No other strip of Chicago will be as packed and chaotic as the Magnificent Mile during December. While it's understandable that some would shun the tourist-packed playground, I always tend to find myself down there for some reason or the other. But I always go with a plan. Some of the best restaurants on this strip are either underground, way above ground, or slightly hidden behind storefronts. Search them out and you'll find food not only good enough to sustain you for more shopping, but also destination-worthy meals that are worth a detour.
Last week I took a look at the many dining options around State Street—the other major shopping area downtown. Since State Street is located in the Loop, there are a fair number of restaurants dedicated to cheap lunches for the many business workers. But the Mag Mile is a whole other beast. It is a stretch almost totally dedicated to taking money away from you. And while you do trade some of that money for absolute spectacle, you have to be careful.
Of course, some of the greatest restaurants in North America are located directly west in River North, but I decided to focus my search exclusively on what could be found within a block of Michigan Avenue, from the Chicago River to Oak Street. (That's roughly N. St. Clair Street on the east and Rush St. on the west.) That was tough because I had to leave out places like Balsan, Fox & Obel, and Sable, but otherwise this list would have gone on forever.
Pick your burger poison, and the Mag Mile will deliver. Like your burgers over-sized and made of impeccably aged beef? David Burke's Primehouse might have the best example in the whole city. More of a fan of fast food-style burgers with really great shakes? There are two M Burger locations. Want to visit a joint that just screams Chicago? Though I gave its bun a hard time a few weeks ago, I sincerely love the Billy Goat Tavern. Hell, I'd even recommend going to Bandera to sample the burger that won the 2011 Hamburger Hop at Chicago Gourmet.
Up until a few weeks ago, this was almost exclusively the land of deep dish. Though always packed and chaotic, Gino's East is one of the better options in the city. And if you would rather get a stuffed pie, there is an outlet of Giordano's nearby. But then Bar Toma opened. Run by Tony Mantuano, the pizzas feature a blistered whole wheat crust that is also shockingly light. I suggest you grab a seat in front of the massive wood-burning oven and watch the experts work.
Chef-Driven Restaurant (Wine and Swine Edition)
A few years ago, the idea of a great mid-priced restaurant on this stretch seemed antithetical to the whole idea of the Magnificent Mile. But these days, it seems like everyone is transforming their high end restaurant into a more approachable concept. Some are very good, but none are nearly as much fun as The Purple Pig—Scott Harris and Jimmy Bannos's chaotic wine bar and temple to the pig. Basically everything here is good, but never did I know that pig's ears could be so good.
Where to Splurge
Of course, if you just have to spend a lot of money, there are a number of truly excellent restaurants that would be more than happy to oblige. I don't have a lot of expertise on the high end, but I know a couple that are truly exceptional. Crowning the northern end of the Mag Mile, Tony Mantuano's Spiaggia is one of the most acclaimed (and expensive) Italian restaurants in the country. (Just ask President Obama.) Founding chef Rick Tramanto may have moved on, but Tru is still the perfect place to throwdown on some champagne and caviar. Though, now that executive chef Anthony Martin is charge, that caviar comes out on stunning coral pedestal. On the slightly more affordable end of the spectrum, C-House always delivers an impressive meal.
Best Place to Drink (Skyscraper Edition)
Here's the deal about the Signature Lounge, the bar on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building: 1) Buying just one overpriced cocktail ($12 to $15) gets you the best view of the city. 2) Said overpriced drink is cheaper than purchasing a ticket to the Hancock Observatory and roughly the same price you'd pay for a crappy cocktail 96 floors down in the Gold Coast. 3) Go on weekdays before dinner. And yes, I am suggesting you drink during the day.
Best Place to Drink (Underground Edition)
Located one block over from the Signature Lounge and about 97 floors down, DiSotto Enoteca just opened up in the basement of Francesca's on Chestnut last year. Though it doesn't have the freewheeling excitement of The Purple Pig, that's not really the point. This place is an calming oasis of great wine and aged meat.
Best Food Court
A number of large food courts are littered along this strip of real estate, but no mall tries quite as hard as Water Tower Place. Featuring Foodlife, Foodease, Mity Nice, Wow Bao, a brand new M Burger, and much more, it's almost impossible to not find something you like.
As with the State Street Survival Guide, Lavazza is there to help with any espresso needs you may have.
Unlike the plethora of burger options, there are surprisingly few good hot dogs in this area. Downtown Dogs comes close to mimicking the feel of a real Chicago stand, but its skinless dog holds it back. Still, it's almost worth a visit to see the hundreds of pictures of dogs tapped to the walls.
Downtown Dogs, 804 North Rush Street, Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-951-5141
If you like your cupcakes dainty and bite-sized, the absurdly tender specimens at Sprinkles are a nice pick-me-up from the exhausting shopping. If you're looking for a few creature comforts, the gorgeous Pierrot Gourmet at The Peninsula has a good pastry selection and some surprisingly good hot chocolate.
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