By Leah L. White
Unique eateries, bars, and sights to see
There are two things I love very much in this world: Food and Chicago. Here are some of my favorite places to eat around the city, at varying price levels, locations, and ambiances. Also included are a few recommended bookstores, bars, landmarks, and concert venues. When you aren’t stuffing your librarian brain with knowledge at McCormick Place, see what this amazing city has to offer.
Price key: Approximate cost per person for a meal, not including drinks.
$=under $10; $$=$11-30; $$$=$31-60
Wow Bao With several downtown locations, this fast-food Asian bun shop is a tasty option for lunch or a quick dinner. A combo meal comes with two bao buns, a salad, and a drink for under seven dollars. Most locations close early, but the Water Tower plaza restaurant stays open later. Vegetarian friendly. Try the whole wheat edamame bao and homemade ginger ale. $
Protein Bar This low-priced, healthy option has multiple downtown locations. Wraps, salads, and smoothies dominate the menu. A great option for vegans and vegetarians. $
The Doughnut Vault There’s almost always a line for these gourmet doughnuts. Line up and cross your fingers they don’t run out. Weekdays, they open in the morning and stay open as long as they have doughnuts. Follow on Twitter (@doughnutvault) for line length and availability. $
Café Iberico Always busy, this huge, family-style space is a good option for groups. Generous portions, and the tasty sangria comes in pitchers. Plenty of vegetarian choices. $
Hot Dogs and Italian Beef An official Chicago-style hot dog is an all-beef frank with lettuce, tomato, onion, a pickle spear, peppers, mustard, and emerald-green relish with celery salt on a poppy-seed bun. Our famous Italian Beef sandwiches consist of sliced roast beef on a French bread roll, covered in beef stock and topped with peppers. The sandwich should be a dripping mess. For both, try Portillo’s. $
The Gage With an impeccable beer list and excellent upscale bar food, this gastropub is located in the heart of the Loop, across from Millenium Park. Highlights: The Gage’s famous Scotch Egg and Guinness-battered fish and chips. Lunch is served every day, and brunch on weekends, with vegetarian options always on offer. Vegans may want to avoid. Reservations suggested on weekends. $$
The Purple Pig The motto here is cheese, wine, and swine. Once you’ve waited for your table (no reservations), you choose from a variety of meats, smears, paninis, cheeses, and more. Local favorite: pigs’ tails—that’s right, pigs’ tails. Not for vegetarians, vegans, or people in a hurry. $$
Fox & Obel Technically, this is a boutique grocery, but in the back, you’ll find two amazing dining spots: The cafe, a great option for breakfast or lunch, and the more upscale Bistro, which takes reservations. Both delicious menus appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike. Try the tuna melt or the grilled cheese. $$
Park Grill Slightly touristy, but the location makes it worthwhile. Perched in Millennium Park, all seating here is outdoors. Take in city views while sipping Three Floyds beer or noshing a burger. Park Grill can get busy, but there’s usually room at the bar or a seat after a short wait. $$
Pizza Let me tell you about Chicago pizza. It’s huge, cheese-filled, sauce- topped goodness. I recommend Lou Malnati’s, though Gino’s East and Giordano’s get more attention. The pizza takes 30 minutes. $$
The Publican When The Publican hit the scene in the late aughts, it changed Chicago’s food scene. Now there are little Publican-ish places throughout the city, trying their best to serve gourmet pork rinds and charcuterie. Skip those and head to the Fulton Market area to check out the OG in smoked meats. Chic and laid back, with stripped-down, Mission-style decor and community-style seating. Make reservations or head over early and plan to sit at the bar. $$$
Girl & the Goat Chicago is the lucky home of Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. The menu is separated into three sections—vegetables, fish, and meats—and there’s something for most eaters. Servers ask about food restrictions. Reserve now and consider setting up a Rezhound (www.rezhound.com) to get a table. $$$
Frontera Grill It’s easy to love Rick Bayless’s upscale Mexican cuisine, and his Frontera Grill won the 2007 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Try the ceviche trio and the Topolo Margarita. Vegetarian friendly. Reservations required. $$$
Perennial Virant Paul Virant can pickle that—It’s his specialty. He even wrote the book on the process, The Preservation Kitchen. With a focus on seasonal Midwestern foods and preservation, this menu is diverse, delicious, and pescatarian-friendly. The menu also evolves frequently and is on the small side, making each dish a real winner. Another highlight: gracious service and a welcoming atmosphere. $$$
The Aviary Since you won’t get into Grant Achatz’s restaurants Next or Alinea, come here. There are food “bites” on the menu, but it’s really all about the cocktail. To reserve, send an email and follow instructions. The Aviary “randomly selects” reservations. Drinks, $15-$30, live up to the hype. $$$
Clark Street Ale House A little dive with a great beer menu and an outdoor beer garden. No kitchen, but patrons can order pizza or bring food in. Look for the big neon sign: “STOP & DRINK.” $
Buddy Guy’s Legends A great place for Chicago blues, Buddy Guy’s Legends, in the South Loop, is casual, fun, and loud, with a nightly band. An alternative to the overrated House of Blues. $$
Blue Frog This unassuming dive bar has some of the best karaoke in the city. Most nights are karaoke night, with board games and great drink specials also happening. Of the two locations, the one on LaSalle is the place to be. The sign is tricky to locate, so look for the white building in a parking lot at the corner of LaSalle and Huron. $
Plymouth is easy to get into, with decent bar food. The view of the Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library will make any librarian drool. $$
The Signature Room This bar sits atop the very famous—and very tall—Hancock Building. Touristy? Yes. Worth it for the view? Absolutely. Skip dinner and order a cocktail while enjoying Chicago’s famous skyline from the 95th floor. Those who fear heights should take a pass. $$$
Worth the Cab Fare/Train Ride
Ask any local what makes Chicago so great and you will hear, “the neighborhoods!” Here are a few excursion options.
Longman & Eagle Located in Logan Square, this inn provides both shelter and a wide variety of whiskeys. Winner of a Michelin star rating two years in a row and counting, it’s also one of the hippest and most delicious places to eat in the Chicago area. For omnivores, but there’s always one vegetarian item. $$
Hot Doug’s Situated in the Avondale neighborhood, this tiny hot dog shop is one of Chicagoans’ favorite places to wait in line. Why? Duck fat fries, along with homemade sausages and franks with tasty toppings. Cash only. $
Hopleaf Bar This Belgian beer bar in Andersonville is considered one of America’s best by Food & Wine magazine. The beer menu is epic and the food delicious. No reservations. Consider heading to the “new bar” area in lieu of waiting for a table.$$
Pequod’s Three words: caramelized cheese crust. Add that to a Chicago-style pizza and you have a match made in heaven. In the heart of Lincoln Park, Pequod’s isn’t too far from the downtown hotels. Get there via public transit by taking the Brown line to the Armitage stop, or else take a quick cab ride. $$
Bridgeport This little south-side neighborhood is on its way up with cool coffee shops, galleries, and bars. It’s worth the cab fare to check out the hip bar Maria’s Packaged Goods ($$) and the neighboring Pleasant House Bakery ($$), which specializes in savory pies. Grab a kale and mushroom pie then head into Maria’s for some of the best beers on tap in the city and a great outdoor seating area.
Check out some of my favorite spots to hang out, catch a show, or buy a book.
The Chicago Cultural Center This free—yes, free—institution is one of my favorites. It generally has great art shows on view and is home to the largest stained-glass Tiffany domes in the world. A visit to this downtown establishment is fun way to spend some free time, even if your time is limited.
Harold Washington Library The main branch of the Chicago Public Library is stunning. Make sure to ride the elevator up to the Winter Garden Room to take in one of the best views of the Chicago skyline.
Buckingham Fountain Yes, it is the one at the beginning of the Married with Children credits. Though a bit touristy, it’s worth seeing. The location is excellent, and a nearby crosswalk over Lake Shore Drive lets you view the lake and explore the Museum Campus, where the aquarium, planetarium, and Field Museum are located.
Bookstores Chicago has a few wonderful independent bookstores. For new books, check out Unabridged Bookstore in the East Lakeview neighborhood. This bookstore is in a fun location, has a great staff, a wonderful array of children’s books, discount books, and a strong LGBTQ section.
Concerts Get your hands on a copy of the Chicago Reader for a breakdown of what’s on. A favorite is the Metro, north of Wrigley Field. Just the right size, and even when the show is sold out, you can hear and see what’s happening onstage.
Also worth checking out is the smaller but delightful Schubas Tavern. If you are headed there, go early and eat first. Their food is impressive for a venue.
Millennium Park The crown jewel of downtown Chicago. Take your mandatory Cloud Gate picture and play in the Crown Fountain. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a concert and you can listen while wandering the Lurie Garden.
It would be easy for me to say Chicago has it all. But doesn’t it? Conferences can be intense. Take time to enjoy the city, too.
Leah L. White (@leahlibrarian) is reader services librarian at
Northbrook Public Library.