The Absolute Best Restaurants In Chicago For First Timers

Eating is what I do best. I go everywhere armed with a list of places for the best food and drinks a city can offer. Usually a list too long to get through. But I love cute cafes, I can consume more meals a day than I’d like to admit, and I’m a sucker for a beat in dive bar. I’m always looking for the local stuff. I want to find something I can’t get when I’m home – which isn’t easy when you live in New York.

I was so excited for the food in Chicago, I had a list a mile long of restaurants, grab and go spots and coffee shops. Of course I couldn’t make it to all the places on my list, but I went to some really incredible spots. Here’s my list of favorite restaurants, including the ones I think are most worth the hype.

Doughnut Vault

First of all, it’s totally worth the hype. This tiny shop puts out some big doughnuts and people line up. I got there about 30 minutes before they opened and didn’t have to wait too long to get in. The line was around the block by the time I got out of the shop. I was happy to get there early.

I asked the guy behind the counter when they normally sell out and he said around noon, however sometimes as early as 11. Most people in line in front of me ordered boxes of doughnuts so there is potential to run out of some of the flavors.

Also, they have seasonal doughnuts that aren’t listed on the outside menu. So don’t get too attached to your choices as you might want to change once you hear what’s new. I do recommend trying their classic old fashioned donut and dipping it in some coffee. There’s something just simple and delicious about the combination.

I got three doughnuts to share with my boyfriend: an old fashioned, apricot jelly, and chocolate glaze. Now I know having three doughnuts between two people may seem excessive. But if you’re only in Chicago for the weekend, why wouldn’t you go all in? I spent the rest of the day walking it off anyway.

Portillo’s

I don’t know why this place is as good as it is. It absolutely should not be. It looks like a fast food chain, T.G.I.Fridays, and a mall food court had a baby and then that baby started making the best fast food you’ve ever tasted.

The Italian beef sandwich and chili cheese dog was some of the best (and cheapest) trashy food I’ve ever had. This isn’t a place I would have typically picked myself, but I was dragged there by my boyfriend and I didn’t regret it. It was a delicious and quick stop to make in the middle of a long day of walking.

Au Chevals 

Every time someone tells a person about Au Chevals, the universe should play a tiny drum roll before they say it’s (drum roll please) the best burger they’ve ever had. I am never one to fall for something as simple as a burger being “the best” in the world but this place is un-ironically pulling it off.

I was prepped and prepared for the hour and 45 minute wait I had to endure to get my food. It occurred to me before the burger actually showed up on the table that the entire ploy of the restaurant is to get their customers as hungry as possible with a long wait and then anything you feed them will be the best food they ever had in their life.

I wish that were true cause then I could tell you not to waste your time. But you kind of have to waste your time here. They make the wait manageable by grabbing your phone number so you can go sit and have a drink at one of the nearby bars and wait for your table to be ready.

It’s a simple burger menu, so don’t get overly excited for weird variations and interesting toppings. But what they do, they do so damn well.

Lou Malnati’s

My first and only taste of deep dish pizza is when I went to Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. Living in New York (especially as a new New Yorker), I rely heavily on quick and cheap pizza slices that can be found all over the city. They are perfect for budget eating, getting something quick on the go, and of course late night drunken fuel.

I found after trying deep dish pizza for the first time ever, it really is in a league of its own. I’m not here to debate whether Chicago or New York style pizza is better. I personally think they shouldn’t even be compared at all. But I can tell you that in order to get the real deep dish pizza experience, do not do what I did.

Lou Malnati’s is a great restaurant and the pizza was delicious. I made the mistake though of going with just one other person and getting two personal pizzas to share. Of course I wanted to try more than just ONE pizza. I later learned that this is not how you eat deep dish pizza. You go with at least four people and you split a whole pie so you can really appreciate the layers that are involved in a deep dish pizza. Apparently that’s when the sauce to toppings to crust ratio is really at it’s best.

Deep Dish Pizza

Lou Malnati’s repeatedly showed up in my research for deep dish pizza and since it was close to my hotel, it was easy to wander over and give it a try. They are extremely efficient in managing the insane wait times by allowing you to order your pizza before you sit down at your table. This is because deep dish pizza takes a LONG time to bake in the oven.

Whatever your plan is for eating in Chicago, plan on being extremely full most of the time.

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