Chicago has upped its culinary credentials over the past decade, with high-end spots such as Alinea and Schwa on the cutting edge of the molecular gastronomy trend (raising the average check price substantially along the way). But the city's thriving deep-dish pizza spots and casual ethnic eateries prove you don't need to be a hard-core foodie to find culinary satisfaction here. Steakhouses continue to be a draw, as they have for decades, and comfort food remains a staple of local restaurant menus.
Price Categories, by Average Entree Price
- Very Expensive $25-$40
- Expensive $20-$30
- Moderate $15-$20
- Inexpensive $15 or less
The Big Picture
Most restaurants in Chicago are open 7 days a week. A few in the Loop are closed on Sunday evenings, while some others are closed on Mondays (traditionally a slow night). In general, Chicago is not a late-night dining town. Most locals head out to dinner between 6 and 7pm, and the majority of restaurants are closed by 10pm on weeknights and 11pm on weekends. If you plan on heading out for a late dinner, you should definitely check the restaurant's closing time first.
A few restaurants with popular bar areas -- such as Rockit Bar and Grill and HUB 51 -- keep their kitchens open until midnight or later on weekends.
Overall, the restaurant scene in Chicago is casual; the locals go out to enjoy their food, not to score style points or check each other out. Only a handful of restaurants require jackets for men; even ties are optional at all but the most formal places. A business-casual look is appropriate for just about every restaurant in town, and at the moderately priced places, most customers show up in jeans and sneakers. That said, the higher the average entrée price, the more you're expected to make a modest effort: Showing up at Alinea or Blackbird in scuffed Nikes or shorts won't impress the waitstaff or your fellow diners.
Getting the Best Deal
Prices at Chicago restaurants are among the highest in the country. But there are a few ways you can bring down the price of your bill. The website Restaurant.com allows members to purchase $25 worth of gift certificates to select restaurants for only $10; it's free to join, and there are usually a few dozen places in Chicago to choose from.
It's also worth checking a restaurant's website to see if they're offering any discounts or specials; occasionally, restaurants will also post coupons online.
Restaurants that cater to the theater-going crowd in the Loop sometimes offer prix-fixe meals that cost less than ordering the same courses separately. Such deals tend to be available in the early evening, before the main dinner rush.
A Spot of Tea
If you're shopping on the Magnificent Mile and feel like having an elegant afternoon tea complete with finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries, head for the stately Palm Court at The Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton Place (tel. 312/787-2200); the sophisticated beauty of The Lobby at The Peninsula hotel, 108 E. Superior St. (tel. 312/573-6695); the cozy Seasons Lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware Place (tel. 312/280-8800); or The Greenhouse in the Ritz-Carlton, 160 E. Pearson St. (tel. 312/266-1000), in the sunny 12th-floor lobby above the Water Tower Place mall. In the Loop, the appropriately named Russian Tea Time, 77 E. Adams St. (tel. 312/360-0000), serves tea from 2:30 to 4:30pm daily.
Eli's cheesecake is a Chicago icon -- the rich, creamy cakes have been served at presidential inaugurations and numerous other high-profile events. For a behind-the-scenes peek at Chicago's most famous dessert, you can take a tour of Eli's Bakery on the northwest side of the city. After watching the cooking and decorating processes, you get to enjoy a full-size slice of your favorite flavor. Tours are given Monday through Friday at 1pm (although reservations aren't necessary, call to make sure the bakery isn't closed for periodic maintenance). The 40-minute tour costs $3 per person; special packages are available for groups. Eli's bakery is at 6701 Forest Preserve Dr., at the corner of Montrose Avenue (tel. 800/ELI-CAKE [354-2253]; www.elischeesecake.com).
Serious food fans can get a firsthand look at how some of the city's culinary stars work by booking a seat at a chef's table. You'll get a personal tour of the kitchen, a special selection of dishes, and -- best of all -- a front-row seat for dinner-hour drama. At Tru (tel. 312/202-0001) and Next (tel. 312/226-0858), four to six people can sit in glass-enclosed rooms just off the kitchen, where they can check out the scene without feeling the heat. At Zealous (tel. 312/475-9112), the chef's table seats 8 to 10 and is in the main dining room -- but bamboo trees surround it, so other diners won't get jealous when chef Michael Taus stops by for some one-on-one taste tests.
Chef's tables don't come cheap (up to $225 per person), but they're a special splurge for die-hard foodies. Just remember to reserve well in advance because these tables book fast.
Some Chicago chefs find inspiration in the clash of civilizations, combining elements of seemingly unrelated cuisines to create a new, flavorful experience. At Vermilion the similarities between Latin American and Indian cooking are highlighted, resulting in dishes such as a tandoori skirt steak with fried plantain chips or shrimp paella served with flattened Indian rice. SushiSamba Rio pairs South American flavors with Asian preparations, producing odd-sounding-but-delicious creations such as a salmon-and-jalapeño sushi roll or lobster taquitos garnished with lemongrass. At Yoshi's Café in Lincoln Park, the menu reflects both chef Yoshi Katsumura's Japanese heritage and his traditional French culinary training, with entrees such as panko-breaded pork loin, smoked salmon salad with Asian pear, and crab cakes paired with wasabi.
Deep-dish pizza may be Chicago's culinary claim to fame, but the city has added to the national waistline in other ways. Twinkies and Wonder Bread were invented here, Chicago businessman James L. Kraft created the first processed cheese, and Oscar Mayer got his start as a butcher in the Old Town neighborhood.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.