Best Late-Night Eats
Excellent burgers, midnight cookies, after-hours dim sum, and no-frills spots for hearty Kyrgyzstani cuisine: Chicago has all the late-night eats a hungry night owl could want.
Triple Crown is actually the first place I ever went to for dim sum, and I don’t think I realized how good their food was until I started having dim sum from other places. I’ve dined there at many different times of day, and it’s consistently delicious; the fact that they’re also open late is amazing. Since I don't get to go out for brunch too often, every now and again my husband and I will treat ourselves and be like…”You know what? After we close the restaurant, let's go to dim sum.”
Triple Crown isn’t some little hole-in-the-wall—this place is super big, and it’s right in the heart of Chinatown in Chicago. Honestly, it looks like it would be this touristy, bullshit place, but it’s really, really good. They have this eggplant that's stuffed with shrimp, and their Shanghai dumplings are awesome—they’re soup dumplings, so they pop in your mouth with broth. I also love the turnip cakes with XO sauce.
Ghareeb Nawaz looks like a basic café, nothing fancy about it at all—no flowers, no tablecloths, and you eat at a communal table. But it's open 24 hours, it’s super cool, and the food is insanely good.
The menu is so vast in variety, and it's crazy to see the diversity of people who go there. Late at night, you see clubbers go there. You see students from Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul. All the Chicago taxi drivers are in there at 3, 4 a.m. It's just traditional, good Indian food—you get a lot of carbs, rice and bread, but then you'll get lamb, goat, or vegetarian options, too. I love their goat—they have curry goat or roasted—and there’s a spinach paneer that's really good. And, of course, order the naan.
Bai Cafe serves Central Asian cuisine—kind of a combination of northern Chinese and Russian and Turkish cooking—and it’s open quite late, which is nice especially if you’re hungry after service, after the bar, or after working out or whatever people do late-night. For me, it’s just a basic, hole-in-the-wall place with hardly a sign and no menu.
I've come to know them over the years. There's a little window, and you kind of look in the back and ask, “What kind of soup do you have today?” or “What have you made today?” They always have at least two, sometimes three, soups that are fantastic for the Chicago winter. The lamb soup is just a basic, beautifully clear broth with one big chunk of fully, perfectly cooked potato, a nice big chunk of a carrot (also perfectly, fully cooked, so you can kind of cut it with your spoon), sometimes a piece of tomato, and a little cilantro on top. You can get a whole lamb chop in there sometimes. It's not medium-rare, but it's juicy and tender. They also always have the borscht, which has big chunks of beef in it and lots of finely sliced cabbage, and a big glob of super-thick sour cream. You get nice hot tea; really, really strong tea. Everything has meat and onions. It’s just hearty and fresh and delicious.
Scofflaw is tucked away in a little pocket of Logan Square, southwest of all the hubbub. It's a baroque, dark, literal gin joint where you can feel free to "come as you are," whether it's after a long shift or for an evening out with friends. While other chef-driven restaurants are popping up around that area, Scofflaw has been holding down the corner of Armitage and Kedzie since 2012. The burger is a delicious take on the In-N-Out style, something I yearn for as a West Coast transplant, but it's the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies that are handed out at midnight that make for return visits. It's a late-night vibe, with a touch of a grandmother's love. I also love Scofflaw because the chef, Matt Lehto, is such a gosh-darn good cook. With chops earned under Suzanne Goin and Paul Kahan, he’s made a tiny neighborhood gin joint as delicious as the drinks are cold.
Whether you’re looking for a dive bar that makes you feel at home or a complex cocktail made with spirits you’ve never encountered before, Chicago doesn’t disappoint.
Lost Lake is just down the street from my restaurant, Mi Tocaya. I feel like it's such a little gem. It’s super small and intimate, and the candle-lighting is amazing; it makes you feel like it's always nighttime, even if you stop by in the middle of the day.
And the drinks are so complex. There will be, like, five different rums in one cocktail. It really makes me appreciate sugarcane, and how many different kinds of rums there are, from all over the world. The presentations are beautiful. I'm someone who likes wearing flowers on my head, so I love that there are flowers and fresh herbs everywhere. They're not discreet about it. The cocktails have crazy names, and they change things up a lot, so I don't know if I have a favorite one; I always try to get something new there.
My lady and I like to have a drink at a dive bar every now and again. I kind of have a go-to dive bar in every neighborhood. There's certainly a feel to them. The feel of a weathered bar, the feel of a good old coaster. But more than anything else, it's the feel of the staff that's been there, usually for a decade, and seen the neighborhood change a lot. We can talk about what's happened in the neighborhood. One of the other things I love about a dive bar is having some space around your shoulders; people aren’t packed in there like sardines. I think it's one of the most honest feelings of a restaurant-goer or a bar-goer; you walk into a place, and you just relax your shoulders. This is what hospitality is all about. Just making somebody exhale.
I live in Pilsen, which is the neighborhood very close to downtown that's really starting to develop. And in Pilsen is a place called Skylark, which I just absolutely love. It’s a beer-and-a-shot type of place. They have a tater tot tasting that's one of the funniest plates of food in Chicago.
Chicago has an amazing cocktail culture—and amazing cocktail execution. To me, the biggest problem with cocktails is sugar and dilution. If you add too much sugar or don't have enough dilution, then you just can’t taste all of the ingredients and everything that's in them. Julia Momose, the beverage director at Kumiko—she gets it. She nails it. Her cocktails are ethereal, and they seem impossible. Her stuff is just so clean and has so much finesse.
I remember sitting with her right after she started working at The Aviary, many, many years ago. She had her little Moleskine, and she was writing down all the things that she wanted to make, and her philosophies and everything, in the book. She's not trying to be funny. She's not trying to be over the top. She's not trying to punch you in the face. She's not trying to impress you even, really. It's just very refined, very thoughtful. She's a chef in that regard. And then they have those cool little plates from Noah Sandoval. He's really refined, too, so their styles match up.
The ideal brunch restaurant can mean a lot of different things to different folks. For Ethan Pikas of Cellar Door Provisions, it's dead-simple salmon tartare, perhaps with a side of all-American pancakes. For Abe Conlon of Fat Rice, it's Korean-Polish diner fare. For pastry chef Dana Cree of Pretty Cool Ice Cream, it's actually the quiche Pikas prepares at CDP.
Cellar Door Provisions
I love Cellar Door more than I love my own cooking. Light and airy, with verdant floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s as comfortable for dining alone as it is for going out with a group of friends. Counter service makes dining unpretentious, and the open kitchen gives you an idea of how many cooks are pouring their love into the small, handwritten daily menu. A pastry case has some of the city's best pastries in it, and they sell out fast. The regular menu is full of hyper-local light fare; think bright-green herb soup with chickpea dumplings, or a broth with roasted radishes and drops of intensely flavored oils. House-baked sourdough comes with handmade butter, which rounds out every meal if you aren't eating a breakfast pastry while you wait.
When I go in for brunch, I almost always order the quiche. It quivers from a careful bake and an impeccable ratio of eggs to cream, and has nothing more than caramelized-onion purée folded in for flavor. It's baked in the flakiest crust on earth, and served with a tiny side salad that I often skip, not wanting the flavor of the quiche to slip away. It's always on the menu, weekends or weekdays, and it draws me in at least once a month—more if I can get a friend to agree to go with me. It's also where I take all my pastry-chef friends when they visit.
Good To Go
Good To Go is owned by a Jamaican couple who just put out a brilliant brunch menu this year. There are things on there that you'll never see elsewhere, that you're going to have to try because it's so new and they've merged it so well with a little Jamaican twist. The last time I was there, I had their Jamaican fried chicken, which was really, really crunchy and juicy—like, you hear it when you bite into it. They have an oxtail omelette. And now they have this beautiful, high-octane coffee that’s imported from Jamaica.
The interior is gorgeous and kind of has an Art Deco feel. It's a family place, but you see young professionals there. You see ladies having a meal together. It's, like, a lot of different atmospheres; they have multiple bar areas, an outdoor patio in the back, and an open deck in the front, which is beautiful. And they have a stage. They actually have live music there during brunch, which is really cute.
I go to Café Marie-Jeanne almost every Sunday morning. I've known the chefs there for a long time; it's a nice community of people and just very, very warm. You just feel like you belong there.
My favorite thing to order is their salmon tartare. This is probably a peculiar perspective, but for someone who works Saturday-night dinner service, I want a very simple meal on Sunday morning because I've been tasting crazy stuff all night. The salmon tartare is just fatty enough and very soothing to eat; you feel full without feeling overwhelmed or over-enriched. For lack of a better term, it's a cleansing thing to eat at the end of your work. I'm pretty sure that it's dressed with just diced shallots and some coarse salt and olive oil and lemon juice.
Depending on what you’re in the mood for, you could get foie gras, or they have really amazing pancakes. They're just very straightforward, diner-style pancakes, but really well executed. They have a Bisquick vibe in the most pleasurable way possible, very fluffy and slightly sour from buttermilk. And this is true of the place in general: There's nothing extra on the dish; it's just maple syrup and pancakes. Maybe you get a side of fruit or something. But it doesn't have all this cheffed-up stuff going on, which I think is great.
Kimski serves Korean-Polish food, which is a beautiful thing. The chef, Won Kim, makes over-the-top, in-your-face food. And the owner, Ed Marz, his parents are Polish and Korean. He made this place, Kimski, and then took Won's crazy sensibility and style and applied it. The pierogi are fantastic, and the kimchi is fantastic. It's not like, "Oh, I'm getting some store-bought pierogi and putting some jarred kimchi on it." No, they're making all that stuff in-house. It's also very well thought out, well executed, but presented with humor and irreverence.
The vibe at Kimski is just rad. It's open, kind of like you're in a garage or a warehouse. It feels like you're at a warehouse party with cool art around. It's a very organic, communal, airy kind of space. They also host various brunch and doughnut pop-ups. Won will be cooking, and then he'll go and DJ for the brunch, and put on his homies and have a round robin of DJs coming through. They’re both great, Won the chef and Ed the owner. They are just amazing at activations and community organizing and just doing fun, weird stuff that people are into. For brunch food, the shrimp and grits and the Ko-Po wings are amazing, and the stuffed French toast with pickled pears and bourbon caramel is a must to cure any wake-and-bake cravings.
Looking for a tasting menu that showcases the best produce the Midwest has to offer, or sushi made with the highest-quality fish in Chicago? These Chi-Town chefs know where to find it.
The food at Elske is Scandinavian-inspired. There's a very elegant simplicity to what they do that I admire a lot. The menu changes a lot. They do a lot of fermented foods, which is something that I'm very into as well. And they have my favorite desserts in town, made by Anna Posey. She is exceptional—everything she does just has a ton of clarity to it. She might not love that this is the one I'm focusing on, because I think it's the dessert that they're most famous for, but they have this sunflower parfait that tastes like the most elegant peanut butter dessert you've ever had. My guess is that it's some sort of mousse with a sunflower seed base, and maybe emulsified with sunflower oil to some degree. And then there's a crunchy, tuile-like sunflower component, and a caramelly component. It's just so good.
I feel like in the last eight years, fine dining has been at a steady decline. It's one of those things where chefs want to be doing cartwheels—making over-the-top things that look like works of art, instead of making concepts that work. At Smyth, though, John Shields’s approach is very fun and not at all pretentious, and he brings a playfulness to his food. It's not about the cartwheels; it's just really well conceived.
Downstairs, they have a casual bar called The Loyalist, and upstairs it’s tasting menus at Smyth. It’s an open kitchen...it honestly looks like a show kitchen. The vibe is very simple, no big deal—until the first course comes out. The last time I ate there, it started with this doughnut dish that could be very quirky in the wrong hands, but not Shields’s. It's just super creative and done well and like something you've never had before, which I think is really refreshing, especially for fine dining. Another memorable dish is their fish ribs—I don't even know what fish it was—that’s served Midwestern-style, like if you were to go into a fish smokery. It’s served with paper, and you eat it with your hands.
The restaurant takes a Midwest approach, but I also feel like they’re inspired by Japanese food culture, which is thoughtful, and over the top in many ways, but also so simple. It's not about manipulation of food; it's about honoring it.
I feel like Shields is one of the best chefs in the world right now, and I don't know why he doesn't get credit for it. When you eat his food, when you go in there and you try it, you're like, "Oh, shit, this is why I love fine dining!" It’s very, very creative.
Lee Wolen has a great Midwest soul, and I think he’s cooking great upscale food at Boka. I also really appreciate the fact that you can go in there, to a very nice restaurant, and just order an appetizer and an entrée and not have to do a full tasting menu. The food is just perfectly executed classics. They’re not trying to be weird. They’re not trying to be far out there. It's just modern American cuisine, done well.
He changes everything so often, it’s hard to call out the standbys. He's famous for his whole roasted duck and his roasted chicken. I mean, that kind of shows you how right down the middle this stuff is—"fastballs," we like to say. He's always super in-season, but he always does a delicious, simple ricotta dumpling. Right now, it's probably with corn, and probably absolutely incredible. I mean, he's a tactician. He worked with Daniel Humm, and at a lot of places where technique was king.
At Boka, Wolen takes these Midwestern market vegetables and market proteins and applies a career's worth of technique to them, with usually one really interesting twist, whether it be black lime on top of it, or a little bit of truffle or foie gras sausage with the duck. You just don't see food like that very often, especially here in Chicago. He's not challenging his diner. He's just saying, "This is really good, and it is what it is." And I appreciate that.
My last fancy, splurge-y meal was Mako, B. K. Park's new restaurant. B. K. is just exacting. He likes a show. He's got a little vibe and attitude. He's not so buttoned-up, so even though the space is very clean and modern, it feels very welcoming. It’s minimalist but not sterile. We sat at the sushi bar in the corner, and I really liked that it felt traditional and new at the same time. For example, they did a beverage pairing, but it wasn’t just sake; they paired with wine and other stuff, too.
The progression of courses is fun as well. He brought out a little sashimi in a bowl, and there was some smoke in there. You lifted the top off, but not in a precious, smoke-and-mirrors way. I’m not even sure if it was sturgeon, but, oh my god, that was the most amazing smoked sturgeon I've ever had. That was just the first three bites. Then they bring in these nice hot courses, and you kind of feel the energy in the room heat up, and I think the music gets louder, and that’s when B. K. starts making nigiri. So there's a very subtle energy that they kick on, and [my dining companions and I] naturally became more excited. We're joking more; we're laughing more. And that interaction, from B. K. to the sushi bar, is actually very powerful and very cool.
No matter if you're a visitor or a local, you need to add these iconic Chicago eats to your list, stat. From Rick Bayless's sopes to a good old-fashioned Chicago-style hot dog from a joint that's been slinging them for over 50 years, here's where to get some of the best bites in the city.
Skipping out on any of the Bayless restaurants when you're in Chicago is a crime. They've been doing it so well for so long. The bite that I like the most would be the sopes they do at Frontera Grill. They're just little bites of meaty glory, usually swimming in some delicious spicy salsa, and are great with a Negra Modelo. The sope, I'm sure you know, is like a pinched, thick tortilla. It kind of holds stuff inside of it, and sometimes it's short rib, sometimes it's carnitas. Once in a while, it'll be fish.
It’s important to stop in there, because his food is so honest. Despite what a global celebrity chef he is, his food still has the same soul that it had 30 years ago. And that's really rare. I think he's the best practitioner of Mexican food outside of Mexico, anywhere in the world. He loves to celebrate Mexican culture in all of its facets—his restaurants are like museums for Mexican art. I feel like you owe it to yourself to try the cuisine, because, I mean.... I'm a dime a dozen, right? California cuisine, mishmash of flavors. I love my restaurant, and I find it to be delicious. But to find somebody who is just such a champion, not only for Mexican cuisine in general but for a single region in Mexico—it should be tasted. It's quite a sight to behold.
Sun Wah BBQ
This is going to be weird, because everybody's going to say a hot dog, a pizza. But no. There's a place in Chicago called Sun Wah. When someone visits me in Chicago, this is the first or the last place that I take them. The thing to order is the barbecue duck, which has skin that’s crispy like a chicharrón. But it’s not actually on the menu; you have to call 24 hours in advance, and you have to tell them you want to order the off-menu Beijing-duck feast. It feeds about four to six people.
So you order the duck; you come in and say, "Hey, we got a reservation for five"; sit down. The server's gonna come to the table, and you're going to say, "Hey, we ordered the duck." They know what the duck is. They bring this duck out on a cart. It's breast side up. It's glistening. It's brownish red. It's beautiful. And then they slice this duck at your table with a meat cleaver. They cut it like it's sashimi. They make these little thin-sliced pieces, and they put it on an oval platter, and they lay the pieces out. When they get to the legs, they put those in the center. So now, you're looking, and everybody's got their cameras out, video on. They take the cart away. They bring out bao buns, and they bring out pickled daikon and carrots, and they leave. But they take the carcass of that duck back to the kitchen. And from what's left, they make a duck fried rice and a duck consommé. And then they bring that back out to the table, too.
So, while you're eating and everybody's fighting over the crispiest piece of skin right now, and filling their buns up, and they bring you this hot sauce and hoisin sauce, stuff starts trickling out. They'll bring the soup out first, and then they bring out the duck fried rice. The table's going to be quiet for, like, the first 10 minutes. No one's going to say anything. It's like everybody's just feeding their face. It's just so succulent, and then that skin is so crispy. It's a great experience, and it's really interactive.
Jimmy's Red Hots
I have really fun memories of eating Chicago-style hot dogs, and I do think it's a very quintessential experience here. It's largely about the garnishes. There's something nice about all of the garnishing that happens. It's almost like the Bloody Mary of sandwiches or something.
It's usually like a relish of some kind, and pickles and onions, tomato and peperoncini. It's got a lot of Italian influences in it, I suppose.... I never really thought about it. If I were to recommend a specific place to try one, I think I’d choose Jimmy’s Red Hots, as it’s been doing its thing for 55 years.
Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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