It wasn’t so very long ago that one saw more tumbleweed blowing through Chicago’s South Loop than diners and drinkers. With refurbished hotels like Le Meridian Hotel Essex and dorms for thousands of college students, the neighborhood was ripe for restaurants to grab an inexpensive bite, impress a date, or enjoy a cocktail with friends. You can indulge while steeped in Chicago history at spots like The Gage (with Millennium Park views) and The Chicago Firehouse Restaurant summoning nostalgia in Former Engine Company 104. Visit Barcelona by way of Mercat a la Planxa, tucked into the Blackstone Hotel or South Carolina’s coast by digging into the messy and scrumptious seafood at Lowcountry South Loop. Try to decide among the extensive choices of Cantonese dim sum at MingHin and Harbor has it going on with Midwestern sourced ingredients and great views. The sublime dining experience at Acanto reminds us of why Italian is one of the world’s most beloved cuisines. Bradley Rubin’s Eleven City Diner was established securely in the South Loop long before the current trend of Jewish delis (which Chicago surely lacked).
Chef/Owner Stephen Gillanders recently opened Apolonia on South Michigan Ave. bringing the scents and tastes of coastal European and Mediterranean fare via a wood-burning oven and grill.
Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood offers satisfying dining options without the theatrics of River North, crowds of the Mag Mile and prices of the Gold Coast.
Harbor’s menu regularly changes to offer diners a varied seasonal experience. The from-scratch kitchen creates everything from kimchi found lolling with Triton Bay mussels to zesty pickles garnishing burgers, Bloody Marys and fried chicken pickle pizza. Its name is Harbor, after all, so expect Chef Anthony Bernal to offer several seafood dishes daily such as Walleye from the Great Lakes and salmon with homemade succotash. Rotisserie chicken hails from Cooks Venture Heirloom Chicken; Berkshire Pork tenderloin from Jasper, Indiana and beef comes from Ottawa, Illinois’ La Pryor farms. Weekend noshers should order Sunday Fried Chicken (with mashed spuds and gravy) available at dinner until they’re out.
The visually stunning eatery features Carrera marble throughout the bars, second dining room and on the Chef’s counter that oversees the open kitchen. Floor-to- ceiling doors lead to the patio with eight tables outside for alfresco dining. Dine at the raw bar, by the fireplace, or at the dining counter where you can see your Midwestern meal being prepared.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Harbor, near Soldier Field and the Museum campus, is a smart choice for museum visitors and Bears’ fans looking for yummy Midwestern dishes and seafood.
Jacky’s expert tip: Snag $5 draft beers and $6 Mimosas and Bloody Marys during Saturday and Sunday brunch.
It may be the most generous sampling of Nepali cuisine in Chicago, although you can certainly get satisfying renditions of popular North and South Indian dishes like Madras curry, samosas, tandoori and butter chicken, lamb. seafood and veg plus lots of naan, all at Chicago Curry House.
Taste the Himalayas with momo dumplings, dal-Bhat (rice and lentils) and gundruk (fermented, dried vegetables). There are a half-dozen of completely vegan Nepalese entrees and carnivores can go crazy with lamb and goat meat dishes. The lunch buffet looks as good as it tastes (and has gluten-free and vegetarian items) and Chicago Curry House does a brisk take-out and delivery business. Cold Kheer, rice cooked with sweetened milk, raisins and almonds makes a nice finish.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Chicago Curry House provides a delightful Nepali alternative to South Loop dining and locals love its affordability and generous portions.
Jacky’s expert tip: The lunch buffet is a great value since the cost for the entire spread checks in lower than many entrees.
Choose to visit the seafood boil concept in the South Loop for a recreation of a sweet family trip south when you’d stop for a bag o’ seafood after a day of swimming in the ocean. Belly up to the picnic table with your mallet and appetite to chow down on your protein choices: shrimp, mussels, Snow or King crab legs, and seasonal crawfish, Dungeness crab or lobster. Pick a sauce and heat level, add-ons like potatoes, Andouille sausage or corn on the cob and even some tasty extras like jalapeno cornbread, garlic noodles, pickled veg or crab hush puppies. Everything is cooked just right: potatoes are not mushy and cornbread is moist, beignets authentic, sizable mussels, fresh-tasting shrimp. The most popular item is the combo that includes shrimp and Snow crab with corn, potato and a side of cornbread.
It’s messy, delightful and delish.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Lowcountry is a reliable, fun, casual alternative to a stuffy seafood restaurant.
Jacky’s expert tip: Lowcountry serves crawfish when in season (Feb to July) and steamy gumbo in the winter.
Large arched windows allow plenty of light and views of Grant Park and the vibrant colors in this Catalan restaurant (located in the Blackstone Hotel) add to the fiesta feel. Mercat’s menu features dishes inspired by Spain’s inimitable Catalan region. The bar offers Spanish-influenced cocktails, as well as an extensive collection of Spanish sherries, wines, sangrias and beer. Tapas abound: Pan Con Tomate with toasted bread, tomato, Arbequina olive oil and sea salt; Croquetas de Iberico y Pollo featuring Iberico ham and Crystal Valley chicken croquettes with garlic aioli; Pulpo Con Patatas featuring octopus, olive oil, mashed potatoes, roasted grapes and capers. Do not leave without a slice of Basque Burnt Cheesecake with Pedro Ximenez soaked cherries and whipped cream. Summer brings a takeaway picnic basket that can be enjoyed across the street in Grant Park. Stop by for Happy Hour, Tuesday –” Friday, 4:30-6:30pm in the bar area.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Tapas originated in Spain and Mercat a la Planxa’s dishes may be the closest you’ll get to a night in Barcelona.
Jacky’s expert tip: The Traditional Tasting or Luxury Tasting Menu are prix fixe options for at least two guests, featuring eight to nine small plate courses.
When you tire of tacos, Brussels sprouts and charred octopus, do a Cossack dance over to Russian Tea Time where owner and Chef, Klara Muchnik, marries her Russian roots with the rich flavors of the former Soviet Republics. First-timers should gravitate toward Ukrainian Borscht, Stuffed Cabbage Golubtsy, Duck Legs, Beef Stroganoff, Beef Dumplings Pelmeni, Potato Vareniki, or Salmon Crepes with Caviar. The $25 prix fixe menu available all day Tuesday- Thursday. is also a good bet.
Try a strong black tea, Georgian wine or at least one house infused vodka that include flavors such as horseradish, Serrano pepper, tea, ginger and coriander while taking in the beguiling decor with Russian dolls and chandeliers. Elegant desserts include layered and creamy Napoleon and Honey Cake.
Russian Tea Time works for date night, weekend brunch, after concert dinner and post museum lunch. Gather the gang for vodka flights, too.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Citizens of the former Soviet Republic would call Russian Tea Time convincingly authentic and the rest of us just say, “ничсе” (wow).
Jacky’s expert tip: Experience Soviet High Tea service all day, Tuesday to Sunday, which includes a pot of tea, scones, Russian pancakes, tea sandwiches with salmon roe and fine sweets.
The popular Chinatown restaurant has spread its dumplings to Streeterville, Lakeshore East, Naperville, Rolling Meadows and now the South Loop. Specializing in authentic Cantonese food, with an accent on fresh seafood and dim sum, MingHin offers classic and exotic (to American palates) dishes incorporating quality ingredients. You’ll recognize dim sum staples such as steamed shrimp dumplings, siu mai, and sticky rice in lotus leaf. But why not try the baked creamy egg yolk bun? Many other restaurants offer a steamed alternative but MingHin is especially proud of its rendition. There are barbecue, steamed, pan-fried, crepe, vegetable, noodle, rice and even comforting congee dim sum. Lunch and dinner options go from refreshing cucumber salad to deep fried pigeon and lots of live seafood items from oysters to spicy Dungeness crab.
Vegetarians enjoy a a rainbow of options (mmm…black pepper asparagus; pea tips with tofu; and jalapeño fried rice, among the lot). The extensive drink lists present another dilemma. Will it be Grass Jelly Freeze, honey tea, a smoothie or shake or harder stuff like an old-school Singapore Sling?
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: MingHin South Loop is a modern Cantonese eatery offering an extensive dim sum and fresh seafood menu.
Jacky’s expert tip: Save some dough by visiting during Happy Hour between 2:30-5pm for 20% off Monday-Friday, not including holidays.
Former Engine Company 104 is a gorgeous restaurant with its original fire pole, scads of warm woods, a second-story veranda, solarium, grand bar/lounge and lush backyard patio all summoning old Chicago nostalgia. And, it’s walkable to Soldier Field and the museum campus.
The classic steakhouse menu lists plenty of exciting appetizers: homemade ricotta knots; mushroom arancini; grilled lamb lollipops; and a daily selection of west and east coast oysters. A hearty cauldron of the signature lobster bisque with puff pastry and whole roasted Dover Sole are indulgent musts. Prime steaks and homey bar favorites like ribs, double Angus beef burger, roasted chicken and meatloaf are excellent. Fine complements include hand-cut Kennebec fries, creamed spinach, asparagus with Béarnaise sauce, and whipped spuds.
Street parking isn’t as futile around here as just a few blocks north. Use the RESY app for reservations or call directly.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Celebrating 21 years in 2021, The Chicago Firehouse Restaurant was instrumental in the development of the South Loop.
Jacky’s expert tip: The movie BACKDRAFT was filmed at the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant.
As the rest of the culinary world sets its collective appetite on “street food,” there are those among us who crave home cooking from Ma’s kitchen. And that means latke latticework, cauldrons of soup and two-fisted sandwiches piled with slow-roasted, smoky meats. You’ll get all that plus a hunk of apple cobbler and a Green River float at Eleven City Diner.
Open seven days a week from breakfast to late lunch, Eleven City Diner lists classic American fare (grilled cheese on challah, patty melts, burgers, mac ‘n’ cheese, rare roast beef sandwiches; Jewish deli favorites (corned beef, pastrami and salami sandwiches, knish, chopped liver, brisket, matzoh ball soup) plus a soda fountain with Brooklyn egg creams and root beer floats. And breakfast all day from challah French toast and bagels to a corned beef AND pastrami hash bowl. Your Cali friends will go for big salads, quinoa bowls, veggie sandwiches and many things smeared with avocado. There’s a kids’ menu and nostalgic desserts: banana splits, hot fudge sundaes, carrot, chocolate and cheese cake. The fact that Eleven City serves craft beer, wine, Mimosas and Mary’s, cocktails and Intelligentsia coffee, too, makes it just about perfect.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Generously portioned, high-quality diner fare for breakfast, brunch and lunch, Eleven City Diner makes you feel not only full but well cared for.
Jacky’s expert tip: Eleven City Diner doesn’t take reservations but service is snappy so keep your shirt on – tables turn fairly quickly.
The eternal boomlet of new Chicago restaurants doesn’t seem to affect intrepid, unpretentious eateries with consistently great food – like The Gage. Any day of the week, locals and tourists linger at the comfortable bar chatting and sipping “Historical Cocktails.” The Queen of England would approve of the The Gage’s G & T, a spot-on refresher. Whiskey fans won’t be disappointed with the list here, either.
The menu is unfussy and compact so just choose what appeals to you and know it will make you smile. Crispy fried pickles and Venison Burger with a proper Guinness; Hamachi Ceviche or Jumbo Lump Crab Cake to escort a summery glass of white; Vindaloo Curry or a Roasted Beets & Fig salad for vegetarians; or bone-in Catalpa pork chop, Steak Frites, Fish & Chips or roasted chicken for anyone who appreciates exceptional pub fare. Don’t desert dessert: Peach Cobbler for Two or Triple Strawberry Sundae close out a great meal.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: The Gage works for all – Art Institute visitors, office workers, date night couples and pals looking for a sturdy drink and a memorable meal.
Jacky’s expert tip: The restaurant is housed in the historically landmarked Gage Group of buildings (18-24 South Michigan) so take a moment to look up its fascinating history.
Acanto could be plunked down anywhere in Northern or Southern Italy and become a favorite place of locals. It’s warm, conversation-friendly, boasts an extraordinary list of 700 Italian wines and seductive food emerges from its kitchen for lunch and dinner.
Sicilian arancini are creamy rice balls dropped from heaven then showered with Parmigiano and crispy fried octopus and calamari with capers, potatoes and Gaeta olives bring alternate textures and flavor to the table. Consider one of the three stone oven pizzas as an appetizer for hearty appetites – the mushroom with truffled ricotta, roasted garlic and Parmesan is pretty spectacular. Pasta is made in-house daily and they are “Che buono.” Lobster spaghetti features butter poached Maine lobster, lobster sauce, lime and chervil and Black Pepper Rigatoni with Catalpa Grove lamb ragout and a scatter of bread crumbs reminds us of why this one of the most beloved cuisines. Wood-fired grilled
Branzino, chicken piccata or cioppino teeming with roasted monk fish, shrimp, clams, in saffron broth make fine “secondi” choices. A digestif, coffee and anything from Executive Pastry Chef Greg Mosko’s menu ends a perfect meal. No room? Get it to-go.
Recommended for South Loop’s Best Restaurants because: Acanto successfully knits intimate ambience, crisp service, exceptional food and wine and a primo Loop location into one fine dining experience.
Jacky’s expert tip: Acanto earned Wine Spectator’s Best of Excellence Award in 2020 so order away.