Downtown Chicago has no shortage of eating options. From a food hall where some of the hottest vendors have set up shop, to breakfast on the Sky Deck observatory tower to a candy bar where dreams come true, custard filled donuts and fantastic popcorn, you can eat to your heart's content!
Revival Food Hall, 125 S Clark St, Chicago
If you've only got a short time in Chicago but want to taste some of the best food the city has to offer head to Revival Food Hall. Here a collective of permanent and rotating vendors have gathered to offer diners everything from the city's best Texan barbecue, tacos, ramen, sweets, Nashville hot chicken and more. It's a popular place so if you want to avoid the crowds, visit before 11:30am before the lunch rush hits. And you may need a bit of time to contemplate where to order lunch from.
With just 16 vendors you would think choosing would be easy. No such luck. The problem is a quality one so I have no choice but to try a bit of everything. My first stop is to the Budlong for Nashville Hot Chicken. The story goes that a wife was so angry at her cheating husband that when he came home after a night out womanising she added so much chilli powder to his friend chicken hoping to teach him a lesson. Instead he loved it and Nashville Hot Chicken was born. The most popular item is the hot chicken sandwich.
Nashville Hot Chicken
I seize my chance to try Nashville Hot Chicken as Budlong won't always be here as they occupy a rotating space. There are four levels of spice and I go for the Hot rather than the Very Hot. The skin on the enormous fillet is crispy and spicy while the meat is juicy and moist. There are fat cut pickles and coleslaw too to balance the spicy chicken. Delicious.
Next I hear over to Smoque BBQ. Now I love Texan barbecue and Smoque gets raves so I'm eager to see whether it measures up to what I've had in Texas. I order a plate of sliced brisket with a side of candied jalapenos and two sauces (spicy Memphis and Carolina). The brisket is divine. I don't even need cutlery (I use hands, Texan style) and actually you don't even need the sauce. Just a slice of candied jalapeno with every bite and you're in brisket heaven.
My next stop is TriBecca's Cubano for a Cuban sandwich as well as a hot pineapple donut. The owners of TriBecca's Cubano also owned Honey Butter Chicken, another favourite place of mine. The Cuban sandwich is layers of Mojo slow roasted pork, cured ham, Wisconsin Swiss cheese, Chipotle mayo, house-made pickles and mustard butter on an olive oil panino. It's pretty damn delicious especially as it's served toasty warm.
What's a meal without dessert? James Beard award winning pastry Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate Bakery serves much more than hot chocolates. The best selling bites are the cookies and donuts. The hot fudge thumbprint cookie was rated as Chicago's best cookie and is said to be a hot chocolate in a cookie form. You can also pair it with one of her hot chocolates or a salted caramel donut or a stoner cookie (pretzel and m&m). They're pretty good although I think I prefer more spices or aromatics in my baked goods.
Dylans' Candy Store, 445 N Michigan Ave (Magnificent Mile), Chicago
The smell in the air at Dylan's Candy store is sweet. It's literally like being an unsupervised kid in a candy store. Dylan's Candy store was started by Dylan Lauren (who also happens to be the daughter of designer Ralph Lauren). It really has to be seen to be believed.
The first stop for many is the scoop your own bags-half a pound or 250g is $7.99USD. Staff are as sweet as the candy and one tells me to follow him where he will show me the best item-the "OMG". These are nuts and cereal mixed with dark, milk and chocolate. "But it's no use me telling you about it, you've got to try one," he says reaching a gloved hand in and passing me one. Involuntarily I say "Oh my god!" as the crunch hits me and then it becomes apparent why they're called OMGs. He then gives me a piece of chocolate popcorn to try and it's also delicious each individual still crunchy kernel coated in chocolate.
And for peanut butter addicts there's no shortage of peanut butter goodies. There's peanut butter cookie dough bites, peanut butter crunch balls. I also pop in some Sriracha chocolate almonds for good measure as well as chocolate coated cashews.
From there you can buy candy themed merchandise, clothing or head upstairs to more "lifestyle" products aka jewellery and the fudge bar. You can try the fudge before you buy-I bought some peanut butter and jelly fudge because it was less sweet than others (I know fudge is meant to be sweet). And before I know it I'm buying some Dylan's Gold square bars of Chocolate Molten cake with 72% dark chocolate and a Caramel Fig bar with 52% milk chocolate. If you want to sit down there's an ice creamery where you can get shakes and other sit down meals.
Stan's Donuts, 535 N Michigan Ave (Magnificent Mile), Chicago
Stan Berman was originally from Los Angeles and that is where he first opened up Stan's Donuts. But when Chicago based Rich Labriola, president of the Labriola Baking Company saw him on tv and saw his passion for his business he approached him and a partnership was born.
Stan's is known for their bismarks, aka filled donuts or Berliners. The two best sellers are the Biscoff Bismark and the Nutella bismark. Donuts range from basics at $1.95USD each to the bismarks at $3.75. And sinking your teeth into these and hitting a pocket of filling is a truly pleasurable experience. The Biscoff gets my vote as I love that aromatic, spicy filling.
Garrett Popcorn, 625 North Michigan Avenue (Magnificent Mile), Chicago
A few doors down from Dylan's and Stan's is Garrett Popcorn. Now I'm going to warn you about this famous Chicago based brand. It's addictive. As in I've never reacted to a food like this before. There are several types of popcorn (plain, buttery aka vegan, caramel crisp, pecan caramel crisp, cashew caramel crisp and cheesecorn).
But the best combination is the Garrett or Chicago mix which is a 50/50 mix of cheese corn and caramel crisp. Prefer more cheese or more caramel? Just tell the friendly staff who will mix it up to your taste. They start with the cheese corn on the bottom and the caramel corn on top as it is heavier and they shake the bag and before you know it, you're eating the whole bag and don't even care what else is happening. Or maybe that was just me. You were warned, there is nothing on earth like Garrett popcorn ;)
Breakfast at the Sky Deck, Willis Tower, 233 S Wacker Dr, Chicago
For a different view of Chicago, Willis or the former Sears Tower offers breakfast with a view. Breakfast needs to be pre-booked but for the only time you'll have the place pretty much to yourself (there's a maximum of 7 tables booked). Then you'll have your chance to step out onto the retractable ledges and take that selfie lying down with the city below you. It's really more about the view than the food but the breakfast itself consists of fruit salad, pastries and scrambled eggs, sausage and potatoes.
Don't want to get up early? There is also Pie in The Sky where you can have a three course dinner catered by Giordano's Pizza where you can eat deep dish to your heart's content.
NQN visited Chicago as a guest of Choose Chicago but all opinions remain her own.