Wandering around Hyde Park, you might experience acute pangs of existential dread. Not because you're a University of Chicago student who's read a little too much Hegel, but because you are hungry. Or you are under-caffeinated. Or you really could use a beer (and you are, of course, over 21). But you just don't know where to go. You see, Hyde Park is not usually considered one of Chicago's best neighborhoods for food. But you shouldn't give up hope.
In the past five years or so the neighborhood has made a real effort to improve its food scene. Down here on the South Side we do, in fact, have spots for good food, good coffee, and a good game of darts—you just need to know where to look. Here's where to start.
For Coffee: Grounds of Being
When it's 3 a.m. and you haven't started that paper that's due tomorrow, you might be tempted to settle for the brown, bitter caffeine-spiked water that is also known as "bad coffee." And there are plenty of places to get that stuff around campus and around town. But tucked into the basement of UChicago's divinity school, you can find a respite from Hyde Park's coffee mediocrity.
They say that Grounds of Being is where God drinks coffee. That may mean that God enjoys hanging out in dimly lit spaces full of beleaguered grad students with excellent facial hair. In any case, go here for your cuppa, roasted locally by Colectivo.
For the Best Breakfast: Plein Air Cafe
Not that there's anything wrong with a greasy egg, but when I go out to breakfast, I want something I couldn't, or at least wouldn't, do for myself at home.* So I head to Plein Air. The decor may be trying to lure heavy Pinterest users, but the back patio is gorgeous and the long wooden tables are cozy. Settle in for a Plein Continental Breakfast. It's a deceptively simple plate of breakfast food—cured ham, a biscuit or croissant, jam, butter, and a hard-boiled egg—that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The ham has a rich porky flavor and a salty punch that's balanced by creamy butter and the flaky biscuit. The hard-boiled egg is perfectly prepared, with the the yolk just a little runny. Really, though, any of Plein Air's breakfast items, from oatmeal to sausage pie, are worth ordering.
*If you're looking for a greasy fried egg and buttery toast, go to Valois.
For Lunch: Z&H
Z&H's menu features salads and soups as well, but if you have any shred of sense in you, you'll get a sandwich. Order the Little Pecorino: well-toasted bread stuffed with juicy turkey and a subtle pesto, all melded together with the sweet and earthy tang of roasted red peppers. Or go bolder with my other favorite, The Marty, which starts with nutty herbed focaccia loaded with smoky grilled eggplant, Muenster cheese, and a hot pepper spread.
Z&H is the kind of place where you want to become a regular; the atmosphere is relaxed, the back patio is quiet, and the staff is friendly. The interior is minimalist, but chalkboards on the walls and the jazz on the stereo makes the cafe feel homey. It's a quiet place you can spend all day in; most patrons laze away afternoons there
chatting with friends and people-watching getting work done.
For an Afternoon Snack: Bonjour Cafe
With some of the better croissants I've had in Chicago, cups of coffee large enough to swim in, and outdoor seating adjacent to a flower garden, it's hard not to be content with Bonjour Cafe. Though I'm not a huge fan of their savory lunch options, their cakes and tarts are gorgeous and all of their pastries, from the pain au chocolat to the brioche, are worth ordering. These yeast-based pastries have a great buttery richness to them, and additions like raisins (in the pain aux raisins) and peanut butter (in the morning roll) are kept in balance. Bonjour Cafe is great for a quick breakfast or for when that afternoon sweets craving hits after work. Don't skip the macarons, which aren't too sweet and offer a rich filling between shattering meringues, and the flaky, buttery multigrain croissant, which boasts a depth of slightly nutty flavor not found in a regular croissant.
For an Affordable Dinner: The Nile
I've taken at least 70% of my first dates to the Nile, and I've always enjoyed myself. Not necessarily because my dates were so great, but because it's easy to love the lantern-lit patio, the cheap shawarma, and the always-warm pita bread. A hard truth I've had to swallow recently was that it was probably me—and not the Nile—that was driving these girls away.
All that aside, the Nile is a good option for feasting on a budget. Over countless visits, I've never been disappointed by the chicken shawarma. The chicken is always moist and tahini often spills out the edges as tomatoes and cucumbers overload the sandwich. My other favorites include the falafel, which is light and crisp, and the maklouba. The latter consists of a mound of buttery rice and well-spiced chickpeas, juicy eggplants, and tender peas.
For a Dinner Splurge: A10
If you're a student at University of Chicago and your parents are in town, this is the restaurant to take them to....or (cough) to have them take you to. The fresh focaccia 'pizzas', cut into large squares with crisp edges and an airy crumb, are well worth a taste. The Country Bacon Pizza is strewn with caramelized onion for a rich and earthy combination that's set off with the welcome tang of crème fraîche. Continue your carbfest with A10's housemade pastas, all subtle and tender, with each individual strand perfectly coated in a thin layer of rich sauce. I love the creamy lasagna stuffed with tangy green tomatoes in bechamel.
A Neighborhood Essential: The Medici on 57th
The exposed brick walls of this neighborhood institution are covered with the graffiti of patrons which covers the graffiti of other patrons. I'm not a fan of everything at the Med, but it's easy to construct a filling and fulfilling meal there. Their fries are thin and crispy; they'll disappear before the rest of your food hits the table. They also have some of the better thin crust pizza in Hyde Park. It's lighter and less greasy than Giordano's, with cheese that steams and strings across the table. Go for the tangy goat cheese and spinach pie. Finish out your meal with a giant milkshake. The Mexicana shake is on point: subtle chocolate and cinnamon flavors help it avoid the usual overwhelming sweetness of most shakes.
Arguably better than the restaurant itself is the adjoining bakery. Between their focaccia and their asiago baguettes, The Med serves up some of the better loaves of bread in Hyde Park.
For Beer and Darts: The Cove
The Cove has everything I want in a dive bar: a jukebox (that plays both Kanye and Queen), pretty cheap beer, darts, and, of course, a wall length mural of Hyde Park with a ten foot tall painting of Obama's head. You can definitely head to the Cove with hopes of drinking craft brews or having a decent mixed drink, but, really, it's better to grab a $12 pitcher of Green Line, squish into a long picnic bench table, and waste the night away.
For Late-Night Groceries: Open Produce
A chill staff, a music suggestions box, a giant glass jar of fortune cookies: Open Produce has all the things you didn't know you wanted in a grocery store. My living room is probably bigger than the entire store, but they still manage to stock their shelves with most of the specialty items you'll find yourself needing, from vegannaise (vegan mayonnaise) to pickled white asparagus. They also have slightly more conventional and appealing options, such as a whole range of high end chocolates and fancier canned items, like tuna in oil. Their vegetables are the freshest and most diverse to be found in the neighborhood, apart from the Saturday farmers market. Oh, and it's open until 2 a.m. every night, for whenever your late-night pickled white asparagus craving hits.