Vegetarian dining doesn't mean nibbling on a side of broccoli or a baked potato while others scarf down a filet mignon, certainly not in Chicago. Many restaurants offer options to people and will accommodate dietary restrictions upon request. However, if you want a whole menu to browse and the freedom of knowing the chef won't pick up the wrong spatula to flip your food, then it's best to seek out restaurants that cater specifically to vegetarians and vegans.
My favorite spot for comfort food is the outdoor patio at The Chicago Diner (3411 N. Halsted). This venerable vegetarian eatery is happy to boast they've been meat free since '83, and I'm happy to laud their veggie-forward attitude. If you miss potstickers, Reubens, gyros, or even old-fashioned burgers, The Chicago Diner has excellent meat substitutes that will satisfy your nostalgia. I'm a fan of their sweet potato quesadilla, and will walk a mile for a strawberry vegan shake. A selection of menu items can be made gluten, soy, or corn-free, too.
If you like Asian flair and communal dining, then you should try Mana Food Bar (1742 West Division Street). This sleek, neighborhood spot has capitalized on the small plate, close quarters dining trends and the place practically bustles with the energy of its clientelle. Items come either hot or cold, but there's plenty of spice and lots of interest on both sides of the menu. My favorites include the zippy Bi Bim Bop, the trio of house-made pickles or the White-Castle shout-out, the Mana slider. If they happen to have the lemon tart on the dessert menu, save room!
If your taste in food runs more towards white table cloths, tasting menus and contemporary American cuisine, then make reservations at the upscale Green Zebra (1460 West Chicago Avenue). Here, vegetarian food is pushed beyond "a substitute for meat" towards what I consider one of the finest culinary experiences in the city, meat or no. Chef Shawn McClain has crafted an entire menu designed to shatter your expectations of vegetables. The menu changes according to what's in season, so it's hard to make recommendations that will stick. The best idea, of course, is to splurge on the tasting menu and put yourself into Chef's capable hands.
Vegetarian dining in Chicago continues to offer something to every level of diner, at every taste and price point. I hope you enjoy three of my favorites and find more of your own to add to the list.