Believe it or not, but last year Chicago was the second most popular city in the country for conventions. (For the record, that's after Orlando and before Las Vegas.) Where are all these people congregating and presenting and synergizing in our fair city? That's easy. Perched at the southern edge of the South Loop is McCormick Place—the largest convention center in North America. Which all means that there are a lot of visitors centered around the area, and though they might not have a lot of time to spend in Chicago, they still want to experience a little of our incredible food scene.
If cab fare is no issue, the whole dining scene is ready to explore. But if you're trying to keep the budget in check, or are just tired from walking through some of the 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space, then you'll have to make due with the immediate neighborhood. While the area isn't packed with restaurants like other tourist hot spots like the Loop and River North, there are options.
Just as there is no one perfect way to experience Chicago's vast and diverse food scene, I've broken down the options for you by the type of experience you are looking for. No matter if you need to try deep dish for the first time or are want to dig deeper into some of Chicago's more underrated spots, this post has you covered.
Lou Malnati's: Looking to experience Chicago's most iconic dish, deep dish pizza? Look no further than this outlet of Lou Malnati's, which serves up a reliably solid and properly cheese-laden version.
Connie's: Ryan McCaskey, the chef of Acadia (which we'll get to in a moment) is a big fan of Connie's deep dish. There's actually an outlet for this South Side-based pizza chain in McCormick Place, but there is also a larger location close by.
McCormick Place is surprisingly close to Chicago's Chinatown, which is home to, you guessed it, the best collection of Chinese restaurants in the city. We've covered the area a number of different times (check out our recently published Cheap Eats guide), and the only real issue is trying to settle on one of the many, many options. Below are a few favorites.
Lao Sze Chuan: Tony Hu owns a number of restaurants in the area, and all have "Lao" in the title. But this is his first, and in my opinion, still the best. In fact, it's probably the best Chinese restaurant in the whole city. But be warned: the regional Sichuan specialities are genuinely spicy.
Lao Hunan: The other gem in Tony Hu's empire, this restaurant specializes in the funkier, though still very spicy, cuisine of Hunan. One of our writer's has a particular affection for the place and put together this indispensable guide for ordering.
Hing Kee: It's fun to watch the chefs hand pull the noodles in the front of the shop, but it's more fun to eat those noodles.
Go 4 Food: This tiny shop, tucked away on 23rd street, has a way with fresh seafood. Make sure to order the hot and sour soup, which unlike most gloopy and bland versions, is actually hot and sour.
Ma Gong La Po: Finally, if you're a genuinely adventurous eater out for something really unique, check out this Sichuan spot in the back of a bakery. Like just about every other table, order the carp hot pot, which consists of a grilled whole fish in a red chili-laced broth that grows spicier the longer it bubbles in front of you.
Maxwell Street Market
If you happen to be around on a Sunday, walk over to this open-air market where you'll find some of the best Mexican food in town. It's all here, from charcoal grilled al pastor to banana-wrapped tamales to quesadillas stuffed with inky black huitlacoche.
Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen: While not quite up to the hedonistic heights of other classic Jewish delis (like Katz's in New York or Langer's in Los Angeles), this old school spot is the closest Chicago has. There is much to love about the thinly sliced and absurdly tall corned beef sandwich. It's also something of a place to be seen by local politicians, including our current president.
Eleven City Diner: Whereas Manny's exudes old-school Chicago charm, Eleven City Diner is slick and polished. But while it's a little kitschy, I think everything is just a little better, including all the massive sandwiches.
Burgers, Sandwiches, and Other Quick Bites
Ricobene's: To experience one of Chicago's lesser known originals, order a breaded steak sandwich.
Harold's Chicken Shack: The city's most famous fried chicken chain cooks everything to order, so make sure to plan accordingly. Oh, and also don't forget to ask for some hot sauce to drizzle on top of the crunchy skin.
Jim's Original: It's kind of a hike, but this is the closest great food stand. Here you'll find a menu of Chicago street food essentials, including beefy Polish sausages, snappy natural casing hot dogs, and bone-in pork chop sandwiches (trust us, they are awesome). Just a warning, though: everything is served with mustard and a mound of sautéed onions, so don't be surprised if the smell follows you around for awhile.
Epic Burger: This local burger chain serves up a good smash burger—made with antibiotic-free beef—but the hand-cut fries are the real attraction.
Five Guys: Sure, it's a national chain, but there's no doubting those fantastic fries.
Pricey To Blow-Out
Acadia: If you're looking for calm and quiet after a boisterous and exhausting day, and you don't mind spending some money to do so, Acadia is your place. Refined but not stuffy, this place is great for a multi-course meal, an elegant brunch, or even just a cocktail at the bar.
Mercat a la Planxa: The epic second floor dining room offers incredible views of Grant Park, but it's the Spanish tapas that deserve the most attention. It's also great for groups.
Cafe Bionda: This place serves a menu of comforting and familiar Italian fare. Make sure to look out for the calamari fra diabolo and cavatelli al forgo.
Opart Thai: This outlet of the Lincoln Square Thai staple serves a great selection of all the classics, including a particularly great naem sod. If you're looking for something a bit more adventurous, try the Pad Ped Pla Dook, which features chunks of boneless catfish and eggplant in a red curry sauce.
Chicago Curry House: You'll find both Indian and Nepalese food on the menu, both of which are worth trying. This is also a great spot if you're looking for a vegetarian meal.
Waffles: The menu is quirky and fun, featuring gourmet waffles inspired by other beloved foods, such as a Mexican chocolate waffle, a ham and cheese waffle, and a red velvet waffle.
Bongo Room: When it comes to brunch in Chicago, it doesn't get more over-the-top than this place, a bastion of overindulgence, hedonism, and guilt. Go here when you're in need of an emotional food hug and some serious pancake therapy.