Many vegetarians have consigned themselves to a second-rate restaurant fate: they’ll just have to get whatever lonely veggie option is available on the menu. Similarly, many omnivores think vegetarian food can be okay, but can never quite taste as good as something with meat. The good news is that Chicago, in fact, is filled with amazing meatless food. Of course there’s the famous Chicago Diner, but there’s so much more: hidden gems and unexpected spots that do simply wondrous things with vegetables. So, whether you’re vegetarian yourself or are just a fan of really good food, these are some of my absolute favorites:
Vegan. Lakeview, off Belmont brown line stop. $$
If you want plant-based comfort food in Chicago, many would direct you toward Chicago Diner—it’s famous, has been around forever, has a bar, and the food is pretty good. Kitchen 17, on the surface, is the complete opposite of the Diner. The space is about the size of a studio apartment, with only sixteen seats squeezed into a cozy formation. However, once you taste one of their sandwiches, it’s clear that there is no contest. The intimacy makes it feel like you're in owner Don Clement’s kitchen, eating his latest culinary obsession, tasting every bite infused with the kind of care that makes comfort food feel good to eat. Standbys like vegan pizza (served deep dish on Wednesdays) and burgers are augmented with a wide variety of amazing sandwiches, sides, and main dishes. I have visited nearly every vegetarian and vegan spot in this city. There are very few that feel and taste as much like comfort and friendship as Kitchen 17.
Pescatarian, vegan friendly. Wicker Park, off Damen blue line stop. $$
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, also serving craft cocktails and beer, Handlebar has something for everyone. I haven’t hit anything I didn’t enjoy here, but no matter what else you get, I beg you: try the nachos. These, to me, are the platonic idea of the food. Piles of chips layered with flavorful, tangy queso (made vegan upon request), vegan chorizo, black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo ... it’s nearly enough to be a meal for two. Service can be somewhat aloof, and the room can be pretty dark at night, but the food will make you want to return.
Vegan. Evanston/Rogers Park, off Howard red line stop. $
Offering by far the healthiest American food in Chicago, Kale Burger sells their signature all-vegetable, no-nonsense patty atop a house-made, whole wheat bun, topped with various and sundry delicious toppings (of course, all made in-house from scratch as local as possible). You won’t find any seitan or faux cheese here: just honest-to-goodness vegetables that taste really fantastic. Plus, it’s relatively affordable: a $7 burger paired with a $2 side brings in a filling, all-plant lunch under $10. That is, unless you’re like me and are tempted by the rotating roster of vegan cake ... in which case, I can’t blame you.
Vegetarian, vegan friendly. Noble Square, off Chicago blue line stop. $$$$
This is not an every-night sort of place, but if you’re trying to impress someone who loves upscale vegetarian food, this is the one-stop shop. The seasonally-changing menu is filled with creative takes on classics, as well as original dishes and exquisite treatments of humble vegetables. Expect the bill to be heavy, but also expect the flavors to bowl you over (no matter how odd the menu descriptions may sound).
Omnivore, vegetarian friendly, possibly vegan friendly. West Ridge, 93 > 155. $
I have been to nearly every spot in Chicago for a vegetarian or vegan to eat, in search of the best plate of food I can find. Funnily enough, that plate comes served on a cafeteria tray in a big room, usually at least halfway full of diners from every background imaginable. “One dal, veggie thali, and a chapati,” they say and set my order on the counter. The whole order costs me less than eight dollars, providing more than enough food for two people to stuff themselves silly. The veggie thali allows you to dip your toes into the best stuff they offer: a mixed veggie dish that somehow tastes juicy, channa masala that beats every lunch buffet out of the park, and intensely savory, cooked spinach. And then there's the dal, which is so good that we order a full portion just to explore its toasted cumin and curry leaf richness. The full portion of dal will set you back only two dollars. Add a 75-cent piece of naan or chapati, and you have one of the city's most enviable lunches around. And it’s open 24 hours a day. I have no choice but to call this my absolute favorite place in Chicago.
Chicago Diner. Classic Chicago vegetarian, but not quite as good at diner fare as places like Kitchen 17.
Soul Vegetarian. This South Side original serves up vegetarian and vegan comfort food. Most of the dishes are very good, but others are somewhat lacking. Still, it’s absolutely worth the trip.
GROUND CONTROL! A broad selection of Americanized, veganized foods that taste pretty good, but the music is very loud and the lights are very low, making for an odd atmosphere.
Bad Apple. Possibly the best American-style restaurant for vegetarian and omnivores to eat together in harmony, Bad Apple has some delicious veggie options among their eclectic burgers.