Dine Like a Local in Chicago: 8 Top Neighborhood Gems in the Windy City

A city of neighborhoods, Chicago is unsurprisingly full of hidden-gem eateries. Even in the most intolerably touristy areas, you can find a few spots packed mostly with locals if you know which tree-lined street to duck down or who to ask. We’ve done some of that legwork for you, highlighting nine Chicagoan-approved restaurants that span old-school red sauce joints, fine-dining temples, heartland-tinged gastropubs and even a few favorite haunts of local chefs. So, travelers, put away the map, and bring your Midwestern-sized appetite. Here’s where to dine like a local in Chicago.

High-end, retro pub fare at The Duck Inn, Bridgeport
A favorite among local and visiting chefs alike, chef Kevin Hickey’s gastro-tavern with retro decor in the warehouse district of southside Bridgeport raises the bar on this oft-overlooked dining neighborhood. Playful dishes range from potted foie gras with ginger-plum gelee and masterful rotisserie duck to one of the best gourmet takes on the legendary Chicago-style hot dog — a beef and duck-fat dog with onions, relish, and celery salt on a housemade brioche bun. Wash it down with clever cocktails like the Daily Intake with brandy, house “Newtoncello,” apple butter, brown butter, and lemon in a midcentury globe-lit lounge and you’re halfway to Mad Men. Make a reservation at The Duck Inn.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Multi-course theater at goosefoot, Lincoln Square
This diminutive, 24-seat BYOB spot in the tree-lined Lincoln Square ‘hood isn’t listed among the fine-dining spots you hear about all the time (Alinea or Grace ring a bell?). But it should be. Chef Chris Nugent’s market-driven, modern American tasting menu seamlessly blends disciplined French training and contemporary artistry for a memorable, dozen-odd courses. It may start with lemongrass-tinged scallops with lobster and sun blossoms, building to asparagus tortellini with smoked rabbit or Angus beef with fragrant nasturtium. Dessert is always followed by a packaged treat from the kitchen’s chocolate lab. Such intricate dishes make for a slow-paced meal, so give yourself a couple hours to soak in this intimate bit of dinner theater. Make a reservation at goosefoot.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Unique sea-inspired fare at Sink | Swim, Logan Square
You might overlook this nautically tinged Logan Square restaurant in search of newer, buzzier spots — all of which seem to flock to this super-trendy hood. But the 18-month-old Sink | Swim from the team behind Scofflaw (a gem of a gin bar in its own right, just down the street) offers some of the most unique takes on seafood you’ll find in the city — not in the oddity of sea creatures they source, but rather in how they punctuate everyday dishes with oceanic nods. Take the refreshing crushed cucumber salad with crème fraîche, dill, and the subtle funk of dried seaweed or the BBQ fish collar with tangy kimchi. Roomy booths, a long wood bar, and easy-drinking cocktails make it an ideal weeknight retreat in this area. Make a reservation at Sink | Swim.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Whimsical tasting menus at Ruxbin, West Town
Five years after Edward Kim’s Ruxbin splashed on the scene, this BYOB New American spot with its funky, repurposed interior remains a fave among Noble Square residents. Kim’s subtle creativity in blending his French training and Asian heritage is on display better than ever since the a la carte menu was replaced by a five-course, prix-fixe one late last year. Unlikely yet whimsical matchups range from yuzu ponzu-bathed cobia with horseradish pomme puree, heirloom cucumber, and foie gras to chicken-fried celery root with white bean “ranch”, smoked tomatoes, and wild watercress. Make a reservation at Ruxbin.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Modern Czech at BoHo Bohemian House, River North
When Chicagoans find themselves in or near downtown, it’s not uncommon for panic to set in when someone asks the inevitable, “Where should we eat?” The answer is often BoHo House, where modern riffs on Eastern European cuisine match funky decor and a laid back vibe that is otherwise hard to come by in the clubby River North. Executive chef Rob Sidor, who took the reins from Jimmy Papadopoulos this summer, is already leaving his mark via imaginative dishes as whitefish with birch custard But the chicken paprikash that put this place on the map — rubbed with fiery paprika and sided by tangy pickled peppers and cloud-like Czech dumplings — isn’t going anywhere. Make a reservation at Boho Bohemian House.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Homespun Sicilian at RoSal’s, University City/Little Italy
Walk through the door of this family-run trattoria in the heart of Little Italy, and you’ll immediately feel at ease. It’s low-lit and cozy, with Sinatra crooning in the background — oh, and some of the best Italian fare on the Taylor St. strip. Homestyle Sicilian-leaning dishes range from tender grilled calamari and Pecorino- and breadcrumb-stuffed artichokes to hearty entrees like veal saltimbocca layered with prosciutto and Sicilian spaghetti slicked in garlicky olive oil and tossed with breadcrumbs. Relaxed, easygoing service allows plenty of time to digest all those carbs and cheese.
Make a reservation at RoSal’s.

Dine like a local in Chicago

A rare gem, Gemini Bistro, Lincoln Park
You have to dig a bit to uncover local dining treasures in the pricey, densely populated lakeside Lincoln Park neighborhood. Near the top of the list is seven-year-old Gemini Bistro, a modern bistro in a chic-yet-relaxed setting with a seasonal menu accented by French and Mediterranean flavors and classic cocktails with an edge. Entrees like crispy-skinned halibut are imbued with highly seasonal accompaniments like corn succotash with celery salad, though you also can’t go wrong with the namesake burger, topped with smoky bacon on housemade bun. If it’s one of those rare nice Chicago nights, try to snag a seat on the quaint patio, easily one of the neighborhood’s best. Make a reservation at Gemini Bistro.

Dine like a local in Chicago

Heirloom Southern at Big Jones, Andersonville
Big Jones, chef/owner Paul Fehribach’s love letter to heirloom and classic coastal Southern cooking, is at once a groundbreaking and warmly familiar restaurant, fittingly set on the main strip the small, welcoming north side neighborhood of Andersonville. Crowd pleaser dishes abound, like tangy pimento cheese; lard-fried chicken; and shrimp and grits, but—as with the layered sweet-tea brined, smoked pork loin with crispy boudin ball, sweet potato hash and cracklings—each dish demonstrates Fehribach’s appreciation for and mastery of regional Southern cooking. The beverage menu boasts an impressive offering of whiskey and bourbon, which shine in classic cocktails like the Vieux Carré, with rye, cognac, Carpano Antica, benedictine, angostura, and Peychaud’s bitters. The close-knit tables in this bright space ensure you’ll make a few friends before the meal’s over, in true Southern hospitality tradition. Make a reservation at Big Jones.

Dine like a local in Chicago

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Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based food and drink writer who also likes food and drinking. Follow her latest musings and meals on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.maggiehennessy.com.

Photo credits: Marcin Cymmer (Boho); Stronghold Photo (Gemini Bistro). All photos courtesy of the restaurants.