The below full-length feature version of 24 Hours in Chicago by Raphael Kadushin appears in the current issue of Gourmet Live. Download the free Gourmet Live app for this story and more.
Maybe outsiders were caught off guard by Chicago’s climb to the top of the national food chain in the past few years. But locals knew that the city has been simmering for decades, producing an all–American stew of homegrown dawgs and deep–dish pizzas, South Side ribs and Polish brats, heartland steaks and Chinatown pork buns.
So, in a city with this big an appetite, it was almost inevitable that culinary invention would build on culinary tradition. The result has been a growing roll call of pioneering Chicago chefs who have updated the city’s formidable legacy and contributed to some of the country’s most prominent gastronomic trends, from locavore to molecular to nose–to–tail to pan–global. For food lovers, Chicago is simply the place to be at this moment in time.
How do you manage to take a big chewy bite out of the inexhaustible buffet in 24 hours and sample all the flavors? You can’t. But you can try. Consider the following guide a cheat sheet to at least a small taste of Chicago.
The clock starts ticking at 7 a.m. (some Midwesterners still get up early). If you want a sugary early–morning nosh along with your coffee, head to Andersonville and take your number at the Swedish Bakery (773–561–8919), where the snaking line started forming in the mid 1920s, when they opened. Get an almond horn, the cardamom–scented Andersonville coffee cake to split, a slice of the classic princess torte bundled up in green marzipan, or a sweet roll with fruit and streusel that puts the Swedish back into Danish. For more of a sit–down Swedish breakfast, spin into the Andersonville outpost of Ann Sather (773–271–6677), a local favorite, for its Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and the freshly baked, high–rise cinnamon rolls pillowy enough to sleep on, if you’re still groggy.
If the options above seems too old–school, head to the recently opened Kanela Breakfast Club (773–248–1622) in Lake View, where anyone can join the club on the long chocolate–brown banquettes. The Greek accent here adds just enough surprise to fully wake you up; the signature loukoumáthes (Greek fritters with lemon–honey syrup) paired with the pork belly benedict make for a Mykonos–on–Lake Michigan effect.
Don’t fill up, though. The next crucial stop is nearby, at Lincoln Park, for the Green City Market. That’s where vendors, selling under a canopy of leafy trees every Wednesday and Saturday from May to the end of October (moving indoors in the winter), prove what a heartland harvest really means: pickled asparagus and wild mushrooms, buckets of raspberries and cherries, Flamin’ Fury peaches from Michigan, Dairyland cheese curds that squeak in the mouth, and Mason jars filled with chunky preserves (such as honey–rhubarb and strawberry–balsamic). The added attractions: a fashion show of summer hats (fedoras to porkpies) plus lot of babies, dogs, and the beefiest urban farmboys this side of a Bruce Weber photo shoot.
If you’re already salivating again grab an egg sandwich stacked with kale, spring onion, and butterkäse cheese on ciabatta from the Sunday Dinner (773–878–2717). But keep in mind that lunch, and specifically the sandwich, is pretty much Chicago’s signature meal, and no iteration—from tortas to subs to tacos and melts—gets ignored.
Virtually every top chef in town has opened his or her own feed–the–masses, quick–stop, street–food diner so you can sample the maestro’s touch at starving boho prices. Its your choice (or really your wallet’s): Paul Kahan’s clean contemporary menu at Blackbird (312–715–0708)—though dishes like the wood–grilled sturgeon with chanterelles and plums are well worth every last cent of the $36 tab—or a supernal $3 taco de Borrego (marinated braised lamb shoulder with roasted scallion and Queso Fresco) at his honky–tonk café Big Star, where you can watch most of Wicker Park promenade past from the sprawling front terrace; Rick Bayless’ studious culinary ethnography at Topolobampo (312–661–1434) or the snaking line at Xoco (312–334–3688) down the block, where you can wait for the $12 cochinita pibil torta bulging with wood–roasted suckling pig, achiote, and pickled onion, big enough to double as dinner; a nouveau–swank dinner at Graham Elliot’s (312–624–9975) eponymous restaurant or the international lineup of luncheon meats at his Grahamwich (312–265–0434), where the Wisconsin Cheddar, tomato marmalade—and those cheese curds again—loaded onto a pullman loaf, make for a Midwestern road trip (with a surprise Mediterranean detour in the form of Italian prosciutto). And if seductive cooking is more important than the chef’s celebrity status, consider the Belly Shack (773–252–1414) near Logan Square, where the Korean–crossed–with–Puerto Rican kitchen turns out an Asian pork meatball sandwich with somen noodles and mint for just $9.
After all that border hopping you’ll probably need a drink. The best place to kick back for a while to mull over Chicago’s daunting roster of dinner options is at Maude’s Liquor Bar (312–243–9712), conveniently located on West Randolph Street’s restaurant row. The doggedly decadent drinks list here features Champagne cocktails and an appropriately named Death in the Afternoon (absinthe, sugar, lemon), along with Left Bank nibbles like escargots, pâté, and pommes frites with garlic aïoli, plus heartier offerings such as cassoulet.
But consider the fries a warm–up for the neighboring Girl & the Goat (312–492–6262), where Stephanie Izard, Top Chef’s only female winner (how’s that for depressing?) follows through on her promise. In fact, Izard’s flaming–hot kitchen has been the restaurant of the moment, the food world’s It Girl, since it opened last year. That’s because the whole whirling place seamlessly distills all of Chicago’s chicest dining trends: the cavernous Goth–goes–industrial dining room; the clubby crowd settled into their own din; and the jumpy menu that (mostly successfully) juggles the zealously sourced veg (roasted cauliflower with pickled peppers) with lots of esoteric butchering (goat belly, skewered lamb heart) to a subtle Mediterranean backbeat (grilled baby octopus, escargot ravioli). Oh yeah, and savory desserts (pork fat doughnuts).
But for the real pioneer and champion of that prevailing style—a blend of impeccable local sourcing and global accents—walk to Avec (312–377–2002), just down the street, a much smaller, calmer oasis, paneled in wood, where chef Koren Grieveson’s focaccia with Taleggio cheese, ricotta, and truffle oil is locally legendary, and where the changing menu always does right by whole roasted fish, wood–fired flatbreads, pork, and quail (currently served with kale and stone fruit agrodolce).
Or head to Fulton Market, where two of the itchy chefs who helped establish Chicago’s name for cutting–edge cuisine have opened their latest and maybe quirkiest adventures in cooking. Next (no phone number) is Grant Achatz’s experiment in time–travel cuisine, which changes shape every three months. The debut menu, and decor, was an homage to classic French cuisine; the current incarnation is a Tour of Thailand. But the only way to storm the gates of this ultimate restaurant–as–theater is with a ticket purchased online, and those are pretty tough to come by. Try next door at Homaro Cantu’s iNG (855–834–6464). The king of molecular, sci–fi gastronomy, showcased at Moto, Cantu and his executive chef Thomas Bowman are still full of conceptual tricks, which can read as more showy than playful (dehydrated waffle batter can’t really improve on a straight–up waffle). But then where else are you going to sample a very good poke tuna tartare topped by a wispy mushroom cloud of soy cotton candy?
Then again maybe you really don’t want to. If you’re more of a traditionalist at heart, looking for the best of meat–and–potatoes Chicago, book a table at the Publican (312–733–9555). The big barn–cum–beer hall of a very folksy dining room, bisected by a mammoth communal harvest table, comes packed with a raucous crowd downing mugs of Belgian craft brews and eating lots of blue–ribbon pig sourced from local farms, served nose–to–tail–to–innards (try the slab of woody pork ribs). If you’d rather have surf than turf—and Chicago has a surprisingly rich legacy of seafood restaurants—stop off at GT Fish & Oyster (312–929–3501), all gleaming bleached–wood paneling, where the communal tables are heaped this time with golden brandade croquettes crowning a fennel–orange salad, lobster rolls paired with fried onions, a changing selection of raw oysters, and barbecued eel. For dessert: a pulled–apart Key lime pie turned parfait in a jar.
Anyone still hungry for more should cap off the marathon at Longman & Eagle (773–276–7110), which stays open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and does triple duty: If you’re still hungry you can dive into a plate of the kitchen’s very butch wild boar sloppy Joe. If you’re still thirsty there are 30–plus different whiskeys on offer, for about $3 a shot. And if you down one shot too many there are six arty rooms upstairs where you can sleep off the very long day.
Raphael Kadushin writes for a range of food and travel outlets, including Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious.com, Out, and National Geographic Traveler. He also is responsible for updating the Concierge.com destination guide to Chicago, so he very happily makes the rounds of Chicago’s restaurants every chance he gets.