Hometown: Yorktown, VA
Occupation: Owner and Operator, Chicago Food Planet Food Tours; President, Food Tour Pros
Years lived in Chicago: 12
Accolades: Top-rated Food Tour and Walking Tour in Chicago, TripAdvisor.com
“Best Chicago Taste” Award, Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (2010)
Named one of the “Best Chicago Tours,” Lonely Planet (2009-present)
What do you love best about Chicago’s food scene?
The Chicago food scene continues to evolve and change, but always ensuring the old and new restaurants that work – and work well – stick around. The recent strive toward farm-to-table given the unlimited amount of resources within the Midwest has ensured higher quality of ingredients and flavors, and an influx of talented chefs eager to leave their mark. Chicago enjoys savory (think deep-dish) and sweet (insert Mindy Segal), but we’re somewhere in a middle ground now with our recent obsessions with locally crafted beer, coffee and even doughnuts. Chicago is truly the avant-garde capital of the United States, and we are proud of that and never afraid to try something new and curious.
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor to Chicago should try.
Yusho: In the up-and-coming neighborhood of Logan Square, this Japanese street-style food restaurant serves an amazing twice-fried chicken that has no equal in Chicago.
Triple Crown: For the crowds that enjoy dim sum, this Chinatown favorite is the go-to for authentic Canton-style small plates and Chinese classics.
The Spice House: In historic, savory Old Town area, this spice merchant is arguably the greatest of its kind anywhere in the world.
Lou Malnati’s: No Chicago visit is complete without the most iconic name that locals simply call, “Lou’s.” Nobody does deep dish pizza better!
HotChocolate: James Beard “Best Pastry Chef” winner Mindy Segal serves up both savory and sweet dishes in the artists’ colony of Bucktown.
Describe your perfect “dining out” day in Chicago.
A perfect “dining out” day would start with breakfast at renowned Bongo Room; they serve a variety of breakfast foods with a modern twist, leading to savory, sweet and blended recipes. I enjoy Mediterranean food, so no lunch is complete without dipping into the salad bar at Sultan’s Market for a vegan and vegetarian-friendly menu to boot. Being partial to Eastern foods (including Indian, southeast Asian and Japanese), I’d finish the day at Yusho for their delicious ramen dishes.
What food places do you love to visit over and over again?
I’m a big fan of the Chicago-style hot dog and my go-to spot is George’s Hot Dogs – remember, no ketchup in Chicago! I also enjoy cooking at home, so I always stock up on specialty oils and vinegars at Old Town Oil. But I have a huge sweet tooth, so I spend a lot of time at The Fudge Pot (excellent butter toffee) and Vosges Haut-Chocolat (Mo’s Bacon Bar – enough said) to get my fix.
What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out in?
I have a home in Logan Square, which in recent years has seen an influx of food innovators, incubators and chefs seeking lower rents, but with sophisticated residents. The neighborhood is close to the CTA “L” train lines, which connect with O’Hare Airport and downtown, so in terms of logistics, it’s a great area to live. Logan Square has some of my favorite bars and restaurants, including Owen & Engine, Longman & Eagle, Webster’s Wine Bar and Masada.
What kinds of food do you particularly enjoy eating?
I try to eat light and healthy, which sometimes in Chicago can seem mutually exclusive between the beers, dogs, pizza, chocolate and popcorn that we’re known for. I tend to visit restaurants that serve tapas-style/small plates to take advantage of more tastes, but encouraging sharing among friends and family. To achieve this, I recommend places like avec, The Publican, Taxim and Fat Rice.
What’s one dish you tried in Chicago that blew you away and left you wishing you invented it yourself?
The first time I tried deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s, I knew that Chicago would become my adopted city. As is often the case, simplicity reigns supreme with delicious foods, and the “Texas-sized” pizza, naturally invented by a Texan, uses crushed tomatoes, lean sausage, mozzarella cheese slices, and a flaky, buttery dough to accomplish a flavor profile like no other.
What are your favorite budget, mid-range, and fine-dining restaurants?
My favorite budget would be Sultan’s Market. They have a fresh, delicious salad bar, as well as authentic Middle Eastern fare including baba ganoush, lentil soup, hummus and falafel, with prices that haven’t changed in 20 years. For mid-range, my personal favorite locations include Trenchermen for their unique food and wine pairings; Frontera for the best Mexican food this side of the border; and Blackbird for an elegant and decadent evening at a modern staple in Chicago. For high-end, Chicago is blessed with a myriad of celebrity chefs and restaurants, and my favorites include Alinea for an experience like no other in the world; Next for an evolving “theme”-based menu; and L2O for outstanding seafood dishes and service in Lincoln Park. (Editor’s note: Since publication of this interview, Trencherman is now called Trench, and L2O is now closed.)
Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Chicago’s airports or hotels you would recommend?
A Chicago staple is our popcorn; the first place that caramel and butter popcorn were served together in the same bag. At various airport and hotel kiosks, you can find the uber-famous Garrett’s Popcorn for a tasty treat to enjoy while visiting Chicago, or to take back home with you as a gift item.
What is your guilty pleasure and where in Chicago do you go to get it?
Without a doubt, my guilty pleasure is chocolate and sweets. Fortunately for Chicagoans, we have the best in the business when it comes to desserts, pastries and chocolates. In fact, Chicago consumes and produces the most chocolate of any city in North America. My favorite spots include HotChocolate, iCream and The Fudge Pot. (Since publication of this interview, iCream has closed.)
Are there any foods or drinks native to Chicago that you particularly like?
Chicago has been creating craft beers before they were even cool. A lot of visitors will see the Goose Island brand, specifically the “312” wheat ale beer, and have no idea what those numbers stand for. As a local, we know to pronounce it as “three-one-two,” never calling it “three-twelve.” 312 is the area code for the downtown area where Goose Island was created, and this beer is paying homage to where it all began. It’s also common to find brands in markets including Milk & Honey (excellent granolas), Smoke Daddy’s (homemade BBQ sauces) and Vosges (chocolates).
Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Chicago?
Visitors to Chicago must visit any of our neighborhoods because that’s where locals live, eat and play. Most visitors stay within close proximity to the downtown/Magnificent Mile areas, but that’s not where we live or spend time at. Getting off the beaten path into communities – because Chicago is at its purest form a city of neighborhoods, including Gold Coast, Old Town, Logan Square, Lincoln Park, South Loop, Humboldt Park and Wicker Park – will highlight what makes Chicago a top tourist destination.
Shane Kost’s Shortlist:
Yusho, 2853 N. Kedzie Avenue (Avondale); Japanese, lunch Sunday only, dinner Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday.
Triple Crown, 2217 S. Wentworth Avenue (Chinatown); Chinese, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
The Spice House, 1512 N. Wells Street (Old Town); spice shop, open daily.
Lou Malnati’s, 805 S. State Street (South Loop); Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 439 N. Wells Street (River North); lunch and dinner daily.
Third location: 1120 N. State Street (Gold Coast); lunch and dinner daily.
Mindy’s HotChocolate, 1747 N. Damen Avenue (Wicker Park); American, pastries and desserts, breakfast Tuesday-Friday, lunch Wednesday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday, closed Monday.
The Bongo Room, 1470 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Wicker Park); seasonal American, breakfast daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Second location: 5022 N. Clark Street (Andersonville); breakfast daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Third location: 1152 S. Wabash Avenue (South Loop); breakfast daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Sultan’s Market, 2057 W. North Avenue (Wicker Park); Middle Eastern, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 2521 N. Clark Street (Lincoln Park); lunch and dinner daily.
George’s Hot Dogs, 1876 N. Damen Avenue (Bucktown); hot dogs, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.
Old Town Oil, 1520 N. Wells Street (Old Town); specialty olive oils and balsamic vinegars, open daily.
The Fudge Pot, 1532 N. Wells Street (Old Town); candy store, open daily.
Vosges Haut-Chocolat, 520 N. Michigan Avenue (River North); chocolatier, open daily.
Second location: 951 W. Armitage Avenue (Lincoln Park); open daily.
Other locations: Terminals 1 and 3 at O’Hare International Airport; open daily.
Owen & Engine, 2700 N. Western Avenue (Logan Square); British, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Longman & Eagle, 2657 N. Kedzie Avenue (Logan Square); regional American, brunch daily, bar snacks and dinner Monday-Friday.
Webster’s Wine Bar, 2601 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Logan Square); European-style wine bar, dinner only daily.
Masada, 2206 N. California Avenue (Logan Square); Middle Eastern, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
avec, 615 W. Randolph Street (River West); Mediterranean, dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); American, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Taxim, 1558 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Wicker Park); Greek, dinner only daily.
Fat Rice, 2957 W. Diversey Avenue (Logan Square); Macanese, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Friday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Trench, 2039 W. North Avenue (Wicker Park); American, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark Street (River North); Mexican, lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.
Blackbird, 619 W. Randolph Street (River West); Midwestern/American, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.
Alinea, 1723 N. Halsted Street (Lincoln Park); molecular gastronomy, dinner only Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday (tickets must be purchased in advance).
Next, 953 W. Fulton Market (West Loop); cuisine varies (theme menus change every few months), dinner only Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday (tickets must be purchased in advance).
Garrett Popcorn Shops, multiple locations in downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport; specialty popcorn, most locations open daily.
iCream, 1537 N. Milwaukee Avenue (Wicker Park); frozen desserts, open daily.
Goose Island Brewpub, 1800 N. Clybourn Avenue (Lincoln Park); brewery and pub, lunch and dinner daily, brewery tours and tastings Saturday-Sunday.
Milk & Honey, 1920 W. Division Street (Wicker Park); café, breakfast and lunch daily.
Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division Street (Wicker Park); BBQ, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
About the Chef: As the owner of a popular walking food tour company in Chicago, Shane Kost has a wealth of knowledge about the best places to eat in his adopted hometown. (In other words, he’s just the kind of guy you want to know.) But as fun as his tours are, Kost wanted to make sure his participants experienced more than just a literal taste of the city.
Chicago Food Planet’s walking tours provide historical, cultural and architectural information in neighborhoods that can often be overlooked by tourists: Chinatown to the south, Bucktown and Wicker Park to the west, Lincoln Park to the north and Gold Coast and Old Town to the east. And Kost believes they provide the foundation guests need to feel confident to return to these pockets of Chicago and explore on their own.