21 Restaurants We Can’t Imagine Chicago Without

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

While the Windy City has always prided itself on its restaurant scene, in recent years, the rest of the country has taken note as well. Since the 2000s, the city has routinely picked up Michelin stars, launched the careers of star chefs such as Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard, and played host to the James Beard Awards for the past five years and counting. The year 2017 was a windfall, when both Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit magazines named it the Restaurant City of the Year.

Coming off a year that’s wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry as a whole, there’s never been a better time to celebrate the iconic spots that have shaped the city’s restaurant scene into the juggernaut it is today. From classic steakhouses to modern Korean food, these are The Greats: 21 restaurants that have helped define Chicago’s world-class dining scene.

Boka (Lincoln Park)

Credit: Boka

This is the restaurant that launched the Boka Group, the Chicago hospitality leader that counts Girl & the Goat, GT Prime, and Momotaro to its name. And it’s easy to see how: Boka’s approachable, seasonally driven new American menu has garnered the restaurant a Michelin star, three stars from the Chicago Tribune, James Beard Awards nominations, and solidified it as one of Chicago’s most exciting places to dine. Renowned chef Lee Wolen has a knack for taking seemingly simple preparations and adding depth, texture, and an unexpected flavor or two. For instance, Spanish octopus is served with broccolini, but honeycrisp apple adds crunch while yuzu kosho sauce — a blend of citrus, chile, and salt — adds acid. 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. 

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.

Takeout: Boka’s cocktails and a variety of more casual dishes such as burgers are available for takeout via third-party apps.

Parachute (Avondale)

Credit: Parachute

This small restaurant punches way above its weight class, 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. Though it is currently operating with a pared-down takeout menu out of its sister restaurant down the street, Wherewithall, Parachute is still serving some of the signature dishes that Chicagoans fell in love with. Stop in for chef Beverly Kim’s signature dish of baked potato bing bread with sour cream butter — a buttery loaf filled with bacon, potato, and cheese — vegan mapo tofu, or a ten-piece order of Korean fried chicken with spicy gochujang sauce. 

Dining at the restaurant: Parachute is not open for dining at this time.

Takeout: Takeout and delivery for food, wine, beer, and cocktails is available via the restaurant’s website, alongside a few other items such as merch and homemade baby food. The restaurant also offers diners the option to donate $10 to The Abundance Setting to fund their meal relief program to working mothers in the hospitality industry who are struggling to feed their families.

Demera (Uptown) 

When Tigist Reda immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in 2007, she brought a passion for cooking and an entrepreneurial spirit, opening Demera shortly after her arrival. The chef’s meticulously prepared dishes — she even toasts and grinds all of her own spices — quickly established this restaurant as the city’s top destination for Ethiopian food. Order one of the Messob platters, which can feed groups ranging from two to eight and offers Chicagoans the opportunity to try eight different chef’s selections, such as kik alicha, a dish of split yellow peas stewed with onions, garlic and tumeric, or ye-beg wot, where bone-in lamb is braised in a spicy berbere chile sauce. For those looking to temper the heat in some dishes, ask about the house made honey wine, or tej, that provides enough sweetness to balance the spice.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.

Takeout: Pickup and delivery are available through the restaurant’s website.

Café Ba-Ba-Reeba (Lincoln Park)

Long before the small plates concept dominated almost every new restaurant, Café Ba-Ba-Reeba was serving tapas to the denizens of Lincoln Park. In fact, when the restaurant opened in 1985, it did so as the progenitor of Spanish cuisine in the city, introducing Chicagoans to paella and patatas bravas. Today, locals still flock to the restaurant to sample the six different styles of sangria on offer, snack on chorizo-wrapped dates and tortilla española, or to fortify themselves on the weekend with perennially packed tapas brunch, featuring items such as waffle-battered chicken on a stick with maple syrup. Café Ba-Ba-Reeba is part of the venerated Lettuce Entertain You Group, which includes other Chicago favorites such as Shaw’s Crab House, RPM Italian, and Mon Ami Gabi.

Dining at the restaurant: Café Ba-Ba-Reeba is open for limited indoor dining, and outdoor dining on the restaurant’s heated year-round patio and courtyard.

Takeout:Takeout and delivery is available here or by calling the restaurant directly.

Maple and Ash (Gold Coast)

In a city with many steakhouses that boast decades of operation, Maple and Ash represents the next generation of the genre. This sprawling restaurant puts opulence front and center, from the velvet dining chairs and soaring ceilings to the wine list, where the priciest bottle tops $10,000. And while that’s out of reach for many, there are smaller luxuries available, 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. For those who would rather just sit back and let the kitchen decide, there’s a $200 tasting menu, cheekily named the “I Don’t Give a F*@k” option. 

Dining at the restaurant: Maple and Ash is open for limited indoor dining for dinner, as well as lunch, weekend brunch, and dinner in the restaurant’s tented, heated courtyard.

Takeout: The restaurant offers takeout and delivery through its website.

Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse (Gold Coast)

Credit: Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse

To say Gibsons is popular would be an understatement — this is the highest grossing independent restaurant in all of Chicago. The restaurant’s prime location just off the Magnificent Mile and commitment to quality has 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, lending a boisterous atmosphere that suddenly makes another round feel like the only good idea. 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. Save room for desserts, which the menu humbly lists as carrot cake or chocolate mousse pie, but in reality are towering, multi-layer creations that rival the city’s skyscrapers in height.

Dining at the restaurant: Gibsons is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining on the restaurant’s covered, heated patio.

Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available through the restaurant’s website, offering prepared items, family meals that feed four people, and cook-at-home steaks and chops that come with a container of the restaurant’s signature seasoning salt and videos to help guide diners through the cooking process.

Tanta (River North)

Tanta owner 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 the full diversity 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 a one-of-a-kind 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 year-round rooftop patio. Pair it with one of the innovative pisco drinks, such as the La Rusa, a mix of pisco, elderflower liqueur, orange, and lemon poured over a Campari-infused ice cube.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor dining on the heated rooftop terrace.

Takeout: A la carte takeout is available through Tanta’s website; the restaurant also offers meal kits such as a ceviche party kit through third-party apps.

Chicago Cut Steakhouse (River North)

Located downtown alongside the Chicago River, surrounded by the city’s skyscrapers, dining at this notorious power broker spot makes anyone feel like they’re in the heart of the city’s action. A seat in one of the oversized, red tufted booths that line the wall offer lucky diners a view of both the tour boats cruising the river and the other patrons in the lively dining room. The menu is full of steakhouse classics, with a few originals thrown in such as the Lobsterscargot appetizer, where Maine lobster tail pieces are cooked in garlic butter, topped with melted havarti, and crostinis come on the side to help spoon up the mixture.

Dining at the restaurant: Chicago Cut Steakhouse is currently accepting reservations and offers both indoor seating and riverside patio seating.

Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant directly. 

Shaw’s Crab House (River North)

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 that’s known for its relationships with fishermen all over the world and extensive oyster selection. Head to the wood-paneled dining room to feast on blackened mahi mahi from Costa Rica, or for a classic Shaw’s experience, go for the Alaskan king crab dinner, which comes with an enormous king crab that clocks in at over a pound, Caesar salad, two sides, and dessert. For a quick bite, snag a bar stool at the old-school oyster counter, where the day’s selections are posted on the board hanging overhead and the well-versed shucker can talk you through the characteristics of each variety, opening up the bivalves right before your eyes.

Dining at the restaurant: Shaw’s is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor seating on the restaurant’s tented, heated patio.

Takeout: Takeout is available through the restaurant’s website.

Sunda (River North)

Credit: Sunda

When it opened in the late aughts, Sunda quickly became known as a celebrity hangout in River North. But celebrity hot spots come and go, and Sunda owes its staying power to its consistently good food that, at the time of its opening, helped introduce many in the Midwest to the flavors of Southeast Asia. These influences are still there today, evident in dishes such as the restaurant’s signature Brussels sprouts salad that mixes red cabbage, red onion, carrots, and minced shrimp in a Vietnamese-inspired nuoc cham vinaigrette. There are more straightforward preparations as well, such as a sushi menu and poke bowls. Whiskey lovers would be remiss not to dig into the restaurant’s stash of Japanese bottles, offered in two ounce to-go bottles as part of a build-your-own whiskey flight.

Dining at the restaurant: Sunda is currently closed for indoor dining.

Takeout: The restaurant’s full menu is available for takeout and delivery via third-party apps.

Gene & Georgetti (River North)

In its 80-year history, Chicago’s oldest steakhouse has played host to celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Will Ferrell, and cultivated a devoted following among locals. Though the past two years have forced Gene & Georgetti to contend with a grease fire and a global pandemic, the restaurant has soldiered on, nimbly pivoting to meet both moments. The menu remains close to what it started as when the restaurant opened in 1941, dishing out beautifully marbled steaks, double-cut lamb chops, and red-sauce favorites such as eggplant parmigiana in a softly lit, red-carpeted room where it’s easy to lose track of time, order another bottle of wine, and linger for a couple hours.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant has built heated, ventilated outdoor shelters for diners to enjoy steak sandwiches at lunch time or spaghetti bolognese at dinner. Gene & Georgetti also operates a coffee bar that serves espresso and grab-and-go breakfast sandwiches throughout the day.

Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available through the restaurant’s website.

Kumiko (West Loop)

Credit: Kumiko

The team behind Oriole runs this modern cocktail bar that creative director Julia Momose describes as “a cocktail party with the world’s best hors d’oeuvres.” The restaurant’s Japanese-inflected drinks and small plates were an instant hit, earning it a spot on the Chicago Tribune’s 2019 list of best restaurants, and a mention as one of Time’s 2019’s Greatest Places. While the restaurant is currently closed for indoor dining, locals can still enjoy creative cocktails and food to-go, such as the Seamless, an unexpected combination of namazaké (unpasteurized sake), aquavit, pineau des Charentes (a fortified wine), elderflower syrup, and orange bitters. Keep an eye on the restaurant’s social media for food specials, which recently included duck soba with winter squash and kombu dashi.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently closed for indoor dining, but offers window service in the restaurant’s Garden, where diners can also pre-order cocktails and snacks online.

Takeout: The same cocktails, wine, spirits and snacks are also available for curbside pickup.

The Berghoff (The Loop)

Founded in 1898 by a German-born brewery owner, The Berghoff is a living piece of Chicago history. Aside from being one of the oldest family-run businesses in the country, it’s also the proud owner of the first liquor license issued in Chicago after Prohibition. Today, the restaurant still serves its own beer alongside a mostly German menu of dishes such as wiener schnitzel, bratwurst, and potato pancakes. And while the long wooden bar and dining room remain relatively unchanged, there are a few nods to modern times in the restaurant — the brewery now produces a double IPA, and diners can find gluten-free and paleo options on the menu.

Dining at the restaurant: The Berghoff is currently in hibernation.

Takeout: The restaurant is not offering takeout or delivery at this time, but the Adams Street brewery is accepting pick-up orders for six-packs of beer.

La Scarola (West Town)

West Town’s La Scarola rose to fame when iconic Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray started name dropping the restaurant during his broadcasts, quickly attracting residents and — as the restaurant’s walls of framed celebrity photos can attest — tons of celebrities. The famous, infamous, and average Joes keep coming back for the restaurant’s no-nonsense approach to Italian food: fresh ingredients, huge portions, and reasonable prices. This is one of the best restaurants in the city to visit with a large family or group, with plenty of large tables and food to match, offering enormous plates of veal marsala and penne alla vodka. Order several bottles of wine and trust the knowledgeable staff to help you land somewhere between “too much food” and “way too much food.”

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.

Takeout: Takeout is available to order through La Scarola’s website.

Girl & the Goat (West Loop)

Credit: Girl & the Goat

Stephanie Izard shot to fame when she won the fourth season of Bravo’s Top Chef, which she then parlayed into a series of successful Chicago restaurants with the team behind Boka that upped the ante for Chicago’s casual but ambitious dining spots, first with Girl & the Goat. As the name implies, this is a meat-heavy menu, but one that brings in a chorus of textures, flavors, and inspirations. For instance, the namesake goat appears in empanada form with miso-bleu aioli and mushroom-apple giardiniera, or as confit goat belly with lobster, crab, and vanilla bourbon brown butter. Goat even makes its way onto the drink menu, where diners can pair their meaty meal with a “goat fashion,” where goat-fat infused bourbon is mixed with demerara sugar and fennel bitters.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for limited indoor dining.

Takeout: Girl & the Goat is not doing takeout at this time, but its sibling restaurant Little Goat is, available through OpenTable.

Oriole (West Loop)

Though the restaurant is currently closed for renovations, Oriole should still top any diner’s list for a special occasion spot. Finding the Michelin-starred tasting menu spot is a bit like going on a treasure hunt — the restaurant’s entrance is tucked away between loading docks in the back of a building. But the reward is worth it once diners set foot in the intimate dining room, which gives every seat in the house a view of the chefs at work along the back wall. In the kitchen, the cooks move in a well-choreographed dance to crank out dishes for the multi-course tasting menu, sending out an international spectrum of flavors such as sea urchin with toasted rice and smoked soy.

Dining at the restaurant: Oriole is currently closed for renovations and expansion. The restaurant recommends joining their mailing list for the most up-to-date information.

Takeout: Takeout is not available at this time.

Jaipur (West Loop) 

When Jaipur opened in 2007, it was one of the few high-end Indian restaurants outside of West Devon Avenue, and perhaps the only one in the West Loop. A decade and change later, it’s no longer the only option in this part of the city, but it still stands out as one of the best, serving up traditional dishes at price points that routinely land the restaurant on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list for quality cooking. Stop by for dishes such as aloo papdi, which combines chickpeas, potatoes, spiced yogurt, tamarind, and mint chutney, and then tops the dish with fried chickpea flour crisps. Chat with the knowledgeable staff about wine pairings or try one of the restaurant’s Indian craft beers, such as an IPA brewed with Gir Kesar mango grown in western India.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently closed for indoor dining.

Takeout: Jaipur’s full menu is available for pickup and delivery.

Sepia (West Loop) 

Sepia is a Chicago stalwart, producing an ever-changing seasonal American menu that has garnered the restaurant a Michelin star on top of the constellation of stars from various reviewers throughout its 12 years in business. The $65 tasting menu, from lauded chef Andrew Zimmerman, consists of four courses, ranging from dishes such as ricotta gnudi with caramelized onion broth to duck breast with duck rillettes, parsnips, and radicchio. For the full package, select the wine pairing option to try sommelier Jennifer Wagoner’s selections and compliment a dish of potato agnolotti with a crisp Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.

Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.

Takeout: A la carte items and wine are available for takeout through the restaurant’s website.

Pizano’s (Multiple locations) 

There are many places for great pizza in Chicago, but when in doubt, follow Oprah’s recommendation and head to Pizano’s. There’s impressive pizza lineage here — owner Rudy Malnati Jr.’s father founded the original Pizzeria Uno, creating what many consider to be the original Chicago deep dish pizza. The restaurant serves both thin crust and deep dish, and you can’t go wrong with either. The thin crust (Oprah’s favorite) is cracker thin, with a crispness that provides a satisfying crunch when you bite into it. The deep dish is textbook, stacked high and served in the pan, with deeply caramelized edges and, of course, sauce on top. For the true Midwestern pizza experience, order a side of ranch.

Dining at the restaurant: Select Pizano’s locations are open for dine-in; check the restaurant’s website for the most up-to-date information.

Takeout: Takeout is available from all locations via Pizano’s website; the restaurant also ships frozen pizzas nationwide.  

Jibaritos y Mas (Logan Square) 

Credit: Jibaritos y Mas

When owner Jesus Arrieta’s mother, Yelitza Rivera, opened the first Jibaritos y Mas, she didn’t know that she was setting the stage for a three-location mini empire. The restaurant specializes in the jibarito, a sandwich that originated in Chicago and has been perfected by Rivera that swaps smashed, fried plantains for bread. Beyond jibaritos, the restaurant serves Puerto Rican standards executed at the highest level, such as fried pork with onions or an assortment of mofongo (mashed green plantains with garlic) with a choice of fillings ranging from shrimp and octopus to stewed beef.

Dining at the restaurant: Limited indoor dining is available at the Lincoln Park location, which is also the only location to boast a full bar where diners can choose from five different mojito flavors.

Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available from all locations and can be ordered via this website.

Al’s Beef (Multiple locations)  

Al’s Beef is a Chicago story, through and through. Italian immigrant Anthony Ferreri is credited with inventing the Italian beef sandwich and selling it out of the back of his truck, but the dish really took off when his enterprising son Al had the idea to create a brick-and-mortar sandwich shop … to use as a front for his illegal gambling operations. Sandwiches turned out to be a more reliable business, and Al’s Beef now operates five locations and counting throughout the city. Order the classic sandwich, where beef round is thinly sliced and simmered in spiced au jus before being piled onto French bread, topped with hot and sweet peppers, and a heaping spoonful of giardiniera, that Chicago-born mix of pickled vegetables. To order like a true local, ask for it “dipped” to have the entire sandwich dunked in jus, and assume the Italian Stance while you eat it.

Dining at the restaurant: The counter-service restaurant is carry-out only.

Takeout: Al’s is available for takeout at all locations and delivery can be ordered through third-party apps.

Tried them all? Check out other options here.