Chicago may be a working-class town, but it's also a place that fosters creativity and helps propel many a sous-chef into a kitchen of his or her own, says Graham Elliot, the chef behind a namesake restaurant (grahamelliot.com) and a judge on Fox's MasterChef.
"People are open to the idea of chefs as artists," says Elliot, who besides his three restaurants oversees the kitchens at Lollapalooza and hosts such functions as President Barack Obama's birthday dinner. "It's people saying, 'Hey, I'm going to open a restaurant that's based on foraging. Well, I'm going to do a small-plate Mediterranean thing. Well, I'm going to do a seafood shack.' That's how we opened the bistro [gebistro.com]. Let's do something totally different, like a side band project."
Here, Elliot shares five of his favourite neighbourhood-style hangouts that share this spirit.
"It's a supercool laid-back spot, where you can find creative cocktails and food that's better than any of the top-rated restaurants in Chicago. It's in Logan Square, an up-and-coming hipster area, akin to what Brooklyn's doing. Matthias Merges was my chef over at Charlie Trotter's for the three years I worked there. His restaurant is almost Asian-street-food inspired. Try the chicken wings with bonito salt, lime, Thai chili. It's a skewer, yakitori-style, that's been seasoned and grilled over the coals. Incredible flavour." 2853 N Kedzie Ave.; yusho-chicago.com
GT Fish and Oyster
"Giuseppe Tentori's been a great friend – actually a godfather of my kid. We keep it close and connected in Chicago. He's the chef of Boka and this is his fun seafood joint. He offers clam chowder served in a little Mason jar and oyster po' boy sliders. That's in River North. The bar is made out of surfboards and fishing sinkers hold the napkins. It's a cool place to hang out." 531 N Wells St.; gtoyster.com
"Little Goat is Stephanie Izard's homage to the diner. They've got a sandwich spot where they make breads and different breakfast items. I'm a fan of those classics. It's really whimsical. It's literally across the street from Graham Elliot Bistro. So they come in, we go in there." 820 W Randolph St.; littlegoatchicago.com
Glazed and Infused
"They're just a killer doughnut shop. We carry their doughnuts at Grahamwich. The jelly doughnut is glazed in peanut butter, toasted peanuts and filled with homemade jelly. It's just perfect. And then there's this bacon long john coated in a maple frosting with a big slab of crispy apple-wood smoked bacon." 813 W Fulton Market; goglazed.com
"Pierrot Gourmet is in the Peninsula hotel. That's right in the Magnificent Mile. I used to be the chef of Avenues and I actually met my wife at the hotel. She was the manager of Pierrot Gourmet so I'd always be down there. And they just have great, simple food like roasted beet and goat cheese salad and tart flambé and soups and macaroons. It's really like a little French bistro or cafe." 108 E. Superior St.; peninsula.com
This interview has been edited and condensed.