Sure, tourists flock to Millennium Park and State Street, and any visit to Chicago usually involves a stroll down the Magnificent Mile, but the biggest tourist attraction in Chicago by a large number is Navy Pier. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, attendance is projected to top 8.7 million this year—a number so large that is hard to properly comprehend.
Though touristy by its very nature, it's easy to see why Navy Pier is such a must-stop. There are rides for kids and some truly impressive views of downtown, especially if you decide to take a ride on the ferris wheel.
Just don't eat there. I mean, you can, but if you go expecting the very best that Chicago has to offer in quality or value, you'll probably leave disappointed. Eating on Navy Pier is all about compromise. Sure, for some, the convenience of eating at the food court is worth it. (If that's you're opinion, I did find some serviceable options.) But as I found on a recent survey of nearby options, walking outside the red gates of Navy Pier will lead to a much better dining experience.
Since it juts out in the lake by Streeterville and near River North, the number of restaurants within two miles is completely overwhelming. So I tried to only include walkable options, those within a mile or less from the pier. Check out my picks for where to eat near Navy Pier.
Fox and Obel
Of all the options nearby, none hits the same sweet spot as Fox & Obel. Want to pick up a picnic? This self-proclaimed "gourmet supermarket," stocks a truly impressive collection of bread, cheese, charcuterie, and other impressive delicacies. Want to sit down and relax? Spend a leisurely meal overlooking the stunning views of the river at The Market Bistro. Just need a sandwich? The Cafe has everything you need, including a wonderful grilled cheese and tomato soup. Add to that the fact that Fox & Obel is also reasonably priced and located in a restored brick warehouse, and you have an ideal one-stop shop.
The last stop before entering the point of no return, Quay is really three restaurants in one. Up front is a sports bar, good for stopping to grab a quick bite. In the very back is a lounge, which where you can sip cocktails while taking in the beautiful river view. And, finally, in the middle is a quiet dinner spot that specializes in light seafood dishes. With its subdued lighting and relaxed feel, it's about as far as you can get from the bustle and chaos of Navy Pier.
Markethouse specializes in the kind of meat and potato cuisine that at first can seem unadventurous and, worst of all, boring. But there is nothing tame or restrained about the food, which is certainly hearty but always balanced. The pot pie may feature a dome of pastry dough, but meaty mushrooms are traded for the usual chicken. Even the chopped salad, a routine dish if there ever was one, comes lightly dressed with crunchy and in-season vegetables.
This beloved local chain serves a smashed-style burger with only quality ingredients and freshly baked buns. Don't forget the fresh-cut and crispy fries.
In an area as expensive and consistently packed as this one, it's hard to be surprised. But that's the only way I can describe Sayat Nova, an Armenian restaurant less than a block from Michigan Avenue. I haven't sampled the whole menu, but the mezze sampler of hummus, spinach, and stuffed grape leaves was flavorful and affordable. I wouldn't mind ducking in here more often.
Lavazza always seems to pop up on these kinds of lists, and for good reason. When you're in need of a genuinely satisfying cup of coffee (be that an espresso or simple drip) this place gets the job done. But, as I also recently found, the food options are surprisingly tasty, too.
Fast Food Options
Of course, sometimes you just need food as fast as humans can possibly put something together. Even the fast food options nearby are drastically better than those on the pier. Pei Wei Asian Market just opened on E. Ontario, which is where I scored the very good spring rolls pictured above. If you need something a little more filling, Chipotle is a few doors down. And depending on your sandwich allegiance, you can stop by either Jimmy John's and a Potbelly's.
It won't change your life, but Niu Sushi and Lounge is very close, and the sushi platter was filling and cheap. For a better, and more expensive, Japanese experience, you'll probably have better luck at Gyu-Kaku. It's been years since I've been, but I still remember the unmistakable atmosphere of Volare. Also, Wave in the W Chicago is expensive, but the views of the lake are worth it.
And if You Absolutely Must Eat On the Pier
I'm on record as a fan of the Billy Goat Tavern, and there is an outlet here. While it just doesn't feel the same as the original subterranean location, it's not a bad option. I also genuinely like Xocoatl, a local churro maker. Also decent is America's Dog, even if it would be much, much better if it used natural casing hot dogs. As for Riva, Navy Pier's one legitimate fine-dining restaurant, I haven't been in ten years, so I'm not sure how it holds up. Anyone been recently?
With hundreds of restaurants nearby, I'm sure I missed something. Leave a comment to let me know!
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