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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Le Bouchon’s bouillabaisse

 

MAY STREET MARKET
1132 West Grand Avenue; 312-421-5547
CONTEMPORARY
3 courses for $25
BYO

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On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, the chef-owner Alexander Cheswick lures thrifty customers with a $25 three-course BYO dinner with choices in each category. His gazpacho is a big wet kiss to fresh local vegetables, as are the braised baby chard and grilled corn on the cob that cozy up to the mahogany Moroccan-spice-rubbed grilled half chicken with lime vinaigrette. That bird packs a lot of flavor, and so do the pistachio-crusted smoked scallops on blood orange and brown butter sauce. But when you taste the flight of miniature cupcakes—especially the chocolate five-spice one with peanut butter icing—you’ll want to plant a big wet one on Cheswick’s cheek. –D. R. W.

 

MOON PALACE
216 West Cermak Road; 312-225-4081
CHINESE

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When you’re in the mood for Shanghai on Cermak, head to this spiffy Chinatown spot; as quick as you can say “kung pao chicken,” some dynamite Sichuan should find its way to your table. Start with a bowl of Chicago’s best hot-and-sour soup ($2) before you focus on superb Shanghai xiao long bao dumplings ($7.50). Don’t miss the Shanghai-style crispy chicken in a red-chile-laden sauce redolent of garlic and star anise ($11) or the luscious scallops with black pepper ($15). For a veggie fix, throw in an order of chives stir-fried with bean sprouts and strips of bean curd ($8.50). And MP makes the best Beefeater martinis in Chinatown for $9. –D. R. W.

 

NACIONAL 27
325 West Huron Street; 312-664-2727
NUEVO LATINO
3 courses for $27
DRINK INCLUDED | TIME SPECIFIC: seated by 6 p.m., order by 6:15 p.m.

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There’s as much substance as sizzle in this rollicking spot’s daily bargain. Order before 6:15 p.m. and you’ll score three courses plus two cocktails or two glasses of wine per person (or a pitcher of sangría per couple) for $27. What’s not to like? Openers include smoked chicken empanadas and a tasty seafood seviche—but, this being Nacional 27, the latter is served over a trippy color-shifting light. N27 has ten years’ experience with roast suckling pig, and you get the juicy meat in ancho pork jus with crisp bits of chicharrones. The pig fest includes caramelized-onion-flecked mashed Cuban sweet potatoes and a ratatouille-like eggplant with spicy tomatoes. And the rum cake is so well spiked it’s a digestif and dessert in one. –D. R. W.

 

PETTERINO’S
150 North Dearborn Street; 312-422-0150
AMERICAN
3 courses for $20
FREE VALET | TIME SPECIFIC after 7 p.m.

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Petterino’s, which lives and dies by its theatregoing clientele, does whatever it can to get civilians in its doors, too. That means ridiculously cheap deals like the 7 After 7 Menu, packed with gems such as a goodly sized jumbo shrimp cocktail, a chunky tomato bisque, flaky grilled Atlantic salmon, and fun homemade desserts, including a pink peppermint sundae and steak-house-quality cheesecake. You’ve got to order carefully (avoid the abysmal prosciutto and melon)—and the $7 wine picks aren’t exactly adventurous—but the staff’s goofy bow-tied exuberance is irresistible, and so is much of the food. –J. R.

 

RED LIGHT
820 West Randolph Street; 312-733-8880
PAN-ASIAN
3 courses for $20.09

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In case you forgot, because she is so modest, Jackie Shen is a Chicago treasure. Fine French technique animates her Pan-Asian cooking, which means that when she offers up a specially priced set dinner—five nights a week at the sexy Red Light—just go. A sprightly lychee Mandarin orange vinaigrette makes Shen’s grilled-shrimp-and-pea-shoot salad dance on the plate, while her hanger steak teriyaki, served with mashed potatoes, defines Japanese bistro with its stupendous sauce. And who knew coconut sorbet was invented to be drizzled with rich chocolate sauce? Shen did, apparently. –D. R. W.

 

¡SALPICON!
1252 North Wells Street; 312-988-7811
MEXICAN
3 courses for $29

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Priscila Satkoff, among Chicago’s finest Mexican chefs, offers a dandy prix fixe on Mondays and Tuesdays. The special menu is drawn from the regular lineup, so it might hold sparkling blue marlin seviche—marinated in lime juice, spiked with fresh chiles and herbs—or a trio of picture-perfect masa sopes with different spicy toppings. Next up: a classic pair of chiles rellenos—one stuffed with pork picadillo, the other with Chihuahua cheese—or grilled scallops over savory black beans with asparagus, avocado, and herb-flecked rice. Satkoff closes with warm pear and mango cobbler punched up by cajeta ice cream. It’s such a good deal you can easily justify an Herradura tequila margarita ($8). –D. R. W.

 

Photograph by Anna Knott; photo assistant: Nicole Stege

 

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