Korean Fried Chicken
2940 North Broadway Avenue
Crisp rode into Chicago last year on a wave of giddy online chatter about chicken prepared Korean-style. Gourmands “discovered” Korean fried chicken around 2006 in Korean eateries around New York and hailed it as “the new KFC.” Koreans enjoy their crunchy, spicy fried chicken as bar food with plenty of beer. Unlike American fried chicken, which relies on a thick, well-seasoned crust, the Korean version is fried twice with very little flour until the skin is rendered down to a thin, paper-like shell. Only then is the chicken seasoned with a garlic-soy glaze or hot pepper sauce. The result is a compact, delectably crunchy piece of meat that differs radically from how Americans typically picture fried chicken.
Chicagoans, who hold Harold’s near to their hearts, might be skeptical of any deviation from its beloved recipe. But Doug Funke, the half-Korean owner of Crisp (and a U of C grad) is up to the challenge of introducing non-Korean Chicagoans to Korean fried chicken.
Funke’s got a pretty interesting marketing strategy. Crisp is designed to be franchised, with its orange and green coloring scheme, customized take-out containers, and distinctive wood block tables.
But Crisp still has a few kinks to work out. A few months after it opened, I drove all the way to up to Boystown only to discover that it had just been closed due to “labor problems.” Is this a restaurant, or the Haymarket Riot? Although these unscheduled closings seem to be a thing of the past, even now, during busy periods, no one comes around to clean the tables, so silverware and food from someone else’s meal just lays there. That’s a major problem. Funke might be a visionary, but he needs someone who knows the details of restaurant management.
Ultimately, though, it all comes down to the chicken. And it is amazing. Crisp serves either half or whole chickens hacked up into wings, legs, and thighs or just wings. There are four kinds of preparations: Crisp BBQ, Seoul Sassy, Buffalo, and Plain Jane, which is simply chicken without sauce. The Seoul Sassy has a tasty, mildly sweet garlic-soy glaze, but the Crisp BBQ, with a hot and smoky sauce, is to die for. Unfortunately, no alcohol is served in Crisp, even though Korean fried chicken is traditional bar food—but you can order out and enjoy the poultry at home with beer or soju, a vodka-like Korean beverage. A half chicken, which is more than enough for normal appetites, costs around nine bucks.
Unfortunately, Crisp’s forays into other culinary arenas fall flat. Besides the chicken, Crisp serves a dizzying array of dishes: everything from sandwiches to Korean-style rice bowls to Caesar salad. The menu is a little off the wall, and none of it tastes particularly good—even the Korean rice bowl or “Buddha Bowl” that Funke recommended to me. It’s beef, vegetables, egg, and rice in a red sauce—kinda slimy. Why not serve the chicken with its traditional Korean condiment, pickled radish?
—Ben Rossi1492 Tapas Bar
42 East Superior Street
Tapas: $7-15; entrées: $15-17
Just off the Red Line’s Chicago station, 1492 offers a variety of traditional tapas and entrées. A great bet for a date, gathering with friends, or birthday celebration, 1492 is almost always hopping—just be sure to call ahead for reservations. Appetizing specialties include grilled chorizo (Spanish sausage), salpicon (mixed seafood vinaigrette), and solomillo tostada (beef tenderloin). And don’t miss the Paella 1492, an authentic Spanish meal overflowing with chicken, shrimp, mussels, and calamari. For those over 21, 1492 has a solely Spanish wine list, refreshing Sangria, and an overflow cocktail room that is open on weekends. —Dasha Vinogradsky
3307 North Clark Street
This cozy little Moroccan restaurant provides a welcome retreat from Chicago’s gray days in the middle of winter. It’s small enough for romantic dates but also group-friendly. The cuisine tends to be sweet and comforting, and the brick-red and gold-tinted walls, low lighting, and exotic pictures add to the feeling of another place far from here. A special treat is the $16 pastilla—chicken cooked in Moroccan spices and wrapped in paper-thin, flakey filo dough with confectioner’s sugar on top. The sweet mint tea is another must; be sure to order the whole pot if you’re in a group. Diners can top off the meal with a hookah pipe. (It costs extra for those who don’t order a meal.) The restaurant only has a few tables, so expect a wait, even with reservations. —Kat Glass
929 West Belmont Avenue
Breakfast $6-10; lunch $7-17
Take the Red Line to Belmont for a real Swedish-American breakfast at this renowned Ann Sather location, best known for its sticky cinnamon rolls. Those who don’t want to indulge in fresh-from-the-oven breakfast delights can savor more traditional (but equally hearty) options like omelets, pancakes, and french toast. Also serving lunch, the restaurant caters to a diverse clientele and makes for some good people-watching. Don’t bring your Hum homework, though—the weekend brunch menu draws huge crowds throughout the day. To avoid the rush, get there before 11 a.m.—the early rise is worth it. Ann Sather takes reservations for parties of six or more and has other locations in Wicker Park and Lakeview. Be sure to check out their website (annsather.com). Sometimes they have coupons offering free cinnamon rolls. —Dasha Vinogradsky
5721 North Clark Street
If you are looking for a local eatery with a truly unique ethnic atmosphere, the Arkadash Café is one of Andersonville’s most surprising gems. A candle-lit dining floor, cigar-burned tablecloths, and live, synthesized Turkish pop only begin to describe the charm of this late-night hotspot. Traditional entrées including kebabs, lamb shanks, and dolma provide a satisfactory foundation for a restaurant experience decidedly oriented toward activity and interaction. Exceptionally friendly service, several plush hookah lounges, and flashy belly dancers liven up the large and often crowded dance floor on Friday and Saturday nights. If high-quality Turkish food is your priority, then you might look elsewhere. But if you’re visiting the far North Side and seeking a spot of decent baklava and some late-night dancing hijinks, then make a stop at Arkadash. —Drew Westfahl
The Athenian Room
807 West Webster Avenue
Tucked away in Lincoln Park, this restaurant serves large, filling portions of delicious Greek cuisine—from kebabs to gyros. However, the best pick is the more standard Greek fries, which come with many of the entrées. Drenched in a succulent sauce, a single taste would be enough to make any dieter forget his regimen. In the summer months, sit outside and enjoy a cool breeze on the tree-lined street. A relatively cozy place not too far away from the Fullerton Red Line stop, the Athenian Room offers cheap and authentic food for anyone spending a day on the North Side. The place can fill up quickly on weekend evenings, so be prepared to wait. —Sharat Ganapati
B & B Pizza King
4 West Garfield Blvd
If you ask the nice lady behind the bulletproof glass at B & B Pizza King, she’ll tell you that deliciously greasy pizza pies are the joint’s claim to fame. She’s not entirely wrong: The Pizza King’s New York-style pizzas are good, with mounds of cheese on crusts that are crisp outside and pillowy within, and they’re reasonably priced, too. Or if you’re not up for pizza, try one of the king-size Polish or Italian sausage subs, which are nearly the size of your head and are served up piping hot. Or get a hamburger and fries, which together cost just over $2.
And while it’s true that the food’s all great in a grease ball, hole-in-the-wall kind of way, for this reviewer’s money, it’s not the food that sets the place apart, it’s how that food comes to you. That’s because the Pizza King is probably the only restaurant in Chicago with a wizened, octogenarian delivery man who wears a purple suit and a fez. Laden with pizza boxes and doggy bags, he’s a sight to behold and worth every cent of the $2.75 delivery fee.
If you’d rather go to them, the Pizza King’s location is perfect: right on Garfield, three stops before the red line station if you take the #55. There’s no seating inside, but there is a lunch counter outside that’s pleasant in warmer months, and since you don’t have to take the Red Line, your fingers will be covered with pizza sauce half an hour sooner than if you were going to the Loop or the North Side.
535 North Michigan Avenue
For a high-class dining experience, Bandera Restaurant is a distinctively American option for a chic night out on the town. An elegant dining room with a view perched above the Magnificent Mile sets the stage for this quality dining experience.
Evening meals at Bandera are often accompanied by a live jazz band and the wafting smells of golden racks of rotisserie chicken, creating a unique combination of the mundane and the refined. Bandera’s menu—including enchiladas, pasta, and southwestern salads—provides a stylized southwestern interpretation of numerous American and Tex-Mex favorites.
Some of the few criticisms to be made of an evening or power lunch at Bandera is that portions are often minimal and wait times are long. However, if you are looking for a great place to treat your date or impress relatives, Bandera Restaurant will more than adequately fit the bill. —Drew Westfahl
6352 North Oakley Avenue
Located near the heart of Chicago’s South Asian community on Devon Avenue, Bhabi’s provides excellent Indian cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall setting. The owner, who is in fact named Bhabi (pronounced “Bobby”), is easily recognizable by his incandescent bald dome and wide-eyed smile, and he usually doubles as the waiter. The multitasking may lead to a few delays in the service, and if asked, he will most likely try to talk you into ordering each of the different dishes marked with his endorsement on the menu (Bhabi’s Special, Bhabi’s Very Special). But whether you choose to get lamb, beef, chicken, or veggies (try the eggplant), you’ll likely leave satisfied. Dishes are made to share, which makes them ideal for larger groups, and with most entrées coming in some form of sauce, you’ll probably end up ordering more than one basket of naan. All in all, Bhabi’s is well worth the trek to the North Side. —Tim Murphy
Billy Goat Tavern
430 North Michigan Avenue, lower level
Few places embody Chicago—the tradition, the history, and the love of greasy food and free-flowing beer—better than the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, a 75-year-old dive bar located on the subterranean level of North Michigan Avenue. Founded by Chicago legend William Sianis in 1934, the Billy Goat gained city-wide notoriety through a series of publicity stunts: Most famously, Sianis refused to serve Republican patrons during the 1944 Republican National Convention in Chicago. And in 1945, Sianis tried to bring his pet goat to game four of the Cubs-Tigers World Series at Wrigley Field. (The Cubs refused to admit the goat and went on to lose the game and the series; diehard locals rue the “curse of the billy goat” to this day.) Later, the tavern was immortalized on Saturday Night Live, when John Belushi furiously shouted the signature dish (“Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!”) at unsuspecting patrons. But no restaurant survives on publicity alone, and the Billy Goat still ranks among the best places in town to meet some friends, throw back a couple of Old Styles, mingle with disgruntled journalists who have escaped the nearby Tribune building, and catch the Cubs game. —Justin Sink
619 West Randolph Street
Entrées: $12-15 lunch,
Blackbird is all about taste. The décor is minimalist, the ambience is overcrowded and often too noisy for intimate conversation, and the portions don’t lend themselves well to doggie bags, but the food—oh, the food. Chef de cuisine Paul Kahan trained as a molecular gastronomist at WD-50, but you’ll find no chlorophyll foam or liquid nitrogen at Blackbird. Instead, the menu offers fresh, seasonal ingredients in unusual, but inspired, combinations, providing dishes that are marvelously creative but still recognizably food.
One bite of suckling pig confit with sour cherries or venison with mission figs and the chatter from neighboring tables fades away, overpowered by the singing of your tongue. The menu is small and frequently changing, but always superb. Though some combinations may strike you as unappetizing, such as the bacon ice cream accompanying a fig beignet or the crispy chocolate garnishing the walleye pike, take the plunge: You are in excellent hands.
Servers are personable and extremely knowledgeable, attending to one’s every need (to the point of re-folding napkins left on chairs during a trip to the restroom) without coming off as pushy or obtrusive. Dining at Blackbird will never be a budget option—this is the sort of place where napkins are matched to the diner’s attire, after all—but it is well worth the cost. —Kira Bennett
Blue Water Grill
520 North Dearborn Street
Lunch $19-21, dinner $27-29
Despite Chicago’s location on the shores of Lake Michigan, this “city of the big shoulders” and “butcher to the world” is more renowned for its steakhouses than fishmongers and seafood restaurants. So, it’s no surprise that one of the city’s best seafood restaurants is an export from the seafood-loving East Coast.
Blue Water Grill, located only a few blocks from the heart of the Magnificent Mile, consistently serves up fresh and inventively prepared seafood dishes. In addition to the usual assortment of fish dishes, Blue Water’s sushi and oyster bar offers diners an expansive selections of fresh oysters and creatively prepared sushi.
Where Blue Water really struggles is its service. It is hit-and-miss, and frequent visitors will see a constant rotation of employees—never a good sign at a high-end restaurant. But even with the less-than-top-notch service, Blue Water’s fresh seafood and wonderful collection of sushi and oysters still shine. —Chris Salata
739 North La Salle Drive
Tapas $3-7; entrées $7-11
Tapas bars are the perfect option for diners on a budget or those looking to experiment with new tastes. The small portions and relatively cheap prices allow you to sample numerous dishes in one sitting. And since the more people you have, the more opportunity there is for sampling, restaurants like Café Iberico are perfect for larger groups. Iberico offers an expansive and ever-changing menu with close to 50 items at any given time. It is generally recommended that you order two to three tapas dishes per person, although the fast-paced service gives you the option to order as you eat, so don’t worry about under-ordering. Iberico’s decor is somewhat bland, and it can get quite noisy when crowded. On weekend nights, the place fills up quickly and the wait can be intimidating, but the large dining rooms and fast service moves the crowds along. On Fridays and Saturdays, Iberico is open until 1:30 a.m., making it ideal for a late-night snack. You can’t go wrong with any choice, but among the favorites are pincho de pollo (chicken with caramelized onions and rice) and croquetas de pollo (fried ham and chicken puffs with a creamy alioli sauce). However, it’s mandatory to order the flan de chocolate, a creamy custard accentuated with a caramel strawberry sauce. —Dan Lambert
Cuban, Mexican, and Caribbean
2111 West Armitage Avenue
If you haven’t yet made it to Bucktown, a hip North Side neighborhood often overshadowed by nearby Wicker Park, you’re not just missing out on one of Chicago’s hidden gems, but on some of the best Cuban food in the city. Although the competition might not be great (Cuban food is one of the few cuisines not well represented in the Windy City), Café Laguardia stands out, boasting a variety of Cuban and other Latin-American specialties.
From the music to the patrons to the décor, the Café Laguardia experience overwhelms the senses; part cocktail lounge, part restaurant, Laguardia is loud in every sense of the word. It’s packed full of animal prints and bright colors to an almost obnoxious extent, but diners able to get past the initial sensory explosion will find the food at Laguardia delicious.
Reservations are accepted Monday through Thursday, but there is a small amount of outdoor seating for those who don’t want to wait. Be warned, however: The wait staff has a tendency to forget its outdoor customers. —Tyler Warner
930 West Belmont Avenue
Across the street from the Belmont CTA stop, in the grimy heart of Lakeview’s urban cauldron of sin, Clarke’s Diner is a wholesome enclave against moral disintegration. You can tell because it boasts a giant picture of your mom outside exclaiming, “Oh my, you should eat!” As always, she’s right: There’s no better place in Chicago for a diner breakfast, and Clarke’s goes way beyond the old Denny’s standards. The skillet eggs are wildly popular, in varieties that incorporate zucchini, hickory ham, chorizo, portabello mushrooms, and any cheese you can name. Paired with the famously thick tomato soup, this constitutes the typical Clarke’s experience, although the jalapeño poppers, gyros omelets, baked apple pancakes, and homemade granola are worth returning for. And the orange juice is, without exaggeration, the best I have ever had. The “dinner” side of the menu (the Kung Fu chicken and fish tacos are the highlights) is good too, though not nearly as resplendent. Don’t let the Ramones-driven ’80s soundtrack, the heavily pierced waitresses, the crowds of noisy hooligans, or the recent addition of a cocktail bar fool you: Open 24 hours, Clarke’s is your guardian angel in Chicago, always ready to receive you after your flirtations with perdition on the devilish North Side, always there when you’re ready for family values on Belmont and breakfast at 1 a.m. —Nicholas Nardini
24 South Michigan Avenue
Entrées: $10-12 lunch; $20-25 dinner
The Gage brings the British gastropub craze home to Michigan Avenue, offering comfort food with gourmet tweaks within strolling distance of Millennium Park. The classic pub grub is all there, from Guinness-battered fish and chips to lamb vindaloo, but it’s dressed up with kumquats (for the snapper), huckleberry reduction (for the duck confit), and melted onion marmalade (for the mouthwatering signature burger, which also boasts a generous dollop of Camembert).
Prices are reasonable, given the location and the polished atmosphere, but a few dishes miss the mark when jazzed up unnecessarily for the sake of maintaining a trendy reputation. A braised rabbit salad liberally scattered with tasteless (but crunchy!) puffed rice brought home the painful lesson that innovation is not always improvement, and an otherwise exquisite watermelon and feta salad with honey-balsamic vinaigrette was gratuitously flambéed tableside.
On slow nights, the service is over-attentive to the point of hovering, and on weekends the ambient noise level can be high enough to make conversation difficult. Moreover, starters tend to outshine entrées, making The Gage a better choice for appetizers with drinks than a romantic dinner. —Kira
633 North Wells Street
Entrées: $9-12, more for pizza
Gino’s East offers your classic rib-sticking Italian fare in generous portions. If you’re really hungry, and even if you’re not, try the deep-dish pizza. While the pastas, lasagnas, and other menu items are mostly safe choices, Chicago-style pizza is what Gino’s East is known for. Even if you’re famished after the 45-minute wait while your pizza cooks, bets are you won’t be able to finish more than two of the intensely sloppy, cheesy, thick, brick-like slices—health considerations aside. The waiters serve you your first slice to prevent the embarrassing struggle that would likely ensue from trying to wrangle one free on your own. Salads are served family style and provide some much-needed organic relief after ingesting one of Gino’s slices. And don’t forget to bring a Sharpie. Just about every inch of Gino’s walls is fair game for—err—artistic expression. —Adrian Florido
Glunz Bavaria Haus
4128 North Lincoln Avenue
Glunz may not be cheap, but you’ll make up the cost when you still don’t have to eat for a few days after the filling Bavarian food. Located on the North Side, the Haus is more than a quick stroll away, but its authentic dishes make the journey worthwhile. Of note are the cheese plate appetizer, the Jägerpfandl (pork tenderloin in a bacon-mushroom sauce), and, of course, traditional Wiener schnitzel. Hey, no one ever accused German food of being light. Some items on the menu are sub-par, but the waiters’ recommendations are helpful. For those of age, the restaurant also boasts an impressive selection of wine and foreign beer.
The service at Glunz is generally quite good, and you won’t wait long for your meal, though it helps that on weeknights especially, most tables are unoccupied. The restaurant is normally quiet and pleasant, with the atmosphere of a dimly lit tavern, but that is thrown out the window in mid-September to make way for Oktoberfest, when an oompah band performs every weekend. That you will not want to miss. —Steve Trubac
Grand Lux Café
600 North Michigan Avenue
While the food is good, this restaurant’s real gems are its décor, location, and the on-site dessert bakery. The enormous, opulent interior, decked out with marble everything and hand-blown glass fixtures, will shock anyone not used to the big city and has hundreds of seats from intimate booths to large banquet tables. The equally massive menu ranges from great chicken parm to Cajun shrimp to Salisbury steak. The baked-to-order desserts are incredible: Go with the molten chocolate cake. While its location right off the Magnificent Mile makes the Grand Lux a great place to visit after a day of shopping or before catching a movie, it’s also a popular spot on weekends. They don’t take reservations, so plan on showing up an hour early to put your name down and then enjoying the city as you wait for a table. (Tip: If you’re willing to wait a little extra, try to snag a window seat overlooking Michigan Avenue.) —Chris Boots
Heaven on Seven
New Orleans Cajun/Creole
600 North Michigan Avenue
Heaven on Seven is located in the heart of busy Michigan Avenue in a building shared by an AMC multiplex, making this Cajun joint a convenient destination. Upon entering the lushly decorated dining room, you are greeted by chandeliers draped in Mardi Gras beads, kitschy pictures of Bourbon Street, and a wall lined entirely from floor to ceiling with hundreds of bottles of hot sauce. The cuisine is your typical Cajun fare of jambalaya, etouffée, and a deliciously spicy gumbo. Traditional Southern dishes like chicken fried steak and fried green tomatoes also make an appearance. The po’boy sandwiches—a New Orleans staple of French bread packed with meat or veggies, such as roast beef, shrimp, ham or green tomatoes—are a perfect lunch option, and on weekends a killer brunch menu is served until 3 p.m. But be forewarned: Come expecting heat, not health. Dishes are often smothered in gravy or deep-fried, and the majority of the menu is laced with a fiery kick of spice. —Dan Lambert
House of Sushi & Noodles
1610 West Belmont Avenue
$15.95 per person
Sushi is delicious. Unfortunately, it also tends to be pricey, at least in this part of the country. In the hunt for fresh, reasonably priced sushi, look no farther than House of Sushi & Noodles. It’s just a short #77 bus ride away from the Belmont stop of the Red Line, and offers nigiri, maki, and some specialty hand rolls, along with traditional Japanese appetizers like gyoza and a wide variety of noodle and rice dishes.
House of Sushi & Noodles is best known for its ultra-cheap buffet, which offers 32 specialty rolls, so diners are guaranteed variety and adventure alongside old favorites. Because of the popularity of the buffet, the restaurant is often tightly packed with an entire spectrum of city dwellers—many of whom are immortalized in the mosaic of photographs that line the walls. This casual environment is stylized by oriental lanterns that hang over the booths, and J-pop/rock fills the air on the rare occasion of a lapse in customer chit-chat.
So, great sushi at a shockingly low price and an eclectic—but still comfortable—dining atmosphere. What’s not to love? But be sure to get there early on weekends; the place fills up quickly, especially at dinnertime. —Emerald Gao
Jamaica Jerk Choice
6500 South Cottage Grove Avenue
You might have read that Barack Obama’s favorite place to eat in Hyde Park is Calypso Café, the Carribean restaurant in Harper Court known for its jerk chicken and sweet plantains. Sure, Calypso can be tasty, but it’s also just as effete and elite as its most famous patron. If it’s true blue-collar Jamaican cooking you want, pass on Calypso and head south, into Woodlawn, past the Green Line stop, and on to Jamaica Jerk Choice.
Jamaica Jerk Choice is a simple, straightforward restaurant. The decor is spare but appropriate: a few colorful portraits of Bob Marley and the Jamaican flag posted on the otherwise bare walls. There are five or six tables in the little dining room, though one is reserved for the owner’s children and their coloring books.
It’s not much to look at, but hold your judgment until you taste the food, which is given to you, in typical South Side style, by way of a bulletproof glass carousel. The jerk chicken is spot on—a chewy, charcoal-smoked rub over white meat so succulent it melts in your mouth, with just the right amount of kick. To turn up the heat, pour the house’s hot sauce over the chicken or your side of rice and red beans—just be sure to have a couple slices of Jamaican bread (something between Wonder Bread and pound cake) handy to smother the fire.
You can also opt for jerk pork or a few types of fish, but if you really want to be authentic, order the jerk goat (good luck finding that on the menu at Calypso). Goat meat is surprisingly mild though it has a hint of gaminess that plays well against the tangy spice of the jerk sauce. If you’ve never experienced goat before, this little spot is the place to try it. A restaurant on the streets of Kingston it’s not, but unless you’re headed to the Caribbean for spring break, Jamaica Jerk Choice is an awfully good alternative. —Jordan Holliday
Joy Yee’s Noodles
2159 South China Place
Chow mein. Pad thai. Udon. Korean BBQ. Potstickers. Crab Rangoon. Rice baked in a bamboo pot?! Everything you love about Asian cuisine, you can find at Joy Yee’s, from the astounding (intimidating, perhaps, for the uninitiated) list of bubble tea/tapioca drinks to the epic menu, which is a veritable cornucopia of delicious pan-Asian dishes.
This is a dining establishment with enough variety for repeat visits. You might order Thai fish cakes, mango chicken, and a lychee and watermelon freeze on one trip, and then Vietnamese spring rolls, kimchi and pork noodles, and taro milk tea tapioca on the next visit. The possibilities are endless—think Choose Your Own (Asian Cuisine) Adventure, but without running the risk of drowning in quicksand. The only discomfort you’re likely to experience is from gorging on the massive, stick-to-your-ribcage portions.
The Chinatown location (a hop and a skip away from the Red Line Cermak/Chinatown stop) has recently been remodeled and expanded, and the brightly lit space is a happy clash of cafeteria-style seating and a Jamba Juice-esque corner where drinks emerge from a conveyer belt of blenders. There is a healthy wait during dinner hours, especially on weekends, so be sure to show up early, or go on a weeknight. The popularity of the restaurant means that you can now find Joy Yee’s on Halsted (1335 South Halsted Avenue) and in Evanston (521 Davis Street). —Emerald Gao
2109 South Ashland Avenue
$.25 and up
The heart of Chicago’s Mexican neighborhood is the last place you would expect to stumble across a bakery named “La Baguette.” Nonetheless, after overcoming your confusion and wandering in for, say, a flakey croissant or a rich éclair, you’ll discover, if you aren’t yet familiar, the mouthwatering world of the Mexican pastry. Mexican sweet bread, cream puffs, and mini cakes and tarts line shelf after shelf in this huge self-service shop. Grab a metal tray and a pair of tongs, and try not to get out of hand as you begin to pile it high with the fresh-daily delectables. Don’t even attempt to try everything in your first few trips (it’s impossible), but if you need suggestions, the “conchas,” shell-shaped rolls topped with powdered sugar, are a great place to start. The almond marzipan is rich but not overbearing, and the rice pudding displays the perfect consistency and has even better flavor. Other favorites include the sweet empanadas (the pumpkin-filled ones are extremely addictive), and the cakes stacked high with fresh or glazed fruit. Best of all, prices start at just 25 cents, and most items are under a dollar. When you’re done choosing, just try to make it to your car without sampling at least two or three of the pastries in your bag (also impossible). —Adrian Florido
Address: 565 West Jackson Boulevard
Phone Number: (312) 939-3111
Some people will tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. At Lou Mitchell’s, it can be your only meal.
The food starts coming as soon as you walk through the door of this classic diner and Chicago landmark. The white-haired hostess greets guests with a basket of doughnut holes from the in-house bakery to munch on while waiting for a table. Then there’s the orange slice and date brought over as you scan the menu of pancakes, waffles, jumbo omelets, and egg and breakfast meat combos.
Portions on these entrées are monstrously huge, with a single scrambled egg taking up about half the skillet it’s served in alongside hash browns and bacon, ham, or sausage. As delicious as these breakfast mainstays are, what makes Lou Mitchell’s worth the trip downtown is how well it does the little things. The coffee is always hot and cups are constantly refilled, and the homemade orange marmalade is the perfect topping for the thick slices of toast.
Open until 3 p.m., Lou Mitchell’s starts adding to the breakfast menu at 10:30 with sandwiches and salads for lunch. —Kate Fratar
833 West Randolph Street
Mixing some of the best elements of French cuisine with American largesse, Marché prepares its bistro-style dishes well, with an emphasis on bringing out their simple flavors. It’s hard to go wrong with any of the items on the menu, but the coq au vin is perfectly prepared and will remind you of the French grandmother you wish you had. Assuming, that is, that this fictional Frenchwoman lived in an environment that resembled Maira Kalman Goes to the French Circus with klezmer overtones.
Visit Marché on Mondays or Wednesdays, when the restaurant serves any appetizer or salad paired with any entrée and any dessert for only $25—a steal, considering the price is about what you’d pay merely for the entrée most other nights. It also means that you can get the elusively named duck liver mousse without the guilt of feeling like you’re eating one of the least humane (and now illegal) items to grace Chicago menus.
The lighting is dark, but the place is always lively—particularly on the prix-fixe days, giving the place the right balance of energy and mystique to make it a perfect first-date (or, as is all too often the case, first “out of Hyde Park date”) restaurant. —Tim Hotze
Mity Nice Bar & Grill
835 North Michigan Avenue
Water Tower Place, Mezzanine Level
Entrées: $8 lunch, $10-12 dinner
Located at the back of the food court in Water Tower Place, Mity Nice Bar & Grill can be tricky to find, but when you do get there, it’s a satisfying refuge after a long day of shopping and the crowds along the Magnificent Mile. Mity Nice serves traditional and familiar food in a retro style. While not particularly noteworthy, the food is satisfying, and the portions are ample enough to share.
While several decimal places away from gourmet, Mity Nice offers something that even some of Chicago’s top restaurants lack: consistency. Service, like the food, is also about average, but again, pleasantly consistent. When you’d rather spend the big bucks in a department store, Mity Nice hits the spot. —Chris Salata
Address: 325 West Huron Street
Phone Number: (312) 664-2727
Nacional 27 is the place for fine dining on a college budget. This restaurant that doubles as a salsa club in Chicago’s night scene offers reasonably priced entrées as well as extensive tapas, ceviche, and side menus while it’s still serving dinner.
Located in the gallery district, Nacional 27 is just off the Adams and Wabash stop on the Brown Line. It has all the ambiance for an upscale eating experience without being so sophisticated that it takes away the fun of going out. The courses likewise boast intricate flavors and are meant to be savored but stop short of being too complicated or artfully presented. There’s even a whole section of the menu for “Latin Comfort Food” that features vegetable and rice combos as well as two pork dishes.
While the entrées won’t send anyone home hungry, a full meal could be put together with the seviches and tapas. A few items here are in the $8 to 10 range, but then there are also plates like the BBQ lamb tiny tacos with avocado salsa for $3.95 each. Whether going the full meal or grazing route, though, be sure to leave room to sample something for dessert. —Kate Fratar
Nuevo León Restaurant
1515 West 18th Street
Breakfast $3-5; lunch $6; dinner $10-15
Although Mexican cuisine options dot the city, Nuevo Leon stands out as one of the best. A hotbed of Mexican culture inhabited by many first- and second-generation immigrants, Pilsen is west and north of Hyde Park, and a haven for authentic Mexican cuisine. The 45-year-old Nuevo León is crowded, even during off hours. It attracts both locals and customers from across the city, and it’s not uncommon to spot a familiar U of C face among the crowd. Be forewarned, though: With seats at a premium and reservations unavailable, you might have to wait in line for a table.
The enchiladas and tostadas are great, and the tortillas are arguably the best in the city, but stay away from the taco, the menu’s weakest item. The atmosphere is lively and bright, and the restaurant’s popularity and constant bustle keep things interesting and fast-paced. Still, since the front room is typically too crowded and noisy with waiting customers, request to sit in the back. Enjoy Nuevo León not just for the great food, but also as an opportunity to practice your Spanish with waiters and waitresses who won’t mind interpreting noun-adjective disagreement or pathetic attempts at adding long “o’s” to the ends of English words.
75 West Harrison Street
Orange is all about breakfast. You can get other things there, but breakfast is what they do, and they do it better than anyone else.
There are three parts to a full Orange experience. The first is juice. For $4 you get a tall glass with a combination of three different juices from a list of fruits and vegetables that will give your imagination plenty of space to invent. They are all fresh squeezed on the spot.
The second part is frushi. It is fruit, cut to look like sushi, usually including some kind of sweet, flavored rice. Though it’s a little pricy for the amount of food that it actually amounts to, it is exceptionally delicious.
Finally, there is the main course. Most famous of these is the Pancake Flight, which consists of four sizeable stacks of pancakes, each with a different elaborate flavor combination based on a theme which changes every week. Themes range from “tree” to my personal favorite, “Great Britain,” which included pancake stacks flavored as trifle, fruitcake, bread pudding, and rum cake. The pancake flight is delicious, but in the end no one needs to eat that many pancakes. I highly recommend the Chai Tea French Toast, but you really cannot go wrong with any breakfast item on the menu.
The original location is on the North Side, but there is now a closer and larger location on Harrison, just a couple of blocks west of the Red Line stop. —Joe Riina-Ferrie
501 South State Street
With tasty sandwiches, hearty soups, and fresh salads, Panera serves up a satisfying lunch or dinner for less than $10. Most of the dishes lean toward an Italian Mediterranean flavoring with touches of mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes popping up to keep the taste fresh and light. Combination platters make it easy to pick and choose from the wide selection on the menu to get a good sample of what Panera has to offer. Best of all, there will still be room for dessert from Panera’s own bakery.
Located by the Harrison stop on the Red Line, Panera is in a great spot for getting around before or after eating. However, the address also guarantees a lot of downtown foot traffic and students from nearby DePaul and Roosevelt. Getting a table can sometimes be tricky, but if the weather’s nice, order to go and picnic at Millennium Park. —Kate Fratar
626 North State Street
Although Quartino’s motto—”where the wine is cheaper than water”—is a bit of an exaggeration, its prices for wine and food are very reasonable. What’s more, this River North restaurant, a block north of the Grand stop on the Red Line, is usually willing to accommodate a group of college students in their quest for one of the best bellinis in town.
The food is all small portions and served as soon as it’s ready, making courses more of a concept than a reality. The best bet is to come with a large group of friends and order an array of cheeses, salamis, pizzas (their quattro formaggi is excellent), and pastas. Nibble to your heart’s content and your stomach’s astonishment.
An evening spent at this restaurant, with its tile walls, Italian highlights, and old-school Italian movies playing in the background, will make you feel like you’re living la vita bella—that is, until you come home to write that last-minute Hum paper. —Tim Hotze
115 East Chicago Avenue
Entrées: lunch $10-20; dinner $15-25
RL Restaurant is among the best area establishments if you want to experience the high-class Gold Coast atmosphere or impress visiting parents. RL is designer Ralph Lauren’s first restaurant venture, and its prime downtown location—next to the Ralph Lauren store on the corner of Michigan and Chicago avenues—is key to its success. Outdoor seating provides for prime people watching.
Now owned by Gibson’s Steakhouse, the restaurant serves classic American food with a chic twist. Although more expensive than ordinary restaurants, it’s worth every penny. The organic, Irish-imported salmon is a highlight and the wine list is excellent, but some dishes (like the salads) are just ordinary. RL mixes the cosmopolitan, world-class characteristics of Chicago with an approachable feel. The dining room has the air of a posh British club with a mix of high fashion and high design. The wood-paneled walls are covered with black and white photographs and old British prints, and the clientele is a mix of wealthy locals, fashionistas, shoppers, and celebrities (Oprah recommends it to her guests), so make sure to dress for the occasion. —Kate Shepherd
Russian Tea Time
77 East Adams Street
Though its name may inspire visions of a sequestered cottage where you can sip tea and enjoy your tranquil surroundings, the reality is quite the opposite. Just across the street from the Art Institute, Russian Tea Time is always busy and sometimes downright chaotic. Perhaps that’s because while expensive, its traditional Russian and regional food is more intriguing than what you’ll find in Bennigan’s around the corner.
Examples include the Russian Herring and Cherry Quail, though more common dishes such as their Beef Stroganoff and Russian Dumplings are delicious as well. While many entrées run upward of $25, a cash-strapped student can stay in budget by skipping appetizers and ordering half portions—still more than enough to leave you satisfied. Of course, ordering tea is an integral part of the experience, and their Russian tea, served in an ornately decorated glass, is excellent.
The one major drawback is the service, sometimes noticeably worse for students than for those who have perceptibly more money to spend. During peak dinner hours it’s difficult to move around, and often waiters will seemingly disappear. It’s too expensive and wearisome for return visits, but the overall experience warrants a one-time trip. —Steve Trubac
1943 West North Avenue
$19-28 for 20-inch pizza
Santullo’s is a slightly upscale but inexpensive pizza joint located near the intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee avenues in Wicker Park. Stop here after shopping at Myopic Books, one of the best used bookstores in the city. The pizza slices are immense and cost $3.50 a slice, but you can snag $2 slices if you visit during happy hour: Monday through Friday, 4-6 p.m. The pizza is New York-style, and it is fantastic. Draught beer is also served. —Ryan McCarl
917 West Belmont Avenue
$10 buffet for dinner, $9 for lunch
This buffet-style Belmont restaurant is always a surefire hit for big groups. The name says it all: It’s just your standard Indian food—no more, no less. There’s not much in the way of atmosphere; bright lighting and unadorned tables make the place seem like more of a cafeteria. And the menu includes all the standard Indian staples: tandoori chicken, samosas, naan, yogurt, and more. But it’s all good. And the best news for the college student’s wallet is that it’s all included in one all-you-can-eat buffet price. The mango lassi, a sweet yogurt drink, is a refreshing way to follow the heavy spices of the entrée, although it’s not included in the buffet price. —Kat Glass
6363 North Milwaukee Avenue
While deep-dish pizza is the undisputed champion of Chicago cuisine, the All-American hot dog ranks a close second on the city’s list of top eats. At Superdawg, you’ll get one of the best hot dogs Chicago has to offer, accentuated by a truly unique setting. The only downside to this classic dive is that it takes a set of wheels to eat there.
Superdawg is an old-fashioned drive-thru where you place your order at your own “carhop in a wire.” The waitress then comes out with your food and attaches the tray to the car window. While the menu lists typical fast food items such as hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes, the taste is far from the typical fast food fare. The milkshakes are so thick that they should really be eaten with a spoon. The famed hot dogs come with the works and are nestled inside a box of out-of-this-world french fries. —Kate Fratar
The Star of Siam
11 East Illinois Street
While Hyde Park is certainly not wanting in Thai restaurants, it is still worthwhile to head up to River North to try something a little different. Just blocks from Michigan Avenue, this inexpensive restaurant is located in a former warehouse and offers an expansive menu. Take the cushion seats for a comfy meal. Service is quick and efficient, making this restaurant great for a quick stop when shopping on the Magnificent Mile. The management should dim their lights just a bit, though—while the food was delicious, an unfortunately placed spotlight caused an unappetizing glare to reflect off the oil in my rama chicken. While not perfect, the Star of Siam offers reliably good food at an affordable price. —Sharat Ganapati
3042 North Broadway Street
Some believe that living in Chicago requires shelling out big money at fancy restaurants. But here’s a secret: By sticking with local diners and holes-in-the-wall, you’ll often get better food without busting your budget, and you’ll be welcomed as a local. If you are in the Belmont area, Stella’s Diner is a great choice for a down-home meal under $10. Their matzah ball and chicken noodle soups are fantastic, as are their burgers and French dips. Of course, you should only go if you are hanging out in the area (which is highly recommended, by the way); otherwise, Salonica is just down the street and offers similar, though slightly inferior, fare. —Ryan McCarl
833 West Chicago Avenue
One dish at Thalia Spice exemplifies the restaurant’s raison détre pretty succinctly. It’s a fairly typical dish, the kind any self-respecting Thai eatery would serve: chicken satay. But a few things distinguish this version from, say, Noodles Etc.’s. First, the poultry is served on a fancy, triangular plate, not a plain round dish covered in fork scratchings. Second, the chicken comes with not only one, but two sauces. Finally, the dish is garnished with an elegantly carved radish and lies on a bed of lettuce. That sums up Thalia Spice: It’s any Thai restaurant in Chicago served on a bed of lettuce. With an ornately carved radish.
The restaurant’s location and design are one of its biggest selling points. Located in a cozy corner of West Town on West Chicago Avenue and North Halsted Street, the restaurant benefits enormously from its quiet, tree-lined hill. The patio dining is lovely in the summer, and during the warm months the restaurant’s doors are open to the cool breezes blowing in from the lake.
Like most Thai places in the city, Thalia Spice is BYOB. And like many Thai places, it is not just Thai. There’s a full sushi menu, as well as dishes that could be called Vietnamese and Chinese. On the other hand, none of this food would pass muster in the Orient. Like most American Pan-Asian places, Thalia Spice is not meant for the purists.
The food is a step above most other eateries of this type. You can get crab Rangoon anywhere but not with fresh crab and jalapeño. The menu relies heavily on fresh tropical fruit, not just for drinks and desserts but delectable little salads and wonderful sauces. A must-have is the mango seared scallops—the scallops take a back seat to the wonderful garlic-cilantro flavors in the mango salsa. The Saigon rolls are simply prepared and served with a tangy sesame seed sauce.
Entrées are all pretty good, but highlights include the grilled spicy eggplant with plump shrimp, sea scallops in a spicy garlic sauce, and the sinus-clearing Tom Yum soup. And, of course, Thalia Spice pulls off a pretty good Pad Thai—but compared to other offerings it seems woefully under-seasoned. The Penang Fried Noodles, unfortunately, are blandly over-reliant on soy sauce. —Ben Rossi
1952 North Halsted Avenue
Most commonly frequented by work-weary yuppies, Tilli’s Restaurant (directly off of the Armitage stop in Lincoln Park) has plenty of appeal for college students as well. A good location; a comfortably chic dining room, and a reasonably priced, moderately tasty menu are just a few of the reasons to make the trek from Hyde Park.
The food at Tilli’s could be described as global cuisine, although several American staples like mac and cheese do make their way onto the menu. Because few platters from the vast variety of offerings—ranging from Thai to Italian—are accomplished with notable success, some patrons leave feeling they have merely visited an upscale Applebee’s. Nevertheless, some picks do shine through: The Thai glazed salmon, for example, is delicious. The complimentary pre-packaged breadsticks are a definite bonus for cheapskate college students.
The décor probably outshines the food; the floor-to-ceiling windows are opened during the spring and summer, transforming the dining room into a covered patio. In the winter, diners can cozy up to the large fireplace. Despite its proximity to Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago’s most well known and expensive culinary landmark, the prices at Tilli’s are reasonable, with entrees hovering around $10 to $20. —Tyler Warner
White Palace Grill
1159 South Canal Street
The quintessential greasy spoon diner, the White Palace Grill is a short cab or CTA ride from Hyde Park, and your best bet for round-the-clock servings of warm food and Chicago history. Founded in 1939, White Palace is on the eastern edge of the UIC campus (near the Roosevelt Red Line stop), and has served many a local politician, athlete, or celebrity in need of some of the best 2 a.m. waffles in town. Breakfast is the specialty, but the menu is diverse (including vegetarian options), and the food is fast, hot, cheap, and delicious. While waiting for your food, you can’t help but be entertained by the eccentric wall decorations commemorating the diner’s place in Chicago history (including a sprawling mural of famous Chicagoans) and the colorful customers that give White Palace its unique character. There are cleaner, healthier, and hipper late-night dining options in the city, but White Palace is perfect for cold winter nights when all you want is a short trip, a fun time, and filling food. —Justin Sink