The Best Food and Drink in Illinois for 2019
December 20, 2018
Real ones know, there’s still great food south of Chicago
The Best Food and Drink in Illinois
Whether you refer to it as the “Land of Lincoln” or as “the Prairie State,” you have to admit — Illinois cannot be beat. Whether you’re looking for waving expanses of corn, suburban utopias, or bustling cities, Illinois has it all. It’s the home of Abraham Lincoln, Cindy Crawford, John and Joan Cusack, Chance the Rapper, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Bill Murray. It houses some of the best chefs, pizza, hot dogs, and restaurants in the entire country. And we've compiled its best things to eat and drink in one place, in our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
While restaurant powerhouse Chicago hosts such crown jewels as Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval, and Maurie Berman’s legacy Superdawg, southern and central Illinois are home to the country’s best chili, ribs, and spaghetti and meatballs.
Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We've compiled definitive galleries celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our Illinois gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Berghoff Café (Chicago O’Hare International Airport)
The Berghoff is an iconic dining experience in Chicago, and a modified version exists in Chicago’s famous O’Hare Airport, serving classic German cuisine. Travelers in Terminal 1 can stop by to try out their self-service offerings, which includes sandwiches, salads, and other daily specials, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Red Apple Buffet (Chicago)
This sprawling restaurant is home to three full rooms’ worth of buffets, and while there are plenty of American and international specialties, for all intents and purposes Red Apple is a Polish buffet. Pierogis, potato pancakes, schnitzel, Polish sausage, blintzes, pork stew, roast beef, stuffed cabbage, pork shanks, roast turkey or duck, potato dumplings, and a huge array of desserts await you, but there’s only one problem: It’s nearly impossible to try everything you want to before filling up.
Best Apple Pie: Hoosier Mama Pie Company (Chicago)
At Hoosier Mama Pie Company, they are not opposed to stealing Grandma’s recipes! All the produce comes from local farmers, and their amazing crust (which took an entire summer to perfect) is 100 percent butter. Everything is made by hand, and you won’t find any of their pies for sale in supermarkets — since they’re all about being local, their pies are not available for shipping. (“We suggest you might be able to find a great local baker, professional or not, that can make you a great pie,” they helpfully offer.) Their classic apple pie is a two-crust pie that’s “not too sweet, with more fruit than goo in a delicious buttery crust.”
Best Bar: The Aviary (Chicago)
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' cocktail venture in Chicago, The Aviary, is an experience: From the setting and the cocktails to the service and the food, no detail is overlooked at this “redefined” cocktail bar. Even the ice that is used to craft the cocktails is elevated to high art; the ambitious ice program churns out more than 25 types of ice, from miniscule ice balls to flavored spheres to enormous blocks for hand-chipped ice. Tickets are sold on the bar’s website and come in three varieties: as a deposit that goes toward your bill, a three-course package that includes three cocktails, and a five-course package of five cocktails, each paired with food ranging from one bite to a small course. You can also try your luck at the door. Even more exclusive is the basement speakeasy, The Office, which is available by invitation only or can be rented out for intimate private parties.
Best Beer: Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island (Chicago)
Goose Island’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand Stout makes waves in beer circles every time it’s released, and that’s not easy to do when everyone is. This 14 percent beer pours a thick, oily black. Despite the intimidating color, this stout is insanely balanced with rich notes of dark chocolates, raisins, and dates. Just a little finish of smoky flavor makes this beer one of the true best in the world.
Best Brunch: M. Henry (Chicago)
In Chicago, brunch is synonymous with M. Henry. Local and organic ingredients are used whenever possible in its vegetable-heavy menu, and the massive brunch menu really does have something for everyone (and yes, it’s really worth the wait). For those just looking for a bite, you can always order The Intercontinental, a fresh muffin, scone, or baguette with fresh fruit salad, fresh-squeezed juice, and coffee or tea. If you want something sweet you can order cinnamon roll French toast, blackberry hotcakes, or lemon-raspberry brioche French toast. Big eaters can opt for the Home Comfort Brunch Plate (two eggs, polenta, hoisin-glazed shredded pork rib, roasted balsamic glazed greens, and Brussels sprout hash) or breakfast bread pudding. And vegans have plenty of options, like the Veritable Vegan Epiphany, with tofu scrambled with rapini, sweet onions, and a house spice blend, served with tempeh strips or vegan sausage, sliced avocado, and fruit salad or sliced potatoes. There are also quiches, Mexican-inspired options, Benedicts, and quite possibly the most delicious-sounding brunch dish in existence, mango blueberry cinnamon roll French toast topped with vanilla crème and crunchy granola. Make sure to drop by the bakery for a pie or flatbread to go, and remember, it’s BYOB.
Best Burger: Au Cheval (Chicago)
The beauty of the burger served at Au Cheval lies in its simplicity: two patties (or three, if you order a “double”) of no-frills ground beef topped with Cheddar, Dijonnaise, and a few thin slices of pickles and served on a soft toasted bun from Chicago’s Z Baking. The patties are wonderfully crusty, the fries are fried in lard, and just about everything about this burger is perfect. The line to get into this place stretches literally around the block every day, so owner Brendan Sodikoff (who will reportedly be opening a New York outpost sometime soon) is clearly doing something right.
Best Burrito: Maize Mexican Grill (Champaign)
Opened six years ago by Mexico City native Armondo Sandoval and now up to two locations, Maize operates feeds crowds of students and locals nearly non-stop every day from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are a few surprising items on the menu, such as the pumpkin flower fried quesadilla, but since this is a list about burritos, go for the asada. It comes with the steak diced, perfectly grilled, and encased in a large, fresh, homemade tortilla along with rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and sour cream.
Best Chicken and Waffles: Longman & Eagle (Chicago)
This gastropub might be a hipster haven, but its chicken and waffle game is still very strong. The leg and thigh from Slagel Family Farms are fried in a batter that generously soaks up maple syrup, and a crispy, crunchy waffle serves as a sturdy base. And don’t forget about the sweet potato and pork belly hash that’s served with it; it’s far tastier than it has any right to be.
Best Chili: The Chili Parlor (Springfield)
Founded in 1945 as Joe Rogers Chili (the name was recently changed after new ownership came in), The Chili Parlor originally only had 11 seats, but that wasn’t destined to last. The secret to this place’s success is probably the fact that chili is made to order, to each customer’s specifications. Meat and beans are kept separate, and only combined once the customer chooses from five heat levels (from mild to firebrand) and specifies whether they’d like extra meat or beans.
Best Chinese: Katy's Dumpling House (Chicago)
Forgo the namesake dumplings. You have to hand it to "Katy," her handmade noodles are just about the best on offer in the Windy City. Tangled with ground pork in fiery dan dan noodles or sunken into deeply flavored beef broth, their springiness makes slurping a pleasure. However, one of Katy’s finest contributions is a dish that melds the restaurant’s signature item with Chicago’s European roots in a bowl of beef noodles with homemade sauerkraut.
Best Chocolate Shop: Vosges Haut-Chocolat (Chicago)
Do you love chocolate-covered bacon? Thank Katrina Markoff, who started this novelty trend that turned into a signature item. Beyond bacon, Vosges Haut-Chocolat serves some truly innovative chocolate bars (matcha mint, coconut ash and banana) and packages them exquisitely.
Best Coffee Shop: Intelligentsia Coffee (Chicago)
Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee is a beloved coffee roaster and rapidly growing chain with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston (as well as training labs in Austin and Atlanta), and it's not hard to see why the rest of the country would want to get in on Chicago's best coffee. Sourcing their coffee beans from around the world through direct trade, Intelligentsia is dedicated to teaching the public about how they roast and serve with events, classes, and a grueling barista training program for those who are interested.
Best Craft Brewery: Goose Island Beer Company (Chicago)
Goose Island was founded in 1988 and has grown exponentially since then. One of the main reasons to visit Goose Island Beer Company? Though they were purchased by megaconglomerate InBev in 2011, they've maintained some of their hard-earned cred. They pioneered the use of bourbon barrels in the beer-aging process. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying bourbon-aged beer, you are in for a treat. By championing sustainability in their breweries and investing in Chicago’s communities, Goose Island continues to lead in the craft brewing industry.
Best Cupcakes: Molly’s Cupcakes (Chicago)
Molly’s Cupcakes in Chicago has sweets that really pack a flavorful punch. To customize your own, simply pick a cake flavor, choose a frosting, and then make it yourself with an array of tasty toppings. They’ll bake it right in front of your eyes and are happy to accommodate even the wildest of cravings. Try one of the center-filled cupcakes like crème brûlée, peanut butter Nutella, or Cookie Monster for a truly tasty experience. Plus the restaurant has a counter with swings instead of seats!
Best Doughnuts: Dat Donut, Chicago
This doughnut stand really takes things back to basics: But don’t let its simple appearance in front of a barbecue shop put you off. The doughnuts really are some of the best we’ve ever tried. The eponymous “Big Dat” is a huge creation, but it’s more than a novelty tourist attraction. The pillowy fluffiness is truly satisfying, and the plain glaze will make you wonder if there really is anything better than a ginormous, classic, glazed doughnut.
Best Farmers Market: Green City Market (Chicago)
The farmers of the Green City Market go through a rigorous application process, ensuring that they yield humanely raised meat and pesticide-free produce. The year-round market offers sustainable, local groceries and free resources for maintaining a sustainable future. In addition to all this, they sponsor a multitude of community programs like a compost and recycling program, an “Heirloom and Heritage” preservation program, and a double value program that benefits consumers and farmers alike. Plus, not only will you leave with a full basket of fresh produce, you’ll leave with a full belly — several local restaurants serve their most popular dishes from tents.
Best Food Truck: The Fat Shallot (Chicago)
Husband and wife Sam Barron and Sarah Weitz are a foodie match made in heaven that fell in love over their shared passion for “all things delicious.” After making food for parties, pop-up dinner, and catering events around the world, the duo opened up The Fat Shallot in their hometown in 2013 serving up delicious sandwiches and sides. Order their grilled cheese, which is made with Muenster cheese, sautéed spinach, and caramelized onions on sourdough, or the Buffalo chicken sandwich served on an egg bun with blue cheese sauce and a celery salad. For a side, don’t forget the truffle fries or the spicy sesame fries, which are topped with black sesame seeds and a spicy sesame aïoli.
Best French Fries: Kuma’s Corner, Chicago
Kuma’s Corner is already renowned for serving some of the finest burgers in America. But the restaurant has won even more of our respect for serving fries that are essentially perfect. They’re salty, crispy, and make for one heck of a winning combo when paired with one of those spectacular burgers.
Best Fish and Chips: BIG & little’s, Chicago
The BYOB, cash-only BIG & little’s may have risen to fame after an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but don’t hold that against it: Just about everything on its expansive and creative menu, including po’boys, seafood tacos, burgers, fries (topped with foie gras, naturally), and soft-shell crabs when in season, is insanely good. Their fish and chips comes with one of the biggest pieces of fried cod we’ve ever seen, lightly battered and fried to a deep golden brown and served atop a pile of fries that doesn’t have a soggy one in the bunch (seriously, the fries here are awesome).
Best Fudge Shop: Ryba’s Fudge Shop (Chicago)
Ryba’s Fudge Shops/Yelp
Best Fried Chicken: Harold's Chicken Shack (Chicago)
Known as President Obama’s favorite fried chicken place, Harold’s has become a small local chain, and it continues to grow in popularity. But despite having numerous locations across the city, Harold’s never sacrifices the quality it’s known for. The chicken comes simply with white bread and hot sauce, and there are no frills about it — but with a product that tastes this outstanding on its own, there are no embellishments needed.
Best Grocery Store: Nature’s Best Fresh Market
A Westmont reviewer said of Nature’s Best Fresh Market: “My favorite place for excellent produce, fresh meat, international and specialty. Perfect size store, not too big, terrific service, clean, well-stocked, [and]well-run. Always busy, diverse customers, pleasant atmosphere, never too long a checkout wait.”
Best Hot Dog: Superdawg (Chicago)
Topped by what has to be some of America’s best signage — a flexing hot dog showing off his muscles to a winking wiener girl — Superdawg has been an institution on Milwaukee Avenue across from Caldwell Woods since Maurie Berman opened it in 1948. The recently returned G.I. designed the building, devised his own secret recipe, and set up a drive-in at what was then the end of the streetcar line. He planned to sell 32-cent Superdawg sandwiches to "swimming families and cruisin’ teens" for a few months during the summer to help put him through school at Northwestern. In 1950, Maurie passed the CPA exam, but he and wife Flaurie decided to keep operating Superdawg and to open year-round. The family-owned, working drive-in still serves superior pure beef dogs, "the loveliest, juiciest creation of pure beef hot dog (no pork, no veal, no cereal, no filler) formally dressed with all the trimmings: golden mustard, tangy piccalilli, kosher dill pickle, chopped Spanish onions, and a memorable hot pepper." Sadly, Maurie passed away in May 2015 at age 89 and Flaurie passed earlier this year, but the family-run operation is still going strong: Maurie’s 8-year-old great-granddaughter recently worked her first shift there.
Best Hotel Restaurant: Somerset (Chicago)
Chef Lee Wolen has been nominated for the James Beard Award twice at the helm of the Michelin-starred Boka, and he’s brought his formidable skills to Somerset, which opened last year adjacent to the brand-new Viceroy Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. And by all accounts, the restaurant has lived up to all expectations. The ambitious restaurant has a design that’s meant to evoke high society supper clubs of the 1960s and '70s, and the menu is eclectic and accessible, with something for everyone. Standouts include crispy corn and salt cod fritters; seared Spanish octopus with sweet potato and scallion; duck leg gnocchetti with kale, mustard, and Parmesan; roasted lamb loin and sausage; one of Chicago’s best new cheeseburgers, and a whole roast chicken for two.
Best Ice Cream Stand: Margie’s Candies (Chicago)
From Chicago to the suburbs, everybody knows Margie’s Candies is the place to go for ice cream in Illinois. Whether you’re going in summer for a cone or winter for a sundae, this nostalgic neighborhood staple has remained Chicago’s best since 1921. Plus, their hot fudge is unparalleled.
Best Indian Restaurant: Cumin (Chicago)
Explore the food of Nepal alongside the flavors of the rest of the Indian subcontinent at Chicago’s Cumin. Located in the Wicker Park neighborhood, it’s run by Nepalese brothers Rajesh and Sanjeev Karmacharya, who make sure to bring you the best of Nepal’s cuisine such as chicken momos (large steamed dumplings filled with minced and spiced chicken) and palungoko saag (spinach sautéed in spices), as well as Indian classics such as lamb keema samosas and chicken curry.
Best Irish Pub: The Grafton Irish Pub and Grill (Chicago)
The Grafton blends time-honored tradition with a contemporary gastropub feel. The food is terrific, and the Guinness takes a good two minutes to pour — as it should. The Grafton has really embraced the idea of a public house, offering a comfy place to read or get some work done during the afternoon and on weekend days, and a relaxed atmosphere in which to unwind at night.
Best Italian Restaurant: Spiaggia (Chicago)
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White reimagined fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia (“beach” in Italian). Mantuano has won countless accolades, including the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest, and Spiaggia was named Best Italian Restaurant in Chicago by The Daily Meal. Reopening after a redesign in 2014 (its first since 1999), the restaurant added 50 percent more seats with views, a new lounge, and a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled wine room showcasing 1,700 of Spiaggia’s nearly 5,000 bottles. The new restaurant menu follows the traditional Italian courses of antipasto, pasta, secondi, and dessert, but with almost entirely new dishes. One thing that hasn’t changed is Spiaggia’s ability to delight diners. Much of that can be credited to Mantuano and chef de cuisine Joe Flamm, who serves mouthwatering fare like duck tortellini with cherry, pistachio, and Parmigiano-Reggiano; dry-aged bistecca alla fiorentina with truffle hollandaise, turnip, and onion jam; and their famed gnocchi with black truffle, ricotta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A five- or six-course tasting menu is also available, for $105 and $165, respectively.
Best Jewish Deli: Manny’s (Chicago)
Every sandwich packs in nearly a pound of meat at Manny’s, which has been going strong for more than 70 years. Crowds pack into the cafeteria-style restaurant on a daily basis for said sandwiches (Barack Obama is a fan of the corned beef), Reubens, brisket, short ribs, meatloaf, and other hearty and comforting fare. No visit is complete without a slice of homemade pie.
Best Lasagana: Sapori Trattoria (Chicago)
Chef Anthony Barbanente, a Chicago native who lived a good part of his life in Southern Italy on his grandfather’s farm, founded Sapori Trattoria in 2001. Building a reputation for its homemade pastas, the restaurant caters to upscale dinning in a neighborhood setting. Their house specialty worth checking out is the Lasagna di Antonio, an individual meat lasagna made with a beef Bolognese sauce, fresh mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, and ricotta.
Best Lobster Rolls: Acadia (Chicago)
When the chef spent his summers in Maine and made it his mission to replicate that experience as accurately as possible, you know you’re in for a treat. The lobster roll that chef Ryan McCaskey serves at the bar at his restaurant, Acadia, starts with split-top buns from the Maine-based Hannaford supermarket chain, topped with big chunks of fresh lobster that’s been tossed with chive mayo, then topped with paprika and a lemon squeeze. It’s nothing short of Chicago’s best lobster roll.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Topolobampo (Chicago)
Topolobampo is named for a port city on the Gulf of California in northwestern Sinaloa. At this slightly fancier and more ambitious next-door cousin of his popular Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless serves irresistible Mexican fare of a kind not found outside some of the better restaurants of Mexico itself, if even there. It’s hard to believe that this Chicago institution is now more than 25 years old, especially since a redesign a couple years ago gave the restaurant a brand new feel, one that has critics falling in love with it all over again. Dishes are organized under five categories (Vibrant, Unexpected, Soulful, Complex, and Luxurious), which patrons choose from to create their own five- or seven-course tasting menus, at $90 and $120, respectively). What can you expect? Sashimi-grade hiramasa yellowtail with coconut crema, crispy sea moss, and lime (Vibrant); red chile-braised Gullo octopus with garbanzo “pillows” and pan juices (Unexpected); and 28-day-dry-aged prime Creekstone rib-eye with pasilla borracha sauce, beefy potato purée, Brussels sprouts, and crispy maitakes (Complex) are just a few of the enticing dishes recently on the menu. Bayless is also currently serving a seven-course pre-Colombian-themed menu, which highlights indigenous Mexican ingredients, for $140.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Alinea (Chicago)
At Alinea, Grant Achatz’s three-Michelin-star flagship, a handful of different prix fixe menus are available, and they’re all exorbitantly expensive. On the lower end is the Salon menu, which consists of 10 to 12 courses for $190 to $285 per person. The Gallery menu includes 16 to 18 courses and costs $290 to $355. And at the top of the heap is the Alinea Kitchen Table, a private experience for groups of six that costs $390 to $395 per person. Tip is included, but beverage pairings cost extra.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: TACOlato, Pizza Parlor Bar (Chicago)
Pizza Parlor Bar has a door right next to the main entrance which leads to its Dessert Dealer, home of delicious ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, cappuccinos, and dessert tacos. Those dessert tacos, known as TACOlatos, are the perfect Instagram fodder, full of colors and an impressive amount of sweets. Made with sweet waffle shells, they're filled with gelato or ice cream and then covered in loads of toppings. Popular choices include Unicorn Dreams (a confetti sprinkles shell with birthday cake ice cream, fruity marshmallows, gummy worms, rainbow airheads, blue-raspberry sauce, and whipped cream on top) and Cookie Monster (a double chocolate shell with cookies and cream gelato, mini chocolate chips, Oreo pieces, fudge sauce, and topped with whipped cream and maraschino cherries).
Most Romantic Restaurant: Everest (Chicago)
Located 40 floors up at the top of Chicago's circa-1893 Stock Exchange building, Everest offers one of the finest views of the city, from a hushed and elegant dining room. As proprietor of this AAA Five Diamond Award recipient, chef Jean Joho offers a seven-course tasting menu (with a vegetarian option); a starter, perhaps, of cold-pressed lobster and potato terrine might be followed by a filet of wild sturgeon wrapped in prosciutto and a pear soufflé dessert. A massive wine list is available.
Best Old School Candy Shop: Candyality (Chicago)
Candyality carries thousands of bulk sweets including gummies, sours, and taffy. They even have 21 different colors of M&M’s, 30 Jelly Belly flavors, and Chicago’s very first licorice bar. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a 5th Avenue bar, Big Cherry, Butterscotch Smoothies, Candy Necklaces, and Charleston Chews. Your inner child will thank you.
Best Grilled Cheese: Cheesie’s Pub & Grub (Chicago)
There are 12 grilled cheeses on the menu at Cheesie's. The most outrageous offerings include The Mac (American and Cheddar cheese, homemade macaroni and cheese); The Tenderizer (Cheddar, mozzarella, hot sauce, bacon, fried chicken tenders, barbecue sauce); and The Edgar (pulled pork, barbecue sauce, coleslaw, fried onion strings, provolone, and white Cheddar). Plus the Lakeview location is located next to super-fun club Berlin (which hosts tons of theme nights and dancing) and it’s open late every night, so after you’ve sweat through your club-clothing you can walk on over to Cheesie’s and grab a grilled cheese and a basket of waffle fries to split with your friends.
Best Pancakes: Walker Brothers Original Pancake House (Wilmette)
For more than 50 years, this outlier franchise of the Original Pancake House chain has been serving absolutely stellar pancakes, now available in more than 10 varieties including buttermilk, blueberry, Georgia pecan, bacon, potato, buckwheat, wheat germ granola, and gluten-free. The other locations don’t hold a candle to this outpost, simply because they were one of the very first franchisees and have been doing things their own way since day one. That includes using the highest-quality butter and cream and hard wheat unbleached flour in its pancake recipe. If blueberry pancakes are your thing, don’t miss these: You get six in an order, they’re studded with lots of fresh blueberries, and they’re served with fresh blueberry compote on the side.
Best Pasta Dish: Gnocchi, Spiaggia (Chicago)
Chef Tony Mantuano’s refined and modern Spiaggia is the gold standard for Italian fine dining in Chicago (and let’s face it, across America), and it’s constantly breaking new ground and reinventing itself, most notably with a 2014 renovation and menu revamp. There’s one dish, however, that can never be removed from the menu or it might incite riots (or at least polite disapproval): the gnocchi. Super-tender hand-rolled gnocchi are blanched and tossed in a sauce made with heavy cream, milk, ricotta, and a handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of truffle oil (the real stuff, infused with preserved Italian truffles). It’s plated after the sauce reduces slightly, and is topped with a spoonful of rich jus and a couple of those preserved sliced truffles. It’s a masterpiece, and a must-order, even with a $60 price tag.
Best Pizza: Pequod's (Chicago)
Although pizza is easily the most hotly debated food item in Chicago, Pequod’s delivers what we have decided is the best pie not only in the Windy City, but in the state. Pequod’s originator (the late Burt Katz) moved on from this endeavor after few years to take a break before opening a new pizza stalwart in 1989: Burt’s Place (which just reopened under new ownership) in Morton Grove, just north of Chicago. But the years have been kind to his legacy. Pequod’s deep-dish, known for its “caramelized crust,” earns points for its chewy, crusty, quasi-burnt cheese crust that forms the outer edge of this cheesy casserole, adding a welcome degree of texture that probably wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t nearly an inch thick. But it is necessary. And beautiful. And it does add that texture. Not into deep-dish? Any true Chicagoan knows that their thin crust is just as delish.
Best Ramen Shop: Slurping Turtle (Chicago)
Chef Takashi Yagihashi is one of the country’s leading Japanese chefs, and he’s turned his attention to Japanese comfort food at the casual and fun Slurping Turtle. There’s no Japanese dish that’s more comforting than ramen, and it certainly doesn’t get short shrift here. Seven different bowls of ramen are available, all made with homemade noodles, among them Red Miso (with roasted chicken, bok choy, scallions, and sweet corn); spicy Tan Tan Men Men (with pork meatballs, pork belly, and miso pork); and Hakata Tonkotsu (with chashu, bok choy, pickled mustard greens, braised mushrooms, and chile oil), and they all showcase Takashi’s trademark deft hand and eye for balance. Washed down with beer and sake, a meal here is about as fun as it gets.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Little Goat Diner (Chicago)
Little Goat Diner/Yelp
Chef Stephanie Izard is a culinary wizard, and has captured the hearts of Chicago with her acclaimed restaurants Girl & The Goat, Duck Duck Goat, and Little Goat Diner. Open daily at 7 a.m., Little Goat may ostensibly claim to be a diner, but it’s unlike any other one you’ll ever encounter. Sure, you’ll find eggs any style, a daily-rotating omelette, house-made breakfast sausage, corned beef hash with eggs, shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, and insanely delicious cinnamon buns, but a large portion of her menu is firmly planted squarely outside of the box. There’s the This Little Piggy Went to China (sesame Cheddar biscuit, sunny-side-up eggs, Sichuan pork sausage, chile garlic chive sauce, and gooseberries); Everything Is Everything Crumpets (lox, fried egg salad, tzatziki cream cheese, and pickles); and a Parathas Burrito (Indian flatbread, sunny side up eggs, and avocado bean salad), for example. But if you’re just looking for world-class pancakes (topped with spiced apples or cooked with dark chocolate chips), waffles (topped with bananas, peanut butter putter, and bacon maple syrup), or French toast (sweet onion brioche topped with fried chicken and barbecue maple syrup), the versions served here will spoil you for life.
Best Restaurant: Alinea (Chicago)
The menu at Alinea can sometimes sound deceptively simple ("scallop with citrus aroma," "woolly pig, fenel, orange, squid," and suchlike), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. Having successfully reinvented the way people look at reservations at Next, with its innovative nonrefundable online ticket system, and reinterpreted cocktails, bar food, and the whole bar experience with The Aviary, Grant Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokonas, have also intensified the attention they pay to Alinea. Achatz consistently turns out some of the most imaginative and delicious contemporary (or modernist, if you will) cuisine in the country, and it's better than ever after closing down a couple years ago for an extensive five-month renovation. The restaurant now offers three distinct experiences: The Kitchen Table, a six-person kitchenside private dining room; The Gallery, with two nightly seatings of 16; and The Salon, a “more approachable” menu served in the three second-floor salons. At Alinea, you never quite know what you’re going to be served, but a paradigm-shifting experience is all but guaranteed.
Best Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere: Moonshine Store (Martinsville)
Martinsville (located along the Illinois-Indiana border), has a population of 1,155, and from the looks of it, every one of them has lunch at the Moonshine Store every day. How else can one explain the line that constantly seems to form and stretch not only out the door of the old one-room general store, but across the dusty parking lot as well. And the people here show up for one thing: Moonburgers. These burgers are nothing fancy either, just a misshapen hunk of beef cooked to perfection and served on a store-bought bun with basic DIY condiments and toppings. The only thing you can add while ordering is a second patty and/or some American cheese. Then again, that’s all you really need; the patties are so juicy, you might even want to skip the ketchup.
Best Ribs: 17th Street Barbecue (Marion and Murphysboro)
This father-daughter team of pitmaster Mike Mills and restaurateur Amy Mills has struck gold with 17th Street Barbecue. There are now two locations of their restaurant in Southern Illinois. Mike Mills is a champion competition pitmaster and has been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. (He’s also received top-secret clearance to Air Force One, which sets his barbecue miles apart.)
Best Sandwich: Italian Beef, Al’s #1 Italian Beef (Chicago)
Way back in 1939, Al’s #1 Italian Beef started as a small food stand, later morphing into an iconic Chicago franchise with 9 Chicagoland locations. During the Depression, owner Al Ferrari and his family began slicing roast beef very thin and placing it on small fresh loaves of Italian bread, unintentionally creating a legendary sandwich.
To make this beauty, sirloin is rubbed with a secret spice blend, dry-roasted, thinly sliced, made into a sandwich, and then dunked in Al's signature “gravy” (more similar to au jus). Customers can choose how much or little they want, but Al’s encourages customers to get their sandwiches “wet.” When topped with the signature giardiniera, a tart and spicy pickled vegetable blend, this sandwich is a masterpiece.
Best Seafood Shack: Calumet Fisheries (Chicago)
One of the best seafood shacks in America is in the Midwest? You better believe it — the James Beard Foundation does. Calumet Fisheries in Chicago is famous for smoking any seafood that comes to mind — including salmon, herring, eel, sturgeon, sable, rainbow trout, and shrimp. It is currently only one of two smokehouses still allowed to burn wood and to smoke its fish in the city. The French fries are also legendary.
Best Soft Pretzel: Dinkel’s Bakery (Chicago)
Dinkel’s, which has been in business since 1922, may be renowned primarily for its legendary doughnuts, but their soft pretzels are also arguably the best in Chicago. Slightly crisp on the outside and soft and flavorful on the inside, they’re made using unbromated and unbleached flour. They are doughy and insanely craveable.
Best Soup: Shortrib Red Chile Caldo, Xoco (Chicago)
Anything chef Rick Bayless touches turns to gold, and that’s certainly true of the caldos he’s serving at his casual Mexican street food shop, Xoco. His shortrib red chile caldo is already the stuff of legend, with a serious cult following: short ribs from Creekstone farms are braised until falling apart and they’re added to a rich red chile-based broth along with roasted vegetables, epazote, arugula, and lime. It’s a meal in a bowl, and deeply comforting.
Best Spaghetti and Meatballs: Bartolini’s (Midlothian)
Bartolini’s might be most famous for its Annual Meatball Eating Championship and a 10-pound meatball sandwich challenge (with 40 meatballs), but gimmickry aside, these are also some stellar meatballs. Pork and beef are mixed with garlic, Parmesan, eggs, and milk-soaked bread, formed into 2-ounce balls, and baked. If you can’t wait until your next trip to Chicago to try these, they can be shipped to you.
Best Sports Bar: Sluggers World Class Sports Bar & Grill (Chicago)
Sluggers, which calls itself a “sports bar on steroids,” is the spot to hit up if you’re a sports fan in Chicago. The place, located in an area near Wrigley Field called Wrigleyville, has indoor batting cages, Pop-A-Shot basketball, Skee-Ball, air hockey, and more. It’s an ESPN favorite and locals love that they can get a bucket of wings alongside 50-plus beer options, as well as the daily drink deals and the opportunity to stare at over 30 TVs (six of them 10-footers).
Best Steakhouse: Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse (Chicago)
If you were to close your eyes and try to imagine what a 24-year-old steakhouse in downtown Chicago called Gibson’s would be like, you’d probably hit the nail right on the head: red leather booths, wood paneling, martinis, high-roller customers, flawless service, giant steaks, and lobster tails. The USDA Prime steak served here is second to none, and the old-fashioned menu of steakhouse classics includes spicy lobster cocktail in a steamed artichoke, wedge salad, and classic cuts of beef including bone-in filet mignon, London broil bordelaise with roasted bone marrow, and the 22-ounce W.R’s Chicago Cut, a mammoth bone-in rib-eye. If you’re looking to dine here, make sure you call well in advance; reservations are hard to come by. And while the website states that jeans are OK, we’d advise wearing something a little more suited to the upscale surroundings.
Best Sushi: Juno (Chicago)
A high-end sushi experience if ever there was one, Juno is a temple to all things sushi. The à la carte menu is one of the finest you’ll encounter at any sushi restaurant: Appetizers include fluke, lardo, and scallion; an uni shooter with orange zest and cucumber; and mushroom ramen with homemade noodles. Signature nigiri include spicy king crab and tuna, smoked hamachi with shiitake and sweet corn, and a trio of eel; and the selection of more than 20 raw fish also lists their sources (red snapper from Korea, fatty tuna from Australia, sweet red prawn from Argentina, uni from Santa Barbara, yellowtail from Japan). These all come together to create what’s easily the best omakase in Chicago, for an eye-opening (but worth it) $150 per guest.
Best Taco: Birria Tatemada, Birrieria Zaragoza (Chicago)
At Chicago’s family-run Birrieria Zaragoza, goat is the name of the game. Namely, the birria tatemada, a roasted goat taco based on a recipe that’s more than 100 years old. The goat is steamed for around five hours, then rubbed with an ancho chile-based red mole sauce before being roasted and served on house-made corn tortillas with fresh condiments, including onion, cilantro, red salsa, and roasted chiles. You can request any part of the goat you like, but we suggest you go with the pistola, or shank. It’s juicy, tender, and full of flavor — a bite worth seeking out if you’re even a passing fan of falling-off-the-bone meat. And who isn’t? For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.