In most ways, Chicago lacks the stigmatized “scenes” and arduous lines plaguing coastal cities. That’s usually a boon for the city’s restaurants and folks who love 'em, but there are certain spots that inevitably demand a pretty grueling wait. Fortunately, we’ve got some insider tips on how to snag a seat at Chicago’s most in-demand tables.
Why it’s hot: Rare-spirit enthusiasts and historic cocktail fiends will find paradise at Milk Room, Paul McGee’s eight-seat bar nestled on the second floor of the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. Rum from pre-embargo Cuba, old cognac and prestigious Scotch whiskeys are examples of the ever-rotating liquor roster. Cocktails are extremely limited and range between $40 and $100 a pop.
How to hack it: You gotta plan ahead for this one, and we mean months. But if you mark the calendar in advance and book seats via the Tock ticketing system, you’ll have something truly special to look forward to. Reservations entail a $50 deposit, but that goes towards your final bill at the bar — aka it winds up softening the blow of the cocktail prices, in a way.
Why it’s hot: People 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. We’d suggest Lone Wolf next door. Otherwise, swing by during the day (the restaurant opens daily at 11 AM) for shorter waits.
800 W. Randolph St.; 312-929-4580
Why it’s hot: Maybe it’s an innate, animalistic urge to scarf down saucy shellfish bare-handed, because people can’t stay away from the Angry Crab — one of the most surprising smash-hits in recent years. The nondescript BYO on the far northwest side routinely draws long lines and commands an arduous wait for all that Cajun seafood, where food is ordered by the pound and communal tables elicit a convivial, beachside vibe.
How to hack it: Find the host and get your name on the waitlist pronto. Once you do that, feel free to pop open one of your beers (or two, depending how long your wait is) to help while away the time. For shorter wait times, arrive midafternoon.
5665 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-784-6848
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
Why it’s hot: Still as red-hot as the day it opened in 2014, High Five Ramen has set the bar for authentic ramen eateries in Chicago. That’s great and all, but it also means customers queue up in such droves you’d think they were waiting for the new iPhone. The dimly lit, dungeon-esque alcove is tucked beneath Green Street Smoked Meats in the West Loop, with barely a dozen seats and a concise menu of fiery noodles and quenching beers.
How to hack it: Arrive as early as possible. As in, before the restaurant opens at 6 PM. If you can get there around 5:30, grab a drink or a snack from Green Street Smoked Meats, and guard the High Five Ramen door like it's Narnia. If you’re lucky, you’ll be part of the first batch to sit.
112 N. Green St.; 312-754-0431 (Photo by Kari Skaflen)
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 cocktail bar and bakery next door, which should be done in the coming weeks, should help reduce wait times. Or make them exponentially worse.
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: As soon as it hits 40 degrees in Chicago, the patio is packed with Chicagoans attempting to make the most of the weather. Because apparently anything above frost bite is considered alfresco season around here. In addition to the popular patio, there’s the added incentive of margarita pitchers and expertly made tacos (shown at the top of this article).
How to hack it: It's walk-in only, and if it’s nice out, expect the line for a patio 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
Why it’s hot: Chicago is still gripped by tiki fever, with this tropical Logan Square bar at the forefront. Another Paul McGee hot spot, Lost Lake has been jam-packed since it opened more than a year ago, often drawing lines down the block for a taste of those masterfully mixed daiquiris, punches and more.
How to hack it: Lost Lake does not accept reservations, so those looking for something to pass the time should order snacks at Thank You, the Chinese carryout restaurant situated alongside the bar. Assuming it’s not too frigid outside, you can eat on the street, or go to Yusho around the corner and pre-game with Japanese fare.
3154 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-293-6048