14 Chicagoland Restaurants Earn 5-Star Status!
One of our favorite weekend activities is trying out delicious new restaurants in the Chicagoland area.
Dining out is a wonderful break for us. Not only are there no groceries to buy, food to prepare, nor dishes to wash, but it awakens our taste buds to previously unknown multi-cultural flavors and often introduces us to novel cooking techniques and recipes as well.
If you’ve never been to the Chicago area before, you’ll want to be sure to visit local fan favorites like Lou Malnotti’s Pizza, Superdog, Walker Bros. Pancake House, and Portillo’s.
If, however, you think you know Chicago like the back of your hand, you just may be surprised to find a hidden gem amongst the following suggestions.
With that said, here are 14 of our favorites including the dishes that, in our estimation, elevate these restaurants to 5-star status.
Drop me a note in the comments to share some of your favorite local haunts as well. We’re always on the hunt for next weekend’s culinary destination!
Avli – Winnetka
Avli is a Greek restaurant in Winnetka that’s tucked up and away in a secret indoor galleria that serves the most succulent lamb shoulder I’ve ever sunk my teeth into.
Also? It has the best vibe of any Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to with merely subtle hints of Yiayia’s homeland instead of the full-on fake grapevine, blue-sky-white-puffy-cloud ceiling motif. It has a beautiful outdoor patio as well for dining al fresco on summer evenings.
Fried Calamari – Photo courtesy of Avli
Girl and the Goat – Chicago – West Loop
I’ve written about this wonderful eatery before, so I won’t prattle on. Suffice it to say that their famous “Wood Oven Roasted Pig Face” offering is certain to put a smile on yours. It’s an incredibly tender, flavorful and succulent piece of meat, the likes of which you’ve probably never tasted before. I know I hadn’t. Pop the egg yolk and mix all of the yumminess together, and you’ve got a party, Babaloo!
If red meat isn’t your deal, they have some fantastic vegetarian and fish dishes as well, and their crunchy, steamy, house-baked bread is not to be missed.
The plates are small in size but big on flavor. Order a few for your group, and eat tapas style, sharing, drinking, tasting and talking as you go. Reservations are necessary, and are tough to come by. Check Open Table regularly – you may just get lucky and find an opening from a recent cancellation.
Little Goat – Chicago – West Loop
So, this is the hip little sister of “Girl and the Goat”. It’s right across the street from the bigger Girl, and has a much more casual air. It’s the type of place you might pop into after seeing the matinee showing of a play downtown or taking a Segway tour of the city.
The mac and cheese is ooey gooey divinity in a bowl, and their sandwiches are wonderful, often served on their homemade brioche bread.
Little Goat White Cheddar Mac and Cheese – Photo courtesy of Yelp.com
Little Goat Reuben – Photo courtesy of Yelp.com
By the way, both Goat restaurants are owned by Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izard. She’s the one in the center of the photo below.
She opened up a third restaurant this year just around the corner from the other Goats called Duck Duck Goat. Its focus is Asian food, and we’re longing to try it out.
Purple Pig – Chicago – Michigan Ave.
This eatery, located in the center of the action on Michigan Avenue, promises “Cheese, Swine and Wine”, and offers mini plates of bold, unique flavors, similar to Girl and the Goat.
Who knew I would become a bone marrow lover, and yet I have, all thanks to the Purple Pig. You scoop out some of the cooked marrow, spread it on a toast round, and marvel at its meaty, creamy flavor. It’s like glorious meat butter. Top it with some of the herb salad, and it’s one delicious bite.
Purple Pig’s Bone marrow with herbs on toast – Photo courtesy of iatemywaythrough.com
Oddly enough, one of the best dishes we tried was a lowly little beet appetizer. No one would ever accuse me of being any sort of a beet fiend, but the combination of beets, whipped goat cheese, and crunchy pistachios was wonderful!
Purple Pig’s Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese and Pistachios – Photo courtesy of the kitchen.com
Purple Pig’s Milk-braised Pork Shoulder – Photo courtesy of Foodspotting.com
The food is divine, but the wait outside to get in can be long since they don’t take reservations. Your best bet is to go early, and on a slow day like any random Thursday. Following those guidelines, we’ve only had to wait half an hour when we’ve eaten there.
Naha – Chicago – River North on Clark St.
A friend won cooking lessons at an event, and asked me and two other friends to join her in the classes downtown a few years ago. The lessons were given by James Beard Award-winning chef, Carrie Nahabedian, at one of her downtown restaurants, Brindille. After meeting Carrie, we became intrigued and wanted to try out her other restaurant, Naha. And so we did. Four of us hopped in the car, headed into the city for lunch, and had such an exquisite meal that I would feel remiss by leaving Naha off of my list.
The menu changes throughout the year, so I can’t speak to the undoubtedly delicious options on the menu now, but I can tell you that my lunch was absolutely fabulous. The flavors were unique and bright, and each course somehow topped the previous one.
My entrée was a North African-inspired tagine of chicken thighs over bulgar wheat. The meat was fork tender, and the scent and warmth of the spices took me on a trip to Morocco in my mind. At least to a place that I think Morocco should look like. And, um, taste like. And smell like.
Suffice it to say that every dish I tried was heavenly.
Slyce pizza – Wauconda
Deliciously-unique high-end pizza options.
How about a white pizza with a friend egg in the middle? If it sounds odd, you only have to try it to become a believer! Oh, and then there’s their fig, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and balsamic glaze pizza that’s a unique slice of heaven.
And, finally, their plain old sauce and cheese pizza is any thing but plain or old.
As a matter of fact, they’ve just been named “Best Coal Oven Pizza in Chicagoland.” And, no, not by me. By pizza authorities, I presume. (Doesn’t “pizza authority” strike you as a particularly lovely occupation? Why didn’t I think to major in “pizza”?)
Photo courtesy of Slyce
Here’s the thing about Slyce, though. They don’t take flipping reservations. Not only that, but they don’t offer flipping carry out during their busy weekend evening hours.
Never fear! There’s a solution in the form of a flipping smart phone app, “Nowait”. Apparently you search for a restaurant near you where you’d like to dine, enter your name on a waiting list, and you’ll be notified via text when your table is ready. I’ve never used this new miracle app, but hipster friends, who shall remain nameless, swear by it. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you, you’ll know who to blame. Or not.
Tamales – Highland Park
Have you ever gone to a Mexican joint only to be served tough and clunky tortilla chips and bland salsa? I have a’plenty.
Tamales’ complementary chips and salsa are quite the opposite. They’re thin, crisp, and lightly salted with an oh-so-right spicy salsa. Be sure to save room for the pumpkin tamales though: tender corn tamale dough stuffed with cinnamon pumpkin filling, all of which is smothered in green roasted tomatillo and red guajillo chile sauce.
Eat these tamales on a chilly fall evening under a heat lamp in their outdoor cafe, and your scorn for “all things pumpkin” will, POOF!, go up in smoke.
Tamales’ Pumpkin tamale – Photo courtesy of Northbrooktower.com
Their chicken enchiladas are second to none as well!
Tamales’ Chicken enchiladas – Photo courtesy of Nothbrooktower.com
Xoco – Chicago River North and Wicker Park
If casual Mexican street food is what you’re yearning for, and you want to dine in the city, Xoco might very well be the ticket.
Conceived from Chicago chef in residence, Rick Bayless’s, love of authentic Mexican street food, Xoco offers spicy comfort food that’s oodles more imaginative than your standard ground beef taco. Pronounced “CHOH-koh”, this establishment is the youngest sibling of Topolobampo, Rick’s answer to upscale Mexican food, as well as the ever-popular Frontera Grill, which is the middle child of the group.
There are two Xoco locations in Chicago. One is next door to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill on Clark St., and the other is in Wicker Park not too far from Chef Bayless’s home nor from the elevated 606 walking path. Pick a summer afternoon and visit all three things in one fell swoop.
At Xoco you’ll find mouth-watering menu options such as a smoked pork loin, bacon, a black bean and avocado grilled Cubano sandwich, a guacamole bar, and carne asade tortas.
Mui bueno, mis amigos!
Photo courtesy of spoter.com
My chocolate-loving children also swear by their award-winning Barcelona hot chocolate on a brisk day coupled with a plate of fried, cinnamon churros flecked with bits of chocolate.
Xoco’s Barcelona hot chocolate and churros – Photo courtesy of spoter.com
And here’s Chef/Owner Rick Bayless himself. If he looks familiar, it may be because you’ve seen him on his PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time.
Saranello’s – Wheeling
Saranello’s is in the relatively new, giant “Westin North Shore” hotel – a misnomer for sure since Wheeling is miles too far from the lake to claim any part of any shore . . . but I digress.
Saranello’s, on Milwaukee Ave. in the self-designated area called “restaurant row”, specializes in Italian cuisine, and has the best eggplant parmesan I’ve had anywhere, anytime. Ever. Period. End of story.
Thin, tender, breaded layers of eggplant and mozzarella cloaked in a delicious marinara sauce. What’s more, their entrées are huge, making them perfect to share.
Reservations can be conveniently made on opentable.com.
Photo courtesy of Fifteenspatulas.com
Tsukasa – Kildeer
Their sushi is wonderful.
In particular, their Yellow Ferarri roll, a decadent blend of seared scallop, tempura shrimp, and creamy avocado drizzled with a delectable spicy sauce, is a must order item. Select several rolls and share them all with your dining partners.
My mouth is watering.
Moving on . . .
Tsukasa’s Yellow Ferrari roll: Photo courtesy of yelp.com
Panino’s Italian Sandwiches and Crab Shack – Richmond
Panino’s only recently opened up, but is quickly becoming one of our favorite haunts. It’s the offspring of the popular Italian eatery, Paisano’s, which is right down the street.
Their shrimp po boy is out of this world as are the fried shrimp all on their own. They’re hot and tender with a light and crunchy breading. Their soups and salads are fantastic as well. I can’t wait to try their lobster roll when it’s the special of the day! For $12.95, the price is certainly right especially for seafood in the landlocked Midwest.
What’s more, they’ve just opened up an outdoor patio for cafe dining.
Bonus – summertime fish fry Fridays are coming your way!
Panino’s Lobster Roll: Photo courtesy of yelp.com
Smoque – Chicago – Northwest Side on Pulaski
BBQ at its finest.
The first time we went to Smoque, we were blown away. It’s not due to the atmosphere, because it’s a very casual on-the-corner-where-you-live type of vibe. It’s not due to the vast array of entrée options because, frankly, they offer very few choices. It’s because of the taste. It’s because the items they do make, they make oh-so-well.
Their brisket is tender and succulent, the ribs fall right off the bone with merely a stern glance, and the pulled pork is phenomenal. After all, as their ads say, they smoke their “Boston butts over apple and oak.” And while I’m not 100% sure what smoking Boston butts should mean to me necessarily, all I know is that I want them to keep doing it because of the final result.
Smoque’s brisket: Photos courtesy of smoquebbq.com
The Gaylord – Schaumburg
The Gaylord is an Indian restaurant whose buffet-style lunch provides authentic offerings that change daily from curry chicken to spinach palak paneer.
The buffet selections are bursting with interesting, exotic flavors that are so worth a try. If you’re unfamiliar with Indian cuisine and want to dip your toe in the water first, The Gaylord’s buffet is a great place to taste test various dishes. The last time I was there was with a group of friends including several who were unfamiliar with Indian food and unaccustomed to trying exotic flavors. Nonetheless, we all concluded that the options were varied enough to please each of our palettes.
Photos courtesy of: TripAdvisor.com
Molly’s Cupcakes – Chicago
Okay, so this isn’t a restaurant per se, but when you’ve eaten your fill at any or all of the restaurants above, head on over to Molly’s for a sweet ending to your perfect evening.
Molly’s, on Clark St. in Lincoln Park, won cupcake wars a few years ago on the Food Network. Let me just say that this was a legitimate victory. Their cupcakes are outstanding: tender, flavorful and loaded with creative fillings and toppings.
Photo courtesy of youtube.com
Photo courtesy of: betches.com
Their menu changes with the season, however there are some favorites that are available all year long. How about a Peach Cobbler cupcake: vanilla cake, cinnamon peach puree filling, brown sugar streusel, and homemade whipped cream topped with a sliced peach. Oh my!
But then again, there’s the luscious Cookies-n-cream cupcake: chocolate cake, cookies-n-cream filling, vanilla buttercream, cookie topping, or the rich and flavorful Nutella cupcake, etc.
I could go on and on, but I fear I’ve gone on long enough already.
Here’s to you exploring some of these completely decadent Chicagoland culinary options.
Have you been to any of them? Do you have any favorites to add to the list?