Adam Alexander

Chicago, Illinois: best places to eat and drink

From classic steakhouses to new-style pizzas and craft brewing, Chicago’s buzzing food and drink scene is an eclectic mix of treasures

Chicago, home to baseball, blues and culture, is one of America’s largest and most modern metropolis cities. It also comes with some cracking restaurants and bars! Read our expert guide to the best places to eat and drink in Chicago (including the best steakhouses).

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chicago
Photograph Credit: Adam Alexander

Ema

Vibrant colourful small plates with a Mediterranean twist make up the eclectic menu at Ema. This light and airy neighbourhood restaurant is dedicated to cooking California-style so local veg are a highlight and there are plenty of non-meat options.

The inventive dishes include tarted up hummus with toppings of fresno chillies or spicy harissa lamb served with puffy homemade pita; roasted romanesque cauli with homemade yoghurt and local honey and grilled octopus with fried kale, fingerling potatoes and preserved lemon vinaigrette.

Portions are a bit more delicate than your regular US size so there is scope to try quite a lot of the menu. The wine list includes bottles from coastal Med as well as California.

Ema restaurant
Photograph Credit: Anjali Pinto

Vice District Brewing

This small batch brewery in the Chicago South loop is owned by two Chicago South-siders whose aim was to provide a friendly, diverse, inclusive space (it’s both dog- and baby-friendly) for the neighbourhood.

There’s no food on offer but you are encouraged to order in from local restaurants (ask the barman for recommendations). The beer selection is seasonal and, as everything is brewed in small batches, it can change month to month. We loved the Coconut Porter – a dark, chocolatey beer with a subtle creamy coconut accent.

Vice District Brewing

Heritage Bicycles and Coffee

Hand-crafted coffee and bikes go hand in hand at this friendly Lakeview neighbourhood coffee/bike shop. There are beautiful vintage-inspired bikes which are built on site and can be customised to order.

The coffee shop is a high-ceilinged open space with reclaimed timber tables and homemade chandeliers. Have an expertly made cortado and one of the best cinnamon buns we’ve ever tasted from local West Town Bakery. You can even grab a growler (four pints) of cold brew coffee to go.

heritage bikes

Floriole

Owner Sandra started Floriole as a pop-up at Chicago’s famous Green City Market just selling two or three pastries each week from a put-up table. Now it’s permanent, Lincoln Park, home is a must-visit for brunch.

As well as the beautiful patisserie – we tried the kouign amman and the delicate passionfruit tart – there are savoury offerings of pretty tartines topped with trout and pickles and some killer sandwiches – try the turkey, avo and bacon club on delicately toasted brioche with roast tomato aioli.

floriole_Credit - Rachel Brown Kulp
Photograph Credit: Rachel Brown Kulp
floriole - Rachel Brown Kulp
Photograph Credit: Rachel Brown Kulp

Piece Pizza and Brewery

Pizzas here are served with four bases – white, red, BBQ or New Haven (that’s tomato sauce and no mozzarella – but extra olive oil and parmesan) and come in three sizes. After choosing your base you then add whichever toppings you fancy.

The pizzas are designed to share and they are HUGE (three of us ordered two mediums and we couldn’t finish them). The large open space is made up of large communal benches and has a beer hall/sports bar-type atmosphere with screens showing local basketball and baseball games lining the walls.

Craft beers are brewed on site and there are usually seven on tap at one time – try the Astronaut Haus, a citrusy American Pale Ale. Famous fans include Antony Bourdain and Dave Grohl so keep your eyes peeled.

piece brewery

Forbidden Root Brewery

In early American brewing aromatics and botanicals like ginger, dandelion and burdock were in common use. Forbidden Root used this as a jumping off point for their brewing adventures so each beer brewed on the site has layers of subtle flavour.

Try Money on my Rind with notes of grapefruit and juniper in a wheat beer or WPA which takes wildflowers such as elderflower and marigold as a base for a pale ale. The bar area is built on the site of an old theatre so the space has quite a dramatic feel to it.

The food is as inventive and flavour-packed as the booze – bar snacks include Korean chilli popcorn, ‘nduja sausage with pickled mustard seeds and honey and home-made beer cheese spread. Small plates to share include malted lamb ribs with tamarind glaze and sesame and mussels with Wildflower Pale Ale.

Forbidden Root - Bar Snacks
Forbidden Root interior

Katherine Anne Confections

For a sugar rush with a twist visit Katherine Anne Confections in the trendy Logan Square neighbourhood. Chocolate truffle flavours change with the seasons but expect unusual flavours like goats cheese and walnut or basil. The caramels are also really popular (we tried the unlikely but lovely combination of rosemary and sea salt).

Get your goodies to go or sit in the small, pretty shopfront and have a cup of their famous hot chocolate. The rich molten liquid is made only using melted chocolate, milk and cream and topped with gooey marshmallows or whipped cream. If you can’t decide between the different flavours you can order a flight of three mini cups and try varieties like salted caramel and Mexican and chai.

Katherine ann confections - hot choc

Chicago Distilling Company

If you fancy a bit of the hard stuff visit the Chicago Distilling Company for a tasting. The small-batch whisky, bourbon, gin and vodka is produced on-site by descendants of original Midwest moonshiners.

You can buy a bottle to take away or just work your way through the spirits section in the buzzy bar. There are also regular tours/tastings with the owners to guide you through the art of brewing your own.

ChicagoDistillingCo_credit Kevin J. Miyazaki2
Photograph Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki
ChicagoDistillingCo_credit Kevin J. Miyazaki3
Photograph Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Swift & Sons

Chicago is famous for its steak joints and Swift and Sons is one of the swankier offerings. This huge dining space is in the former meatpacking district and has a grand gentleman’s club feel to it – think curved leather booths, warm wood and shiny brass fittings – the sort of place you’d expect to find Don Draper of Mad Men nursing an Old Fashioned. The lighting is cosy enough to make the space feel more intimate though.

The menu is a surf and turf dream with spankingly fresh oysters, shrimp, king crab and lobster to order individually or on groaning platters. Steak is the real star here, though, and you’re guaranteed a perfectly cooked strip, rib eye or porterhouse. It’s not cheap but portion sizes are pretty hefty (the New York Strip is a whopping 16oz/450g) so split a steak with a couple of sides such as the crispy brussels sprouts with soy and lime or the spiced cauli gratin with parmesan.

Sauces come on the side – try the umami-rich oxtail marmalade. The travelling cocktail cart is definitely worth trying – have your Martini mixed table-side and get a little history lesson on the drink thrown in.

swift and sons

Words | Janine Ratcliffe

Image | Adam Alexander


Return flights from Heathrow to Chicago cost from £550 (united.com). Double rooms at the Virgin Hotel cost from $196, room only. More info: choosechicago.com and enjoyillinois.com


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