Chicago has come into its own as a major dining destination, and that's not limited to the chic, see-and-be-seen spots. Plenty of options await families, too. Besides those stylish restaurants, you'll find an amazing array of steakhouses, family-style Italian restaurants, and every kind of ethnic cuisine you could possibly crave. You'll be surprised at the number and range of restaurants that welcome kids in Chicago. Even restaurants that don't offer a specialized kids' menu often will provide half-sized portions for children. Whether you're looking for a restaurant for your family's big night out or simply a no-frills spot to dig in, I'll help you find places the locals go when they want to eat well.
Chicagoans have a passion for two foods your kids are probably passionate about too: hot dogs and pizza. Don't run out to buy a case of antacids just yet--options for adult stomachs also exist. And while anyone can tell you that Rainforest Cafe or Ed Debevic's is great for kids, what we've highlighted here are some unique dining ideas that are Chicago's own. And I'm going to send you in that direction, right after I grab a garlic- and pepper-laden hot dog.
To keep up on the restaurant scene, check out the Chicago Tribune's entertainment Web site (www.metromix.com), the Web site for Chicago magazine (www.chicagomag.com), and the entertainment/nightlife Web site www.chicago.citysearch.com.
Best Views: A location right on the Magnificent Mile means the Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan Ave., offers an up-close-and-personal view of the city from its observation deck. Visit the Signature Room at the 95th (tel. 312/787-9596, www.hancock-observatory.com), a sleek restaurant with adjoining lounge after a long day of touring. On a clear day, you can see 50 miles and part of three surrounding states--Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. (Moms and daughters, make sure to visit the restroom--it's got the best views in the restaurant!)
Best Ice Cream: Since the 1920s, Margie's Candies, 1960 N. Western Ave., at Armitage Ave. (tel. 773/384-1035, www.margiescandies.com), has been serving up mammoth sundaes in conch shell-shaped dishes. Margie is gone now, but her husband still mans the cash register. Don't miss the homemade hot fudge, real butterscotch, and caramel. The place is frozen in time--about 1940, to be exact--and is stuffed with kitschy dolls, boxes of homemade candy, stuffed animals, and news clippings through the years.
Best Outdoor Eating: Long tables and family-style dining reign in Greektown, making it a comfortable and fun destination for families. At Pegasus, 130 S. Halsted St. (tel. 312/226-3377), a rooftop garden allows diners a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline.
Most Kid-Friendly Service: Scoozi, an Italian restaurant in River North at 410 W. Huron, (tel. 312/943-5900), is a family favorite for its Sunday afternoon pizza-making event that lets kids loose with tomato sauce and cheese to create their own pizzas (under the supervision of Scoozi chefs, who keep mess to a minimum and pop finished pizzas into the wood-burning oven). The evening is great for parents, too, who get a short break to enjoy their meal and some grown-up conversation. Make a reservation, because your window of opportunity is small: The restaurant runs the program on Sundays only, from 4 to 5 pm.
Best Kids' Menu: How many times have you seen the big three on kids' menus? Burgers, chicken fingers, and buttered noodles are great, but when you want to expand your horizons (just a little), head for Wishbone, 1001 Washington St. at Morgan St. (tel. 312/850-2663, www.wishbonechicago.com), or 3300 N. Lincoln Ave. (tel. 773/549-2663). You'll find a little southern flair to the kids' menu, with sweet potatoes and mac 'n' cheese among the offerings.
Best Burgers: The hamburger at Iron Mike's Grille, 100 E. Chestnut St. (tel. 312/587-8989, www.mikeditkaschicago.com), tastes more like chopped steak and can easily feed two. Sports fans will be entertained by football memorabilia and Bears fans can relive the glory days of former Coach Mike Ditka, who owns the place. Take your kids to the main dining room, though, because the bar vicinity tends to get a little foggy from cigar smoke.
Best Barbecue: At longtime city favorite Carson's, 612 N. Wells St. (tel. 312/280-9200), $17.95 gets you a full slab of incredible baby-back ribs, accompanied by a bowl of Carson's almost-as-famous coleslaw and a choice of potatoes.
Best Breakfast: Although the restaurant is located in the young professional haven of Lincoln Park, parents report that the managers and staff at Toast, 746 W. Webster St. at Halsted St., (tel. 773/935-5600), are baby- and kid-crazy. The pancakes and waffles are pretty crazy, too: Stacks arrive covered in fruit, yogurt, powdered sugar, and more.
Best Family-Style Dining: Maggiano's, 516 N. Clark St. (tel. 312/644-7700), is a mecca for Italian family-style dining. Heaping plates of pasta meant to be shared make Maggiano's a good choice for a budget-conscious family. In fact, everything on the menu is super-size. Steaks are all more than a pound, and most pasta dishes weigh in at over 25 ounces. You're expected to share dishes, pass things around, and try a little bit of everything.
Best Asian Food: If you go to Big Bowl, 6 E. Cedar St. at Rush St., (tel. 312/640-8888, www.bigbowl.com), at the beginning of your visit to Chicago, I guarantee you will make a repeat visit before you leave. The food here is addictive. From noodle soups to pad Thai (try the tofu and veggie version), your kids will find tons to love here. The restaurant bustles and kids will blend right in with the other activity. Make sure to grab a handful of individually wrapped fortune cookies on your way out!
Best Hot Dog: Gold Coast Dogs, 1127 N. State St. (tel. 312/751-0744), 2 N. Riverside Plaza (tel. 312/879-0447), 2100 N. Clark St. (tel. 773/327-8887), 222 S. Riverside Plaza (tel. 312/258-8585), serves up the authentic item, meaning a Vienna All-Beef Frank slathered with mustard, green relish, chopped onion, sliced tomato, hot peppers, and celery salt. Your kids might be brave enough to ask for and receive ketchup, but as an adult, I wouldn't risk the disapproving, raised-eyebrow look you'll get from the counter staff. You can round out the meal with cheese fries, made from Idaho potatoes and topped with a generous glob of Wisconsin cheddar.
Best Pizza: In the town where deep-dish pies were born, Chicagoans take their out-of-town relatives to either Gino's East, 633 N. Wells St (tel. 312/943-1124, www.ginoseast.com), or Lou Malnati's, 439 N. Wells St. (tel. 312/828-9800, www.loumalnatis.com), to taste the real thing: mouthwatering slabs of pizza loaded with fresh ingredients atop delectably sweet crusts. Lou's fan base is so enamored that the restaurant has even instituted a popular overnight mail-order business to get expatriate Chicagoans with a deep-dish jones over the hump.
Best Fast Food: Even though you're in the hometown of McDonald's, our vote goes to foodlife in Water Tower Place, 835 N. Michigan Ave. (tel. 312/335-3663, www.shopwatertower.com), a food court exemplar with everything from Asian noodles to pizza to smoothies.
Best Brunch: Cajun and southern cooking is in store for you at Wishbone, 1001 W. Washington Blvd. (tel. 312/850-2663, www.wishbonechicago.com). Primitive art, bright colors, and a bustling crowd make this a great place for kids. A diverse crowd, from Harpo Studios employees (Oprah is headquartered right around the corner) to business people in suits and ad agency types, frequent the place. For brunch, try the salmon cakes.
Best Girls' Day Out: Can't help but notice those dark red bags that girls carry like badges of honor up and down Michigan Avenue? They come from American Girl Place, 111 E. Chicago Ave. (tel. 877/247-5223, www.americangirl.com), which also features a cafe. Call well in advance for lunch reservations or to catch a performance of "The American Girls Revue" in their 150-seat theater.
Best Boys' Night Out: What red-blooded American kid doesn't love baseball? Harry Caray's, 33 W. Kinzie St. (tel. 312/828-0966, www.harrycarays.com), is one of Chicago's most flamboyant eateries, filled with uniforms, helmets, cards, and photographs. Ever hurled a baseball from a pitcher's mound to home plate? To get an idea of the distance, check out the bar--it measures 60 feet, 6 inches, the exact distance from hill to plate.
Best Neighborhood Hang-Out: Stanley's, 1970 N. Lincoln Ave. (tel. 312/642-0007), is a classic Lincoln Park restaurant with a family-friendly bent. When you walk in, there's a bar, but the adjacent dining room feels like you've entered someone's family room, decorated with photos, quilts, bowling trophies, and children's drawings. This popular family spot has a special kids' menu. On Saturday and Sunday there's an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet, featuring make-your-own omelets, build-your-own-Belgian waffles, home-fried potatoes, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes. Daily specials are posted on the chalkboard out front.
Best Retro Diner: Sure, it's a chain, but Johnny Rocket's, 901 N. Rush St. (tel. 312/337-3900, www.johnnyrockets.com), is a great replica of a 1950s diner. Burgers wrapped in paper, fries (ketchup is poured for you by your friendly wait person), and flavored sodas from the fountain are sure to please kids. Kids' meals are available for $4.25, and ask for a menu to color. The location just behind the 900 N. Michigan mall makes the diner a perfect stop during a visit to the Magnificent Mile.
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