No one would ever accuse Grant Achatz of being lazy. The Michigan-born, Chicago-based chef eagerly climbed the ranks during his career working under acclaimed chefs like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria. He eventually made a splash in the early 2000s while leading the kitchen at Trio in Evanston, just outside of Chicago. Along with patron-turned-investor Nick Kokonas, Achatz opened Alinea in 2005. It didn’t take long for Alinea to earn three Michelin stars and placement on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Since then, Achatz and Kokonas opened the ever-changing Next restaurant in the now super-hot Fulton Market District, and taken drinks to the next level with adjacent cocktail lab The Aviary, which also has a hidden invite-only subterranean man cave-like bar called the Office.
In 2016, the team expanded its footprint in that neighborhood with the more casual and boisterous Roister while also giving Alinea a reported $1 million top-to-bottom overhaul. The following year, they opened The Aviary/Office in New York’s Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Achatz, who admittedly doesn’t like to give up control of his kitchens and therefore spends a lot of time working and not dining out often, does still make time to go out to eat with his longtime girlfriend, Briseis Guthrie, or friends. He tends to lean casual rather than fancy, hitting places where he can grab a bowl of ramen, a great burger, Chinese dumplings or pizza. Here are a few of Achatz’s favorite Chicago spots.
No one would ever expect one of Chicago’s best and newest pizza joints to open in a small storefront on a side street across from a car dealership, but when Bebu hit the scene in early 2017 with its own style of thin crust ‘za, people quickly flocked. Combine high-end ingredients with a well-curated wine list and you have a winning combination. “I think it’s primarily the cheese-to-crust ratio,” Achatz says. “I can’t even describe the best one there. They’re all badass. When we go there, they throw down.”
One of Achatz’s favorite restaurants doesn’t come from some underground Japanese ramen master, rather Lettuce Entertain You, one of the country’s largest restaurant groups. The team spent considerable time in Japan doing research and came up with Ramen-san, featuring authentic, spicy and delicious ramen. “There’s awesome ramen places in the city, but this is our go to,” says Achatz, who loves the traditional tonkatsu broth with spice-rubbed and oven-roasted Berkshire pork belly and soft boiled farm egg. “We go before work and it’s quick. And it’s emulsified pork broth and noodles – what more do you want?”
Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits
When you crave hearty, wholesome food you can’t do much better than Bang Bang. It’s best known for its rotating selection of rustic pies filled with seasonal fruits, custards or puddings, and its range of biscuits filled with everything from ginger sage sausage to avocado, pickled Fresno chilies, queso fresco and mole powder. But those in the know get the chicken pot pie with a leaf lard pastry crust. “When we have a day off, we order a pot pie,” Achatz says. “It’s delicious, the crust is super flaky, it’s creamy, salty and delicious.”
GT Fish & Oyster
When we first talked to Achatz, we asked for his favorite low-brow restaurants, yet he couldn’t not talk about GT Fish & Oyster. The River North spot from Michelin-starred chef Giuseppe Tentori takes its seafood seriously, which is why Achatz goes there for the clam chowder. It gets served in a small glass jar with housemade oyster crackers, Neuske’s bacon and a drizzle of hot sauce. “I know it’s cliché, but their chowder is out of this world,” he says. “It’s rich and clammy and delicious.”
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Another far-from-low-brow spot, the Loyalist – the gastropub beneath its upstairs two-Michelin-starred sibling, Smyth – has a burger that people can’t get enough of, including Achatz. He does also love the burger at nearby Au Cheval, but the Loyalist burger has his attention. “It’s just a great burger,” Achatz raves. “It’s cooked and seasoned well, and the texture is awesome – the right amount of chew vs. moist.”
Qing Xiang Yuan
Just blocks from where you can take the water taxi from the Loop to Chinatown sits a quaint spot churning out delicious pockets of pinched dough that people travel far to enjoy. QXY, as it’s often called, makes about three dozen different types of dumplings like beef and onion; leek, egg and shrimp; pork and pickled Chinese cabbage; and mackerel and leek. But there’s one Achatz won’t leave without: “Their lamb and coriander dumplings are … awesome.”
Yes, it’s a chain, but when it comes to doing healthy, plant-focused food, Sweetgreen, a fast-casual spot, does it really well. “Bri and I try to eat healthy and mostly vegetarian when we get to choose our meals,” Achatz admits. At Sweetgreen, he really likes the hummus tahina salad with romaine and kale, local feta cheese, herb falafel, tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, za’atar breadcrumbs, and, of course, Sweetgreen’s homemade hummus and cucumber tahini yogurt dressing
Chicago will never buck its reputation for being a deep-dish pizza town, but Spacca Napoli, the leader of the new wave of true Neapolitan pizza spots in Chicago, helps change that idea – and it’s one of Achatz’s go-to places for the burrata, baby octopus and, of course, the pizza. “The pizza is delicate, the crust is light and the toppings are minimal,” he says. “The space is great. We eat outside.”