first-hand).  The real star, though, and frontrunner for my favorite sandwich of all time, is the torta ahogada. Pork carnitas, black beans, and pickled onions on crusty bread and sitting in a tomato-arbol chile sauce—I would walk to Chicago to eat this sandwich again (and have eaten it on three consecutive trips). It comes in mild, medium, or hot, but I would stick to mild. 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

3 xoco

4. Avec

Another one of my long-time favorites, Avec is a must-visit for a casual spot with top-notch food.  While the menu will change, the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates (baked in a delicious spicy tomato sauce) should always be there—and should always be ordered. Probably two or three times. The oven-roasted cauliflower is surprisingly good, and the braised lamb neck was excellent.  Be sure to go hungry, and be sure to plan some time to walk off your meal (this is very important). Our bartender asked us if we wanted a half order of the cauliflower and, taking it personally (he doesn’t think I can finish an entire cauliflower dish?) I of course opted for the whole.  I probably should’ve gone with the half order. 615 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

4 avec

5. The Purple Pig

As the final meal of our last trip to Chicago, we couldn’t have asked for a much better note to go out on.  With a tagline of “cheese, swine, and wine,” it’s hard to imagine The Purple Pig being bad. In addition to the wine, they had a solid beer selection, and the Mediterranean-style shareable plates were all hits.  The biggest hit was probably the salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio butter, while the beef tendon chips (puffed out like huge pork rinds) with salt and vinegar made an excellent snack. We definitely left Chicago on a high note. 500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

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6. Tanta

Ever since my trip to Peru in 2014, Peruvian food has been on my radar. When I learned Gaston Acurio had a restaurant in Chicago, I had to swing by—and was glad I did.  Tanta‘s pisco sour was delicious, the chicha was refreshing, and the lomo saltado brought me back to Cusco. I also loved being able to re-experience the huge corn that is so popular in Peru, which showed up in both their beef heart dish and the cebiche we ordered.  We went for lunch on a weekday, so the place was almost empty, but I would go anytime. The food and drinks are well worth a stop. 118 W Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60654

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7. Eataly

I know there’s nothing very “Chicago” about Eataly, but if you’re staying in the River North area, it is incredibly convenient.  There are a variety of restaurants and bars, as well as shops for everything you can imagine. Beer, wine, fresh pizza dough, high-end Italian food products—whatever you need, Eataly will have it.  What we used it for, however, was the coffee. Being a scant half block from our hotel, each day in Chicago began at the coffee counter at Eataly (and some ended there), sampling the various styles to either jumpstart our day or to wind down.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, but if you’re in the area, definitely swing in. 43 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL 60611

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8. Alinea

I’ll be honest: Alinea is expensive. It is, however, worth the expense.  As the only Chicago restaurant with three Michelin stars, it is often ranked among the top restaurants in the world.  If you’ve seen the episode about Alinea on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, you’ll know what kind of treat you’re in for—food that looks like something else, food you didn’t know was at your table, dessert that could be classified as art—the experience is incredible, and ranks as one of the best meals I’ve ever had to boot.  If you need more information, I wrote an in-depth rundown of my experience at the kitchen table in January. 1723 N Halstead St, Chicago, IL 60614


9. Taco Bell Cantina

Perhaps this is just due to the draconian liquor laws in Pennsylvania and the incredible expense of getting a liquor license in Philadelphia, but the novelty of being able to get a crunchwrap and a beer was not lost on me.  Maybe it’s because in addition to loving the highest of high-end food, I’m a garbage person who loves Taco Bell as well. The Baja Blast Freeze with a shot of rum was incredibly sweet, which I suppose should have been expected, but it was still a fun stop to make.  And I don’t mind admitting that I would do it again. 1439 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

9 tbc

As you can tell, Chicago has something for everyone—and we didn’t even graze the surface. There is so much to see and do, the city requires multiple extended weeks of visiting, especially if you want to make the most of the incredible food scene.  But unless you love to be cold (which I do), I would suggest avoiding visiting in the middle of January.

Experiencing the Kitchen Table at Alinea

Fair warning: this post will be extremely photo-heavy.  I wanted to document every detail of our meal, and my friends did as well. The photos used come from everyone at the table. Any of the smaller images can be clicked on to see full-sized.

For my birthday this year I wanted to go back to Chicago, a city I love but haven’t been to in years, to eat all of my favorite things as well as to try things I’d previously missed.  Hot dogs, pizza, Italian beef, my favorite sandwich in the world, Tanta, XOCO, Avec – we definitely didn’t hold back on the food consumption.  But the shining star, and the real reason for the trip, was the ultimate food splurge: the kitchen table at Alinea.

I had to buy all six seats for about $3,000, but I didn’t think it would be hard to fill them.  And while it came down to the wire, we got it done: my girlfriend Kaitie bought a seat, of course, and my best friend Ray’s wife bought him one.  My good friend Brett and his girlfriend Michelle took two, and the final seat was taken by a random person on Reddit, who actually turned out to be great to hang out with.

After meeting at Goose Island and having a few beers to calm our nerves, we all walked through the cold Chicago winter to the unmarked, unassuming grey building that houses Alinea.  We turned in our coats and were taken to the table, already giddy that we could see the entire kitchen and, most importantly, Grant Achatz.


After we were seated with a welcoming glass of champagne, we were brought cloches filled with smoke.


The cloches were removed to reveal osetra caviar and sturgeon.


Which was then topped with the heaviest, creamiest, most delicious parsnip soup I’ve ever had.  We were then given a banana-flavored meringue to accompany the soup.


Following the soup, we were asked to leave our table and to enter the kitchen – Grant Achatz’s actual kitchen – for the second part of our meal.  Here, one of the chefs constructed a pomegranate cocktail in front of us using The Imperial Shaker – a hand-cranked cocktail shaking machine.


It was accompanied by a sponge cake with black walnut sauce.



Once done, we were invited to head back to our table. Having watched the Chef’s Table documentary on Alinea, we knew to keep our eyes opened and immediately noticed that the light fixture had been removed.


There was also a bowl of oranges at the center of our table, as well as a mysterious card filled with letters.


Once we were all settled back in and had time to examine the card, we were presented with a small covered bowl and a lime with a wedge of compressed romaine. Inside the bowl was “wet snow” that tasted of Asian pair with roe and shiso.  The romaine was topped with avocado and tosaka.


Next, we were brought a leaf of dehydrated cabbage that covered spanner crab, coconut, and curry.


To accompany this, liquid was poured into the bowl of oranges, which began to smoke as the scent of orange filled the room.


We also had glowing plates with small one-bite spheres that contained spiced orange juice.



After the orange course was finished, the oranges were removed.  After seeing the documentary, we had all assumed there was something hiding in the bowl, but there was not.  However, another bowl was brought out, filled with salt and grain alcohol, which was promptly lit aflame.


We were presented with a large rock-slab plate, which contained squid with black garlic and chrysanthemum, and also contained squid ink.


Next to our plates, we were also presented with a dish of rocks.  As our server noted, “You’ll also see a dish of rocks.  Some of them are squishy.  Eat those.”  They were flavored with olive oil and artichoke.



Next, a large branch of juniper was brought out and placed over the fire, so we could experience its aroma for the following course.



With that, we were brought out some small crunchy nori rolls.


We were also brought a bowl with what looked like rice paper.


This turned out to be a piece of pressed langoustine, which when combined with a broth, turned into the consistency of a noodle.  A delicious noodle.  We were then instructed to drink the broth straight out of the bowl.


Oh, but that wasn’t all.  Remember the decorative balls on the juniper branches?


As it turns out, these were savory donuts filled with pork and venison.

But, in true Alinea fashion, that wasn’t to be the only surprise.  The juniper branches were removed, and a few accoutrement were brought to the table.


As it turns out, there was a potato cooking in that flaming pot the entire time.  A potato that had previously been sous vide in butter for 10 hours.


The potato was then dusted off and mashed table-side, where the bacon and onions and celery were added.


Once divided into bowls, the potato was then topped to make a velvety clam chowder, which is what the house-made tobasco sauce and Old Bay oyster crackers were for.



Following the clam chowder, we were brought beautiful (and large) plates containing black truffle and maitake mushrooms covered in blueberry “glass.”


We were also given a tea made with matsutake mushrooms, lemon, and thyme. It was like drinking pure butter and is the best tea I could ever hope to have.


We also had some liquid poured into small bowls of lavender, once again to present a pleasant aroma as we ate.


Oh, but in case you hadn’t noticed (and I hadn’t, as I was too busy looking at everything else), there were small “sandwiches” of black truffle and foie gras mousse perched in the lavender to eat at our leisure.


After this progression came our last savory course, which I found odd because it felt like we had only been there for about an hour (though we had been there longer) – but Grant has mentioned that no one wants to sit through a four-hour meal anymore, so it made sense.  I guess it’s true what they say about time flying when you’re having fun.  And this meal was extremely fun.

For this course, we were brought a piece of squab with a white-hot coal (known as binchotan) on top to sear it while it was brought to the table and accompanied by forbidden rice.


Along with this was a tightly-wound spiral of beet in a sauce made of mustard and chili.


We were also presented with jars of vanilla beans.


But, as our server said, “It looks like vanilla.  It smells like vanilla.  It ain’t vanilla.”  As it turns out, they were pieces of beef jerky fashioned to look like vanilla beans.

Following this, huge bowls were placed in front of us for our first dessert course, which included the flavors of sweet potato, miso, and chocolate.


As we were told, the “river rock” was filled with liquid chocolate.  Even as someone who hates chocolate, I found it delicious.


The next dessert course, which was labeled “Nostalgia,” presented us with a very Alinea take on pumpkin pie, which turned out to be tiny and invisible.


As well as “s’mores,” which was dark chocolate wrapped in marshmallow – which was, of course, cooked – and served on birch branches.



After everything we’d been through, we weren’t sure if the branches were edible or not.  Ray tried it out. They weren’t.


After this, finally, came the course that we had all hoped for but didn’t want to get our hopes up for: the balloons.  If you’ve seen the documentary, you know all about it.  It’s a special kind of taffy that is inflated with helium and is 100% edible – “string” and all.  This one was green apple flavored, which just so happens to be one of my favorite flavors.


As you can see, we were all delighted by our balloons.

But, as happy as we were for the balloons, they were not the end.  Next came the grand finale.  It began with our server climbing a ladder and taking down one of the pieces of art hanging above us, which would become our “plate.”



The folks sitting nearest the two entrances to the room were asked to shuffle their seats a bit, and we were then told that a few chefs would be coming into the room.

Then, suddenly, all the lights turned off – including those in the kitchen – except for the light above our table.  Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” began to play throughout our room and the kitchen.  Grant Achatz led off the proceedings.


We were awestruck. It was quite the finale, and left us with flavors of coconut, mint, cinnamon, almond, and raspberry, which we were invited to dig into.


And, since you only live once…


To finish, we were also brought a small tray of chocolate truffles wrapped in gold leaf.  The entire presentation was edible, and is officially the first time I’ve eaten gold.


But wait, there’s more.  I did say this was my birthday dinner, and I made sure to let Alinea know when I booked the reservation.  Why wouldn’t you? After all was said and done, I was presented with a candle, which I blew out.  The smoke was caught in a champagne glass, which was then filled with champagne.

The sommelier explained that everyone had to have cake on their birthday, and at Alinea they’d made just a plain old Duncan-Heinz chocolate cake.  Only, the cake was distilled into a liquid – which he then poured into my glass of champagne.  The end result was a glass of champagne that tasted of chocolate cake and had the remnants of candle smoke, as you would usually get at any birthday party.  It was absolutely perfect (and you can see Ray’s delight).



After we settled the tab for the drink bill, we were given actual copies of our menu. The back also included the key to the mysterious card of letters we’d had on our table the entire time: it was a word search that had the menu on it.


Finally, since chefs are my rock stars, we requested to have our picture taken with Grant, where he shook all of our hands.


One million thanks to Kaitie, Jeremy, and Brett for allowing me to use their photographs and videos.  Check out Brett’s website, and if you’re in the Chicago area, he’s a great photographer.  Also many thanks to my friend Matt Spade for editing together our different angles of the dessert presentation.