The 12 Best Brunch Dishes and Drinks in Chicago

From red velvet waffles to Portuguese egg tarts, let this be your brunch bible
April 25, 2016
by Matt Kirouac

Brunch is a religious experience in Chicago. Along with all the brunch-specific restaurants populated throughout the city, seemingly every place in town serves the weekend meal in one form or another. It never hurts to have choices, but the sheer mass of options can be daunting, to say the least. Especially when you're too hung over to make decisions. Whether you're hankering for a crafty breakfast cocktail or a plate of dessert masquerading as pancakes, we've got you covered with this roundup of Chicago's best brunch dishes and drinks. 

Most Decadent French Toast: Bulls-eye French toast at Little Goat

Stephanie Izard’s crowd-pleasing diner definitely knows the way to customers’ hearts. And that’s through a carefully calibrated medley of comfort food that could come off as a gluttonous train wreck were it not for the meticulous efforts honed by the Top Chef winner. The Bulls’ Eye French toast is a study in mindful excess; essentially one of those “kitchen sink”-type dishes where you’ve got a little bit of everything mingled on one burly plate. Starting out with mattress-thick slices of house-baked, sweet onion brioche bread, the dish features fried eggs baked into the center of the bread, crispy chicken bits strewn over top and a heady BBQ-infused maple syrup. It’s basically a riff on toad in the hole and fried chicken and waffles at the same time, and it’s everything. 

Runners-up: Chocolate tower French toast at Bongo Room; malted custard French toast at Jam

Little Goat: 820 W. Randolph St.; 312-888-3455 (Photo by Shannon Monson)

Best Reason to Start Drinking at Noon: Casual Magic at Analogue

The best part about brunch at a bar is the built-in excuse to drink elaborate cocktails as soon as you get out of bed. People flock to Analogue for craft cocktails in the evening, cramming the New Orleans-inspired bar with thirsty patrons night after night. Now thanks to weekend brunch service, they’ve also raised the bar on day drinking with incomparable cocktails like the Casual Magic. Made with Encanto pisco, lemon, strawberry cardamom syrup and egg white, it goes down smooth with a hint of sweetness and spice. 

Runners-up: Auntie Ox (green tea-infused vodka, passion fruit, agave, guajillo) at Mercadito; breakfast shot (bacon-infused bourbon, butterscotch Schnapps, orange juice chaser) at Flo

Analogue: 2523 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-904-8567 (Photo via Analogue)

Dish Worth Waiting an Hour For: Burton’s maple syrup-braised bacon at The Publican

Everyone loves bacon, especially at brunch. It’s a frequent player alongside entrees, sure, but it rarely takes the spotlight all on its own. Forget your preconceived notions of pork belly, because The Publican may be the only restaurant in town where people order plates of straight-up bacon — where friendships are tested as forks grapple over the last precious bite. Worlds apart from the standard crispy strips of yore, The Publican opts for thick-cut slabs of pork practically the size of a steak. It’s braised in maple syrup from Indiana’s Burton’s Maplewood Farm, an elixir so luscious it’s tempting to lick the plate clean. Once braised, the bacon gets crisped up to achieve a nice caramelization around the edges. It’s at once sweet, smoky, crispy and meltingly tender. In short, it’s perfect. 

Runners-up: Beignets at Big Jones; English breakfast at Au Cheval 

The Publican: 837 W. Fulton Market; 312-733-9555 (Photo by Chloe List)

Meatiest Brunch Dish: Ostrich Juicy Lucy at Frontier

Sure, it’s possible to dine at Frontier on oatmeal, pastries and vegetables. But let’s be honest: This place is a vegetarian’s nightmare. From beef tongue to smoked boar hash, wild meat dishes are at every turn. Then there’s the ostrich Juicy Lucy, a game-y riff on a classic Minnesota burger variation, wherein gooey cheese is stuffed inside the patty. When cooked on the griddle, the cheese becomes molten, essentially an inverse cheeseburger. It’s supremely decadent, especially when the meat of choice is ostrich and it’s all topped with foie gras aïoli. 

Runners-up: Longanisa breakfast at Uncle Mike’s Place; bacon-stuffed bacon at Trenchermen

Frontier: 1072 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-772-4322 (Photo via Frontier)

Best Dessert Disguised as Brunch: Cupcake pancakes at Southport Grocery & Cafe

It’s a pretty genius idea, really. When you’re a cafe beloved for your cupcakes, and you also serve brunch, why not pour some of that cupcake batter onto the griddle and drizzle syrup over it? It’s a crafty formula for saccharine resourcefulness, and it’s really a win-win considering diners now have an easy excuse to eat cupcakes for breakfast. Instead of a swirl of buttercream, the soft and fluffy vanilla pancakes get a dollop of vanilla butter and a generous glaze of maple syrup. 

Runners-up: Red velvet waffles at Waffles; cinnamon roll French toast at Meli Cafe

Southport Grocery & Cafe: 3552 N. Southport Ave.; 773-665-0100 (Photo via Southport Grocery & Cafe)

Most Over-the-Top Bloody Mary: Wild Sumo Mary at Sunda  

A good rule of thumb, food-wise, is that if anything is billed as “sumo," you pretty much know you’re going to get full real quick. The almighty Wild Sumo Mary at Sunda is a force to be reckoned with: a 32 oz. mason jar filled with Bloody Mary goodness that's heaped with enough garnish to satiate a wrestler. The base is a mix of tomato juice, fresh lime, Smoke Daddy barbecue sauce, granulated sugar, horseradish, salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic and vodka. That’s all great, if you can manage to sift through the food adorning the drink. It’s garnished with a veritable Noah’s Ark of bacon, grilled cheese, duck bao, braised pork belly, crab sushi, lumpier, Chinese broccoli, pickled daikon radish and shishito peppers. 

Runners-up: Churchill Bloody Mary at Old Town Pour House and Howells & Hood; Bloody Hammer at Handlebar

Sunda: 110 W. Illinois St.; 312-644-0500 (Photo via Sunda)

Best Pastry Basket: Concha, cajeta crumb cake and churros at Cantina 1910 

Exhibiting any sort of effort not to fill up on pastries at Cantina 1910 may very well prove completely futile. It’s not often a restaurant boasts a brunch pastry program as strong and overwhelmingly tempting as this one — a testament to the contemporary Mexican restaurant’s diligence in regards to scratch-made everything, seasonality, local sourcing and most importantly, authentic inspirations. Borrowing a page from Mexican street food, a bulk of the brunch pastries here feature churros dusted with roasted cinnamon sugar. There's also delicious conchas, a doughy sweet bread studded with a crunchy, sugary exterior. Don’t miss the cajeta crumb cake either, something that tastes a lot like the best coffee cake you’ll ever experience thanks to the inclusion of goat’s milk cajeta. 

Runners-up: House pastries at Lula Cafe; brunch pastries at Owen & Engine

Cantina 1910: 5025 N. Clark St.; 773-506-1910

Best Eggs You Can’t Make at Home: Portuguese egg tart at Fat Rice 

An egg dish inspired by Portuguese desserts in Macau and created by Catholics? Yes, please. Leave the pastéis de nata, aka egg tarts, to the pros at Fat Rice, where adorable savory-sweet pastries grace the popular brunch menu. Less sweet than the original, Fat Rice’s version features a softer puff pastry base and an eggier custard with not so much sugar. The tarts are the handiwork of owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo, who traveled throughout Macau and Europe researching regional delicacies like these. In case you don't have time to jet off to Macau for egg tart research, you should probably just go here and eat them. 

Runners-up: Kimchi fried rice with onsen egg at Mott St; eggs in purgatory with spicy pork gravy and creamy polenta at Formento’s

Fat Rice: 2957 W. Diversey Ave.; 773-661-9170 (Photo via Fat Rice)

Best Hangover Buster: Hangover soup at River Roast 

Chile-packed pozole has long been a bracing remedy for grueling hangovers. There’s just something so soulful and nourishing about the porcine hominy stew that really fits the bill and practically singes the headache away. While pozole variations are prominent throughout Chicago’s vast Mexican communities, one unexpected place to cure the hangover blues is River Roast. It makes sense when you think about it, considering the American restaurant’s proclivity for all things roasty, toasty and meaty. The brunch menu contains a particularly life-affirming dish called, aptly, hangover soup. It’s made with pork shoulder, dried chili and hominy, and one piping hot spoonful is enough to erase all of the previous night’s bad decisions. 

Runners-up: Hangover breakfast at The Bristol; Hair of the Wolf at Cindy’s

River Roast: 315 N. LaSalle St.; 312-822-0100 (Photo via River Roast)

Best Pancakes: Blackberry Blisscakes at m.henry 

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: “Blisscakes” are in a whole different category from pancakes. For something so seemingly simple as a humble pancake, it’s astonishing the ingenuity implemented in the habit-forming hot cakes popularized at Andersonville’s m.henry. The cute, cottage-like North Side staple commands a veritable cult following for these aptly dubbed delicacies, which are deliriously delicate and fluffier than a sleeping bag. What really sets these beauties apart is the smart layering of flavors and textures. Along with those perfectly cooked Blisscakes, they’re striated with a sweetened whipped mascarpone cream, adding a light cheesecake-y component, along with a brown sugar and oat crust for a bit of toasty crunch. Altogether, it renders syrup entirely moot. 

Runners-up: Fresh banana pancakes at Lou Mitchell’s, buttermilk granola pancakes at Milk & Honey

m.henry: 5707 N. Clark St.; 773-561-1600 (Photo via m.henry)

Lou Mitchell’s: 565 W. Jackson Blvd.; 312-939-3111

Milk & Honey: 1920 W. Division St.; 773-395-9434

Best Bougie Juice: Cherry Chia Cooler and Blue Boost at Beatrix 

The best kind of freshly squeezed juice is the kind that doesn’t feel like a chore to consume. From the blended greens to the sweet Valencia orange, Beatrix is a ninja with its juicer, churning out some of the most bracing brunch beverages in town. The Cherry Chia Cooler is a quenching favorite, dotted with nutty bits of chia seed. The Blue Boost is another crowd-pleaser, a lustrous purple potable infused with blueberry juice, white grape and basil. If you’re feeling saucy, Beatrix also offers fresh juice cocktails, which sort of nullifies the health aspect, but worth it. 

Runners-up: Kale lemonade at Summer House Santa Monica; melon and ginger juice at Kingsbury Street Cafe

Beatrix: 519 N. Clark St.; 312-284-1377 (Photo by Anjali Pinto)

Most Instagram-able Brunch Dish: Crêpe cake at GT Fish & Oyster 

When crêpes are piled up into a 15-layer cake, they basically become a social media magnet. Such is the case with the crêpe cake on GT Fish & Oyster’s brunch menu, which reinvents the standard breakfast dish with additions of coffee pastry cream, chocolate glaze and candied hazelnuts. The whole thing is delicate, surprisingly light and undeniably photogenic. 

Runners-up: Foie gras toast at Bunny, the Micro Bakery; Liege waffle at The Winchester

GT Fish & Oyster: 531 N. Wells St.; 312-929-3501 (Photo by Christine Domino)

bloody mary
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