One of the most disorienting parts of moving is building a new shortlist—a rotation of pet establishments with a knowledge of what to order at each. NYC is full of world-class food and drink, but with so many options, I rarely go anywhere enough times to count myself a true groupie. Against all odds, such a list is writing itself in time, as repeat offenders – pizza from Motorino, sandwiches from Defonte’s, ice cream sundaes from Chikalicious – form a roster to suit frequent cravings and moods. Having spent a combined five years in Evanston and Chicago, however, that’s a list I feel far more qualified to share.
Eating all of the things on a food tour with a visiting friend. We hit Doughnut Vault, Garrett’s, Giordano’s, and Big Star in 24 hours. Varsity digestion.
This week marks five months since my big cross-country move. While less than half a year is hardly sufficient time to “know” a city like New York, it has certainly been enough time to illuminate what I miss most about Chicago—much of which, unsurprisingly, is edible.
BITE’s Bites: Chicago’s Big Ten
This isn’t a comprehensive “best of” list – I would never claim expertise on such matters, and I was far less immersed in Chicago’s food scene than I am in NYC’s – so much as a few of my favorite places to eat, drink, and be merry. Whether you’re still residing on the North Shore or merely blowing through the Windy City, I hope you love them as much as I do.
Best highbrow cocktails: The Whistler. When it comes to hipster speakeasies, The Violet Hour gets all the glory, but I prefer The Whistler’s gin-heavy menu and slightly less pompous vibe. I spent many a night perched at the venue’s rear end, often to a backdrop of live jazz or ominous “ambient music.” I recommend any cocktail that combines bourbon, citrus, and bitters (the name of which changes seasonally), but a hot cider goes down just as easily on a snowy evening. If you stick around long enough, you may catch a visit from the infamous Tamale Guy—a definite trade-up from late night BK.
Best chill night out: Simone’s. What do you get when you combine $5 nachos, raspberry ale on tap, and an eclectic yet strangely competitive crowd? Trivia Tuesday at Simone’s. Come with a small group of cerebral companions (be sure to arrive before 8pm if you want to play), and come hungry—nacho special notwithstanding, the rest of Simone’s creative pub grub is not to be overlooked. I’m partial to a pizza topped with quinoa, avocado, and caramelized onions (don’t knock it till ya try it!), but even straightforward options like custom burgers and sweet potato fries are satisfying across the board. Pilsen is a hike from most parts of town, but if you have a car (or a friend with a car), it’s worth the trip.
Best all-purpose haunt: Bat 17. Here’s something I wish I’d known sooner: The coffee at Bat 17 is free. Like, 100% free. As in, you can literally pop in on your way to class, pour yourself a cardboard cup to go, and leave with nary a dirty look in your direction. That being said, “the Bat” (which stands for Benson Avenue Tavern) is also one of my favorite Evanston restaurants for its fresh ingredients, generous portions, and scrumptious baked goods. The chopped salads are filling and well-distributed, the sandwiches (which are served on Bennison’s bread) are good for at least 1.5 meals, and the weekend brunch options (think Cinnamon Roll french toast made with actual battered, pan-fried cinnamon rolls) belong on a Food Network special. Whatever your order, tack on a side of gorgonzola slaw—and since you’ll likely be too full for dessert, take a palm-sized iced cherry oatmeal cookie to go. Factor in beer towers and half-price martinis on Saturday (!) nights, and you’ve got a college student’s wet dream. Man, I miss this place.
Best artisanal sandwiches: Al’s Deli. If Bat 17 is a study in excess, Al’s is its foil in restraint. Thoughtful sammies constructed from quality ingredients are the name of the game at this French delicatessen on Noyes. The sandwiches, which could easily fetch upward of $12 in NYC, are a bargain at under $10 – my favorites being the sharp dill havarti and the rich smoked salmon and brie – and pair well with a soup menu that features exemplary pesto and white bean options. Chase with an old-fashioned bottle of Dr. Brown’s cream soda, and don’t leave without one of Al’s famous iced butter cookies (though the iced Belgian and chocolate chip varieties are exceptional as well).
Best casual dinner: Big Star. What’s better than tacos, guac, and margaritas? Tacos, guac, and margaritas eaten in a glorified parking lot outside a mechanic’s-garage-turned-watering-hole in the heart of Wicker Park. Seriously, if you only have one meal in Chicago, go here. It’s cheap, it’s rowdy, and it’s damn delicious. Get the corn tacos with roasted mushrooms, pea shoots, picked onion and cotija cheese. Dress with guacamole. You’re welcome.
Best BYOB: Olive Mountain. Probably the most controversial restaurant on this list – I know many people think Olive Mountain is just so-so – but as a lover of Middle Eastern food, this was always my top choice for celebratory dinners. No, it’s nothing life-changing or gourmet, but it is all-around solid, relatively authentic fare with a chill ambiance and no corking fee. I’m a fan of the lentil soup (hearty enough for a meal, especially with a side of fresh pita and baba ghanoush), the spicy stewed okra, and the mujaddara (a cumin-spiced pilaf served with cucumber yogurt salad). Tell them it’s your birthday and you’ll likely make out with a free slice of baklava, which is best enjoyed with a sobering cup of post-dinner coffee. You’re an adult, after all.
Best health-conscious alternative: Blind Faith Café. Not everyone shares my freaky plant-lovin’ taste buds, but good food is good food, and that’s just what vegetarian Blind Faith serves. It’s a well-executed model of my favorite type of cuisine: Pretentious Locavore, aka elevated renditions of the stuff I cook for myself at home. If you go weak in the knees for quinoa-stuffed avocados, kale salads, and macro bowls, you’ll love this place. If not, you’ll be equally satisfied by kung pao seitan and vegan peanut butter chocolate mousse cake. Swearzies.
Best place to give yourself a heart attack: Edzo’s. Here are my thoughts on Edzo’s: ahsgdfajhgshgds vgkrjeghkrjhsfkjsgdv jkshgkjsehrkhwkjthw. That’s about as articulate as I can be about fast food (food, fast?) this good. Forget the burgers—you’re here for the sides, like butter-soaked garlic fries and a Nutella milkshake so thick you can barely slurp it through a straw. If you want to feel trendy, order the truffle fries, which come with a dusting of parmesan cheese and a hint of ‘shroomy flavor. And speaking of mushrooms, if you insist on getting a sandwich, the portobello “burger” is more than just a consolation prize for non-carnivores. Ed, way to cover all your bases. Two greasy thumbs up.
Best laptop haven: Brothers K/The Daily Cup/The Common Cup. Yep, I’m cheating, because I was the ultimate café rat in college and I’m pretty sure I’ve visited every Wi-Fi hotspot within 12 miles of Northwestern. My top three picks serve three distinct purposes. Bro K (also spelled “Broqué” if you’re cool like me) is a 25-minute walk from campus, just far enough for Evanston residents to escape the “scene” of Norris and Unicorn without boarding a bus or train. Broqué’s homey neighborhood vibe, expertly pulled espresso, and free books and board games make it the perfect destination for a late afternoon latte and a change of scenery. Weekend work sessions belong to The Daily Cup, a somewhat precious atelier of crimson couches, frilly signature drinks, and the best roasted almond tea (read more about my love for the Daily Cup here). My sources (Google) tell me that the Edgewater café has closed, but intends to reopen shortly in a new location. Finally, summer evenings and early mornings year-round befit a visit to The Common Cup, where you’ll find a mean Americano (Ruth, the owner, will almost always offer you an extra shot for free) but also some truly spectacular frozen yogurt. A handwritten chalkboard lists every mix-in you could possibly desire…except Nutella, which I have been known to BYOJar without shame. There is no room for shame in frozen yogurt.
Best place to indulge your sweet tooth: Fraîche. My ode to Fraîche’s triple-layer carrot cake can be found here, but the s’mores bars and rum spice whoopee pies have also earned real estate in my Sweet Treats Pantheon. While I’ve found the cupcakes to be dry and ill-proportioned (certainly as compared to the layer cake), everything else – from savory scones to sticky bread pudding – has left a positive impression. I dare you to visit the bakery counter and leave with just one item. Personally, I’ve been known to drop $20 in a single trip and ration the wares over several subsequent days.
There you have it—my (by no means exhaustive) top ten. Have you visited any of the places on this list? What are your favorite spots to eat and drink in the Chicago area?