Like us on Facebook!

David Lissner
for restaurants

The best Chicago restaurants ever? Really?

Is Superdawg one of the best Chicago restaurants ever?

Is Superdawg one of the best Chicago restaurants ever?

Celebrating Chicago magazine’s 40th anniversary last week Penny Pollack cited her picks for the “40 best Chicago restaurants of all time … 40 restaurants that epitomize Chicago’s impact on the culinary universe.” Her list, with a couple of annotations:

  1. Alinea, 2005–present, Lincoln Park (contemporary American).
  2. Le Francais, 1973–2007, Wheeling (French).
  3. Charlie Trotter’s, 1987–present, Lincoln Park (contemporary American).
  4. Frontera Grill, 1987–present, Topolobampo, 1989–present, River North (Mexican).
  5. Spiaggia, 1984–present, Magnificent Mile (Italian).
  6. Trio, 1993–2006, Evanston (contemporary American).
  7. Ambria, 1980–2007, Lincoln Park (French).
  8. Morton’s The Steakhouse, 1978–present, Gold Coast (steakhouse).
  9. Gordon, 1976–1999, River North (contemporary American).
  10. Pizzeria Uno, 1943–present, River North (pizza).
  11. Avec, 2003–present, West Loop (Mediterranean).
  12. Carlos’ 1981–present, Highland Park (contemporary French).
  13. The Bakery, 1962–1989, Lincoln Park (Continental).
  14. Blackbird, 1997–present, West Loop (contemporary American).
  15. Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, 1985–present, Lincoln Park (Spanish).
  16. Everest, 1986–present, South Loop (French).
  17. Arun’s, 1985–present, Irving Park (Thai).
  18. The Pump Room, 1938–present, Gold Coast (American).
  19. Yoshi’s Cafe, 1982–present, Northalsted (Eclectic).
  20. Gibsons Steakhouse, 1989–present, Gold Coast (steakhouse).
  21. Jacques, 1935–1983, Gold Coast (French).
  22. Fritzel’s, 1947–1972, Loop (Continental).
  23. Carson’s, 1977–1992, Skokie; 1979–present, River North (American barbecue).
  24. Gene & Georgetti, 1941–present, River North (Italian steakhouse).
  25. Cape Cod Room, 1933–present, Gold Coast (seafood).
  26. Le Perroquet, 1973–1991, Gold Coast (French).
  27. Eli’s, The Place for Steak, 1966–2005, Gold Coast (steakhouse).
  28. Jimmy’s Place, 1978–1995, Avondale (Franco–Asian).
  29. College Inn, 1844–1973, Loop (Continental).
  30. Shangri–La, 1944–1968, Loop (Far Eastern).
  31. The Berghoff, 1898–2006, Loop (German).*
  32. Henrici’s, 1868–1962, Loop (Viennese).
  33. Hackney’s on Harms, 1939–present, Glenview (American).
  34. Alexander’s Steak House, circa 1930–1978, South Shore (American).
  35. Gladys Holcomb’s Home Cooking, 1946–circa 2003, Bronzeville (soul food).
  36. Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli, 1942–present, South Loop (Jewish delicatessen).
  37. Don Roth’s Blackhawk, 1920–1984, Loop; 1969–2009, Wheeling (American).**
  38. Red Star Inn, 1899–1970, Old Town; 1970–1983, Irving Park (German).
  39. Fanny’s, 1946–1987, Evanston (Italian–American).
  40. Wing Yee, 1965–late 1980s, Lincoln Park (Cantonese).

I agree with many of her choices, but note that Pollack’s list is heavy on late-20th-century and contemporary establishments and light on lower-priced places. There are all kinds of questions you can ask: Do changing culinary fashions mean that today’s diners would think that historic restaurants were really great? Are there great restaurants that vanished without leaving easy to find traces? (What was the first restaurant in Chicago? Jean du Sable’s trading post?) What qualifies as a “restaurant”? And what makes a restaurant “great,” anyhow?

But here are a few places I think Pollack overlooked. What would you add to the list? What would you leave off?

  • Rector’s Oyster House, 1880s–1911, Loop (seafood).
    Charles E. Rector was the first restaurateur to bring live oysters to Chicago by train. In “Sister Carrie” (1900), Theodore Dreiser wrote: “Rector’s, with its polished marble walls and floor, its profusion of lights, its show of china and silverware, and, above all, its reputation as a resort for actors and professional men, seemed to him the proper place for a successful man to go…. When dining, it was a source of keen satisfaction to him to know that Joseph Jefferson was wont to come to this same place, or that Henry E. Dixie, a well-known performer of the day, was then only a few tables off. At Rector’s he could always obtain this satisfaction, for there one could encounter politicians, brokers, actors, some rich young “rounders” of the town, all eating and drinking amid a buzz of popular commonplace conversation.”

  • Schlogl’s German-American, 1879–1950s?, Loop, (German-American).
    Such visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition as Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell; local literary lights including Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, Robert Herrick and Edgar Lee Masters; and the correspondents of the Chicago Daily News all hung out at this longtime Chicago favorite. “Naturally, the “Who’s Who” of the American literary world would not come here unless the cuisine were such as to meet the approval of fastidious men of letters,” enthused John Drury, in his 1931 guide to Chicago restaurants. “This place serves food that the most cosmopolitan of epicures would revel in. The Stewed Chicken a la Schlogl can be gotten nowhere else. Millionaires who can afford sirloins and tenderloins come here for Hamburger steak, which is fried in butter and prepared as only Chef Paul Weber, who has been here for thirty years, knows how to prepare it. The steaks and chops demand more than just this mere listing of them. There is also savory Wiener Schnitzel and Hasenpfeffer, roast young duck, and bouillabaisse. Too, the Schlogl pancake is deserving of a chapter to itself…. You haven’t dined in Chicago unless you’ve eaten at least once in this historic restaurant.”

  • Kinsley’s, 1885–1905, Loop (American).
    Called “The Chicago Delmonico’s,H.M. Kinsley’s namesake restaurant inaugurated the World’s Columbian Exposition with a banquet for 100 dignitaries, including governors of 27 states, four supreme court justices, 17 ministers of foreign governments, nine U.S. cabinet members, Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson and former President Rutherford B. Hayes.

  • DeJonghe’s, 1890s–1923, Loop (Belgian).
    The place that created Chicago’s oldest specialty, shrimp DeJonghe, this restaurant, launched by Belgian brothers who first came to the U.S. to run a cafe at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also popularized escargot in Chicago.

  • King Joy Lo, 1906–1940s, Loop (Chinese).
    As prestigious as the city’s most costly French and German restaurants, this highly decorative restaurant was founded by the Baohuanghui (Empire Reform Association) to raise funds in support of its activities within China. It was one of the first Chinese restaurants in town to aim for a non-Asian clientele and use Western plates and cutlery. By World War I, it was noted in visitors’ accounts as the most famous Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Opposite the Garrick Theater, King Joy Lo was a favorite post-show destination, attracting visiting diplomats, merchants and artists. It offered a live orchestra for dancing. The Press Club of Chicago described its American and Chinese food as fresh, seasonal and “unequalled by any of the Chinese restaurants of America.” Its first manager, Chin Foin, an associate of Hinky Dink Kenna’s, would later found the equally successful Mandarin Inn.

  • L’Aiglon, 1926–1962, River North (French).
    Housed in a historic Ontario Street mansion and famed for its French cuisine, L’Aiglon served fresh sole shipped on ice from France and boasted one of the most extensive wine lists west of New York City.

  • Villa Venice Supper Club, 1920s–1967, Wheeling (French).
    A theatrical restaurant offering live entertainment, a casino, a ballroom for dancing, fountains, colored lights, terraces and gondolas to ferry patrons along the Des Plaines River, with food prepared by a veteran of the Tour d’Argent in Paris. Always notorious as a gangster hangout, it was rebuilt in the 1960s by owners who included infamous mob boss Sam Giancana.

  • The Parthenon, 1968–present, Greektown (Greek).
    If you’re going to talk about Chicago’s culinary impact, how can you leave out the place that gave America flaming saganaki and gyros?

  • McDonald’s, 1955–present, Des Plaines (fast food).
    Talk about impact.

  • R.J. Grunts, 1971–present, Lincoln Park (American).
    The place that launched the Lettuce Entertain You empire and introduced Chicago to the salad bar.

  • Cafe Provencal, 1977–1993, Evanston (French).
    Leslee Reis’ country French cafe was a destination for its food, service and homey decor.

  • The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, 1976–2006, Streeterville (contemporary French).
    Under the tenure of chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris (now owners of Northbrook’s Prairie Grass Cafe and the recently opened Prairie Fire in the West Loop), this restaurant epitomized contemporary fine dining in Chicago at the turn of the millennium.

  • Prairie, 1986–2005, Printers Row (Midwestern).
    In its heyday under Chef Stephen Langlois, this restaurant in the South Loop introduced the locavore concept to Chicago with menus so locally sourced they didn’t even include ocean fish.

  • Superdawg Drive In, 1948–present, Norwood Park (hot dogs).
    Was there ever a restaurant more fun than this?

  • Mario’s Italian Lemonade, 1953–present, Little Italy (Italian lemonade).
    Nothing says summer in Chicago like this stand.

  • Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef, 1938–present, Little Italy, (Italian beef).
    It’s a close edge over Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park and Mr. Beef on Orleans, but this stand-up stand’s longevity, Little Italy ambiance, great fries and proximity to Mario’s make it the best — and how can Chicago’s best Italian beef stand not be one of its greatest restaurants?

  • Lao Sze Chuan, 1998–present, Chinatown (Chinese).
    Chef Xiao Jun “Tony” Hu’s restaurant really popularized Szechuan cooking in Chicago.

  • David Burke’s Primehouse, 2006–present, River North (steakhouse).
    Find me a better steak in Chicagoland, and I’ll … eat it.

* Pollack listed The Berghoff as “1898–present,” but as anyone who waited in line in the cold for a last meal there knows, that restaurant officially closed in 2006. Carlyn Berghoff’s replacement is no longer a German restaurant and the “natty” unionized waiters departed with her arrival. Carlyn B., by the way, grew up in Michigan, had her formative food experiences in the family’s Italian restaurant there, and worked strictly in catering until she bought The Berghoff’s assets from her parents. (It’s an odd choice for Pollack, considering that for many years, Chicago magazine didn’t find it worth even including in their restaurant listings. Interestingly, John Drury, in his 1931 guide to Chicago restaurants also dismissed the place in “More Gastronomical Locations,” rather than giving it a listing of its own.)

** Pollack didn’t include the recently closed Wheeling Don Roth’s, but its food was, by all accounts, every bit as good as the original’s and the spinning salad was identical.