For Appetizers: A Sampling of Chicago Restaurants
Theresa Gross-Diaz, December 1994
Chicago is a great town for food lovers. From inexpensive continental to pricey ethnic cuisine (and vice versa), the Second City is second to none. That's it for the usual cliches; here is one native Chicagoan's admittedly biased and incomplete list of personal favorites, both downtown and a reasonable cab ride away (for a fuller list, refer to any recent issue of Chicago magazine, whose "Dining Guide" provides information on price, quality, ambiance, et cetera; many of my suggestions here are not in the guide).
At weird and wonderful Hat Dance (as in "Mexican ..."), 325 W. Huron, you can indulge in not-so-traditional versions of old south-of-the-border favorites in a definitively untraditional setting; food and decor are similarly off the wall and entirely successful. Bonus: the several heart-healthy and/or vegetarian entrees (funny, they don't taste like they're good for you). From just north of the border, Blue Mesa, 1729 N. Halsted, offers an updated version of Santa Fe cooking, with the most amazing margaritas in town. Locals develop cravings for the Taste of Santa Fe Platter. Both restaurants are chic, lively, fairly noisy, and moderately priced (depending on quantity of margaritas consumed).
Prairie reminds one that Chicago is more than Miesian skyscrapers and deep-dish pizzas. Here one's eye is soothed by the harmonious horizontals of a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired interior, while the palate is refreshed by first quality Midwestern ingredients, coaxed lovingly and convincingly into a no-nonsense Heartland version of nouveau regional cuisine. 500 S. Dearborn; elegant and somewhat expensive.
Greektown (on S. Halsted) is a mecca for the conference-goer: generous, tasty, inexpensive meals for large parties of conventioneers are the staple of most of the Greek restaurants here; you can't go wrong. But if you want a little less "atmosphere" and a little more class, try Santorini at 138 S. Halsted (especially for fish—their whole snapper is superb) or The Courtyards of Plaka at 340 S. Halsted (especially for mezedes—Greece's answer to tapas—and several excellent vegetarian dishes).
Heaven on Seven is only open for the lunch crowd, but then again you probably won't be needing dinner after this ... not to be missed by fans of Cajun food. On the seventh floor (naturally) of the Stevens Building, 111 N. Wabash: it's crowded, it's inexpensive, it's heaven. Try the jalapeno cheddar corn muffin (be forewarned: it may be the only meatless item in the menu).
Reza's, on the other hand, boasts of its wide choice of Persian vegetarian dishes, and rightly so; but I recommend the cornish hen with pomegranate sauce ... enough said? Terrific dilled rice; wide choice of wines; attractive, lively, open til midnight, and very reasonably priced. 432 W. Ontario, with another location on the North Side at 5255 N. Clark.
Has it been too long since your research took you to France? Having withdrawal symptoms? Doctor's orders: go to Le Loup, which, while not "pure" French, is somehow yet the real thing. Roast chicken with perfect frites, cassoulet ... the already reasonable addition will be the more so due to the fact that you must BYOV (bring your own vin). Casual, friendly, quiet; parking is awful. 3348 N. Sheffield. More expensive (but not too), more classic, and a little more upscale is the bistro Le Bouchon at 1958 N. Damon; however, reservations are hard to get.
No self-proclaimed "serious" food guide would mention it, but the authentic island food at Tania's is quite good, despite the fact that it's not the real draw; one goes to dance (salsa, cumbia, any Latin beat), to watch, and to be seen. Wild and genuine; go with a group and have a blast. Right down the street is some of the best traditional (read: Chicago-style) Mexican food on the North Side, at Abril, so you can carb out there and dance it off afterwards. Abril is at 2607 N. Milwaukee; Tania's is at 2659.
A quiet, elegant, yet relaxed restaurant for the conference- and crowd-weary is the Afghan Helmand at 3201 N. Halsted, where the food is so good we understood why the Soviets stayed and stayed. ... Plenty of vegetarian dishes here too; the kaddo borawni, a semisweet pumpkin appetizer, is addictive. Ask for it without the meat sauce if you are so inclined. You may have to park blocks away, but the neighborhood, while "animated," is safe to walk in.
Want to splurge? Love opera? You can do no better than Jimmy's Place, one of the most civilized spots on this planet. Not at all pretentious or stuffy (witness its unlikely address at 3420 N. Elston, across from the local fire station), but that elusive creature, the fine restaurant. Expensive and worth every cent.
Huge portions, cozy atmosphere, carbo-centric: that's what one expects in an Italian restaurant. Bella Bocca adds the finest ingredients, spares not the gorgonzola, and has a nice Montepulciano as a house red to boot. 2965 N. Lincoln Ave.
Wash your hands and come to Mama Desta's Red Sea Restaurant for Ethiopian food (you eat family-style off a platter, wrapping bits of food in pieces of tart, crepe-like injera bread). Order Mamba beer unless you can handle tej, an aromatic mead-like drink. The beef sighini is tough but delicious, the chicken and the lamb are tender and delicious, the vegetables just delicious. Service is attentive and welcoming; bill is exiguous. Looks a bit iffy from the street, but once you're inside you'll be glad you came. 3218 N. Clark St. (one block up Belmont Ave. from the Helmand).
For a real breakfast (none of this brunch nonsense), Chicagoans go to Lou Mitchell's, 565 W. Jackson. The long line moves quickly, so stick it out—fried donut holes are distributed to ease the wait, and ladies (only) are presented with boxes of Milk Duds (don't ask; I have no idea). Monster omelettes (e.g., with cheddar cheese and apples), pancakes with real maple syrup, good coffee, no privacy (you find yourself elbow-to-elbow with the nicest people): a great place, very Chicago.
This eclectic and highly subjective list is the merest indication of the variety offered by Chicago's restaurant scene.
—Theresa Gross-Diaz is an assistant professor of history at Loyola University of Chicago.