Best Classic American restaurants: Best comfort food in Chicago
Whether you're looking for the best burgers, brunch spots or just some great comfort food, you'll find it at the city's best classic American restaurants.
Craving a delicious, mouth-watering burger? You'll find that at many of Chicago's best restaurants for classic American food (though many say Au Cheval makes the best). Whether they're serving breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, may of these American restaurants offer new takes on comfort food, and they're even winning awards for it.
Au Cheval You practically trip over all the perfectly executed, endlessly cravable food at Brendan Sodikoff’s “diner”: the exemplary matzo ball soup. The devastatingly delicious chopped chicken liver. The gloriously messy double-decker burgers. But there’s not a whole lot of lighter fare to start a meal here with. Likewise, there aren’t many dishes that won’t make you feel as if you’ve just eaten a pound of butter. So head to Au Cheval when it will serve you best: for a burger and a beer at the bar, for a plate of fried chicken after hitting the bars, or both. 800 W Randolph St (312-929-4580, aucheval.tumblr.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $17.
Birchwood Kitchen No matter what the weather’s like outside, it is always cheery at this café. Lunch sandwiches—wine-braised pot roast on a baguette, grilled goat cheese with curried cauliflower on sourdough—feature next-level flavor combinations. Burger nights, weekly specials and an outstanding weekend brunch are perfect excuses to drop in for every other meal, too. 2211 W North Ave (773-276-2100, birchwoodkitchen.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch, dinner (Tue–Fri) (closed Mon). Average sandwich: $8.
Bite Cafe In 2011, Bite—the café adjacent to the Empty Bottle—got an overhaul by owner Bruce Finkelman, who also partners in Longman & Eagle. From the breakfast “mashbrown” (a genius combination of mashed potatoes and hash browns) to the chicken on biscuit at lunch on through the nightly dinner specials, the food is nothing if not simple and satisfying. So if that’s what you’re into (and you don’t mind a generous BYOB policy), you’ll want to eat here again and again. 1039 N Western Ave (773-395-2483, bitecafechicago.com). Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $12.
Café Selmarie You might have stopped by this Lincoln Square bakery for a croissant to go and missed the dining room hidden in back. The first-come, first-served policy means you’ll have a half-hour wait for brunch, but a cup of coffee and slice of coffee cake will tide you over. For the main event, don’t miss the corned-beef hash: the smoky-salty beef and potatoes are flecked with herbs and topped with two perfectly poached eggs. Lunch and dinner during the week focus on comfort foods, including a yummy, grown-up mac and cheese with leeks. 4729 N Lincoln Ave (773-989-5595, cafeselmarie.com). Mon 11am–3pm; Tue–Thu 8am–9pm; Fri, Sat 8am–10pm; Sun 9am–9pm. Average main course: $13.
Club 81 Too If you’re a small-town kid at heart, head far south to Hegewisch. This place is packed with local families on Wednesdays and Fridays for the house specialties: fried chicken and walleye pike. Besides the simple, thin-crusted, greaseless chicken and the hefty portions of crispy fish, you’ll get pickled beets, cottage cheese, fries, slaw and raw green onion—all for around ten bucks. “Down-home” doesn’t do the scene justice; the brother-and-sister team that runs the place hands out Hot Wheels to kids who finish their meal. 13157 S Ave M (773-646-4292, www.club81too.com). Lunch (Mon–Fri), dinner (Wed, Fri). Bar 11am–2am daily. Average main course: $11.
Gemini Bistro Chef Jason Paskewitz is giving the people what they want at this neighborhood bistro: comforting, familiar food, mostly impeccably prepared. Steak frites rise above standard status thanks to the incredibly tender hanger cut and the pool of marrow-rich bordelaise. The house burger is a juicy, messy thing tucked into a hearty pretzel bun. And the crème brûlée is so exemplary—from the satisfying crack of its sugar top to the velvety vanilla custard beneath—it reminds us that the tried-and-true can actually stand out. 2075 N Lincoln Ave (773-525-2522, geminibistrochicago.com). Dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $19.
Ina’s Judging from the long lines on weekends, people seem willing to wait forever for the Scrapple (a crispy, slightly spicy polenta-like dish flanked by eggs and chorizo), Heavenly Hots (sour-cream pancakes with fruit compote) and decadent chicken 'N' waffles on this breakfast menu. Take note that while Ina's usually isn't open for dinner, she'll occasionally open the doors to the evening masses who throng inside to partake of special menus like lobster dinners and Jewish high holiday fare. 1235 W Randolph St (312-226-8227, breakfastqueen.com). Breakfast, lunch (Mon–Sat). Average main course: $9.
Milk & Honey This sunny joint helps kick-start the day with baked goods and specialty coffees, but it’s the basic sandwiches gussied up with impeccable ingredients that get us in the afternoon. Our favorites: the BLT made with extra-thick bacon and the juicy, rosemary-and-thyme–encrusted roast beef. The weekend crowd can be a bitch, so be prepared to either fight your way to the front of the line or just head home with a bag of the café’s signature granola. 1920 W Division St (773-395-9434, milkandhoneycafe.com). Mon–Fri 7am–4pm; Sat 8am–5pm; Sun 8am–4pm. Average sandwich: $7.50.
RL A restaurant in a preppy clothing store on the corner of Michigan and Chicago Avenues—could anything be more precious? The short answer is “no.” It’s plenty entertaining watching fur-clad women whisking in for two bites of Waldorf salad, but there are a few other things worth experiencing here. The Dover sole, for instance, is prepared tableside with so much pomp you’ll think you’re eating with the Queen of England. Us? We’ll take one of the expertly shaken sidecars and the burger, which, surprisingly, is pretty damn good. 115 E Chicago Ave (312-475-1100, rlrestaurant.polo.com). Brunch (Sun), lunch, dinner. Average main course: $29.
Sauce and Bread Kitchen Crumb Chicago (a bread bakery) and Co-op Sauce (makers of pickles, salsas and hot sauces) collaborate on this café, which serves simple foods like house-brined turkey sandwiches and house-baked crumpets with pimento-cheddar spread. 6338 N Clark St (773-942-6384, coopsauce.com). Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Thu–Sun), dinner (Thu, Fri). Average main course: $7.
Southport Grocery and Café Go ahead and believe the hype about the cupcake here: It’s moist, it’s substantial but not heavy, and the thick, sugary icing hides deep flavors of chocolate and vanilla. If you’re going to pick up a dozen, you may as well stick around for breakfast or lunch. A bright start is the sweet and savory French toast with rosemary-roasted ham. Later, try the albacore tuna melt with local butterkase cheese and green olive aioli. Eat up, but save room for one of those cupcakes. 3552 N Southport Ave (773-665-0100, southportgrocery.com). Mon–Fri 7am–4pm; Sat 8am–5pm; Sun 8am–4pm. Average main course: $9.
Tortoise Club Restaurateur Keene Addington sold Flat Top Grill to open Tortoise Club, and it’s clear from the plush leather chairs and wood-paneled walls that he sunk a lot of money into it. But, of course, money is sort of the point of this place, which aims to provide a private club atmosphere to the general public. To that end, chef Gray McNally pumps out a lot of classics—lobster Thermidor, glazed pork chops, roast chicken—all of which are well-executed and dripping in butter. 350 N State St (312-755-1700, tortoiseclub.com). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $30.