When Lincoln Park hamburger joint R J Grunts opened in 1971, diners didn’t know what to make of its hippy-dippy vibe, rock music, and what was then one of the first salad bars in the country. It didn’t take long for this newfangled restaurant that combined entertainment and dining to catch on and become a local favorite.
It marked the first Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant, a group founded by friends and Chicago natives Richard Melman and Jerry A. Orzoff. LEYE has since grown to more than 60 brands and 130 restaurants (and counting!) in a dozen states. Melman has scored an outstanding restaurateur award and a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation (Orzoff died in 1981, leaving the business to the Melmans) to boot.
LEYE isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Melman’s three children—R.J., Jerrod, and Molly— are all involved in the family-owned business. The group now operates acclaimed barbecue, seafood, and Mediterranean establishments in Chicago and beyond. It recently added a Northern California-inspired restaurant into the mix, making it an especially exciting time to visit—or revisit—their restaurants. Here are six to get you started.
Looking for… a California experience without leaving Chicago?
A former industrial zone might seem like an odd spot to find a Northern California-inspired restaurant, but the Fulton Market District’s The Oakville Grill & Cellar channels that easy-breezy vibe perfectly. Perhaps it’s the bright and airy interior design with lots of natural wood and lush plants. Or maybe it’s the crowd-pleasing food such as Pacific snapper crudo or grilled avocado. Either way, the all-California wine list will have you wanting to don your shades and flip-flops no matter the weather.
Looking for… some country music with irresistible barbecue?
With a large American flag made from beer cans sitting behind the bar, River North’s Bub City leans hard into its all-American vibes. And that includes live country music almost every night of the week on its 16-foot stage. Low-and-slow barbecue, including an 18-hour-smoked brisket and Chicago-style baby back ribs, solidify its aim, as does its collection of American whiskeys—cowboy boots optional.
Looking for… some stellar river views with seafood?
RPM Seafood takes advantage of its prime riverfront location over two floors featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and a 2,000-square-foot outdoor terrace—even views at the bar in the main dining room are stellar. Water also plays a prominent role in the menu, which features decadent seafood towers, caviar service, and a variety of crudos, along with dry-aged beef and housemade pastas.
Looking for… year-round Mediterranean summer?
Aba means “father” in Hebrew and showcases the light, Mediterranean cooking style of chef C.J. Jacobson, who was inspired by his time growing up in Southern California and playing professional volleyball in Israel. With plenty of plants both on its laidback patio and in the main dining room, Aba channels oh-so-sweet summer vibes no matter where you sit. There are varieties of hummus and spreads that pair with heartier mains such as char-grilled lamb chops and black garlic shrimp. Aba’s sister restaurants in Austin and Miami are equally transporting.
Looking for… some Italian Riviera vibes with pizza?
Eating on the Italian Riviera can often come with the added swagger of docking your boat nearby. It’s also a benefit at River North’s Pizzeria Portofino, where boat docking comes with a side of a special takeout menu for those spending a day on the lake. But this riverfront restaurant is just as charming for non-boat owners with equal access to its show stopping hand-stretched pizzas, charcoal-grilled seafood, and coastal Italian wines.
Looking for… a ramen-fueled hip-hop dance party?
No matter the Chicago RAMEN-SAN location, a party atmosphere is as much a part of the vibe as the bowls of umami-rich ramen, ice-cold beer, and Japanese whisky. Each of the half-dozen ramens on the menu features broths made-in-house daily and Tokyo-style wavy noodles. Add-ons include chashu pork, smoked brisket, and panko-fried chicken. The industrial atmosphere, sake bombs, and ’90s hip-hop music keep the party going long after most restaurants close in the city.