While the term "ethnic restaurant" is often synonymous with casual, low-priced spots, Chicago chefs have taken world cuisine to new, fine-dining heights. At Topolobampo, chef Rick Bayless highlights the flavors of Mexico, including little-known regional specialties, with a focus on fresh, sustainably produced ingredients. Arun's, the namesake restaurant of chef Arun Sampanthavivat, turns Thai dining into a multi-hour, multi-course experience, with a customized menu that varies with the seasons and according to diners' preferences. Ultra-elegant Spiaggia gives Italian cuisine a gourmet upgrade, featuring luxe ingredients such as truffles and caviar.
Ethnic Dining near the Loop
Chinatown -- Chicago's Chinatown is about 20 blocks south of the Loop. The district is strung along two thoroughfares, Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue, as far south as 24th Place. Hailing a cab from the Loop is the easiest way to get here, but you can also drive and leave your car in the validated lot near the entrance to Chinatown, or take the Orange Line of the El to the Cermak stop, a well-lit station on the edge of the Chinatown commercial district.
The spacious, fairly elegant Phoenix, 2131 S. Archer Ave. (btw. Wentworth Ave. and Cermak Rd.; tel. 312/328-0848; www.chinatownphoenix.com), has plenty of room for big tables of family or friends to enjoy the Cantonese (and some Szechuan) cuisine. A good sign: The place attracts lots of Chinatown locals. It's especially popular for dim sum brunch, so come early to avoid the wait. Late night, stop by the more casual Saint's Alp Teahouse downstairs (tel. 312/842-1886), an outpost of the Hong Kong chain, which is open until at least midnight daily.
Open since 1927, Won Kow, 2237 S. Wentworth Ave. (btw. 22nd Place and Alexander St.; tel. 312/842-7500), is the oldest continually operating restaurant in Chinatown. You can enjoy dim sum in the mezzanine-level dining room from 9am to 3pm daily. Most of the items cost around $3. Other house specialties include Mongolian chicken and duck with seafood.
Two other great spots for daily dim sum are located in Chinatown Square Mall, an open-air walking pavilion of restaurants, shops, and other businesses along Archer Avenue. Try Shiu Wah, 2162 S. Archer Ave. (tel. 312/225-8811; 8am-3pm), or Happy Chef, 2164 S. Archer Ave. (tel. 312/808-3689; 9am-4pm). They're both great; pick the one with the shortest wait.
Little Italy -- Convenient to most downtown locations, a few blocks' stretch of Taylor Street is home to a host of time-honored, traditional, hearty Italian restaurants. If you're staying in the Loop (an easy cab ride away), the area makes a good destination for dinner.
Regulars return for the straightforward Italian favorites livened up with some adventurous specials at Francesca's on Taylor, 1400 W. Taylor St. (at Loomis St.; tel. 312/829-2828; www.miafrancesca.com). Standouts include the fresh homemade pastas and the creative fish entrees. This is part of a local chain that includes the popular Mia Francesca, as well as nearby Davanti Enoteca, 1359 W. Taylor St. (tel. 312/226-5550), a cozy, buzzy small-plates spot that's known for its truffle egg toast, bruschetta, and specialty pizzas.
Expect to wait even with a reservation at Rosebud on Taylor, 1500 W. Taylor St. (at Laflin St.; tel. 312/942-1117; www.rosebudrestaurants.com), but fear not -- your hunger will be satisfied. Rosebud is known for enormous helpings of pasta, most of which lean toward heavy Italian-American favorites: deep-dish lasagna and a fettuccine Alfredo that defines the word rich. I highly recommend any of the pastas served with vodka sauce. Another location is near the Mag Mile at 720 N. Rush St. (tel. 312/266-6444).
Family-owned Tuscany, 1014 W. Taylor St. (btw. Morgan and Miller sts.; tel. 312/829-1990; www.tuscanychicago.com), has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood restaurant, unlike the city's more fashionable Italian spots. Specialties include anything cooked on the wood-burning grill and Tuscan sausage dishes. A second location is across from Wrigley Field, at 3700 N. Clark St. (at Waveland Ave.; tel. 773/404-7700).
Greektown -- A short cab ride across the south branch of the Chicago River will take you to the city's Greektown, a row of moderately priced and inexpensive Greek restaurants clustered on Halsted Street between Van Buren and Washington streets.
To be honest, there's not much here to distinguish one restaurant from the other: They're all standard Greek restaurants with similar looks and similar menus. That said, Greek Islands, 200 S. Halsted St. (at Adams St.; tel. 312/782-9855; www.greekislands.net); Santorini, 800 W. Adams St. (at Halsted St.; tel. 312/829-8820; www.santorinichicago.com); Parthenon, 314 S. Halsted St. (btw. Jackson and Van Buren sts.; tel. 312/726-2407; www.theparthenon.com); and Costas, 340 S. Halsted St. (btw. Jackson and Van Buren sts.; tel. 312/263-0767; www.costasdining.com), are all good bets for gyros, Greek salads, shish kabobs, and the classic moussaka. On warm summer nights, opt for either Athena, 212 S. Halsted St. (btw. Adams and Jackson sts.; tel. 312/655-0000; www.athenarestaurantchicago.com), which has a huge outdoor seating area, or Pegasus, 130 S. Halsted St. (btw. Monroe and Adams sts.; tel. 312/226-3377; www.pegasuschicago.com), with its rooftop patio serving drinks, appetizers, and desserts. Both have wonderful views of the Loop's skyline. Artopolis, 306 S. Halsted St. (at Jackson St.; tel. 312/559-9000; www.artopolischicago.com), a more recent addition to the neighborhood, is a casual option offering up Greek and Mediterranean specialties, wood-oven pizzas, breads, and French pastries, all of them tasty.
Pilsen -- Just south of the Loop and convenient to McCormick Place and Chinatown, Pilsen is a colorful blend of Mexican culture, artists, and bohemians, and pricey new residential developments. The area's nascent restaurant scene is showing signs of life, but for now, the local fare is decidedly casual.
Nuevo Leon, 1515 W. 18th St. (at Laflin St.; tel. 312/421-1517; www.nuevoleonrestaurant.com), is a popular Mexican restaurant serving the standard offerings.
On the more bohemian side, linger over a salad, sandwich, cake, or refreshing fruit milkshake (liquado) at Café Jumping Bean, 1439 W. 18th St. (at Bishop St.; tel. 312/455-0019; http://cafejumpingbean.org), and admire the artwork -- from paintings to photographs -- hanging on the walls.
A Taste of Poland
Chicago has long been a popular destination for Polish immigrants (currently, about one million Chicagoans claim Polish ancestry). It's somewhat mystifying, then, why they haven't made much of an impact on the city's dining scene. There are Polish restaurants here, but they tend to be small, casual, family-run affairs in residential neighborhoods far removed from the usual tourist attractions. If you'd like to try some hearty, stick-to-your-ribs Polish food, the best-known restaurant is Red Apple (Czerwone Jabluszko), 3121 N. Milwaukee Ave. (tel. 773/588-5781; www.redapplebuffet.com). Dining here is strictly buffet, and the lineup includes Polish specialties such as pirogi (meat- or cheese-stuffed dumplings) and blintzes, as well as a huge selection of roast meats, salads, and bread (there's even fruit, should you feel nutrient starved). Best of all is the price: $13 on weekdays and $15 on weekends for all you can eat (lunch prices are $2 less).
A Taste of Thai
Thai restaurants are to Chicago what Chinese restaurants are to many other American cities: ubiquitous, affordable, and perfect for a quick meal that offers a taste of the exotic. If you've never tried Thai, Chicago is a great place to start. Good introductory dishes are pad thai noodles topped with minced peanuts or the coconut-based mild yellow curry.
Arun's is the city's reigning gourmet interpreter of Thai cuisine, but many other low-key places are scattered throughout the residential neighborhoods. Most entrees at these spots don't cost much more $10. A staple of the River North dining scene is the bright and airy Star of Siam, 11 E. Illinois St., at North State Street (tel. 312/670-0100; www.starofsiamchicago.com). On the north end of the Gold Coast where it meets Old Town, Tiparos, 1540 N. Clark St. at North Avenue (tel. 312/712-9900; www.tiparosthai.com), is a very friendly place that features Thai textiles on its brick interior walls and serves delicious specialties such as massaman curry. Thai Classic, 3332 N. Clark St., at Roscoe Street (tel. 773/404-2000; www.thaiclassicrestaurant.com), conveniently located between the busy Belmont/Clark intersection and Wrigley Field, offers an excellent all-you-can-eat buffet on weekends if you want to try a taste of everything. While wandering the Lakeview neighborhood, a good stop for a quick, no-frills meal is the Bamee Noodle Shop, 3120 N. Broadway, at Wellington Street (tel. 773/281-2641; www.bameethai.com), which offers a wide selection of "Noodles on Plates" and "Noodles in Bowls," as well as a number of soups and fried-rice combinations.
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.