The most unique restaurant concepts in Chicago can be difficult to pin down, given the city is home to more than 7,000 restaurants. So if you’re looking for inspiration for your own restaurant concept, you’ll find no shortage of ideas within Windy City walls.
But no one wants to scour a list of 7,000. So we’ve narrowed down the list to the 25 most unique restaurant concepts in Chicago, so you can either refine your own restaurant startup idea or modify your current concept to remain on trend.
Diners who have managed to snag a rare reservation at El Ideas should prepare for anything – if they can even find the restaurant. Directions to the restaurant read, “Turn down the dead-end street; EL ideas is the only business whose windows look out onto the street. There is no signage.” The next line should read, “Good luck.”
While the restaurant’s elusive location may communicate exclusivity, El Ideas is actually on a quest to redefine fine dining by breaking down barriers. There are no walls between diners and chefs, which provides guests with an intimate line to the culinary team. And since guests are encouraged to interact with chefs, the service itself is as much a performance as it is a dinner party.
Frontier masters the art of nose-to-tail. Whole animal dinners include a feast of pig, lamb, wild boar, goat, alligator, salmon, or antelope, split between you and ten of your best friends.
As if eating an entire animal isn’t novel enough, Frontier has also found creative ways to turn carnage into events. Highlights include a Wild Boar Game of Thrones viewing party, their Super Bowl Sunday whole pig deal, and a Fat Tuesday’s shrimp boil.
Alinea’s website is clear: “Alinea is not a restaurant.” On top of delicious food, Alinea promises a performance, a spectacle of modern cuisine, and “a serving of emotions” over a modest three- to five-hour dinner of 18 to 22 courses. And ever since Head Chef Grant Achatz was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, the restaurant’s notoriety has exploded.
Alinea plays with the presentation (driftwood topped with seaweed), sensory experience (an edible helium balloon made of green apple taffy), and sound. The food is only half the experience at Alinea – you’ll leave the place transformed.
Established in 1948, Superdawg is the quintessential 40s drive-in. Diners order through a microphone and enjoy their meals in the “vehicle dining area,” where a car hop delivers their dinner. For many of us, it’s a concept we’ve only seen in movies.
Albeit for minor menu updates and some refurbishments, the Superdawg Drive-In has hardly changed since it opened. The staff still bid customer’s adieu with their trademark goodbye, “From the bottom of our pure beef hearts… THANKS FOR STOPPING.”
Dinner at the Silver Palm is served in an old railroad dining car. Built in 1947, the old Budd dining car has since been parked permanently and turned into a fully functional restaurant. No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain called their 3-piggy sandwich, “The greatest sandwich in America.”
Touted as one of the best bars in Chicago, The Drifter is as close to a true speakeasy as diners can get. Down dusty steps and into a dimly lit basement, the Drifter transports drinkers to a different time. The cocktail menu is served on tarot cards. The drinks change every day, as does the entertainment, which can include dancers and a variety of performance artists.
There’s bocce ball, and then there’s boozy bocce ball. There’s curling, and then there’s boozy curling. There’s a bar, and then there’s Kaiser Tiger. The Kaiser Tiger has made a name for itself through its patio beer garden, which converts to a curling rink in the winter and a bocce ball area in the summer.
Dinner, drinks, and some (friendly?) competition – the Chicago Athletic Association’s Game Room offers just that. Game Room offers a more refined take on concession food classics, and diners can access the billiards tables, a bocce court, cards, checkers and chess tables, foosball, shuffleboard, and more. The Game Room is the place in Chicago to host group gatherings and birthday parties.
Dancing drag queens accompanied by a delicious dinner: the Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club engages all the senses. Kit Kat describes its decor as “South Beach meets Hollywood.” The restaurant gets so busy, there’s a two-hour table limit on Saturday nights.
The only indication Au Cheval is a diner is the bologna sandwich and root beer float on the menu. The space itself, however, looks more like Hemingway’s favorite watering hole. With dim lighting and dark leather booths, it’s a place well suited for cocktails called Horse’s Neck and Bee’s Knees. It’s fair to say Au Cheval attracts diners because of its unique ability to transport them back to the 20s and 30s. For diners who feel like they were born in the wrong era à la Midnight in Paris, they’ll find their way back here.
Unlike most of the restaurants on this list, the Girl & the Goat does not rely on its environment or theme for their allure.
The Girl & The Goat offers a unique twist on tapas, with their calamari bruschetta, duck tongues, wood oven roasted pig face, and more. The Girl & the Goat is proof that restaurateurs can take a unique approach to an ordinary concept and be incredibly successful.
At the Rehydrate Water Bar and Cafe, diners can experience the Russian banya, a plunge pool, a Turkish massage, and … Mexican cuisine.
The Russian banya is a traditional sweat lodge experience; guests are thwacked with oak leaf brooms to stimulate blood flow and then sit in a sweltering sauna. Spa-goers then urn into diners, where guests can choose to indulge in everything from pierogies to chicken fajitas.
SafeHouse Chicago turns diners into spies.
The “espionage experience” begins before diners reach their table. To begin an evening at SafeHouse Chicago, customers must locate a top-secret entrance, provide a password, and pass a clearance test. The restaurant is known to host a spy scavenger hunt, and it’s rumored that diners can also spy on neighboring tables. And be careful upon exiting: watch out your don’t trip the lasers.
Not your average bakery, the Bakery at Fat Rice injects sweet and savory pastries with Asian-inspired flare. With pig-shaped pastries, purple sweet potato ube, butternut squash empanadas, the novelty at the Bakery is the combination of sweet and salty flavors. The Ceylon Snickerdoodle, for example, is a salted egg yolk cookie: a yolk ball garbed in snickerdoodle dough, then rolled in sugar and black tea.
Inside a former horse stable within the 125-year-old historical Thalia Hall is the saloon-inspired Tack Room. Live piano, bourbon-centric drinks, animal skulls, candles, and Western-themed decor work together to create an ambiance fit for a cowboy … or a hipster. The Tack Room should remind restaurateurs that when you have a theme, everything from the decor to the menu must serve to enforce it.
Carnivale embodies the upside-down world of the carnivalesque every day of the week. Carnivale has seen acrobats fall from its vaulted ceilings and feather-crowned Samba dancers dance between tables. Carnivale uses their unique concept to engage guests beyond the dinner experience.
The only place you travel when dining at Gulliver’s Pizza is through time. Legend has it that one of the original owners was obsessed with antiques, and he filled every nook and cranny of the restaurant with pieces dating back to the 1800s. Victorian candelabras hang from the rafters. Busts gaze down from pedestals as diners indulge their pizza cravings.
While Gulliver’s Pizza’s decor is what makes the restaurant so unique, its pizza is what the place is known for. The restaurant has now expanded to accommodate 350 seats and infinitely more antiques. Just goes to show adding a quirk to your concept, no matter how bizarre, can also add to your notoriety.
When the hot dog joint opened in 1983, the staff minded their Ps and Qs. But on one fateful night a few years in, one of the owners yelled out, “Hey, asshole!” to a customer. Gradually, (and perhaps, a tad sadistically) the staff kept hurling insults. And customers kept begging for more. Today it’s the insults (with a smile) that have made the Weiner’s Circle famous.
Next seems to be unique in the same way all molecular-gastronomy restaurants are unique: the restaurant creates dishes with obscure ingredients, strange presentation, innovative cooking methods, and crazy flavor combinations.
But Next pushes boundaries of experimental cuisine by rotating themes. For example, they’ve run a service they called “The Hunt,” which served game-centered dishes on logs. “Childhood” featured nostalgic flavors such lunchbox pudding and notes from mom and dad.
A true pre-prohibition speakeasy, Violet Hour’s lack of signage is its hallmark. (And according to some reviews, the long line.)
Apart from its ambiance, the restaurant is known for its bar menu. Some of their award-winning beverages include Stewed, Screwed and Tattooed, Red Sky at Night, and I Don’t Care If You Care. A note to restaurateurs: a menu item’s name can go a long way.
Roka Akor is Japanese cuisine at its finest; in this case that means they cook meat over an open fire, and that’s awesome. A twelve-foot traditional Japanese robata grill is filled with mesquite charcoal heats up to 1,900 degrees – of deliciousness. The restaurant’s name means both hearth and burning fire, which the restaurant lives up to in spades. Guests are encouraged to interact with chefs, which only adds to the venue’s homey feel.
The Revival Food Hall is a marketplace unlike any other. Under one roof it’s home to the best of Chicago’s culinary scene. At 24,000 square feet in the center of the city’s business district, Revival Food Hall hosts 15 fast-casual stalls representing Chicago’s favorite restaurants and up-and-coming concepts.
The goal of the food hall is two-fold: to expose the business community to cuisine from outlying neighborhoods, and to give new restaurateurs a place to gain exposure.
If restaurants are both an art and a science, The Albert’s decor explores both. A nod to Albert Einstein, the bar features a fully functional copper and glass distillery. A chandelier inspired of test tubes hangs from the ceiling, and rows of science fiction novels line bookshelves as decor. The menu is original enough for geeks to get a kick out of the science-inspired drinks list, while foodies can enjoy contemporary cuisine.
Three Dots and a Dash scopes the globe for the best tiki cocktails. Many of the cocktails on the drinks menu give credit back to the “legendary tiki bartenders of the past.” Some carry with them a warning: a skull denotes “drinks of impressive strength” and warn imbibers to “sip delicately”.
While, yes, Three Dots may have a small food menu, most diners are more attracted to the hundreds of rums available on their the rum index. A lesson for new restaurateurs: do one thing and do it really, really well.
Elizabeth Restaurant takes “lost and forgotten foods and methods of preservation” and applies them to seasonal foods.
A farm-to-table restaurant, Elizabeth’s takes the concept of foraging to the next level. They once served a soft-cooked egg, rye, and fromage blanc plated in a quail’s nest.