Chicago’s 10 Toughest Tables and How to Snag Them

How long will you wait for a seat at the city's hottest restaurants?
April 13, 2015
by Sarah Freeman

Chicago ain't New York City. That's usually a good thing, but sometimes the wait for a table at some of our city's hottest restaurants can make it feel like we're in the Big Apple. Fortunately, we've got some insider tips on how to snag a seat at the city's toughest tables.

Au Cheval

Why it’s hot: People will do a lot for one of the country’s most famous burgers, including wait up to four hours for a table at this strictly no-reservations spot. The only way to get into this modern diner is to give your name to the host, and wait for a coveted text message saying that your table is ready.

How to hack it: Your best bet for a table during prime time is to plan ahead — arrive early to put your name on the list and grab a drink nearby while you wait. Otherwise, swing by during the day (the restaurant opens daily at 11 AM) for shorter waits.

800 W. Randolph St.; 312-929-4580

Girl & the Goat

Why it’s hot: Since her Top Chef win in 2008, Stephanie Izard’s Randolph Street restaurant has maintained its claim as one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Waits for walk-ins can top two hours, while people make reservations up to three months in advance by phone or using OpenTable.

How to hack it: Check OpenTable one to two days before you want to dine. Since out-of-towners and locals alike are champing at the bit for a table, they often make reservations they can’t keep. The bar and lounge are also first-come-first-served.

809 W. Randolph St.; 312-492-6262

RPM Italian and RPM Steak

Why it’s hot: Both of the these Lettuce Entertain You hot spots are usually completely booked on any given night. Reservations are accepted via OpenTable, in person, via phone or e-mail up to 90 days in advance.

How to hack it: Kelly Clancy, director of operations at the restaurants, says it's easier to get into RPM Steak during lunch (11 AM-3 PM, Monday though Friday). You can also order the full menu at either of the restaurant's bars, where seating is first come, first served. 

52 W. Illinois St.; 312-222-1888

66 W. Kinzie St.; 312-284-4990

Fat Rice

Why it’s hot: If you want Macanese cuisine, there’s only one option in Chicago — this intimate, critically acclaimed destination for Portuguese chicken, vegetable curry and potstickers. A new expansion into the space next door, which should be done later this year, should help reduce wait times.

How to hack it: The restaurant accepts limited reservations (before 6 PM and after 9 PM), but encourages walk-ins. When the Blackhawks are hot, the restaurant cools off. Staff recommends swinging by during any major game or sporting event.

2957 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-661-9170


Why it’s hot: The standard for sushi was raised when BOKA Group opened this massive West Loop restaurant specializing in carefully sourced fish that's cooked in a variety of ways  — on the robata grill or smoked with 1000-year-old cypress.

How to hack it: Sit at the sushi bar or in the izakaya lounge, both of which take reservations, rather than the main dining room, which can fill up to a month in advance or require an hour wait.

820 W. Lake St.; 312-733-4818

42 Grams

Why it’s hot: After his recent Food & Wine Best New Chef win, chef Jake Bicklehaupt’s underground-supper-club-turned-18-seat-restaurant fills up fast with guests eager to try his innovate, upscale cuisine.

How to hack it: “We tend to release seats two to three months in advance. The Last Minute Reservation page on our website is a good way to see what’s available for a particular month,” says owner Alex Welsh. “Following us on Facebook and/or Twitter is a good way to get alerts when tickets become available within a one-to-three-day timeframe.”

4662 N. Broadway St.

Big Star

Why it’s hot: As soon as it hits 40 degrees in Chicago, the patio is packed with Chicagoans attempting to make the most out of our short summer. In addition to the popular patio, there’s the added incentive of margarita pitchers and tacos made by recently appointed chef Tom Van Lente.

How to hack it: It's walk-in only, and if it’s nice out, expect the line for an alfresco option to be up to an hour or two. The host can take your number and call you when a table is ready, or you can sit at the bar, which is first come, first served.

1531 N. Damen Ave.; 773-235-4039

Alinea and Next

Why it’s hot: Both of Grant Achatz's innovative restaurants have earned international praise, the first for its unparalleled approach to modernist cuisine and the second for its ever-changing menu (past themes have included Paris bistros and childhood nostalgia).

How to hack it: The restaurants accept reservations though owner Nick Kokonas’ online ticketing system, Tock. The process can be notoriously difficult, with table filling months in advance. However, last-minute seats are released daily on the restaurants’ Facebook and Twitter pages.

1723 N. Halsted St.; 312-867-0110

953 W. Fulton Market St.; 312-226-0858


Why it’s hot: Chef Michael Carlson’s Wicker Park restaurant is a mecca for foodies looking for an unparalleled dining experience in an unconventional environment. Gourmet food is prepared by a team of rowdy chefs, and served in a boisterous hip-hop-fueled setting. 

How to hack it: A winning combo of dumb luck and persistence is the only way to get into this hot spot. Reservations are only accepted via phone. However, Carlson has been known to close the restaurant on a whim, the voice mailbox has been filled for years and aspiring diners tell stories of being hung up on by staff. 

1466 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-252-1466


Why it’s hot: Culinary superstar Rick Bayless’ upscale Mexican restaurant tempts diners from around the world with rich mole sauces, slow-cooked meats and intense Oaxacan chocolate.

How to hack it: The restaurant recommends making reservation via phone or OpenTable between eight and 10 weeks in advance. Or, try the "Topolo in 60" lunch menu that allows guest to try a starter, main and dessert in under an hour for $25.

445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434

toughest tables