Five Things to Taste in Chicago

I spent a few days in Chicago recently, which wasn’t nearly enough time. These are some of the things I tasted that make me want to go back.

1. Queso Fundido at Big Star

If you have a paperback and an evening to yourself, sit at the bar. Big Star is known for its reassuring selection of bourbon, so take this opportunity to be soothed. Maybe order a Booker’s, rocks, and let it mellow while they melt your cheese. They’ll bring it bubbling, with a spoon and a messy stack of warm corn tortillas. Oh, my friends. This meal will hurt your heart like the love of a stoic man.

2. Smoked Sicilian Manhattan at The Bristol

Smoked Maker’s, Averna Amaro, and Blood Orange Bitters. Like a chilled Manhattan by a warm campfire, but all the atmosphere happens in your mouth. Wizardry.

3. The Mix at Garrett Popcorn

It’s tempting to dismiss this as a tourist thing. It’s also tempting to shove the entire bag in your mouth once you’ve tasted it. “The Mix” has caramel and cheese popcorn, and probably enough butter for your cardiologist to sense a disturbance in the force. If popcorn doesn’t rain to the floor when you undress that night, then we are different people.

4. Pizza at Great Lake Pizza

This is the best pizza available. Try it at least once, and then maybe go somewhere else. I say this because the owner is not a particularly polite guy. Before we stopped by, I had about five locals warn me on the “pain in the ass” factor, and my personal experience backed them. But! The pizza is incredible, handmade with top-notch organic ingredients. It tastes like affection, so don’t look to the staff for love, look to the food. The best plan is to call ahead, place your order, and then take it to a bar up the street that welcomes Great Lake customers. They were plenty friendly there, and they had beer. Win-win.

5. A cocktail at Vincent

While you’re waiting for your pizza at Great Lake, stop by next door. If Briar is tending bar, you won the lottery — let her mix you whatever she wants. Some of the best drinks in town, and believe me I asked around.

I didn’t have time to hit any fine dining while I was there, but what else did I miss? Tell us about your favorite Chicago foods in comments.

More posts you might like:
8 Things to Taste in Argentina
10 Things to Taste in New Orleans
Top 10 Ways to See San Francisco Like a Local
Top 10 Worthwhile Tourist Attractions in San Francisco

53 thoughts on “Five Things to Taste in Chicago

  1. Oh Chicago is definitely a city for eating. My favorite brunch spot ever is Bistrot Margot, in Old Town. Get the eggs benedict or the mussels. Or both. For In-and-Out style burgers and shakes go to M Burger in Streeterville. For amazing, surprisingly authentic Mexican food, go to one of Rick Bayless’ trio of restaurants in River North: Xoco, Frontera, and Topolobampo. My mouth is watering just thinking about all this delicious food.


  2. Chicago is the best overall eating experience I think I’ve had in any city anywhere. (Even the hot dog we had from a vendor in Millenium Park is legendary in my memory.) I’m adding your five to my list of Chicago favorites to revisit next time I’m in town: the lime marinated pork torta at XOCO, the pan pizza at Pequod’s, and the beers at Revolution Brewing.


  3. Next time you’re in town, I’d hit the north side of our fair city and stop in at Lady Gregory’s. It’s fairly new, but the atmosphere is spot on—relaxed and warm—and the food is great, too. They have a drinks bible with 50 pages of different wines, beers and spirits, which can sometimes backfire on a place but works here. They have whiskey flights too, and fun events like a bourbon dinner (tomorrow, so you still have time to reserve a seat and book a flight!)


  4. I assure you Garrett’s is not a tourist thing. As a Chicago-native I’ve never tired of that delicious indulgence. The only thing that saves one’s figure is the two-block line and the constantly unbearable weather. If they added a downstairs counter with pedway access thousands of Chicagoans would be too saturated with cheese and sugar to function.

    And people who don’t fill their clothings with popcorn are either wearing turtlenecks or are witches. No other explanation.


  5. Sarah Becan has a terrific comic series called I Think You’re Sauceome, which started as a journal of a year of documenting what she eats for health reasons.

    But! She’s a foodie, lives in Chicago, and can draw food in a charming way that will make you hungry.

    Here is a comic about Lady Gregory’s, mentioned above.

    Like Sarah, I also recommend Longman and Eagle, on Kedzie. They focus on using local/seasonal ingredients:


  6. Can I ask you a question? And I swear, I’m not trying to be confrontational or snarky or bitchy.

    Why would you go to a pizza place, knowing that the owner is going to treat you like gum on the bottom of his shoe? If he can’t handle running the business and at least being polite to the people who allow him to run his restaurant, maybe he shouldn’t be in business?

    I just, I don’t know, I see so many restaurants battling for your limited dollars. Why would you contribute to someone who acts like a tool & sneers at his customers?

    Again, I’m really not being snarky. I just don’t understand the appeal, no matter how good the food may be.


  7. My biggest regret upon leaving Chicago last July (besides the freakish heat induced fog that made me doubt the existence of the lake for 3 days) was that I didn’t get more Garrett’s. Why?! WHY!!!? That orange butter dripping down your fingers is a gift from God.

    Also, I was treated to Gibson’s steak house and YUM. The steak was fantastic and the table full of old men who looked like they had been coming there every Thursday afternoon for half a century only added to the ambiance.


  8. And, I forgot to mention, I took the train there from LA, two days and nights with a sleeper car. It was on my life list. Thanks for the inspiration.


  9. Love the Violet Hour and Avec, part of the same restaurant family as Big Star. Also love Green Zebra for some vegetarian delights.


  10. Kris,

    I went in the first place because I heard it was incredible pizza (it was), and because I try not to put too much stock in negative stuff other people say about someone I don’t know. In general, I think service is just as much a part of the dining experience as the food, so I wouldn’t eat in their dining room. If I ever went back, I wouldn’t bother to interact, and I’d take it with me to go. It’s obvious the guy has a passion for pizza, which I do respect. The open kitchen is really too bad.



  11. It’s been more than a decade since I lived in Chicago (yikes!) but this post makes we want to go visit.

    I would totally head directly to Gino’s East for my first meal. Then I would go chase down that Manhattan.


  12. I think I’m with Kris on the Pizza thing. I don’t care HOW good the pizza is, I’d have a horrible time patronizing someone so blatantly disrespectful … even if I COULD take it to a bar down the street.


  13. (delurking, hi!) We left Chicago in July after 6 incredible years of eating. *sigh. I could write forever on the incredible food, but would like to second zan’s comment on the pan pizza at Pequod’s. Un.freaking.believable. Cheese is baked/burned over the crust…it is to die for. Still don’t understand why the logo is a whale with panties on its head, but I don’t even care. Get a pepperoni, onion, and jalapeno pizza and ask for the homemade ranch. Thank me later.


  14. Pequod is the ship from Moby Dick, a fact I could have learned while in a strange town, sitting at a bar, reading a paperback. It’s a great way to not look like a hooker, pretentious or not.

    Why the pizza place would use a whale for their logo is obvious. The panties on its head eludes me.


  15. Chicago has a thing with Moby Dick-related business names. There is a coffee shop on Lincoln called Stubbs, which is the name of another crew member on the Pequod after the first mate, Starbuck.

    A woman reading a paperback at a bar while nibbling dinner. For me it’s an I am single and don’t wait for dates to ask me to fancy restaurants.

    But thanks for the judgey comment. That will make me feel really unselfconscious next time I go out alone. Will I be less pretentious if I go eat alone at Perkins?


  16. did the city smell like chocolate when you were here? that might be my favorite chicago food experience. m burger is by far my favorite burger (doesn’t make you want to nap or poop by mid-afternoon). and m henry is my favorite brunch place. the two are unrelated despite their coincidental m.


  17. Hey, you were in my neighborhood! For a much friendlier pizza experience in the same neighborhood, there’s Antica up Clark. The pizza is amazing and the staff is warm and friendly. My other fav place in Andersonville is Big Jones – they do fancy southern food. There’s a cocktail called the Southern Spice that’s delicious.


  18. Next time visit Logan Square – Lula Cafe serves amazing seasonal local dishes. Longman & Eagle (2012 Michelin starred) is hands down my favorite restaurant in the city with local seasonal dishes, the heartiest bourbon menu I’ve ever seen, and an amazing comforting vibe. They are also an inn with 6 sleeping rooms upstairs. Even though we live in the hood we stayed there NYE and it was an incredible experience. Every detail so well thought out.


  19. I love the food travelogue! I am writing up a blog post about a recent trip to Hawaii and I realized that most of it is about the food. Hah! Glad I am not the only one…same with NYC -I have all my fave restos and coffee places.

    Love love love Chicago-such a great music town too! Try the Green Mill to see Kurt Elling.


  20. If we’re talking Chicago, don’t forget to leave the tourist paths for the south and west sides where you can get amazing soul food (my favorites — black-eyed peas from Wallace’s, everything they serve at Dan’s — and both places extremely friendly and welcoming).


  21. Big Star is great and here are some of my favorite Chicago stops:
    Piece Pizza & Brewery in Wicker Park (delicious pizza and beer and none of this Great Lake snark)
    Simone’s in Pilsen (yummy takes on Mexican dishes and great beer selection)
    Kristoffer’s Cafe in Pilsen (tres leche cake is to die for)
    Stocks & Blondes in The Loop (best. dive. bar. ever.)
    Mundial in Pilsen (horchata-tini. do i even need to say more?)

    Frontier and Machu Picchu are great too!


  22. “..and probably enough butter for your cardiologist to sense a disturbance in the force. If popcorn doesn’t rain to the floor when you undress that night, then we are different people.”

    This made me literally laugh out loud. God, I love your writing.


  23. I can’t get over the commenter who called you pretentious. As a woman who spent years traveling for work, alone, I also spent years forking over wads of my company’s money while reading paperbacks at fabulous restaurants. Just because I’m alone doesn’t mean I’m worthy only of fast food. Duh.

    Also, I’m from Chicago and I love your choices. Garrett’s is solid. I haven’t had the pizza yet but it’s on my list. Good tip to eat it at a friendly bar up the street!


  24. Hi. I just want to stick up for Great Lake a bit. I’ve been there dozens of times and they’ve always been completely wonderful. Not only is the food great, the people have always been nice. They remember us from previous times and are willing to chat.

    I’ve certainly never seen them be rude to anyone (although I can picture it, if a person wanted any sort of special treatment). I’m not doubting your story, because you’re definitely not the only one to say that. It just shocks me every time…


  25. Hey Maggie,
    What happened to Mighty Girl? This blog used to be such a great read. Tell us more about you. Bring back Mighty Closet. Let’s here about all things mighty– not links to other sites.


  26. What hurts my heart is that you were in Chicago and did not worship the burger gods at the altar of Kuma’s Corner. You’ll walk into a 3 hour wait, but shrug it off, add your name to the list and then stake out a spot at the first-come-first-serve bar. I hope you like speed metal blaring relentlessly, but even if you don’t get the Plague Bringer – I get mine as a from scratch veggie burger, but they’ve got the whole gamut of options. Don’t waste your time with the mac & cheese, it’s standard fare, just served in a massive, heaping trough.


  27. I work one block from the NYC outpost of Garrett Popcorn, and you do not lie. Sometimes on a weeknight after work, I go to Garrett and get a bag of the Chicago Mix. Then, I sneak it in my purse into the movie theater, watch a movie, and melt into heaven.


  28. I have named the particular shade of orange left under one’s fingernails after eating Garrett’s ‘shame’ or ‘gluttony’s calling card.’


  29. My coworker brings the mix back for me when she visits her family. It is really freaking good, and I bring shame upon my family with the noises I make while eating it.


  30. Go read Sarah Becan’s comic “I Think You’re Sauceome.” She writes about lots of stuff, but many of her comics are about eating in and around Chicago.

    Kuma’s and Longman and Eagle are frequent subjects of her work. Google her!


  31. Also want to stick up for Great Lake. I live in the neighborhood and have been there many times. I think the reputation for rudeness is overblown. It’s a tiny artisan pizza place with about ten seats. One guy makes every pizza. They source the ingredients from local farms, and last I knew the owner was bringing the ingredients back to the restaurant on his bicycle. They usually have about three options for pizza. I’ve seen people come in there and complain that there’s a wait or complain that they can’t order 14 different toppings or complain that the pizzas aren’t huge, but it just isn’t that kind of pizza place and the owners don’t apologize for that. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. The owners aren’t exactly super warm and friendly, but they’ve never been rude to me. And the pizza is seriously fantastic.

    Also, In Fine Spirits on Clark Street is a great place to have a drink (or to buy a bottle of wine) while you wait for your pizza.

    Except I kinda wish these places were secret so I could have my neighborhood places to myself…


  32. Oh how I adore the Bristol. That smoked manhattan is indeed delicious but you didn’t mention how amazing the food is. Love that place. I’ll also stick up for Great Lake – fantastic pizza with an extremely limited menu, even more limited seating and no bullshit owners who make every pizza themselves. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I think it’s fabulous. And hey! I totally go out to eat by myself with a book! Am I supposed to stay home because I’m single? um, no.


  33. Next time you’re in Chicago, stop at Candyality. A local store (3 locations) that’s right our of charlie & the Chocolate Factory! Peruse the store a grab your treats-we tell you what your selection says about you! (bag reading)


  34. A little secret…there is a little Garrett’s on the second floor of the Merchandise Mart that rarely has a line…If you get off the brown line at Merchandise Mart, it’s just inside 🙂 I think they are closed on the weekends, though.

    I lived in Lincoln Park for a few years (I’m in the burbs now) and never ate at fancy restaurants, but there are a few little places that I absolutely loved.

    Sushi Toro on Clark in Lincoln Park — soooooo good. It’s a teeny, tiny place and you almost always have to wait, but they take your phone number and you can leave until you table is ready…there are tons of little bars to sit in while you wait for your call. The super white tuna crunch is my fav!

    Deli Boutique, also on Clark in Lincoln Park — a little place I used to eat all the time…they have great ready to eat foods and wonderful sandwiches. Curry chicken salad will stain your face yellow, but it tastes so good!

    Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. — A very different pizza experience — they make pizza pot pies. The mediterranean bread is to die for. Just a heads up, it’s cash only…and a historical fact, the Valentine’s Day Massacre happend just across the street.

    And if you are visiting (or live here), you can never, ever go wrong with Portillo’s. Everything is good. And whoever invented the chocolate cake shake deserves a medal or something.


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