As a Midwesterner, I have eaten at more than my share of fast-casual chains and hometown diners which serve up food that reminds me of a church basement potluck. That’s why I’m so delighted every time I take the South Shore train to Chicago, the foodie capital of the Midwest! Every time we take a day trip we find another amazing new restaurant. Naturally, we’ll also pick up a few bags of Garrett’s popcorn along the way! Our ride on the South Shore line takes a couple of hours and terminates in the downtown loop on Randolph Street, where we find ourselves within walking distance of some truly noteworthy restaurants.
The Vivant’s Choice for Chicago starts out with ZED451, which is celebrating is tenth year in the beautiful River North neighborhood. The elevated Brazilian steakhouse serves locally-sourced, chef-driven and delivered courses in a wonderful, intimate venue. As a born-and-bred Midwesterner, steak is always the first thing I look at on the menu, but I like their “ZED Experience” offering which lets you try the full range of fresh soups, salads and chef selections, and in true Midwestern spirit, the samplings are unlimited.
Try to make it in for their Happy Hour specials in the bar and rooftop! ZED451 has a great selection of regional beers, including a rotating selection of the legendary 3 Floyds.
The Signature Room
For real atmosphere, there’s nothing that can compare with The Signature Room at the 95th, which is located on top of the John Hancock Center on the 95th floor. The Signature Room boasts a 360 degree view of the Chicago cityscape and Lake Michigan, and if the view isn’t enough, executive chef Cardel Reid delivers a delectable menu of American cuisine. Incredible steak options that shouldn’t be missed, but for my next visit I’ll mix it up a bit by starting out with a dozen oysters on the half shell, followed by the pan-seared duck breast.
One floor up on the 96th floor you can also find the lounge, where you can enjoy one of the Signature Room’s craft cocktails, including the aptly-named “Skyscraper,” made with Bacardi Superior rum, pineapple juice, cranberry juice and a pineapple wedge.
The newest one on the scene but already one of my favorites, award-winning chef Danny Grant’s etta just opened this summer in the Bucktown neighborhood. The word etta means “keeper of the hearth,” and this new hot spot has seasonally-driven dishes cooked over a wood-fired grill. Their daily-changing menu of wood-fired pizzas is truly inspired, and will definitely move the needle towards Chicago in the never-ending debate over Chicago versus New York style pizza.
Etta’s concept is straightforward and honest and about as “Chicago” as you can get: To serve simple, seasonal and expertly crafted food in a favorite neighborhood setting.
Opened just last year in June by chef Joe Frillman, Daisies celebrates the Midwest with produce secured from Prairie View, Illinois-based Frillman Farms (owned by Joe’s younger brother Tim). With a vegetable-driven and pasta-focused menu, Daisies has a HACCP-license, which means they can take crops and unusual produce from trusted producers when it’s at its most fresh, and use time-sensitive techniques that include preservation and fermentation.
Joe is one of only a handful of chefs in Chicago who take part in this unique fermentation program, and his menu includes some bold fermented pasta and vegetable dishes, and plans include fermenting his own sodas, which I can’t wait to try.
Located in the trendy Logan Square neighborhood, Lula Café has become a Chicago landmark and is one of the first farm-to-table restaurants in Chicago. Lula is great any day of the week, but if you go on Monday, you can experience something transcendent with their very popular Monday Night Farm dinner series, where every Monday night they feature never-before-made dishes.
Be sure to stick around for dessert! Lula’s pastry chef Amanda Shepard creates some very inventive plated desserts, which blur the line between sweet and savory. Amanda has a storied background in fine dining, with previous experience at institutions like Atelier Crenn and Quince, and this is reflected in the delicately-crafted plated desserts. Don’t leave Chicago without trying one!
Our Favorite Chicago Bloggers’ Selections
The best way to find an unparalleled dining experience is to check out the local influencers and bloggers, and for Chicago, the best place to start out is with Jess Keys of the Gold Girl blog, and Lauren’s Lakeshore Lady blog. Jess knows Chicago well, and in one of her recent posts she offered up some great recommendations for “girls’ night” out, including Big Star and Beatnik for the real Chicago experience. And if you’re looking for a great place for a group of people, Lauren’s recommendations include Duck, Duck, Goat for one of the many Top Chef experiences the city offers and Parlor Pizza for the pizza (and fun) Chicago is known for.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.