In a city like Chicago, there’s never a shortage of dining options for every feasible occasion. Of course, any occasion entails some budgetary decisions as well, but thanks to the abundance of choices, there’s always something to fit the bill. Here are our top picks around town, whether you're out for a bargain or a splurge.
Inexpensive: Still one of the best prix fixe deals in town, the lunch menu at Blackbird (pictured) is almost too good to believe. For $25, weekday diners get their choice of appetizer, entree and dessert, and considering the high-caliber quality of the food, that’s quite a steal. Most items change frequently, but examples include turnip soup with pickled fennel and smoked turnips, grilled sturgeon with charred cabbage and chewy sunchokes and vanilla angel food cake with pomegranate and thyme ice cream.
Moderately priced: It’s not as much of a hidden gem as it used to be, as evidenced by the regular hours-long wait times for the unfortunate few not able to snag a reservation, but Kai Zan is still a destination for its affordably priced omakase. For around $60, you’ll be inundated with a spree of sushi, usually at least 10 courses. It’s stunningly fresh and altogether satisfying — a great way to experience some of the best sushi in Chicago.
Worth a splurge: You can do a lot worse than $165 when it comes to tasting menus in Chicago, but still, Spiaggia is an investment. And a worthy one, for sure. Chicago’s mightiest Italian restaurant is always worth a revisit, especially for celebrations that merit multiple courses of elegant seasonal cuisine from chef Tony Mantuano. The eight-course tasting (there’s also a five-course option for $105) is the best bang for your buck, featuring contemporary interpretations of dishes like gnocchi, cioppino and opera torte.
Girls’ night out
Inexpensive: When it comes to tapas in Chicago, Cafe Ba-Ba Reeba! (pictured) is still one of the best spots for gathering with friends and enjoying quality small plates at an equally small cost. You can get all six of the restaurant’s pintxos for just $11, including chorizo-wrapped Medjool dates and deviled eggs with jamón serrano, along with numerous tapas like octopus with marrow-roasted potatoes ($12), meatballs with sherry tomato sauce ($7) and spinach-and Manchego-stuffed mushrooms ($7). There are also fantastic paellas, served in heaping portions.
Moderately priced: Nothing will set you back more than $30 at Nellcote, but considering the shareable nature of things at this glamorous West Loop mecca, the bill could start to add up. Fresh bread costs $5, but it’s well worth it, along with plates of vegetables, pastas, pizzas and wood-grilled mains. All around it's a chic destination to take a group of girlfriends — and the final check won’t leave you with sticker shock.
Worth a splurge: The crown culinary jewel of the Park Hyatt, NoMi Kitchen is a surefire bet if you’re looking to wow your friends. The space and the view of the Magnificent Mile are as stunning as the dishes coming out of the kitchen, and while none of it can be classified as a bargain by any means, it’s certainly deserving of a splash out. Starters include sweet-meets-savory foie gras tarts with roasted carrots and sorghum ($22) and venison sausage pierogi ($18), followed by showstopping main courses like a deeply unctuous beef loin with mushroom conserva ($42) and seared scallops with celery root and warm bacon vinaigrette ($35).
Inexpensive: From locally sourced ingredients to thoughtful, contemporary creations, all the important Downtown essentials are in place at South Water Kitchen (pictured). The one major difference is the strong value compared to other spots of this caliber. There’s a lot to choose from too, like an earthy, warming bowl of roasted celeriac soup, poached salmon salad with toothsome pearled barley or a clever “PB&J” grilled cheese that combines spiced pear, Brie and blueberry jam on whole grain bread for a double dose of comfort food.
Moderately priced: Classic American tavern traditions take on an upscale bent at State and Lake Chicago Tavern, where recently appointed executive chef Nathan Sears is getting crafty with everything from pretzels to seafood. The lunch menu really runs the gamut, and while there are certainly economical items to choose from, it’s also easy to spend a chunk of change on roasted chicken with pickled raisin vinaigrette ($26) or duck fat–poached whitefish with semolina gnocchi and meaty ’nduja-braised cabbage ($26).
Worth a splurge: The Chicago steakhouse is the classic Downtown power lunch tradition, and that spirit lives on at Chicago Cut. As you'd expect, the midday fare here is unabashedly lavish and pricey, from crab Louie salads ($21) to prime steaks that reach $50. It’s definitely an apt spot for impressing clients, though, both with the incredible food and the equally incredible riverside views.
Inexpensive: Saucy plates of spaghetti, deep pours of wine and bow tie–clad servers are all synonymous with old-school romance, and when you’re looking for a dose of that on date night, La Scarola is among the best. Seemingly preserved in time, the West Town locale is the type of rustic charmer that doles out enormous portions for low prices, like eggplant parmigiana large enough to feed a family and chicken Vesuvio that could last you all week on leftovers.
Moderately priced: There’s something so elegant and cozy about a casual neighborhood standby on date night. Gather is that go-to, whether you live in Lincoln Square or not, bringing together comfort and quaint beauty with a candelit ambiance quite nicely. The concise menu is eclectic and always interesting, ranging from steak tartare and rainbow trout to an egg-filled raviolo with white truffle butter, to savory Japanese pancakes called okonomiyaki.
Worth a splurge: The grass-fed steaks and Burgundy snails will cost you a pretty penny, but Boeufhaus most definitely merits shelling out. The Ukrainian Village restaurant, which combines French and German cuisines in a modern steakhouse format, is rich with romance and opulent dishes. Narrow and intimate, the softly lit space is great for tucking into plates of short-rib beignets and bordelaise-glazed rib-eyes.
Inexpensive: Sometimes you just want to break away from the hordes and go for a brunch that’s rooted in frills-free classics. For such cravings, it doesn’t get much better than The Breakfast Club and Grill, the sunny little nook nestled away on a quiet street in West Town. It’s the type of homey place where customers can expect enormous omelets, syrupy French toast and nostalgic favorites like pigs in a blanket (aka sausages wrapped in pancakes).
Moderately priced: One of the most popular brunch destinations on the North Side is popular for good reason. The authentic Southern cuisine at Big Jones (pictured) is as impressive as the dinnertime menu. There’s much to choose from, all of it a refreshing departure from what you’d see at any other brunch restaurant. Gumbo, Carolina Gold rice pancakes and eggs New Orleans (crab cakes with poached eggs, popovers and béarnaise sauce) are just a taste, all well worth the price tags.
Worth a splurge: To call North Pond’s brunch prix fixe a splurge would almost be a misnomer. Sure, it costs $35, which probably seems like a lot more than the average person spends on brunch. But when you add up the number of gorgeous, composed dishes you get, it really pays off. Every Sunday, the restaurant features a revolving door of seasonally driven dishes for the set price, from braised pheasant strudel and yogurt-crusted whitefish, to chicken fat biscuits with smoked chicken breast.
Inexpensive: Gone are the days when Chicago’s most famous dining district was strictly populated by high-end dinner destinations. Nowadays, Restaurant Row is home to a multifaceted assortment of eateries and bars spanning a wide spectrum of budgets and styles. For something on the low end, check out the newly opened outpost of The Eastman Egg Company. Here you’ll find beautifully prepared egg sandwiches on fluffy, warm ciabatta rolls with accoutrements like mildly spiced chorizo and tangy salsa verde.
Moderately priced: Formento’s (pictured) fits nicely in the center when it comes to prices in the area. It’s the perfect middle ground, because it offers incredible chef-driven Italian dishes that toe the line between classic and novel, while not tapping out your dining dollar for the month. Now under executive chef Todd Stein, the restaurant combines staples like meatballs and its famed chocolate cake with a rotating lineup of dishes like octopus with spiced yogurt, squid ink paccheri pasta and a particularly porcine prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin with balsamic brown butter and Brussels sprouts.
Worth a splurge: Way on the upscale end is Grace, one of the most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in the country, and it's worth saving up for. People travel far to experience Curtis Duffy’s elaborate, meticulous preparations, which are always different, always fresh and always so pristine you hardly want to disturb the food with your utensils. It's a winning option on Restaurant Row for a celebration you won't forget.