Chow Down in Chi-Town

American Libraries' Annual Conference dining guide.

June 9, 2009

ALA sure picked a great place for its headquarters when it moved here in 1909. Sure, the winters are terrible, and the sticky heat of a Chicago summer is enough to tax anyone’s patience, but when it comes to restaurants, Chicago has the best in the country. Think of a cuisine, any cuisine, and you can find it here; and whether you want to spend a few bucks or drop a C-note, this is your kind of town. If you didn’t have that Annual Conference to attend; you could easily spend all week eating!

There are no good restaurants very close to McCormick Place, so if you’re looking to dash somewhere for a fast lunch while at the convention center you’re pretty much out of luck. But a wealth of choices awaits you once you get back to your hotel. I’ve arranged the listings according to where you might be staying. After the street address I’ve given the nearest major intersection, which can be helpful if you’re on foot or dealing with a cabbie. Chicago is laid out on a grid system, making navigation easy! Click over to Hopstop for quick directions.

As a general rule, no matter what the price range, casual attire when dining out is perfectly acceptable. But smoking is not: Chicago is now a smoke-free city. That applies to outdoor seating as well.

Price ratings in each listing reflect the average price for a main dish, plus drink or appetizer or dessert, before tip. $: $15 or under. $$: around $20. $$$: around $30. $$$$: $30 and above


Headquarters Hotel

Hilton Chicago; Printer’s Row and South Loop neighborhoods.

Amarit Thai Restaurant
This spacious eatery serves up straightforward Thai noodle dishes that are inexpensive and filling. Service is brisk, and somehow no matter how packed it is, Amarit retains its serene atmosphere. Everything on the menu is delicious, but the crab rangoon is especially good, as are the bubble tea drinks.
$$. L, D daily. 600 S. Dearborn St. (Dearborn/Harrison). 312-939-1179.

Artist’s Cafe
Don’t go to Artist’s Cafe for the food, which is the standard diner-variety burgers, salads, and sandwiches. Go for one of the most spectacular views in Chicago. Sitting at the sidewalk cafe, across the street from Grant Park and with a clear vista up and down Michigan Avenue, is the closest this city gets to Paris. Located in the historic Fine Arts Building.
$$. B, L, D daily. 412 S. Michigan Ave. (Michigan/Congress). 312-939-7855.

A former speakeasy with exposed-brick walls and rough-hewn interior, Blackie’s boasts surprisingly good food. Burgers and chicken sandwiches are generously portioned, and steaks are quite juicy. It’s no-frills but pleasant nonetheless. Sidewalk seating lets you catch a breeze while you eat.
$$. B Fri.–Sun., L daily, D Mon.–Sat. 755 S. Clark St. (Clark/Harrison). 312-786-1161.

Bongo Room
Creative, hearty twists on brunch start your day on solid footing at this intimate eatery. White chocolate pancakes, BLT eggs Benedict, and the breakfast burrito are all as filling as you’d imagine. For lunch (they’re open till 2:30), the smoked chicken and  apple club sandwich with bacon is equal parts healthy and hedonistic. Very crowded on the weekends but less so during the week.
$$. B, L daily. 1152 S. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/Roosevelt). 312-291-0100.

Eleven City Diner
Waits are common at this popular nosh spot a few doors down from Columbia College. But it’s worth it. This deli does it right. You name it: pastrami, lox, matzoh ball soup, and velvety-rich egg creams. For breakfast the omelets and stuffed french toast are solid. Portions are huge.
$$. B, L, D daily. 1112 S. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/11th). 312-212-1112.

Epic Burger
At this fast food eatery you can have the best of both worlds: The juicy burgers and fresh-cut fries with sea salt are delicious, and Epic Burger uses vegetarian-fed beef, buns from local bakeries, and biodegradable utensils. Chicken sandwiches, portobello sandwiches, and a selection of smoothies are also on the menu, and the vanilla malts are fantastic.
$. L, D daily. 517 S. State St. (State/Harrison). 312-913-1373.

The Exchequer Restaurant and Pub
If you want the full Chicago sports bar experience (“Da Bears”) look no further than the Exchequer. The walls are bedecked with athletic memorabilia and old movie posters. Luckily, the place has a lot more than just attitude: Dinner-sized salads, fish and chips, and “Roger Ebert–approved” pizza are menu highlights. Expect a boisterous, good-time atmosphere with plenty of TVs tuned to various games.
$$. L, D daily. 226 S. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/Adams). 312-939-5633.

Hackney’s Printers’ Row
Best known for its astonishing variety of hamburgers, Hackney’s is a popular neighborhood hangout boasting an impressive selection of beers on tap. There are plenty of salads and vegetarian options also (like feta in rigatoni). For dessert, try the baked-to-order chocolate chip cookie or red velvet cake.
$$. L, D daily. 733 S. Dearborn St. (Dearborn/Polk). 312-461-1116.

Miller’s Pub
In operation since 1935, this Chicago institution has apparently been visited by every major celebrity; just check out all the signed photos on the walls. The atmosphere is clubby and congenial. If you’re a carnivore, try the prime rib, Canadian baby back ribs, or steak. But the menu is enormous and has a little bit of everything, including a great Greek salad. The kitchen is open till 2 a.m., or midnight on Sundays.
$$. L, D daily. 134 S. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/Adams). 312-263-4988.

The Parthenon Restaurant
Opa! Yes, this Greek spot does flaming cheese (it claims to have invented the dish). You can’t go wrong with the gyros or the roasted lamb, and their moussaka is delightful. The dining room is huge, loud, and a lot of fun. You can order individually or from a family-style menu.
$$. L, D daily. 314 S. Halsted St. (Halsted/Jackson). 312-726-2407.

Plymouth Restaurant and Bar
This diner, just around the corner from the Harold Washington Library, serves up generous portions of straightforward fare. Burgers, melts, salads, and round-the-clock breakfast are all inexpensively priced. The rooftop garden, when you can get a seat, has a wonderful view of the South Loop.
$. B, L, D daily. 327 S. Plymouth Ct. (Plymouth/Van Buren). 312-362-1212.

Triple Crown Seafood Chinese Restaurant
Head due west from McCormick Place (catch a #21 bus at Indiana/Cermak) and in 15 minutes you’ll find yourself in Chinatown. The neighborhood is loaded with great restaurants, but the absurdly low-priced Triple Crown is my pick. If you like calamari you’ll love the salt and pepper baby cuttlefish. Prefer something land-based? The crunchy orange chicken is yummy. Cabs can be scarce in Chinatown, so you might want to hop on the El after your meal.
$. L, D daily. 211 W. 22nd Pl. (22nd/Wentworth). 312-791-0788.

This lively cantina has killer margaritas. There’s a wide variety of Mexican seafood dishes to choose from, although I prefer the barbacoa enchiladas or the chili relleno. Zapatista is the perfect place for a group (but calling ahead is highly recommended). If you have room, try the chocolate tamale or vanilla-cinnamon sopapillas.
$$$. L, D daily. 1307 S. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/13th). 312-435-1307.


Co-Headquarters Hotels

Sheridan Chicago Hotel and Towers, Hyatt Regency Chicago; River North, Streeterville, and Loop neighborhoods.

Bella Luna Cafe
A few blocks away from ALA Headquarters you’ll find this charming Italian cafe. The meatball sandwich is tops and any of the pasta dishes are safe bets (you might want to go for a half order since portions are generous). Bella Luna also has great thin-crust pizza if that’s more your speed. Shaded outdoor seating is available.
$$. L Mon.–Sat., D daily. 731 N. Dearborn St. (Dearborn/Superior). 312-751-2552.

Boston Blackie’s
The long, dark room conjures up a bygone hard-bitten Chicago, when newspaper reporters like Ben Hecht might saunter in for a bite and a beer. Except for all the TVs everywhere. No matter: the food is no-nonsense Chicago bar grub, meaning burgers, char-dogs and pork chops. The salads (including the Garbage) also hold their own. The chili hits the spot, especially paired with a cold beer.
$. L, D daily. 164 E. Grand Ave. (Grand/St. Clair). 312-938-8700.

Emerald Loop Bar and Grill
A spacious pub with plenty of Irish knickknacks and lots of dark wood everywhere. Traditional dishes like shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and fish and chips (with an unusual, spicy batter) are all dependable; and the steak sandwich is quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. Avoid the mediocre cocktails and stick with the Smithwick’s on tap.
$$. B Sat.–Sun., L, D daily. 216 N. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/Lake). 312-263-0200.

Emilio’s Tapas Sol y Nieve
If you’re new to small-plate dining, Emilio’s is a great place to give it a try. Go with a group of friends, order a variety of dishes, and share. Some suggestions: grilled chicken with chorizo, patatas bravas (spicy potatoes), dates wrapped in bacon, and seafood paella. Your total bill will depend on how many things you try. And whether you’re tempted into getting a pitcher (or two) of sangria.
$$. D daily. 215 E. Ohio St. (Ohio/St. Clair). 312-467-7177.

Eppy’s Deli
This small, basement-level deli excels. Straightforward sandwiches (like hot pastrami and the Reuben) are served on fresh-baked bagels or onion rolls with a large helping of sass, and they have the biggest selection of mustard I’ve ever encountered. Great cole slaw too. And then there’s the “temperature soup”: Whatever the temperature is outside is what your soup will cost.
$. B, L, D daily. 224 E. Ontario St. (Ontario/St. Clair). 312-943-7977.

Fox and Obel
A gourmet grocery store featuring a counter-service cafe, Fox and Obel offers creative and tasty sandwiches and soup. The turkey sandwich with cranberries and brie, and the pulled pork panini are a bit pricey but well worth the extra bucks for lunch. And in the evening, the daily $6.99 Brown Box dinner can’t be beat. Delectable baked goods too. There’s beer, wine, and a coffee bar to wet your whistle.
$$. B, L, D daily. 401 E. Illinois St. (Illinois/McClurg). 312-410-7301.

Niu Japanese Fusion Lounge
Big portions and a varied menu make this sleek spot a great option if you love sushi. Everything tastes exceedingly fresh. There are also curries, fried rice, and noodle dishes to choose from. A big cocktail menu makes it a pleasant place for a tipple. 
$$. L, D daily. 332 E. Illinois St. (Illinois/McClurg). 312-527-2888.

Reagle Beagle
Shag carpeting on the walls and framed pictures of everyone from Scott Baio to Mr. T. are clues you’re somewhere special. Named after a hangout on Three’s Company, this lounge is a temple to pop culture.  Try the Brady Bunch Punch and chow down on flights of mini-sandwiches like the chicken pesto panini. Don’t expect a gourmet dinner, but it’s a kitschy good time.
$$. L, D daily. 160 E. Grand Ave. (Grand/Michigan). 312-755-9645.

Sayat Nova Armenian Restaurant
Just off Michigan Avenue, this secluded spot has a wide variety of Mediterranean cuisine at affordable prices. The labneh yogurt dip, served with warmed pitas, makes a refreshing appetizer. Order the Armenian Combo for a great sampler of specialties, including mouth-watering kufta (spiced lamb meatballs) and boereg (puff pastry with melted cheese and onion). Late evenings a DJ often spins Bollywood and other world music.
$$. L Mon.–Sat., D daily. 157 E. Ohio St. (Ohio/Michigan). 312-644-9159.

South Water Kitchen
Prices on the dining room menu are a bit steep, but if you’re looking for a place to have a quiet glass of wine and a nibble at the bar you could do a lot worse. Try the chicken Cobb salad or the mushroom flatbread. Desserts like the bittersweet chocolate cake are superb, and there’s also a satisfying breakfast/brunch menu. The space is mellow and comfortable.
$$ B, L, D daily. 225 N. Wabash Ave. (Wabash/Lake). 312-236-9300.

Star of Siam
Diners sit cross-legged on the floor and are served up ample portions of fresh-tasting noodles, curries, and other Asian dishes. Service is fast if you’re in a hurry, or you can linger awhile with a glass of Thai iced tea. Bonus: It’s half a block from the Jazz Record Mart, the world’s largest jazz and blues record store.
$. L, D daily. 11 E. Illinois St. (Illinois/State). 312-670-0100.

A short cab ride to the West Loop will take you south of the Mason-Dixon line. Wishbone specializes in southern cooking, including fantastic blackened catfish, hoppin’ john, and especially buttermilk biscuits. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips, but…. The sweet iced tea and pecan pie are also outstanding.
$$. B, L daily, D Tues.–Sat. 1001 W. Washington Blvd. (Washington/Morgan). 312-850-2663.


Worth a Trek

The following neighborhood restaurants require a bit of a journey, but the food is so good that you won’t be disappointed. Each is a 20–30 minute cab ride from the Loop.

The Art of Pizza
In Chicago, the fastest way to start an argument is to discuss who has the best deep-dish pizza. But for me it’s no contest. Art of Pizza, a counter-service establishment in a nondescript strip mall, wins hands down. A buttery crust that melts in your mouth, generous toppings, and herb-laden sauce make it an essential pilgrimage if you’re serious about pizza. Order a large pan-style; you will want leftovers for lunch the next day.
$. L, D daily. 3033 N. Ashland Ave. (Ashland/Barry). 773-327-5600.

The Chicago Diner
This GLBT-friendly establishment in the Lakeview neighborhood is the go-to restaurant for vegetarians and vegans. The breadth of the menu would be impressive even if it was just an ordinary diner: The enchiladas, “meat” loaf, chili, and shepherd’s pie are all outstanding. And for dessert, don’t pass up the vegan German chocolate cake.
$$. Brunch, L, D daily. 3411 N. Halsted St. (Halsted/Roscoe). 773-935-6696.

Las Piñatas
The walls are turquoise circa 1971 and flocks of piñatas hang from the ceiling. That may not sound promising, but trust me. Las Piñatas serves scrumptious homestyle Mexican food as well as some of the best darn margaritas in Chicago. I personally vouch for the steak taco salad, enchiladas Norteñas, and chimichangas. The chips and salsa are heavenly.
$$. L, D daily. 1552 N. Wells St. (Wells/North). 312-664-8277.



If you’re willing to open your wallet a little wider, I never hesitate to recommend these three establishments. You and your companions will be impressed.

The Gage
Featuring beautiful dark-wood paneling and restored pressed-tin ceilings, this upscale gastropub is directly across the street from Millennium Park and offers some of the best neo-traditional food in Chicago. A small, but eclectic, menu includes everything from braised rabbit salad to roasted saddle of elk, but even dishes like the fish and chips and Amish chicken are superb. Among the side dishes, do not pass up the brie and bacon brussels sprouts. Make sure to put in your reservation at least a day in advance; you’ll avoid a long wait and get a better seat too.
$$$. L, D daily; Brunch Sat.–Sun. 24 S. Michigan Ave. (Michigan/Monroe). 312-372-4243.

Trader Vic’s
Stylishly decked out with tikis, hand-carved wooden columns, and other tropical adornments, Trader Vic’s is an unforgettable South Seas experience. The dining room serves up Polynesian-inspired fare like wasabi-encrusted filet mignon and a selection of housemade curries. Choose from one of 75+ tropical cocktails (the original Mai Tai and Tiki Puka Puka are two of my favorites) and pair it with a pupu platter or one of the generously-portioned sushi offerings.
$$$$. D daily. 1030 N. State St. (State/Oak). 312-642-6500.

The Violet Hour
Imagine stepping into a speakeasy (there is no sign out front) that’s actually a curated, living archive of the cocktail. That’s Violet Hour, one of the best places to get a drink in the United States. A revolving menu features both classic and creative libations using freshly-squeezed juices and a dozen kinds of ice. The liquid alchemy is complemented by a selection of decadent nibbles. The deviled eggs and peanut butter and bacon sandwiches are worth every last calorie. Like an exclusive reading room, hushed and intimate, seating is limited. Give the host your cell number upon arrival and you’ll receive a call when there’s a table ready.
$$$$. D daily. 1520 N. Damen Ave. (Damen/Pierce). 773-252-1500.

Rob Christopher writes about film and culture for the popular blog Chicagoist, has contributed restaurant reviews to the Chicago Reader, and his book 100 Spinning Plates was published in 2003. He is an administrative assistant for ALA Publishing.


Highlights on Roads Less Taken

by Peggy Sullivan

Among Chicago’s many museums and art collections are some unique smaller venues beyond the Museum Campus that may appeal to visitors who think they’ve seen it all. Selected idiosyncratically, these suggested sites are, for the most part, near downtown hotels, McCormick Place, and other locations where ALA conference-goers will be anyway. The Museum of Science and Industry, while among the “biggies,” is included because of a special exhibit that will be there during the conference.

Clarke House Museum
“Chicago’s oldest house”—built in 1836 but moved twice—features historic period rooms and heirloom gardens. It is open to the public only through tours offered by the nearby Glessner House Museum (1800 S. Prairie Ave.) at noon and 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $10, or $15 for tours of both houses, and Wednesday is free. 1827 S. Indiana Ave., 312-326-1480 for tours.

Cycle Smithy
This working bike shop features several dozen bicycles, dating back over the past 60 years or so, displayed on the ceiling. Free admission; open daily. 2468½ N. Clark St., 773-281-0444.

Loyola University Museum of Art
July exhibits: “Rodin: in His Own Words,” featuring 36 bronzes, books, and letters; and “Paris-Chicago: The Photography of Jean-Christophe Ballot” in a gallery just steps away from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower. Admission is $6, Tuesday free; closed Monday. 820 North Michigan Ave., 312-915-7600.

McCormick Tribune Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum
The southwest tower of the Michigan Avenue Bridge across the Chicago River houses this three-year-old museum. Visitors can view the 89-year-old gears built to raise and lower the bridge plus chronologically arranged reproductions of documents and photos that tell the story of the city and its river. Admission is $3; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. 376 N. Michigan Ave., 312-977-0227.

Museum of Science and Industry
“Harry Potter: The Exhibition” has its world premiere run while Annual is in town. More than 200 costumes and props from the films will be on display in settings inspired by the film sites. Open daily; general admission is $13 and the Harry Potter exhibit is an additional $13. 57th St. and S. Lake Shore Dr., 773-684-1414.

Newberry Library
“Make Big Plans: Daniel Burnham’s Vision of an American Metropolis” will be on exhibit at the Newberry and at many libraries in and around Chicago as part of the centennial celebration of Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. Free admission; closed Sunday. 60 W. Walton St., 312-943-9090.

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
In July, one of the five galleries will feature “The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt.” New technologies in CT scanning have revealed more details about this encased mummy. $7 suggested donation; closed Monday. 1155 E. 58th St., 773-702-9514.

Regenstein Library, University of Chicago
Special Collections is featuring a knockout exhibit, “On Equal Terms: Educating Women at the University of Chicago,” based on materials in the University’s archives. Accompanied by a handsome catalog, this exhibit is sure to elicit nostalgia for one’s own college days and appreciation for the development of education for women at Chicago from its beginnings. Free admission; closed Sunday, and this exhibit closes July 14. 1100 E. 57th St. 773-702-8705.

Riverwalk Gateway Murals
Ellen Lanyon’s 336-foot-long creation in painted tiles is the city’s largest piece of public art, telling the history of the city and the river from 1673 to 2000. Free admission. South Bank of the Chicago River at Lake Shore Drive and Wacker Drive. 

Spertus Museum
“A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund” memorializes Rosenwald’s support of African-American artists with more than 60 paintings and visual presentations of two dancers. Open Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday; admission is $7 but free Wednesday morning and Thursday after 2 p.m. 610 S. Michigan Ave., 312-322-1700.


On the Line for the First Amendment

A July 1995 interview with Judith Krug, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, who died April 11. The towering champion of free speech and vigorous opponent of censorship shared her views with American Libraries in a conversation with Senior Editor Beverly Goldberg that was published in September 1995.

Arne Duncan on Libraries in Economic Recovery

The U.S. Secretary of Education shares his views on volunteerism, No Child Left Behind, and reading readiness.