The danger of asking your friends what they consider the best Chicago restaurant ever is that they will tell you. You have to include Barney’s! No, too corny. Maison LaFite, they shoot back. Sorry. No different from Chez Paul or Jacques (which made the cut for its lovely garden). And on and on. What follows is a list of 40 restaurants that epitomize Chicago’s impact on the culinary universe. We gathered them from experience, of course, but also from Chicago’s voluminous files, avid conversations, and old guidebooks. Some get accolades for being game changers, some for grandeur, and even a few for kitsch, but all for memorable dining. Feel free to disagree—all my friends did—and register your complaints in the comments below.
40. Wing Yee
1965-late 1980s // Lincoln Park
(Cantonese) No one has yet equaled its egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, chicken sub gum chow mein, and pan-fried noodles.
1946-1987 // Evanston
(Italian-American) In 1948, Fanny Bianucci said no to $75,000 from Kraft Foods for her salad dressing recipe. Now it’s sold online, along with her famous spaghetti sauce.
38. Red Star Inn
1899-1970 // Old Town
1970-1983 // Old Irving
(German) The stately original across from the Germania Club fell to urban renewal, and when RSI closed for good, we lost the city’s best German pancakes.
37. Don Roth’s Blackhawk
1920-1984 // Loop
(American) The Spinning Bowl salad: A waiter would lay out 21 ingredients and narrate the drama as he gently tossed and spun them. It was hypnotic. Take that, caesar salad!
36. Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli
1942-present // South Loop
(deli food) Where cops, aldermen, yuppies, old-timers, and multi- cultis have always stood shoulder to shoulder for massive potato pancakes and pastrami sandwiches.
35. Gladys Holcomb’s Home Cooking
1946-circa 2003 // Bronzeville
(soul food) Long after visits from Martin Luther King Jr. and Aretha Franklin, this landmark spot remained the go-to for corn bread, smothered chicken, grits, and cobbler.
34. Alexander’s Steak House
circa 1930-1978 // South Shore
(American) The Alexander brothers’ swanky meat palace was such a star magnet that Nicky Hilton flew buckets of their salad dressing to the Anaheim Hilton when he married Liz Taylor.
33. Hackney’s on Harms
1939-present // Glenview
(American) Some pretty hotsy-totsy chefs have discovered hamburgers lately, but time was when the half-pounder on dark rye and fried onion loaf at Hackney’s had no peers.
1868-1962 // Loop
(Viennese) In the heart of the theatre district, the steadfastly Old World Henrici’s was known for fine coffee, delectable pastries, and its advertising slogan: No Orchestral Din.
31. The Berghoff
1898-present // Loop
(German) Natty waiters have handled hot corned beef sandwiches, Wienerschnitzel, and house-made root beer with pride and aplomb for 112 years.
1944-1968 // Loop
(Far Eastern) This over-the-top tiki bar and restaurant out-tiki’d the competition with its Polynesian fare and exotic cocktails so potent, management set a two-zombie-drink limit.
29. College Inn
1844-1973 // Loop
(Continental) As well known for its chicken à la king—yes, that chicken à la king—as its indoor ice-skating, this razzma-tazz club knew how to throw a party.
28. Jimmy’s Place
1978-1995 // Avondale
(Franco-Asian) Jimmy Rohr greeted guests at the door, kept the lights low, and played strictly opera music, which made for the most civilized dinner in town.
27. Eli’s Place for Steak
1966-2005 // Gold Coast
(steaks) This indie steak house nodded to its Jewish deli roots—chopped liver, herring—attracted celebs like Johnny Carson, and spawned a cheesecake empire.
26. Le Perroquet
1973-1991 // Gold Coast
(French) A visit to Jovan Trboyevic’s sanctuary for nouvelle cuisine started with a private elevator ride to the third floor—where bad behavior would get you tossed out.
25. Cape Cod Room
1933-present // Gold Coast
(seafood) Unapologetically trapped in time today, the grande dame of the Drake Hotel was ahead of its time—flying in fresh fish—years before the daily catch was de rigueur.
24. Gene & Georgetti’s
1941-present // River North
(steaks, Italian) If the walls of this 1870 edifice could talk, they would spill decades of political deals cut over perfectly char-crusted aged prime steaks.
1977-1992 // Skokie
1979-present // River North
(American barbecue) Ribs moved into a swanky dining room in Skokie, everyone wore plastic bibs, and licking your fingers in public became not only acceptable—but fashionable.
1947-1972 // Loop
(Continental) Home of the three-hour lunch for columnists, models, and moguls: Irv Kupcinet described Fritzel’s as Chicago’s version of Toots Shor’s.
1935-1983 // Gold Coast
(French) Well, maybe faux French, but the flower-bedecked courtyard was incredibly popular with the Ladies Who Lunch long before the phrase was coined.
20. Gibsons Steakhouse
1989-present // Gold Coast
(steaks) At the epicenter of Rush Street action, this always-packed prime meat scene follows the ultimate Chicago steak-house paradigm to a T.
19. Yoshi’s Café
1982-present // Lake View
(Contemporary) This treasure has delighted for three decades simply because Yoshi Katsumura’s gentle fusion continues to sparkle and his wife, Nobuko, continues to charm.
18. The Pump Room
1938-present // Gold Coast
(Contemporary American) Its star has faded, but memories of damned good food and Booth One—where Bogie and Bacall celebrated their wedding—still make our hearts race.
1985-present // Albany Park
(Thai) Before Arun Sampanthavivat opened this jewel box, we had never tasted elegant Thai food. It took our breath away then, and it still does.
1986-present // South Loop
(French) This bastion of haute owes its success—four stars for 19 straight years—to Jean Joho, the anti-trend chef who shows no signs of letting up.
15. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!
1985-present // Lincoln Park
(Spanish) “I think tapas-style dining is going to be the next big food experience in the country.” –Richard Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, January 1986
1997-present // West Loop
(Contemporary American) Paul Kahan put American food through a modern lens and unleashed a sleeping giant. Read: where pork became the hippest food on the planet.
13. The Bakery
1962-1989 // Lincoln Park
(Continental) Cognoscenti flocked to Louis Szathmáry’s quirky storefront—no menu and mismatched everything— for beef Wellington and an inexplicable BYO policy.
1981-present // Highland Park
(Contemporary French) From day one, Carlos Nieto’s patented silver bow tie has said it all: Check your ideas about formal French dining at the door.
2003-present // West Loop
(Mediterranean) The trendoids embraced the small plates and communal seating and never looked back. The rest of us have finally caught up.
10. Pizzeria Uno
1943-present // River North
(pizza) In the beginning, there was Chicago-style thin-crust pizza, and it was good. Then Uno introduced deep-dish, and it was revolutionary.
1976-1999 // River North
(Contemporary American) The bon vivant Gordon A. Sinclair brought sophistication to a seedy stretch of North Clark Street, and River North was born.
8. Morton’s The Steakhouse
1978-present // Gold Coast
(steaks) The rolling-cart show of massive cuts of plastic-wrapped prime beef raised the bar on excessive steak consumption from maybe to mandatory.
1980-2007 // Lincoln Park
(French) Just when elegance seemed out of favor, this testament to sumptuous dining swept into our lives. We still miss the cloches and the gorgeous dessert cart.
1993-2006 // Evanston
(Contemporary American) Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (Tru), Shawn McClain (Spring, Green Zebra), and—drumroll please—Grant Achatz (Alinea) all passed through Trio.
1984-present // Gold Coast
(Italian) In a city with a proud red-sauce tradition, Tony Mantuano singlehandedly awakened us to the exquisite joys of Northern Italian cuisine.
4. Frontera Grill
1989-present // River North
(Mexican) Did Rick Bayless think we had never eaten tacos or enchiladas before? Not like Frontera’s, we hadn’t. Then, at Topo, he made creative Mexican fare a white-tablecloth experience.
3. Charlie Trotter’s
1987-present // Lincoln Park
(Contemporary) In 1987, a young whippersnapper named Charlie Trotter turned an old brownstone into a temple of modern dining. For 23 years running, all hail the chef.
2. Le Français
1973-2007 // Wheeling
(French) In its heyday, the best French restaurant in America. So said Bon Appétit, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Craig Claiborne, and Mimi Sheraton. Merci, Jean Banchet.
2005-present // Lincoln Park
(Progressive American) Still wet behind the ears, Alinea, the culinary juggernaut of the brilliant and visionary Grant Achatz, turned Chicago into an international foodie destination and a launching pad for the next generation of groundbreaking chefs.
Photography: (Manny’s) Chicago Tribune photo by Charles Osgood, (Achatz) Lara Kastner/Courtesy of Alinea, (Berghoff) Chicago Tribune photo by José M. OsorioEdit Module