Best Restaurants in Chicago: 30 under $30
We found a whole slew of great ways to eat well for less—trusty BYOs, prix fixe stunners, and places that don’t seem to realize how good they are
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$29 prix fixe menu at Café de Architectes: appetizer, amuse-bouche, entrée, minardises, and dessert
It’s easy to spend a lot of money on fine dining, but you don’t have to. The trouble with finding bargains in a big city is that the gems are hard to uncover. So we did the heavy lifting for you, scouring the land for values—often at some of the most highly touted restaurants—and compiled a list of the best deals in dining right now. That includes prix fixe dinners such as a stunning $29 three-course offering at Café des Architectes, generous BYOs such as Coast Sushi Bar and Han 202, and a terrific small-plates spot that doesn’t nickel-and-dime you. (It’s Chilam Balam, it’s Mexican, and it’s also BYO.) We pinpointed early-bird deals, late-night deals, midweek deals, and restaurants that could charge twice as much and we’d still pay. All are $30 or under, without wine, tax, or tip. One caveat: Some of these restaurants aren’t exactly publicizing their bargains, so if you don’t see the special menu, don’t be shy about asking for it. It’s a small price to pay.
ABIGAIL’S AMERICAN BISTRO
493 Roger Williams Avenue, Highland Park; 847-849-1009
up to $30
Hold the big plates. The chef Michael Paulsen’s small and medium plates sate the hungry when capped by a delectable apple tart with butter pecan ice cream ($5). Start with a bubbling ramekin of crab gratin with shoepeg corn (small, white, and sweet) and diced potatoes enveloped in crème fraîche ($10). Follow that with a big nest of frites bedding honey-onion marmalade and frisée with bacon chunks, mounded generously with shredded duck confit and a poached egg ($11). And the opening volley to all this goodness? Gooey, rich Cheddar-chive biscuits hot from the oven—compliments of the chef. –D. R. W.
416 West Ontario Street; 312-787-1400
3 courses for $20
Blue 13’s chef, Chris Curren, loves his tattoos and calls his American cuisine “twisted.” Nonetheless, every Sunday, he forgoes all his cutting-edge twists and sets out a family-style supper that changes from week to week but is always a love letter to the Midwestern farm table. Fashioned from what Curren finds Friday at the market, the meal recently followed a lively green salad with a table-swamping feed of juicy and herby roast chicken accompanied by big bowls of delicious, thick-sliced glazed carrots, golden brown thyme-roasted potatoes, and buttered green beans. My family had second helpings, but there was so much chicken we still couldn’t finish. Then the Key lime cheesecake arrived. –D. R. W.
CAFÉ DES ARCHITECTES
Sofitel Chicago Water Tower, 20 East Chestnut Street; 312-324-4063
3 courses for $29 adults, $16 children 6 to 10
“Won’t you be my neighbor?” That’s the welcome from the master French chef Martial Noguier on his Sunday-through-Tuesday Neighborhood Friends’ Menu. His petite Ball jar of wonderful fennel-purée-topped salmon tartare with a side of micro-greens and lemon confit was welcome, indeed. Then came a comforting flatiron steak with wild leek purée, English peas, wild mushrooms, and fingerling potatoes. Noguier works the room—to make sure you feel the love—but if that doesn’t do it, his hazelnut nougatine and espresso crème should. Almost forgot about the two freebies—an amuse to start and mignardises to finish. Wish Martial was my neighbor. –D. R. W.
1846 North Milwaukee Avenue; 773-384-8911
3 courses for $24
The dishes on Charlie Socher’s three-course value menu aren’t as elaborate as his usual à la carte offerings, but there’s a lot to be said for simplicity when it’s this good. Wonderfully light cream of asparagus soup gets perfumed with a squeeze of lemon and a final flourish of minced tarragon. Ragoût de porc provençale—luscious chunks of fork-tender pork braised in a stew of tomatoes, garlic, and basil—is served over a browned, herbed mashed-potato cake. And the delicate lavender ice cream’s shower of blueberries is all the dish needs to be great. –D. R. W.
3023 North Broadway; 773-296-6901
up to $30
BYO | CASH ONLY
A meal of small plates always sounds like fun—until you realize you ordered all wrong, you’re not full, and you spent more than you intended. But at Chilam Balam, a colorful two-month-old BYO in Lake View, you can finally enjoy this small-plates thing. CB is small, its menu is small, and your check can be small. Here’s how our party of four did it: We shared halibut seviche and an order of guacamole while we sipped our wine and kibbitzed with the waiter. He suggested the hanger steak and mushroom-filled empanadas. Fine. We threw in an order of grilled pork ribs and a grilled whole game hen. Loved everything and squeezed in some jiggly hibiscus flan and sugary PBJ empanadas. Total damage for four: $100. With tax. –J. R.
COAST SUSHI BAR
2045 North Damen Avenue; 773-235-5775
Sushi is the ultimate tease. You look at the menu and nothing seems all that expensive, so you order a bunch of rolls and maybe some saké, and the next thing you know, your foursome is into the restaurant for $200. That partially explains the popularity of an uncomplicated place like Coast, where straight-up sushi like a crispy salmon skin roll is fresh, tight, and gloriously cheap ($6). The sprawling menu’s pricier options, like the po’ boy roll—a lovely mess of whitefish tempura, unagi, masago, tempura crumbs, and eel sauce—are massive beasts. Then there’s Coast’s true selling point: It’s BYO, which, as we all know, makes everything taste better. –J. R.
Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege