The Hot List

The Buzziest Restaurants in Chicago

The busiest and the buzziest spots in the Windy City can satisfy every craving.

12 min read
6/9/2022
Vajra

For a major American city and international restaurant destination, Chicago likes to keep it real. Here, chefs put as much care into sandwiches as they do into high-end dining. Gourmet tacos abound and local chefs have perfected every style of pizza. And yet Chicagoans also love a good sushi or oyster splurge. Here’s a list of 25 of the city’s hottest restaurants; it’s tough to nab these reservations but very easy to open up the app and order in. 

Stracciatella

Aba

Like its River North counterpart Ema (“mom” in Hebrew), Aba (“dad”) shows off chef C.J. Jacobson’s unique perspective — modern Israeli cooking through the lens of California seasonality. The crispy short rib hummus and the house-made stracciatella cheese with marinated tomatoes aren’t to be missed.

 Club Lucky 

After 40 years, this Bucktown classic can still be a hard reservation. Good thing you can bring its inimitable Italian supper club vibe home. Enormous servings of pasta and chicken Vesuvio can feed two, and regulars all have their favorites. We love the fried calamari — hot, tender, crispy — particularly with a side of roasted red peppers. The green bean and blue cheese salad with red onion is a sleeper hit thanks to its pitch-perfect wine vinaigrette. 

Etta Bucktown

Packed, loud, and as scene-y as it gets in Bucktown, this restaurant never fails to please, thanks to the way the plates invite sharing and come together to form a satisfying meal. The Bubbling Shrimp, with its soppable smoked tomato and ginger sauce, the fire-baked focaccia with honeyed ricotta and truffles, and the meatballs in a zingy Sunday sauce are all new classics. Add in an order of cavatelli Bolognese, a crisp-crusted pizza, or a little gem salad, and let the party start. 

La Josie

 La Josie 

Great cocktails, great guac, great ceviche and great tacos: this roll call of superlatives keeps La Josie one of the bumpingest boites in the West Loop. And it’s all a click away, even the margaritas and palomas that come two to the bottle. An underrated bright spot on the menu is the selection of meal-sized taco salads, both vegetarian and non. 

 Nobu 

If someone’s coming over and you want to impress them with the best Netflix and chill ever, may we suggest Chicago’s new and white-hot branch of Nobu? The yellowtail with jalapeño and ponzu and the grilled black cod in miso are the most famous dishes, but why stop there? Lobster in a wasabi pepper sauce and thinly sliced wagyu tataki will make the evening extra special. 

Eataly

This enormous market and restaurant complex can be a lot to take in — fun but always packed and confusing to navigate if you’ve never been. Eataly at home? Now we’re talking. Go for the classics done right, from stellar Neapolitan pizzas (which will benefit from two minutes on a sheet pan in a hot oven) to a cacio e pepe pasta against which to judge all others. 

honey butter fried chicken

 Honey Butter Fried Chicken 

There is virtue in fried chicken. When you want cage-free, humanely raised chicken prepared by staffers paid a living wage, then Avondale’s favorite chicken spot should be your next destination. The sandwiches go big on flavor, from the Original (candied jalapeño mayo and slaw) to the Bubbe (everything bagel mayo and dill pickles). But a basket of chicken pieces with corn muffins and that titular honey butter (available to order by the jar!) is best for a family dinner. The 64-ounce bottles of boozy punch or candied jalapeño margarita are optional but recommended. Check out the website to read about the owners’ commitment to fairness and equity, and you’ll feel even better about your order.

 Lula Cafe 

Jason Hammel’s Logan Square homesteader, open since 1999, was both a locavore’s dream and an all-day cafe before either was cool. It’s still as strong — and as busy — as ever. While Hammel and his crew make a killer turkey sandwich, this is where many folks go for stellar meatless cooking. The breakfast burrito, the baked French feta with olives and grilled bread, and the Pasta Yia Yia learned from a Greek grandmother are the headliners. The latter contains brown butter, feta, and an all-important dash of cinnamon. 

 Arami

 A relative old-timer in Chicago’s boisterous sushi scene, this restaurant made its name by offering the best selection of nigiri sushi available without any razzamatazz, just a careful combination of fish and rice. Here’s where you order from when you want to revel in the simple things, like soy-marinated salmon, Japanese freshwater eel, and lean bluefish, either nigiri or sashimi or both. 

Avec

 Avec River North

 Bigger and brasher than its West Loop sister restaurant, this outpost takes all the classic dishes we love (none as much as those chorizo-stuffed dates) and adds in a pretty terrific modern pizza program. Great choice for a group, because you’re going to want to try everything. 

 Chef's Special Cocktail Bar 

Jason Vincent of Giant leads the charge on this faithful recreation of an old-school Chinese-American restaurant and cocktail bar. Lo mein and kung pao come with every choice of protein (including tofu); the eggrolls smack of peanut butter as they should in Chicago; and the crab rangoon goes down too easily. If you need to dial up the spice, check out the inhalable dan dan noodles. 

 Dos Urban Cantina 

Husband and wife owners Bryan and Jennifer Enyart have settled into a more casual menu and vibe since opening this Logan Square spot a few years ago. But their training under Rick Bayless and their love of Mexican flavors come through in every dish, from their red chile chicken enchiladas to their sweet corn tamal. Whatever you order, the sikil pak (pumpkin seed dip) is a must. 

piccolo sogno

 Piccolo Sogno 

Chef Tony Priolo and his partner Ciro Longobardo have long delighted Chicago with this “little dream” of a restaurant. While dine-in customers vie for a seat on the sunny patio, the food is its own ray of light. The seasonal pastas are always the main draw; in springtime look for artichoke- and bufala mozzarella-stuffed pasta with fava beans and English peas. (You’re going to be happy with any pasta that catches your eye, though.) Tiramisu connoisseurs know not to skip dessert. 

Serai 

Chicago is short on Malaysian restaurants, but this small charmer in Logan Square fills the void nicely. Look for curry laksa, a coconut-rich seafood noodle soup; and tofu rendang, a long-simmered stew with warm spices and more coconut. For a taste of Malaysia’s unique blending of Indian and Chinese flavors, the Nyonya curried chicken is a must. 

 Shaw's Crab House 

This River North classic offers everything a seafood lover could crave, from lobster rolls to sushi rolls, from jambalaya to bisque, and from fish and chips to local walleye. Did we mention the always sparkling oysters, and that the whole darn menu is available for delivery?  

tortello

 Tortello 

This wife-and-husband-owned shop and restaurant has changed the fresh pasta game in Chicago. While their products are now available at many of the city’s specialty markets, nothing beats ordering from the shop. You may want a hot meal of cacio e pepe pasta or the house special (tortelli filled with burrata cheese) delivered to your door. But here’s the brilliant part: You can add bags of dry pasta, jars of sauces, and even meal kits for two (so you can make that famous tortelli yourself). There, your next few dinners are sorted as well. Great wine list, too. 

 Vajra 

If you eat in Indian restaurants often, you’ll recognize Vajra’s best-hits menu. But the food will surprise you all the same for the complexity and depth of its flavors. Old warhorse favorites — saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi — seem fresher and more vibrant than any other you’ve tried. The tandoor baked breads aren’t to be missed; the cashew chicken tikka masala is the business. 

Parson's Chicken & Fish 

Now with four locations throughout the city, Parson’s has carved a niche and established a surefire menu that’s half Southern fish fry and half backyard barbecue. Fries, fish fingers, and chicken (both on the bone and nuggetized) satisfy the craving for hot and crispy, and a great selection of salads keeps things fresh. We can never resist the combo of spicy nuggets and Ponderosa salad with little gem lettuce, beefsteak tomatoes, and bacon. But you do you.

XOCO

 XOCO 

This elevated sandwich shop may be the most casual of the three Rick Bayless restaurants in his Clark Street complex, but it’s just as destination-worthy. The tortas on warm, crusty telera bread are across-the-board terrific, from the golden eggplant with squash and salsa negra to the ahogada with local pork carnitas and a red chile sauce that stains the bread. One section of the menu is dedicated to hot chocolate and coffee with this note: “We’re the only restaurant in Chicago with its own bean-to-cup chocolate program.” Get on that.

 Cruz Blanca Brewery 

This brewpub/taqueria, originally opened by Rick Bayless, takes this perfect food-and-drink pairing to a new, fun place. We recommend flipping the script and first choosing a six-pack of one of the fine house beers (one smoked lager was inspired by Oaxacan pit cooking!) and then deciding which food goes best. Peruse the menu of tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and tlayudas (like huge tostadas); it’s all great. Better yet, order up a taco platter portioned to make 8–10 tacos, which includes fire-roasted meats, grilled knob onions, black beans, salsas, and handmade tortillas. 

 Tempesta Market 

Father and son Agostino and Tony Fiasche expanded from preparing artisan charcuterie to making glorious sandwiches that show off their product. The vibe here is Italian with a Midwestern sensibility. House-roasted porchetta stars on the Southside Johnny, with stretchy Wisconsin Brun-uusto cheese, pickled fennel, broccolini, and chimichurri playing backup. Don’t miss the saucy Berkshire pork meatballs served on grilled bread. 

 Crisp 

The menu at this Lakeview restaurant warns you to watch out for “Fred Flintstone-sized wings.” It was the original and is still the best destination for Korean-style fried chicken. These babies are uncut, so each piece contains a drumette, a flat, and a wing tip. Get five of them, go as spicy or as sweet as you like with your choice of sauce, and have napkins at the ready. 

 Green Street Smoked Meats 

Really legit barbecue, fun sides, and a Frito pie that keeps everyone coming back: These are the ingredients for the Hogsalt group’s smoked meat mecca in the West Loop. You can order your brisket, ribs, and pulled pork by the pound or the sandwich, and the jalapeño cornbread (gluten-free!) and baked beans studded with house-cured pork belly make it a meal. That frito pie, by the way, consists of pastrami brisket and queso dressing in an open bag of corn chips — also known as a walking taco, also known as heaven. 

 D Cuisine 

The North Side of Chicago was a dim sum desert. That’s why residents are so grateful for D Cuisine, where the Chinese tea pastries are fresh, homemade, and available all day long. What a pleasure to order an assortment and outfit the meal with other Cantonese specialties, such as stir-fried Chinese broccoli and Causeway Bay-style shrimp coated in fried ginger, garlic, and shallots.

humboldt haus

 Humboldt Haus 

Chicago has no shortage of sandwiches that are chef-created and filled with gourmet flourishes. But sometimes you want a classic deli sub with no funny business. That’s why this small spot across from Humboldt Park is always packed. Here, the Italian sandwich comes packed with cured meats, tangy cheese, and enough shredded lettuce and tomato to absorb the vinaigrette. Other combos — which contain turkey, roast beef, or, as the title indicates, Nothing but Veggies — are like old friends you never knew you were missing.

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Caviar Staff

Caviar Staff

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