Buying tips, techniques, and recipes, no matter how you like them.
There are tourist sites that Chicagoans love to hate (looking at you, Navy Pier), and then there are those we simply love. Millennium Park is definitely in the latter camp. Built atop train lines in the northwest corner of Grant Park to celebrate the millennium (though a few years late), the park is conveniently located and jam-packed with sites. The Bean. The Faces. Pritzker Pavilion. It's all here.
But if someone asks me where to eat near Millennium Park, my mind freezes. Obviously, there are plenty of restaurants; it's just that so many of them are mediocre, overpriced, or some unappealing combination of the two, that I have a hard time coming up with quick recommendations. I find the question especially hard to answer at dinner, because a number of restaurants are only open for lunch.
If you don't mind traveling, River North has more options than you could imagine, and the West Loop has its own share of highlights. But if you want to stay close, this is your guide. All of these picks are definitely under half a mile away, and most are much closer than that.
There were so many options, I divided them up into different categories. But if you just want to get to my essential picks, click on the slideshow.
- The Gage
- Terzo Piano
- Toni Patisserie & Cafe
- Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine
- Frontera Fresco
- Tortas Frontera
- Noodles by Takashi
- Al's #1 Italian Beef
The Gage: Located directly across the street from the park, one could forgive this bar and restaurant for phoning it in. But while it's not exactly cheap, the quality is entirely better than it has any right to be, making this one of my most frequently recommended restaurants in the area. From daily sausage specials, incredible fried fish, and a great beer list, this crowded eatery is worth checking out—if you don't mind waiting.
Henri: If you'd like to escape the masses, but don't want to have to go too far to do so, this high-end sister of The Gage offers a quiet retreat. It just changed chefs, so I can't comment on this particular menu, but the service is excellent, the wine list is varied and interesting, and the cocktails are the best in the area—by far.
Terzo Piano: The Nicholas Bridgeway dramatically connects Millennium Park with the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. It's worth exploring just to experience the stunning views of the park from up high, but it also happens to drop you off right in front of Tony Mantuano's Terzo Piano. Where the high-end Spiaggia is seductive and serious, Terzo Piano is light-filled and open, with an outdoor patio that looks directly out on the park. The only drawback is that, while the restaurant is open seven days a week for lunch, it's only open for dinner on Thursdays.
Lockwood: If you've spent enough time outside, and would rather dine in one of Chicago's most dramatic and beautiful indoor spaces, Lockwood is a good choice. It can be expensive, but service is great.
Takashi: If you're looking for lunch, it's hard to thick of a better place to check out than Seven on State in Macy's, which features three high quality options. My personal favorite is Noodles by Takashi, where you can score one of the best bowls of ramen in the city.
Frontera Fresco: Though not as stunning as Xoco, Rick Bayless's Frontera Fresco offers a great collection of tacos, tortas, and huaraches (not to mention, agua frescos and salads). The real highlights, however, are the soft and fragrant tamales. I still can't decide whether I like the chipotle chicken or the sweet corn and green chile tamale the most, so do what I do and order both.
Marc Burger: Craving a burger? This outpost from chef Marcus Samuelsson offers top quality beef, grilled to order, with some very good fries on the side.
Gold Coast Dog: You'd think there would be a number of great hot dog stands in the Loop, but that's really not the case anymore. The best option in the area is Gold Coast Dog, which serves up a very good char dog. Just get your dog to go—the atmosphere is drab.
Al's #1 Italian Beef: It's not quite as good as the original, but the Italian beef at this local chain is still an excellent introduction to the sandwich. Hot giardiniera is a must. Actually, the natural casing hot dog is also awesome, making this a great one-stop shop if you're looking to experience some classic Chicago street food.
The Berghoff:If you're after an old school Chicago experience, few places feel as comfortable as The Berghoff. The food is mostly decent to good, but it's hard to fault the atmosphere. That's why I mostly just go straight for a stool at the long bar.
Heaven on Seven: One of the classics of the area—it's been open for 28 years—Heaven on Seven is a little slice of Louisiana in the Loop. It's not quite the destination it once was, but the cozy space, prompt service, and solid gumbo, make this an appealing option.
Max's Take Out: One of the last classic hot dog stands left in the Loop, Max's Take Out offers a no-frills menu in a tiny, no-frills environment. Don't take the family here, but if you're looking for a very good natural casing hot dog, this place gets it done.
Pizano's: If you're dead set on deep dish, Pizano's is the best option in the area. Because it's so close, expect it to be stuffed with every other tourist.
Giordano's: Chicago is also famous for stuffed crust pizza, which is actually thicker and cheesier than deep dish. When it's extra cold (most of February), this can hit a spot.
Toni Patisserie & Cafe: This charming cafe sells a range of sandwiches on crusty baguettes, but don't visit without a look at the pastries.
Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine: Seating is scarce, but if you're looking to grab a couple sandwiches for a picnic in the park, Pastoral offers a one shop stop for cheese and charcuterie. Plus, you can combine the two on some light and crusty bread.
Intelligentsia: Chicago actually has a number of acclaimed coffee roasters, but few take the craft quite as seriously as this one. Plus, it's within steps of Millennium Park.
Take-Out, Sandwiches, and Good Chains
Potbelly: This being Chicago, there's a Potbelly located on just about every other block in the Loop. While not all of the options are stellar, a few are legitimately satisfying, making for a good quick lunch option.
Hannah's Bretzel: Another local franchise you'll find scattered throughout the Loop, Hannah's Bretzel stands out for its freshly baked pretzel rolls and high quality ingredients.
Protein Bar: Think Chicagoans only eat deep-dish pizza and fully loaded hot dogs? Then you'll be surprised to see so many people lining up to eat at this ultra-healthy local chain, where quinoa and tofu are the ingredients of choice.
Wow Bao: Good local chain, where you'll be able to score stemmed buns and potstickers.
Fontano's Subs: While not up to par with the best versions in town, this local sandwich shop easily serves the best Italian sub in the Loop.
Prêt a Manger: There are actually three locations of this grab-and-go English sandwich shop within striking distance. Because they are boxed up, they make for an especially quick option. Personally, I'm a sucker for the egg salad and arugula sandwich.
Snarf's: You'll find this Colorado chain on the ground floor of the Prudential Plaza, which also happens to be part of the Pedway—Chicago's confusing indoor path I explored earlier this year. The toasted sandwiches are kind of like those at Potbelly. While crowded during the week for lunch, few tourists make the trek, making this a good escape if the crowds start to get to you.
Falafill: There are a surprising number of falafel joints in the Loop, each with its own identity. One of the newest, and best, is Falafill, which stands apart with its crispy falafel balls and fresh salad and condiment bar.
Oasis Cafe: If you really need to escape the crowds, make your way to Oasis Cafe, which is stuck in the back of a random jewelry store on Wells. Though the location is interesting, its the ultra crispy falafel that really impress.
I Dream of Falafel: This local chain specializes in laffa bread instead of pita, loading them up with roasted meats, very good falafel, and crunchy condiments.
Eggy's: Located northeast of Millennium Park, Lakeshore East is a strange development, almost intentionally hidden behind a wall of skyscrapers. Once you find an entrance, you'll need to descend a few flights of escalators before being dropped off in a small park. There you'll find Eggy's, which is self described as an "urban family diner." It's definitely urban, but only a few diners serve a spicy beef tongue sandwich, let alone one as good as this one.
Mezcalina: Right by Eggy's, this mid-scale restaurant focuses most of its attention on the cuisine found in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. So expect a range of complex moles, and, as the name suggests, an epic Mezcal list. If not quite as fun and freewheeling as Frontera, it's a solid choice, especially for the area.
Tortas Frontera: Though it's nowhere near as picturesque as Macy's seventh floor, the food court under the Chase Building is also close and offers a couple of interesting options. The highlight is definitely Tortas Frontera, another Rick Bayless project. When it comes to the Mexican sandwiches, I prefer the offerings here to those at Frontera Fresco.
Big Easy: It's a little inconsistent, but this quick-service version of Heaven on Seven serves a good bowl of gumbo.
Do-Rite Donuts: If you crave your sweets in the morning, or just need a shot of sugar in the early afternoon, these creatively topped doughnuts are there for you.
Magnolia Bakery: This New York-based dessert shop may be famous for its cupcakes (no doubt, thanks to Sex in the City), but don't overlook the other options. In fact, our sweets expert, Lindsey Becker, thinks the banana pudding is the highlight.