20 restaurants that define Chicago

Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the Chicago Greats.

The Windy City has long prided itself on its groundbreaking restaurant scene. But in recent years, the rest of the country has noticed as well. Chicago’s best restaurants have routinely scooped up MICHELIN stars and launched the careers of star chefs such as Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard.

An opulent Gold Coast restaurant shakes up long-standing steakhouse traditions. An acclaimed Peruvian chef brings Andean bounty to River North. An unassuming Ukrainian Village spot recently became the world’s first MICHELIN-starred Filipino restaurant.

There’s never been a better time to celebrate the iconic spots that have shaped Chicago’s restaurant scene into the juggernaut it is today. Read on for a guide to 20 spots that are essential to the city.

Boka (Lincoln Park)

Living green walls and circular banquettes at Boka in Chicago
Boka’s beautifully designed dining rooms feel like little worlds in their own right. | Credit: Boka

Boka’s approachable, seasonally driven New American menu scored the restaurant a MICHELIN star, three stars from The Chicago Tribune, and James Beard Awards nominations, solidifying it as one of Chicago’s most exciting restaurants. Renowned chef Lee Wolen has a knack for taking seemingly simple preparations and adding depth, texture, and an unexpected flavor or two. For instance, foie gras toast is served with cranberry, cinnamon, and satsuma, while Wolen’s signature roasted chicken gets the gourmet treatment with Jerusalem artichoke, maitake, and sherry. These dishes are served in Boka’s beautifully designed dining rooms, each of which feels like its own little world with living green walls and oversized circular banquettes.

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Girl & the Goat (West Loop)

Stephanie Izard shot to fame when she won the fourth season of Bravo’s Top Chef. She then parlayed that attention into a series of successful Chicago restaurants with the Boka Restaurant Group. They upped the ante for casual but ambitious dining in Chicago, beginning with Girl & the Goat, which spawned two more Chicago eateries (Duck Duck Goat and Cabra), plus two cookbooks and a line of crunches, spices, and sauces. A James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes in 2013 further cemented Izard in Chicago’s dining scene. As the name implies, Girl & the Goat offers a meat-heavy menu but one that brings in a chorus of textures, flavors, and inspirations. The namesake goat appears in empanada form with pickled kumquats, piparra peppers, and idiazabal, an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region. It also shows up as confit goat belly with pecans and pickled persimmons. The ingredient even makes its way onto the drinks menu in the form of goat fat-infused bourbon, the star component in the iconic Goat Fashioned.

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Sepia (West Loop)

Sablefish at Sepia in Chicago
MICHELIN-starred Sepia serves an ever-changing seasonal American menu. | Credit: Sepia

Chicago stalwart Sepia serves an ever-changing seasonal American menu folding in locally sourced ingredients from sustainable farmers. It’s an approach that earned the restaurant a MICHELIN star—on top of the constellation of star reviews since it opened in 2007. The splurgy tasting menu from lauded chef Andrew Zimmerman consists of four courses, ranging from dishes such as venison shabu-shabu (accented by hon-shimeji mushroom, chestnuts, and chile crisp) and ricotta cavatelli with Parmesan butter, pine nut, and crispy sourdough. Select the wine pairing option to try sommelier Alex Ring’s selections for the full package. And rest assured you’re in capable hands: the Jean Banchet Awards named Ring Chicago’s Best Sommelier in 2022.

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Elske (West Loop)

Chefs David and Anna Posey’s first solo venture–in Danish, “elske” means “to love”—takes the form of an airy West Loop restaurant complete with a cozy courtyard. The couple’s creative take on casual fine dining earned the space a MICHELIN star five years in a row, plus two James Beard Award nominations. The restaurant offers a nine-course set menu and a la carte menus. The former takes diners on a tour of Scandinavia via the restaurant’s now-famous duck liver tart with toasted buckwheat and salted ramps, roasted sablefish (with shrimp, cauliflower, and marigold), and toasted yeast ice cream with a chicory cruller. Enjoy a glass of glögg—red wine with mulling spices, aquavit, and almonds—in front of the outdoor fireplace after dinner. Executive pastry chef Anna Posey’s enchanting creations include dark-chocolate cake flavored with black olive and lavender.

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Tanta (River North)

A pisco sour at Tanta in Chicago
Tanta highlights Peruvian fare plus ingredients brought to Peru via generations of immigrants from Japan, Spain, China, and Italy. | Credit: Mistey Nguyen

Tanta owner and Diners Club Lifetime Achievement Award winner Gastón Acurio is one of Peru’s most famous chefs, using his international restaurants as unofficial ambassadors for the country’s cuisine. The menu in Chicago highlights a full range of Peruvian food, showcasing ingredients from both its mountains and oceans and combining them with the techniques and ingredients brought to the country via generations of immigrants from Japan, Spain, China, and Italy. The result is an inimitable dining experience where Chicagoans flock to try dishes such as Chaufa Aeropuerto, a mixture of pork fried rice, shrimp omelet, vegetables, and a Japanese-influenced nikkei sauce that’s best enjoyed on the restaurant’s seasonal rooftop patio. Pair it with one of the innovative pisco drinks, such as Ainoko, a mix of pisco, sake, lychee, yuzu, lemon, and a togarashi lemon wheel.

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Mott St (Pan-Asian, Wicker Park)

Anyone who dined in Chicago during the 2010s is likely familiar with Ruxbin, a ​​progressive American restaurant that integrated French, Asian, and Latin American flavors. When the acclaimed Ruxbin closed in 2017, the team turned its attention to Mott St, a fun and funky restaurant serving the post-shift favorites of partners Edward Kim, Jennifer Kim, Vicki Kim, and Nate Chung. Bon Appétit named Mott St one of its top 50 new restaurants in 2014 and the team’s innovations haven’t slowed down since. Think wings dusted with everything spice, mentaiko kimchi udon, and the lauded Mott burger (also available at the late-night bar), served in a space reminiscent of an outdoor food market. Diners steering clear from meat and gluten can find dishes such as Thai-style papaya salad, wok-smoked broccoli and eggplant, and garlic fried rice. Fusion also exists on the dessert menu, where Thai tea cheesecake bumps up against mango sticky rice and brownies fold in chocolate, miso, and caramel.

Café Ba-Ba-Reeba (Lincoln Park)

Pitchers of sangria at Café Ba-Ba-Reeba in Chicago
When Café Ba-Ba-Reeba opened in 1985, it introduced Chicagoans to Spanish cuisine. | Credit: Café Ba-Ba-Reeba

Long before the small plates concept dominated almost every new restaurant, Café Ba-Ba-Reeba (part of the venerated Lettuce Entertain You Group, which includes other Chicago stalwarts such as Shaw’s Crab House and RPM Italian) served tapas to the denizens of Lincoln Park. In fact, when the restaurant opened in 1985, it introduced Chicagoans to paella, patatas bravas, and other highlights of Spanish cuisine. Today, tourists and locals still flock to the restaurant to sample six different styles of sangria and snack on chorizo-wrapped dates and tortilla española. They also head over to fortify themselves on the weekend with a perennially packed tapas brunch, featuring items such as waffle-battered chicken on a stick with maple syrup and chorizo mac and cheese, or a twist on avocado toast spiked with Fresno chiles.

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Parachute (Avondale)

This small but mighty restaurant punches far above its weight, serving up Korean American mash-ups that earned it a MICHELIN star, a spot on Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant list, and a James Beard Award. When Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim reopened Parachute after a short hiatus in 2022, they vowed to dig deeper into Korean food with dishes designed for sharing, such as seafood pancakes and rice and fish cakes in gochujang sauce. Parachute’s second chapter also expanded its spirits list, allowing diners to enjoy specialties such as chungju (clear rice wine), plus off-beat wines.

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Kumiko (West Loop)

The team behind West Loop’s fine-dining sensation Oriole runs this modern cocktail bar that creative director, co-owner, and cocktail maven Julia Momosé (also a 2022 MICHELIN Exceptional Cocktails Award winner) describes as “a cocktail party with the world’s best hors d’oeuvres.” The restaurant’s Japanese-inflected drinks include the Moonrise Daiquiri, an unexpected mix of Bolivian cola bitters, green tea, lime, sake, and rum. Drinks are best paired with imaginative small plates such as Japanese fried chicken and Berkshire pork served with milk bread, cabbage, and fermented chile paste. The winning drinks and snacks combos landed Kumiko a spot on the Chicago Tribune’s 2019 list of best restaurants, a MICHELIN star, and a mention as one of Time’s 100 Greatest Places in 2019.

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Oriole (West Loop)

Chef-owner Noah Sandoval’s MICHELIN-starred spot has earned plenty of accolades, including the Jean Banchet Award for Restaurant of the Year and a James Beard Award nomination for Sandoval himself. The ever-rotating New American tasting menu is a mainstay—and the only way to experience Oriole. The restaurant’s Instagram feed shouts out specials such as the recent sablefish glazed with shio koji butterscotch and golden kaluga caviar. Cocktails, sakes, and wine are the co-creations of beverage director Emily Rosenfeld and the aforementioned Julia Momosé of Kumiko.

Demera (Uptown)

A messob platter at Demera in Chicago
Chef-owner Tigist Reda toasts and grinds all the spices for the dishes at Demera. | Credit: Demera

When Tigist Reda immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 2007, she brought an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for cooking, opening Demera shortly after her arrival. The chef’s meticulously prepared dishes—she even toasts and grinds all of her spices—quickly established this restaurant as the city’s top spot for Ethiopian food. Order one of the messob platters, which can feed groups ranging from two to eight featuring ye-beg wot, bone-in lamb braised in a spicy berbere chile sauce. Vegans have lots of choices, including a meat-free messob platter—there’s even a vegan riff on chocolate cheesecake with red chai ice cream for dessert. Order the tej (a housemade honey wine) to temper the heat in some dishes.

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Maple and Ash (Gold Coast)

In a city filled with steakhouses boasting decades of history, Maple and Ash represents the next generation of the genre. The sprawling restaurant puts opulence front and center, from its velvet dining chairs and soaring ceilings to the wine list, where the priciest bottle is $10,000. Cocktail fans might better appreciate the restaurant’s martini lounge, however. There are other luxuries available on the menu, created by acclaimed chef Danny Grant (of RIA fame) such as a wagyu beef carpaccio topped with king crab, truffle, and supreme caviar or the Eisenhower, a 40-ounce porterhouse that the kitchen cooks directly in coals left over from the wood-fired grills. Surf is strong here, too, such as wild striped bass and New Zealand king salmon. For those who would rather sit back and let the kitchen decide, there’s a $200 tasting menu, cheekily named the “I Don’t Give a F*@k” option.

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Gene & Georgetti (River North)

Pasta and gnocchi at Gene & Georgetti in Chicago
Chicago’s oldest steakhouse, established in 1941, has served celebrities from Frank Sinatra to Will Ferrell. | Credit: Maddy Cox Photography

Chicago’s oldest steakhouse, established in 1941, has hosted celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Will Ferrell, plus Lake Forest native Vince Vaughn, and cultivated a devoted following among locals. The menu remains close to what it was when the beloved restaurant opened, and the kitchen dishes out beautifully marbled steaks, double-cut lamb chops, and Italian favorites including eggplant parmigiana. In its softly lit, red-carpeted room, it’s easy to lose track of time, order another bottle of wine, and linger.

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Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse (Gold Coast)

A group of dishes at Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse in Chicago including a double-baked potato, baby back ribs with fries, and planked Lake Superior whitefish with mashed potatoes, grilled onion, and tomatoes
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse is one of the highest-grossing independent restaurants in Chicago. | Credit: Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse

To say Gibsons is popular would be an understatement—it’s one of the highest-grossing independent restaurants in all of Chicago. It’s also a local press darling and was depicted on FX’s The League. The restaurant’s prime location just off the Magnificent Mile (there are two other outposts in Rosemont and Oak Brook) and commitment to quality have fueled its reputation as a Chicago classic since it opened in 1989. Once you’re in the door, the dining room’s pressed-tin ceilings amplify laughter and conversations, fueling a boisterous atmosphere. But Gibsons owes its staying power to its steaks: The restaurant is the first in the country to have its own USDA certification, Gibsons Prime Angus beef. If you’ve got room for dessert, get the towering carrot cake or chocolate mousse pie, multi-layer creations the heights of which echo the city’s distinguished skyscrapers.

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Kasama (Ukrainian Village)

Many Chicagoans sat up and noticed this unassuming Ukrainian Village spot when it became the world’s first MICHELIN-starred Filipino spot in 2022. The casual counter service joint slings a traditional breakfast of garlic rice, fried egg, and longanisa sausage (or tocino) and a knockout shaved pork adobo sandwich for lunch. Meatless options are sprinkled in, too, such as soy-braised mushrooms with a fried egg and garlic rice. Kasama pays homage to Chicago’s Irish heritage on weekends, serving its own riff on corned beef. Bakery goods are available to-go, as are inventive twists on coffee shop staples such as an ube latte made with coconut sap.

Rose Mary (West Loop)

Pork ribs pampaella with Calabrian chile agrodolce, walnuts, cabbage, and yogurt relish at Rose Mary in Chicago
Italian and Croatian-inspired dishes headline the menu at Rose Mary. | Credit: Matt Haas

There are many perks that come with winning a season of Top Chef, and one of them is opening the restaurant of your dreams. Chef Joe Flamm did just that in 2021 when he opened Rose Mary in the West Loop. The restaurant tips a hat to his Italian heritage and his wife Hillary Flamm’s native country of Croatia with dishes such as gnocchi with beef cheek pašticada, a braised beef dish from the northwestern Balkan Peninsula. It’s this heartfelt blend of two comforting cuisines that earned Rose Mary its reputation as one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants. Must-try vegetable-forward dishes include charred Brussels sprouts, coal-roasted beets, and burek soparnik, a traditional Croatian pie with Swiss chard and cheese.

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Riccardo Trattoria (Lincoln Park)

This love letter to northern Italy is the brainchild of chef-owner Riccardo Michi, whose family has operated a restaurant in Milan since the 1940s. Riccardo Trattoria was conceived in 2006 and earned Bib Gourmand status from MICHELIN for three consecutive years. Specials of the day keep the menu fresh but it’s also packed with well-executed favorites including arancini, risotto, and odes to regions across Italy, such as Genovese-style pesto with trofie pasta and chicken breast Milanese.

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Shaw’s Crab House (Seafood, River North)

Alaskan king crab at Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago
Shaw’s has remained a top Chicago seafood destination since opening in 1984. | Credit: Shaw’s Crab House

Though the nearest shoreline is Lake Michigan, Chicagoans have ocean access via Shaw’s, the city’s top seafood destination since it opened in 1984 (another has since opened in Schaumburg). Shaw’s is renowned for its extensive oyster selection and relationships with fishermen all over the world. Head to the wood-paneled dining room to feast on blackened mahi mahi from Costa Rica or pan-seared Alaskan halibut. Snag a bar stool at the old-school oyster counter for a quick bite, where the well-versed shucker can talk you through the characteristics of each variety, popping open the bivalves right before your eyes.

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Virtue (Hyde Park)

Reclaimed wood and cut-paper work make up the interiors at Virtue in Chicago
Virtue is one of the few Southern spots in Chicago that serves faithfuls such as gizzards and gumbo. | Credit: Jack X Li

Chef-owner Erick Williams, who also owns three other Chicago restaurants, catapulted into fame when he won a 2022 James Beard Award. Virtue may be among the few spots in Windy City where you can enjoy gizzards and gumbo and other Southern food faithfuls such as catfish, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and crawfish. Pastry chef Becky Pendola ensures meals end on a sweet note thanks to carrot cake topped with cream cheese frosting, ginger crumble, and salted caramel. The open and airy dining room is awash in neutral tones so the focus is entirely on the exceptionally executed food.

Soulé (West Town)

Once you step into Soulé, you’re part of the family. The soul food kitchen pays tribute to Creole-inspired home cooking and has welcomed customers—including celebs such as former Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen and TV personality, Star Jones—to its West Town restaurant since 2017. Chef and owner Bridgette Flagg, a Chicago native, was taught to cook by her grandmother Beatrice “Bea” Tolliver. The intimate restaurant seats fewer than three dozen patrons and offers comforting classics such as blackened catfish, fish and grits, and honey-drizzled fried chicken in its modern dining room.

Tried them all? Check out other options here.

Chicago-area native Kristine Hansen writes about food and travel for a variety of national outlets and is the author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet and Savory Recipes from the State’s Best Creameries, published by Globe Pequot Press. Follow her writing on Instagram.

Sarah Freeman contributed to this guide.

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