Tourist Trap Restaurants That Actually Live Up to the Hype
Summer is the height of tourist season here in Chicago, wherein out-of-towners descend on the city’s most popular — and over-crowded — destinations like Michigan Avenue, the Bean, the Riverwalk and Navy Pier. Naturally, considering how obnoxiously crowded these places tend to get, and their stigmatized lack of quality food options, locals tend to avoid them at all costs. Which is a shame, because these tourist magnets are actually filled with and surrounded by destination-worthy dining options that have plenty of appeal for Chicagoans, no matter how mobbed the sidewalks are. From Millennium Park the the 606, here are some of the most worthwhile restaurants that make the city’s tourist traps entirely worthwhile.
The Bean: Millennium Park recently surpassed Navy Pier to become the number one tourist destination in the state, thanks in large part to that photogenic Bean in the middle of it. The beautifully landscaped, art-filled park is also beloved by locals too, who regularly make it a spot to enjoy their lunch or take in a free concert or movie on the lawn throughout the summer. This might explain why the area has filled in recently with more legit dining destinations that go well beyond the tourist basics. The Gage has been a pioneer for the neighborhood since it opened a decade ago, becoming the first gastropub in the area and one of the first to set the trend for the city at large. Right next door, the same owners added their spin on Italian cuisine with Acanto, a sophisticated haven with seasonally inspired dishes, an incredible wine list and hifalutin cocktails. Other Millennium Park-adjacent hot spots include Cindy’s atop the Chicago Athletic Association hotel, Cherry Circle Room, Remington’s and Latinicity, the latter of which is a sprawling Latin-inspired food hall filled with bars, casual dining stalls and immersive decor.
The 606: Since its debut as a conversion of a former defunct train line into an elevated park system, the 606 trail that runs from Wicker Park through Bucktown and Humboldt Park has been a smash hit. So much so that on summer days and evenings, it tends to get as crowded as the traffic-laden streets below it. However, this is the rare example of a destination that is equally beloved both by locals and tourists alike, providing something to explore beyond downtown for out-of-towers looking to get out int othe city’s neighborhoods. Fortunately, the nearly three-mile trail runs right by multiple restaurants and bars well worth a stop-off. Be sure not to miss Presidio on Damne Avenue, a bar and restaurant with equally amazing cocktails and seasonal food. The menu rotates regularly, and the cocktails often incorporate a fun theme. The ambience is also chic, refined and relaxed, providing a breath of fresh air from the crowded streets and park nearby. Right next door is HotChocolate, which is an essential destination for dessert, and elsewhere along the park you’ll find Small Cheval off Milwaukee (burgers on the patio are a summer essential) and Ipsento, which operates an all-day cafe that serves coffee, lattes and donuts by day before shifting into a sophisticated wine and cocktail bar by night.
Navy Pier: While tourists have always been crazy about, the Pier has long been a bit of a headache to Chicagoans who avoid it like the plague, especially during the frenzied summer months. But all of that has been changing lately, as the pier has implemented a series of impressive upgrades, like a new theater lawn, outdoor movies, a new Ferris wheel and in-the-works upgrades on the eastern end of the pier, which will include the construction of a new hotel. The pier has also been seriously upgrading its food options as well. Visit Big City Chicken for a top-notch chicken sandwich with a side of green chili cheese fries and an orange float. Or you can opt for summery dessert at Original Rainbow Cone, the South Side ice cream shop that opened an outpost here. DMK Restaurant Group has also played an integral role in the pier’s revival, adding outposts of both Fish Bar and DMK Burger Bar, along with a new hot dog concept.
Michigan Avenue: One of the most iconic shopping areas in the nation, the Magnificent Mile is famed primarily for its high-end retail, while restaurants are often overlooked. Except of course for the constantly crowded Purple Pig, which routinely draws hordes of both locals and tourists for its revered, award-winning Mediterranean plates and wines. Popular staples include the salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette, Spanish octopus terrine, pork neck bone gravy with ricotta, and milk-braised pork shoulder with mashed potatoes. In other Mag Mile dining news, hit pause from your shopping spree to enjoy a meal a pizza-filled meal at Labriola Ristorante & Cafe or some seriously impressive cocktails at Baptiste & Bottle near the top of the Conrad Chicago hotel.
The Riverwalk: Tiny Lounge, a popular neighborhood fixture in North Center, has almost single-handedly upped the ante on the cocktail scene in downtown’s most touristy enclaves. The folks behind the longstanding bar also run a similarly named outpost on the perpetually crowded Riverwalk, which runs along the Chicago River from Lake Michigan all the way to Lake Street. Along with other Riverwalk staples like Island Party Hut, City Winery and O’Brien’s, the hottest attraction on the Riverwalk for drinkers is Tiny Hatt, which features craft cocktails and hearty plates like pulled pork nachos and roasted chicken sandwiches.