Top 40 Chicago Restaurants Ever

As a toast to this magazine’s 40th anniversary, we name the 40 best Chicago restaurants of all time.

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Best Chicago restaurants ever

 

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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.

39. Fanny’s
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.

32. Henrici’s
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.

30. Shangri-La
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.

23. Carson’s
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.

22. Fritzel’s
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.

21. Jacques
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.

 

Photography: (Pizzeria Uno) Courtesy of Uno; (Bayless) Chicago Tribune photo by Antonio Perez, (Red Star Inn) Chicago Tribune file photo by A. Walker

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4 years ago
Posted by NatSmacks

Wing Yee was my Grandparent's restaurant and although I was only 10 or so when it closed, I have great memories of the place. I'm glad others do as well! My family is excited and flattered to see Wing Yee in the top 40 restaurants. I cannot wait to tell my Grandmother.

4 years ago
Posted by jacketpotato

I'm glad that there are no good restaurants South of the South Loop. Who the heck would want to go to any of those places! It's so far and all these modern conveyances like cars and CTA don't go there. Who would want to go to Chinatown, South Shore or Pilsen? Restaurants like Army and Lou's or Top Notch have no historical or cultural significance. Plus the food is too salty and bad for you. I'm sure there's nothing in the South Suburbs or Indiana worthy of the mighty Chicago Magazine.

I'm not even a Southsider and this biased list is completely bogus. I can't believe you actually printed this garbage.

4 years ago
Posted by Toadly

Bronzeville and South Shore not far enough south for you, JacketPotato? Read the list before spouting off your nonsense.

4 years ago
Posted by MREDSTONE

POINT OF EGG ROLL ORDER!!!

Wing Yee is stated as being, "not yet equaled its egg rolls". I never had an opportunity to eat at Wing Yee and will neither dispute nor disparage the quality of its Cantonese cuisine.
However, as an egg roll connoisseur and a dedicated Northsider of Rogers Park origin I must point the egg rolls of Pekin House on Devon Avenue. When my family lived in Rogers Park, every Friday was Chinese food night which meant two stops: first to Mongolian House on Western for the main dishes and then a quick right turn on Devon to stop at Pekin House for fried rice and most importantly...the world's best egg rolls!
They were fried perfectly and were short thick capsule filled with cabbage and pork, amongst other ingredients, with a creme de la creme of a peanut finish! Sadly, while they still remain at their venerable Devon location of late Pekin's egg rolls have lost their edge.
I suspect it could be the relatively recent Chicago ban on trans-fat (especially in the frying oils!) but as a retort to the original about Wing Yee, I have two wishes:
1. I could have have had Wing Yee's egg rolls to truly compare
and
2. I hope that next time I go to Pekin House on Devon that they're egg rolls will once again be the best in the world!

4 years ago
Posted by footinmouth

No way to come up with a list that everyone agrees on, but I truly don't understand what the criteria is for this list:
"Some get accolades for being game changers, some for grandeur, and even a few for kitsch, but all for memorable dining".
I don't know why Yoshi's is on the list. I've tired it twice, meh.
I've not tried Avec or Alinea, but how can a restaurant that has been open a couple years be on the all-time list (and at #1 and 11 no less)?
Pizza seems woefully under-represented. How about Hot Doug's for the best hot dogs (with it's perpetual line down the block)? No Italian Beef representation?
I did like seeing some old places (some I remember, some I never knew).
I'd like to see a list compiled from lists of any Chicagoan's. Make a program where we all can enter our top picks and show the top 40 from that.

4 years ago
Posted by Diane F (for Foodie)

What a fun list!

Footinmouth, I can provide several reasons why Yoshi's belongs on a list such as this one:

-Longevity: Yoshi's has been around since 1982. No, that's not as long as places such as the Berghoff, but it's still a long time in the fickle restaurant world.

-Innovation: Chef Yoshi Katsumura is a master of a variety of cuisines. He knows how to make traditional Japanese food that is obscure to most Americans (I've eaten sea urchin there, for a special occasion dinner); he also makes one of the most delicious hamburgers in the city (according to Chicago mag as well as anyone I know who's ever had one). He did Asian/Continental fusion before everyone did. The menu changes frequently to incorporate varied, seasonal ingredients; those who eat there often are never bored.

-Customer experience: Yoshi's waiters are professional waiters (even if some of them have other "day jobs" or avocations, they treat their work at Yoshi's professionally). Many have been there for years. They are also smart, funny, and warm. They remember customers' favorites, and names. They are kind to everyone who comes in. I've dined there as a solo woman, AND as a parent with a fussy infant who grew into a loud toddler, who now--at 6--knows how to behave in restaurants thanks to frequent trips to Yoshi's. Gay, straight, dates, groups, singles, young, old, everyone is made to feel welcome at Yoshi's.

-Community: Yoshi's is a standout in a Chicago residential neighborhood; it doesn't rely on Loop tourists or downtown corporate lunches. Yoshi and Nobuko live in this neighborhood (so do many of the waiters), and they care about what goes on here. They say Chicago is a "city of neighborhoods," and it's places like Yoshi's that keep neighborhoods vibrant.

-Local AND International Reputation: How many restaurants that are neighborhood favorites, with regulars who eat there several times a week, also attract visitors from Japan when they are in town?

Yoshi's may fly under many people's radar, or at least it did until the "Check Please" segment, but even through the current recession has remained popular, busy, and full, thanks to devotees of this fabulous restaurant that offers delicious, creative food in a welcoming atmosphere. I know of no other restaurant that satisfies grown-up foodies like my husband and me as well as our 6-year-old. I'm very, very happy to see it included on this list.

Yoshi's epitomizes "memorable dining."

4 years ago
Posted by daw

I'm very proud to read that Alexander's Steak House made the list at #34. Family run by the Alexander men and women serving several generations between Hyde Park and South Shore. I can still smell the prime rib and salad dressing!

4 years ago
Posted by todd

Sorry to see no listing for Printer's Row -- certainly deserved to be in the top 20 in my opinion. Everything we eat and drink was there nearly thirty years ago. I did work there and have my biases, but that was a truly groundbreaking restaurant.

4 years ago
Posted by Alexander622@gmail.com

Thanks for the BIG surprise and honor to be included in the Top Ten of all time Chicago favorites!

Emails started flying in from everywhere to alert me here in Los Angeles, where I've ferreted out a list of only five favorite restaurants since pitching my tent here two years ago. Surely I will have ten before we land on Mars!

Gordon Sinclair

4 years ago
Posted by bittermike

I agree with most of the listings, especially with Don Roth's Blackhawk, Jimmy's Place and Gordon being mentioned. All great restaurants in their time, and a shame that they are no longer open. However, like most of the people posting comments, I disagree with many listings. I agree with footinmouth that Alinea and Avec should not be on the list as they have only been open for a few years, and therefore, cannot be one of the greats of all time. I also do not understand how a restaurant like Les Nomades, which has been open for over 30 years and remains one of the top rated restaurants in Chicago Magazine, does not get mentioned. This is especially true when Carlos, which is ranked No. 12 on your list, only rececives 2-1/2 stars in Chicago Magazine, while Les Nomades, which has been operating longer and currently receives 3-1/2 stars (in the same magazine), does not get mentioned at all. Did you not look at your own reviews before making the list? Just wondering.

4 years ago
Posted by Teach

Did you consider Cafe Provencal, Leslie Reis' once incomparable Evanston restaurant? Also, if Alinea, what about Moto? It would be interesting to see a follow up story on what you considered. I concur on many of the choices but so many are or were, also, stale so very very long ago.

4 years ago
Posted by Chef RM

Great list. And though some may not be old enough to remember, most of this list is/was influential in one way or another. Following and working in the industry for 18+ years, I remember some of these restaurants growing up, in awe sometimes, and hopefully aspiring to one day. My first taste of fine dining was Cafe Provencal(should've been included), which of course later became the legendary Trio. And to this day, one of the best meals I've ever had was at Gordon. Phenomenal restaurateur. Much deserving of this list as well. The only other places I feel that should've made it are Printer's Row, Erwin, Avanzare, The Eccentric and The Greenery. All influential for their time, not only for their cuisine, but for acting as a launching pad for many careers and Chefs. Finally for those who feel Alinea is too new, they must not realize the impact Grant's cuisine has had over the world. He continues to pave the way for young aspiring Chefs, evolve contemporary cuisine, and encourage us to think outside the box, with not only food, but the dining experience as a whole.

4 years ago
Posted by nsxtasy

What a great list! There are always omissions that can be questioned. I agree that Leslee Reis's Cafe Provencal and Michael Foley's Printer's Row both belong; others deserving consideration include Arnie's, Le Bordeaux, Nick's Fishmarket, and R. J. Grunts in the city, as well as suburban places like Louis's Bon Appetit, Tallgrass, Le Titi de Paris, and Walker Brothers. (Maybe it should be a top 50?) I agree with the omission of Les Nomades, which someone erroneously claimed has been around over 30 years (it was opened as a private club in 1985 by Jovan Trboyevic, whose Le Perroquet is on the list). There's a tendency for people today to think only of today's best, but unless a restaurant shakes up the city and the entire restaurant world (as Alinea has done), it takes time before its influence can be felt; perhaps twenty years from now places like Avenues, TRU, NoMI, and the Publican will be on the list.

4 years ago
Posted by bobzaguy

What about the Italian of all Italians? The Italian Village.

4 years ago
Posted by frankiemo

I grew up in the South Shore neighborhood and later I spent 35yrs in the meat business in Chicago. There was no better restaurant than Alexanders. Great food, great cocktails.To bad the neighborhood went to pot.

4 years ago
Posted by kawaiicat7

Huzzah!! I can't agree enough with Diane!! Yoshi's is fabulous and the food, the waiters, and Yoshi and wonderful Nabuko are exactly why!! We love this place and eat here far too often for our pocket books' good! :)

I don't think Alinea should really be on this list though. First of all, I really think if you're considering it for revolutionary food - Mario Cantu at Moto really paved the path for Chicago in molecular gastronomy. Also, I don't see how Tru was overlooked - it is fabulous both for food and service.

Then again I had a miserable experience at Alinea.

4 years ago
Posted by burrito chief

Alinea is only top 7 in the world, so it shouldn't be tops in Chicago. Riiiiiiight.

4 years ago
Posted by cuteitalianmary

A great list but would also add: Doro's, Biggs, Arnie's, Avanzarre, Chez Paul and Crickets. Some really great restaurants of the past.

3 years ago
Posted by ChiSoxBabe

I agree with JacketPotato, but most people don't make it off the EL tracks to go to a restaurant. Trust me, the likes of the Chicago Magazine are not going to Beverly to eat at Top Notch, they would have to open their own door. As a city, we are fairly insular, hence the inclusion of Cafe Ba-Ba-Ree-Ba. That place sucks and can't be considered a game changer. Tapas have been around forever, in Spain. The El doesn't go there either.

3 years ago
Posted by unclueng

What about The Black Angus on North Western Avenue at Touhy? The best BBQ Baby Backs ever. Outstanding steaks. Chris Carson hired the cook when he openned Carson's ( No. 23 on your list. ).

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