You've heard of Restaurant Row and celebrity chefs like Paul Kahan, Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless. They're culinary keystones that help make Chicago the world-class food city it is today. But with thousands upon thousands of restaurants in Chicagoland, there's lots to explore beyond the famous and familiar.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, one of the things that makes the city so great and multifaceted. Each neighborhood sports its own unique style, vibe and flavor, best exemplified by the restaurant and bar offerings present. With Chicago Restaurant Week upon us, running January 30 through February 12, it's prime time to get out and explore some of these neighborhoods and the special restaurants therein. Here are several neighborhood spots to scope out for CRW:
On the far north side of the city, there lies a haven for Swedish monuments, independent shops, charming coffee shops, and an impressive dining scene brimming with everything from modern Creole cuisine to Italian small plates. One spot worth your while is The Brixton (above), a contemporary American bar/restaurant with a style distinctly its own.
For CRW dinner, first course options include chicken liver pate with blackberry jam and housemade pimento cheese with charred tomato cream. Move on the second course choices of Bar Harbor mussels with smoked shellfish butter or roasted beets with charred cucumber vinaigrette, harissa, and orange z'hatar. Then there are entrees like cassoulet with confit chicken, toulouse, and bacon, or a vegetarian option of cauliflower with curry, beluga lentils, roasted Marcona almonds, and fig chutney.
Located on the city's near south side, Bridgeport provides an eclectic array of dining options that run the gamut from old-school to newfangled and innovative. Nana (above) toes the line quite nicely. The family-run restaurant specializes in organic cuisine with a Latin accent, featuring both classic recipes and dishes that skew modern. During CRW, the restaurant will serve both lunch and dinner menus, with dishes like avocado fries, Cubano sandwiches, breaded pork loin with cilantro mojo, grilled shrimp and fried oyster po' boys, and tres leches cake.
For years, Le Colonial has peddled its vigorous brand of contemporary Vietnamese fare infused with French finesse. The Gold Coast bastion has solidified itself as one of Chicago's chief destinations for chic Asian dining, and CRW is the perfect time to check it off your bucket list. For lunch, there's chicken soup with sliced baby corn, soft salad rolls filled with grilled chicken and bean sprouts, thinly sliced barbecued pork over angel hair noodles, tofu with eggplant, mango, yams, and cashews, and Vietnamese coffee enriched with sweetened condensed milk. Dinner broadens to include dishes like shrimp salad rolls, asparagus and crabmeat soup, lotus root and tofu salad, rice noodles with garlic chili sauce, and caramelized lemon tarts with shortbread crust.
Chicago's historic Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side rose to global acclaim when it played host to the World's Columbian Exposition oh so many years ago. Now the ‘hood is once again on the cusp of ingenuity thanks to pioneering new restaurants like A10 (above). This modern European-inspired restaurant and bar comes from acclaimed restaurateur Matthias Merges, featuring the culinary handiwork of chef John Vermiglio. For CRW, A10 is offering a dinner prix fixe with dishes like butternut squash hummus, broccoli bisque, shiitake pappardelle, short rib Bourguignon, and panettone donuts with amaretto caramel.
Italian cuisine gets polished up and refined at Ceres' Table, located along a bustling stretch of Broadway in Lakeview. The dinner menu at this regionally inspired favorite features artichoke-packed arancini, Wagyu beef carpaccio, shrimp risotto, arctic char in saffron broth, salted caramel budino, and other sumptuous Italian specialties.
This homey ‘hood is home to lots of great dining tentpoles, chief among them a family-friendly haunt called Gemini Bistro (above). Get a taste for yourself and fall under its captivating spell. The restaurant is offering two dinner menus during CRW, with plates like roasted tomato soup with mini grilled cheese, mushroom risotto, Faro Islands salmon with smoked bacon and cabbage, Black Dog Gelato, Bailey's creme brûlée blackened swordfish, steak frites, and more.
In the heart of Chicago's Little Italy, along picture-perfect Taylor Street, you'll find one of the city's most endearing French bistros. Chez Joel Bistro joins the CRW offerings with both lunch and dinner prix fixe menus, with dishes so classic they'll emotionally transport you to Paris. Think French onion soup, moules frites, beef filet in mushroom cream sauce, escargots, steak au poivre, pan-seared Cornish hen, creme brûlée, and more.
It's not every day you encounter a cozy Alpine-inspired restaurant. Let alone one tucked away from the nexus of one of Chicago's hippest neighborhoods. In Logan Square, Table, Donkey and Stick carves out its own hearty niche with modern interpretations of rustic Alpine cuisine, which can easily be yours during CRW at dinner. Start with some of the restaurant's Wanderteller, a kind of house charcuterie with items like pork rillettes, smoked whitefish, and duck liver mousse. Move on to second course options like apple salad with apple butter vinaigrette and cumin cashews or fried chicken livers with poached egg, crispy Brussels sprouts, and chicken mousseline. Entrees include braised veal brisket, roast goat, pork sausage, and roasted sweet potato with caramelized kale, braised cannellini beans, and pickled fennel.
A rigorous commitment to seasonality, locality, and housemade everything sets Browntrout (above) apart in North Center. Hit up this homey, familial spot during CRW for a dinner filled with wild mushrooms and popcorn grits, rutabaga-apple soup, pumpkin risotto, porchetta-filled ramen, fallen chocolate soufflé, and Granny Smith apple fritters.
Things get pretty meaty at Old Town Social, one of Chicago's preeminent destinations for charcuterie, burgers, sausages, and all things carnivorous. Check your cholesterol at the door for their CRW dinner menu, featuring first course options like three-cheese mac & cheese, second courses like "animal-style" burgers and chicken & waffles, and warm doughnuts for dessert with Mexican chocolate ganache.
Revered for its thriving artist community and its Mexican roots, Pilsen is one of Chicago's most colorful neighborhoods. It's also home to some true restaurant staples, like the hyper-local Nightwood, which serves as a venerable homage to Midwestern cuisine through its unique brand of locally sourced, seasonal cookery. CRW lunch is available at Nightwood February 4 through 6, as well as February 11 and 12, with items like duck egg omelets, fried oyster and coppa sandwiches, and cookie plates. Come dinner, dishes shift to dry-aged beef tartare with tallow-roasted bread, sunchoke and clam bisque, braise pork with coal-roasted vegetables, and apple bread pudding with rosemary ice cream.
Restaurants and bars are a dime a dozen in ever-popular and uber crowded River North. The downtown neighborhood is filled with offbeat dining gems too, like Sumi Robata Bar, a quiet and intimate Japanese respite located just far enough away from the central fray. The eatery is participating in CRW with lunch and dinner menus featuring dishes like salt-cured cucumber, fried Japanese sweet potato, bento boxes, caviar-flecked chilled tofu, Japanese sea bream, tea-smoked duck breast, crispy fried chicken with shishito pepper paste, beef tsukune sliders, and sansho-chocolate filled doughnuts with matcha semifreddo.
For a taste of Spain, head south. One of the South Loop's most stunning, savorous dining destinations is Mercat a la Planxa, a mod ode to Spanish cuisine curated by famed chef Jose Garces. For CRW, the restaurant hones in on a few key flavors to offer guests an ample taste of their wares. Expect bacon-wrapped dates with La Peral fondue, wild mushroom flatbread with Catalan sausage, garlic shrimp, Colorado lamb chops with romesco, patatas bravas, and chocolate croquettes with banana marshmallows, rosemary olive oil, and Arbequina olive oil.
A stone's throw from one of the most famous shopping streets in the world, Michigan Avenue, there's a tiny alcove in Streeterville called Local Root that is chock full of soul and wholesome seasonality. The sunny eatery is serving both lunch and dinner, showcasing its hearty brand of Midwestern cookery via stuffed portobello mushrooms with housemade marinara, golden eggplant "towers" with balsamic and goat cheese, Amish chicken with mashed potatoes and dill, and even a decadent bread pudding made with croissants.
Chicago's Uptown and Edgewater neighborhoods are home to some of the finest Ethiopian restaurants around, a tradition in and of itself centered around chewy injera bread and curry-like spreads meant to be shared among friends. You can easily do so at Demera Ethiopian Restaurant for lunch or dinner during CRW, where items like sambussa dumplings, lamb stew, vegetarian messob, and a dessert called "Missionary's Delight" (vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce or mango juice) are all on deck.
Home to famed Restaurant Row, aka Randolph Street, the West Loop is undoubtedly one of the hottest, most popular neighborhoods for dining out in Chicago. But while Randolph is home to some of the best restaurants in the country, there are destination-worthy spots off the main drag that are just as worthy of your time and appetite. Try Bar Takito, a new-ish modern taqueria and bar participating in CRW with both lunch and dinner degustations. Dishes include outré Mexican eats like coffee-braised beef tacos in housemade beer tortillas, tequila-splashed sangrita shrimp ceviche, beer cheese arepas, and popcorn butterscotch mousse.
Photos: The Brixton, A10, Gemini Bistro; Browntrout by opacity via flickr; Nightwood; Mercat a la Planxa; Demera Ethiopian Restaurant