Never has there been a better time to flee your Loop office building and get lunch.
You never had to convince me. I mean, would you rather nibble on some sad salad in the grim yellow light of your business's windowless break room, or walk among the sterling skyscrapers in one of the most architecturally interesting places on earth? I've lived in Chicago for 10 years, and I still can't make it a block without gazing up in awe like some slack-jawed tourist.
Used to be, people had the rightful claim that the lunch options in the Loop never measured up with the scenery. That's not true anymore. From stellar barbecue to the finest deep dish in the city, I know of no other neighborhood where such a large number of high quality lunch spots exist in such a condensed space. If you work in the area, consider yourself lucky.
We should thank Revival Food Hall, which has been the epicenter for lunch in the Loop since opening. The glimmering food hall launched a delicious arms race in 2016 when it attracted a horde of hip local eateries, instead of relying on the usual fast-food suspects. Ever since, the number of national burger joints in the Loop has decreased, while intriguing quick-service options have multiplied.
This is true even though I excluded restaurants from nearby River North and West Loop, two of the finest restaurant neighborhoods in the country. But as far as I know, lunch break only lasts an hour, or even 30 minutes, and most don't enjoy hoofing it more than half a mile to scarf down a sandwich. For boundaries, I used the Chicago River to the north and west, Michigan Avenue to the east, and Congress Parkway to the south.
This is also no time for sit-down restaurants, where ordering requires a waiter or waitress. While fine for a business lunch, that's another list. All of these spots prize speed, making it easy to swing by and grab a bite on a busy business day.
Lunch in the Loop is always changing. Restaurants open and close with frightening frequency, and a promising new food hall (Wells St. Market) is waiting in the wings. But after spending a month eating at three to four spots a day, I have a pretty good grasp of the lunch choices right now. Click through the photo gallery at the top of this article for my 24 favorite spots for a quick lunch in the Loop.
1. Beatrix Market
Because of its excessive girth and long cooking time, deep dish pizza is not a lunchtime staple in the Loop. Let's face it, tackling most versions is a sit-down job. The great exception is the adorable individual-size deep dish pie at the new Beatrix Market by the DePaul Loop campus. Featuring a remarkably thin base, top quality cheese and a shocking lack of grease, this is also a contender for best deep dish in the city. 23 E. Jackson Blvd., 312-583-0598, beatrixrestaurants.com/beatrix-market/depaul-loop.
2. Gayle's Best Ever Grilled Cheese
Gayle's has been a fixture for years in Chicago farmers markets, where you could grab a crispy grilled cheese sandwich made with white sourdough from Bennison's Bakery in Evanston, Prairie Pure Butterkase cheese from Belvidere and butter from Nordic Creamery in Westby, Wis. These exceptional ingredients fuse to make one gooey, irresistible sandwich. I especially love the Southport ($8), which adds a sweet smoked onion marmalade to the classic grilled cheese. Located in the pedway, Block 37, Level B1, 108 N. State St., 312-285-2202, gaylessandwichshopchicago.com.
Danke is the hidden gem in the Revival Food Hall and in serious contention for title of best sandwich-maker in all of downtown. I'm especially obsessed with the secret sandwich ($9.95). It starts with a fantastic baguette, which Danke bakes every morning at Revival. The dark brown and crusty loaf would taste good with a simple swipe of butter, but it seems purposely suited for this sandwich. Bite through the crackly crust, and you'll hit a luscious, creamy bed of duck liver mousse, pork belly and Swiss cheese. And just when you think it's all too intensely rich, a healthy dose of nose-clearing mustard helps cut through it all. According to co-owner Matt Sussman, this arguably crazy dish was devised by a hungry server, who dreamed up the combination for his staff meal. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com.
4. Frontera Fresco
I didn't remember Frontera Fresco being this good. Years ago, it seemed satisfying, if a significant step down from other Rick Bayless quick-service concepts like Xoco and Tortas Frontera. But now this stall on the seventh floor of Macy's slings tortas with ultra crackly bread and vibrantly flavored salsas. That's especially true of the beefy pepito ($9.95), which comes packed with tender braised short ribs, earthy black beans and melted Jack cheese. Turns out Frontera Fresco's tortas are not a well-kept secret, as lines at lunch can get hilariously long, overshadowing all the other options in the food court by a significant margin. Macy’s Seven on State, 111 N. State St., 312-781-2955, rickbayless.com/restaurants/frontera-fresco
5. Union Squared
Just like deep dish, Detroit-style has a thick crust, lots of cheese and sauce on top, but that's where the similarities end. Instead of a dense base, the crust is open and airy, which makes it taste lighter than it appears. It also has a crunchier, golden-browned exterior that might help you swear allegiance to our Great Lakes neighbor. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com.
6. TriBecca's Cubano
Though TriBecca's Cubano is only a temporary stall at Revival (through June 29, to be exact), that's still plenty of time to check out this fantastic new concept by the folks behind Honey Butter Fried Chicken and the Sunday Dinner Club. Each pressed sandwich features a crackly bun stuffed with thin layers of tender mojo-roasted pork, salty cured ham, gooey Wisconsin Swiss cheese, crunchy pickles and a smoky chipotle mayo. Instead of a heavy smear of yellow mustard, the outside of the bun is coated with a mustard butter, which delicately imbues each bite with a haunting mustard aroma. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com.
7. Fontano's Subs
As the Loop becomes crowded with healthy eateries peddling kale and brown rice, there's something comforting about this stalwart continuing to sling oversize subs piled high with multiple kinds of meat and spicy giardiniera. Even in its new location on Michigan Avenue, you can score a Wise Guy ($6.75) with three kinds of cured Italian meats and an intensely salty slice of provolone. Oh, and watch out: The hot giardiniera attacks with force. 332 S. Michigan Ave., 312-663-3061, fontanosonmichigan.com.
After the success of Aloha Poke, the Loop became inundated with poke concepts, most of which are not worth mentioning. The best, by far, is this Los Angeles import, which stands out for its high-quality toppings and traditional ingredients, including ogo seaweed and Hawaiian salt. 79 E. Madison St., 312-868-0261, pokeworks.com.
9. Luke's Lobster City Hall
If you have a 20 dollar bill and want to blow it all on one sandwich, it doesn't get much better than a pristine lobster roll from Luke's. The plump and sweet lobster meat is served simply on a split roll, with only melted lemon butter, mayonnaise and the shop's secret seasoning. 134 N. LaSalle Drive, 312-982-2977, lukeslobster.com.
Next to Mediterranean, few concepts pop up as often as salad joints. You know, the kind with an array of different raw vegetables lined up for the taking. Sweetgreen stands out for its pristine produce, and for the careful way the place combines them. Instead of chucking everything in blindly, its composed offerings, like the guacamole greens ($10.75), showcase a very real understanding of salad balance. Multiple locations, sweetgreen.com.
11. Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine
Ducking into Pastoral feels a bit like entering some alternative universe where the Loop turns out to be a quaint Parisian neighborhood. How else to explain the baskets of fresh bread, the cheese case and the wall of wine? Plus, you can get a sandwich smartly assembled with top quality ingredients. My favorite is the blue pig and fig ($11), which combines salty serrano ham, funky blue cheese and a sweet fig preserve on a crackly baguette. 53 E. Lake St., 312-658-1250, pastoralartisan.com.
12. Toni Patisserie & Cafe
This polite refuge from the wild throngs of tourists near Millennium Park specializes in French cafe classics, like crepes, quiches and sandwiches. My favorite is Le Breton ($10.95), a sandwich that initially looks like nothing more than an anemic ham and cheese pairing. But the shop uses top-quality Parisian-style ham and creamy Gruyere cheese, plus a few strategically placed cornichons. It’s all held on a light and crackly baguette luxuriously smeared with salty butter. 65 E. Washington St., 312-726-2020, tonipatisserie.com.
13. Aloha Poke Co.
The original poke player of Chicago's downtown lunch scene is still going strong. While not as traditional as some, Aloha makes up for it with an infectious playfulness. That's especially true with the crunch bowl ($9.50), which includes a riot of crispy toppings to pair with the succulent raw fish. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com.
14. Naf Naf Grill
The Loop is stuffed to the breaking point with quick-service Mediterranean joints, the kind where you can get falafel or shawarma served with just enough vegetables to make you feel semi-good about lunch. Most are perfectly passable, if not altogether exciting. Naf Naf is the exception. The chicken shawarma is always juicy and intriguingly spiced, while the falafel balls stay crisp. Plus, the vegetable toppings are fresh, vibrantly colored and crunchy. Multiple locations, nafnafgrill.com.
15. Blackwood BBQ
I like the pulled pork at Blackwood BBQ, but when the brisket is on, it's some of the best in the city. That's especially true if you ask for slices from the fatty end. Then each morsel of smoke-scented meat tastes as juicy and satisfying as rib-eye steak. 307 W. Lake St., 312-621-9663, blackwoodbbq.com.
16. Smoque BBQ
It's hard to believe that one of Chicago's best barbecue joints has a Loop location, but that's the magic of the Revival Food Hall. Not only that, but the shop is cooking the meat on-site, which means the brisket ($9.45) is as tender and smoke-laden as at the original shop in Irving Park. The stall is not a secret, so be prepared for a line that snakes out into the middle of the food hall. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com
17. The Budlong Hot Chicken
This local chain of Nashville-style fried chicken almost always has a long line at Revival Food Hall, and it's easy to see why. The exterior of the chicken is crackly and genuinely spicy, while the interior stays juicy. Even the sides are top quality, including the intricately flavored collard greens. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com
18. Max's Take Out
Believe it or not, you can find a great Chicago-style hot dog in the Loop in 2018. Sure, most of the old-school hot dog joints have closed, and you're 20 times more likely to run into a Mediterranean concept serving falafel than a sausage served in a soft steamed bun, but all hope is not lost. Max's Take Out not only feels like stepping back in time to when a dill pickle counted as a serving of vegetables, but it also dishes out a flawless Chicago-style hot dog, complete with a snappy natural casing Vienna Beef hot dog. 20 E. Adams St., 312-553-0170, maxstakeoutchicago.com
19. U.B. Dogs
U.B. Dogs tackles the classic Chicago hot dog stand with some serious culinary chops. Everything is done the right way, from the precisely prepared Chicago-style hot dog to the fantastic fresh cut french fries. And the shop knows how to branch out, like with the Joey dog ($3.50), a hot dog topped with fries and drenched in a garlic-wasabi aioli and Tabasco sauce. 185 N. Franklin St., ubdogs.com
20. Dia De Los Tamales
I'm hit or miss with Latinicity, the large Latin street food concept on the third floor of Block 37. I think the Chaufa Wok, which serves a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese food, is interesting, and nothing is necessarily bad. But it is kind of strange that the best Mexican food in the building is four floors down in the basement. In the Pedway between the Blue and Red lines, you'll find Dia De Los Tamales serving up some very untraditional tamales, such as the slow-roasted Cuban pork tamale ($4). Block 37 Pedway, 108 N. State St., 312-255-7426, diadelostamales.com.
21. Antique Taco Chiquito
Most Mexican joints downtown specialize in burritos, with varying degrees of success. But if you want tacos, this stall in the Revival Food Hall is your best bet. The crispy fish tacos (two for $9.50) live up to their name, with an extra crackly tempura coating. It also helps that the tacos feature soft corn tortillas and great salsas. Revival Food Hall, 125 S. Clark St., 773-999-9411, revivalfoodhall.com.
22. The Roost Carolina Kitchen
There's barely enough room to turn around inside The Roost's Loop location, so forget finding a place to sit and eat. But this minuscule space serves the same extra crispy and dramatically seasoned fried chicken as The Roost's much larger outlets. That said, the menu has been pared down to just sandwiches and tenders. I'd suggest the former ($6), which you can get topped with crisp coleslaw and lots of pickles. 400 S. Financial Place, 312-285-2207, theroostcarolinakitchen.com.
23. Farmer's Fridge
I'll admit, it's still super weird to buy salad from a vending machine, even ones as handsome as these brightly lit ones. But after trying a host of other salad-slinging operations downtown, I came to realize how nicely done these jars of vegetables really are. The quality of the produce is impeccable and the toppings nicely chosen. Multiple locations, farmersfridge.com.
24. Shake Shack
The best quick-service burger in the Loop is this New York import, a fact that kind of pains me to say. But I need to give credit where it's due: The beef is exceptionally well-seasoned and seared until nearly black on the griddle, giving it an unparalleled crust. 12 S. Michigan Ave., 312-646-6005, shakeshack.com.
Read full article by Nick Kindelsperger for Chicago Tribune here