Eating Out in the Windy City: A Personal Guide

Tracy Poe, December 2002

Okay, so I am assuming you all know about the steaks. Since Dreiser's time, Chicago has been a mecca for lovers of large slabs of aged, seared cow. So I will bypass the details on famous Chicago chophouses like Morton's (1050 N. State, 312-266-4820) and just give you my (admittedly biased) recommendations so we can move on to more interesting topics. They're all pretty good (the bad ones don't survive), so for the best atmosphere, if you want to feel like you just walked into a Scorsese film, try Gene and Georgetti (500 N. Franklin, 312-527-3718). Biggest bang for the buck is at Harry Caray's (33 W. Kinzie, 312- 828-0966).

Beyond the red meat, though, Chicago is an amazing food town. Take it from a confirmed sensualist regarding all things gustatory (I love foie gras and sautéed crickets, so I have credentials). We have Charlie Trotter's (816 W. Armitage, 773-248-6228). Expect to spend tall cash and three plus hours for a food-as-modern-art, Top-Ten-Restaurants-in-America experience, although for a meal that is just as interesting, less pretentious, and yummier, try French Laundry protégé Grant Achatz's Trio (1625 Hinman, Evanston, 847-733-8746). Chicago can even boast some lovely, non-steak-oriented Midwestern regional restaurants such as the Arts-and-Crafts-inspired North Pond Café, located in the middle of Lincoln Park (2610 N. Cannon, 773-477-5845). But we also have one of the most diverse ethnic food communities in the nation, so whether your preferences are upscale or this-tastes-fabulous-just-ignore-that-cockroach-crawling-up-the-wall-there, you will find something good to eat if you are willing to do a little traveling.

Of course, everything in the immediate vicinity of the hotel is going to be somewhat touristy and pricey, so let it suffice to say that if you just want quick, easy nutrition, you can make do without my help. This review is going to focus on some of the more interesting offerings out there. You may have to take a taxi or the El to get to them, but trust me, it will be worth the trip.

For starters, those in the mood for interesting Mexican cooking will no doubt be wowed by the downtown delights of Topolobampo and its sister, Frontera Grill (both at 455 N. Clark, 312-661-1434). Chef-owner Rick Bayless has a master's degree in anthropology and it shows in his inspired use of unusual ingredients collected on yearly fieldwork excursions. For more authentic, but equally intriguing, preparations of regional Mexican fare (and without the celebrity-chef buzz or the prices), try Ixcapuzalco on lively, dingy Milwaukee Ave (2919 N. Milwaukee, 773-486-7340).

Moving on to the many Asian cuisines represented in Chicago, if you want to try a banquet worthy of the Siamese royal family, don't skip Arun's (4156 N. Kedzie, 773-539-1909), known for its subtle, visually stunning preparations of fine Thai cuisine. If you think cheaper is better, you can't miss at Amarind's, run by Arun's grad, Rangsan Sutcharit (6822 W. North, 773-889-9999). If you are up for an adventure, try cruising the North-Side pan-Asian neighborhood centered at Broadway and Argyle streets for Chinese, Vietnamese, and Laotian joints. Especially recommended is Hai Yen (1055 W. Argyle, 773-561-4077) for Vietnamese cuisine and its sister Pho shop next door. If you want to stay downtown, Le Colonial (937 N. Rush, 312-255-0088) is a sophisticated stop for French-Vietnamese cooking, a neat bar and outdoor tables. Go early before the hipsters get there.

A new type of "city" is evolving in addition to these older industrial and educational cities. In his 1991 landmark work, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, journalist Joel Garreau identified four "edge cities" in the Chicago region-the Schaumburg area (including Hoffman Estates and the Woodfield Mall); the O'Hare Airport area; the "Illinois Research and Development Corridor" (including the area around Oak Brook, Lisle, Naperville, Aurora, and the East-West Tollway); and the Lake Shore Corridor (around the Edens Expressway and the Tri-State Tollway).3 These areas combine office buildings, corporate campuses, and retail malls with planned residential developments, cultural and entertainment centers, new campuses of older colleges and universities, and, of course, access to the major metropolitan expressways. Many are experiencing the need for more controlled growth, and participating in organizations such as the Campaign for Sensible Growth.

Reviewers always rate Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan, 312-280-2750) and its more casual café one of the best restaurants in the city. Its specialty is Italian and in my estimation it deserves the acclaim. But if you want a more earthy experience (noisy, cheap, poor climate control, wonderful Roman-style food) try La Scarola (721 W. Grand, 312-243-1740) on the barely-postindustrial corridor that used to be the main artery to one of the city's most important Italian neighborhoods (a few exceptional bakeries and groceries still exist en route). If you are a fan of faglie e foglie (white beans sautéed with escarole and garlic) and straight-up Italian-American chow, go to Papa Milano (951 N. State, 312-787-3710), and pay a visit to the nearby Newberry Library while you are there.

While I am on the subject of "Italian," I guess I should mention Chicago's unique stuffed pizza. There is no winning the argument about which is "best"—it all depends on your taste in sauce, crust, cheese, and sodium content. Contenders with multiple outlets around the Chicago are: Lou Malnati's, Pizzeria Uno (the Chicago versions are for some reason substantially different than their stores in other parts of the country), Giordano's, Edwardo's and Gino's. Get the hotel to call for delivery-none of these places has any atmosphere, except the last, which has too much for its own good.

Finally, no discussion of Chicago food would be complete without mentioning Soul Food. On this topic I could rhapsodize endlessly, but given the space considerations, I will have to limit my recommendations to just three. Again, if staying downtown is your m.o., and you don't mind paying the interior design bill, try Wishbone (1001 W. Washington, 312-850-2663), a large, bright, cheery place that caters to Oprah's staff (it is located near her studio) with updated, lower-fat versions of Southern classics. It also has a very nice (but not necessarily low-fat) breakfast. If you are looking for the real deal, however, you can head to Army and Lou's (422 E. 75th, 773-483-3100), a historic landmark located near the University of Chicago campus, or Edna's on the West Side (3175 W. Madison, 773-638-7079), justifiably famous for its biscuits and plate lunches.

Of course, there are many more exotic possibilities around the city that the more adventurous among you may wish to try. In the interest of space, I will have to simply list them (see box). For more info, corner me at the conference and I will be happy to fill you in on the do's and don'ts of culinary tourism in Chicago.

—Tracy Poe is an assistant professor of history and the humanities at Barat College of DePaul University.