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A melting pot of nationalities from Polish to Puerto-Rican, Chicago’s Wicker Park and Bucktown area has experienced a golden age of development of late. While staying true to its eclectic roots, gentrification has transformed the Illinois neighborhood into a creative hub, with a wave of new bars, boutiques and galleries encouraging an influx of enthusiastic patrons. It also boasts many renowned restaurants from Chicago’s enviable dining scene. Here are some of our top picks.
Famous in Wicker Park and Bucktown for its tacos, Big Star is the highly rated protégée of James Beard award winning chef, Paul Kahan. In fact, exceptional tacos belie an initially somewhat unimpressive appearance, a cross between a drive-thru (you can order from the pick-up window), a dive bar, garage and a hipster cafe. But don’t let that put you off. The tacos are objectively excellent, stuffed full of the freshest, meatiest, most aromatic ingredients. Try the taco de pescado (tilapia fillet, chipotle mayo, cabbage, red onion, lime) or the favorite taco de panza (braised pork belly, tomato guajillo sauce, cheese coriander) to start. They don’t take reservations so you may have to wait a while as it is small inside, but there is an inviting outdoor patio for the warmer months. You can always enjoy margaritas while you wait.
Big Star, 1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-235-4039
Leading the way in Wicker Park and Bucktown’s recent revival for more than 20 years is the casual and cozy, yet chic and smart Jane’s. You will find the restaurant in an ancient converted house (the beams and brickwork are still visible) that grants it a tangible vintage vibe, while its walls are even covered in the artwork of local artists, ensuring its status as a hipster magnet (but don’t hold that against it; the atmosphere is welcoming and friendly). Jane’s is famed for its imaginative takes on classic American dishes, alongside daring forays into alternative cuisines and diverse dishes. Simple, fresh and often local ingredients make this a winner for healthy eating and the environmentally minded. The brunches, burgers and steak sandwiches are heaven, and there is plenty for vegetarians too.
Jane’s, 1655 W Cortland St, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-862-5263
What is a petite and apparently unassuming establishment from the outside, hidden away among the bustling throng of stylish bars and boutiques which dominate the area, is in reality one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Wicker Park and Bucktown. The adorably quaint Mana Food Bar specializes in small, flavorful and healthy dishes, ideal for sharing and, as meat-lovers are so pleasantly surprised to discover, exceptionally filling. Choose from a diverse menu of veggie and vegan options from all over the world including hot and cold dishes such as sesame noodles and peanut sauce, sweet potato pancakes with chutney or the famous Mana slider burger, in simple, stylish surroundings, and thankfully at a decent price. There is even a covered outdoor patio when the weather is fine. Translated ‘the life force in nature,’ Mana is certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Mana Food Bar, 1742 West Division Street, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-342-1742
Discreetly hidden behind an unappealing exterior lies Schwa, GQ’S ‘most revolutionary restaurant in America’ and haunt of Michelin starred chef Michael Carlson. Don’t let an atmosphere resembling an upmarket, exclusive nightclub with booming music and a stylish clientele make you forget the main sell of this place: the exceptional quality of its food. Creative and innovative are words perhaps too often thrown around, but Schwa has certainly earned the right to be deemed such, with an emphasis on the art of molecular gastronomy. A sample of its ever-changing menu features interesting combinations like tagliatelle with huckleberries, black truffle and veal heart or tiger fish with carrot, cardamom and marshmallow. It has to be tasted to be believed, and trust us, it’s worth it.
Schwa Restaurant, 1466 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-252-1466
This taco establishment is gorgeously tiny and character filled with an undeniably scruffy-chic hipster vibe. Run by husband and wife Tick and Ashley Ortiz, Antique Taco brings a touch of innovation to your run of the mill meat and tortilla combo, with plenty of deliciously creative tacos to choose from. Interesting fillings and new flavors are the order of the day here, all prepared with the freshest ingredients in the wonderfully cozy, old-world atmosphere decorated all over with antique items and vintage decor. Two of our favorites from the admittedly select menu include the garlic shrimp taco with purple potato, black bean edamame and crispy Brussels, and the grilled rib-eye steak taco with salsa, queso enchilada and coriander. The Antique Taco Salad is also probably one of the most exciting salads you have ever tried.
Antique Taco, 1360 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-687-8697
Opened by food loving brothers Mike and Patrick Sheerin, Trenchermen is the perfect spot to try out some out of the box ingredients and unexpected combinations that define its menu. The brothers’ experimental cooking style has produced a no-holds-barred menu which gives you free range to explore the wackiest of cooking styles; a move that is sure to pay off after tasting it. Clean, succinct, American-style food with rich punches of intense flavor, served in a setting both artsy and industrial, packed full of antiques, lights, an overdose of white tiles and two bars in an old restored subterranean bathhouse. Some of the more unexpected options include preserved rhubarb and aged duck breast, pork belly and plums with bubble gum or black olive-coated trout.
Trenchermen, 2039 W North Ave, Chicago, IL, USA, +1 773-661-1540