Three Days in Chicago: A Gluten-Free Guide

A sunny day at Chicago’s Bean, July 2017

As someone with celiac who also values having memorable dining experiences when she travels, finding good restaurants can be . . . difficult for me. I can vacillate between being in total awe of the options/care taken at one restaurant and completely frustrated by the ineptitude of another, often in the same day. It’s hard to find up-to-date information about gluten-free options in any given city, because the restaurant scene is constantly evolving. I can also kind of be a picky customer — I don’t want to just eat a slice of gluten-free bread that I could eat at home, and I don’t really want to just “fuel” myself for the day. I want creative, interesting options.

So, with the mission of putting some more up-to-date information out there for food-savvy folks who also happen to be gluten-free, I thought I’d do a run-down of all the places I ate at and enjoyed during a recent visit to Chicago.

Y’all, Chicago takes care of its gluten-free eaters. Not only did I find a wide variety of options across the city, but I was also incredibly impressed by the city’s waitstaff. When you have celiac, you need waiters who are both kind and knowledgeable. In Chicago, multiple waiters immediately asked if I had celiac or not, and then went of their way to make sure the kitchen avoided cross-contamination. Even aside from their gluten-helpfulness, the waiters in Chicago all seemed lovely and genuinely interested in ensuring I and my family had the best meal possible. We talked about this phenomenon to a friend who just moved to Chicago from Austin and he’s had the same experience — the food culture in Chicago is one of real friendliness, information, and care, no matter your diet.

There were so many spots we didn’t have time to get to during our trip, so I’ll list a few places I didn’t try but are on the list for next time. I’ve grouped the places I visited by neighborhood to help you easily navigate the city, but this is just a sampling of the neighborhoods I was able to visit in three days and not an exhaustive list. Also, I’m going to tell you every single thing I ate at these places — the more info you can have as a gluten-free person, the better. Looking for just the highlights? My top picks if you only have a day in the city are: Tweet for breakfast, Hopleaf for lunch, Cafe Ba-Ba-Ree-Ba! for dinner, and The Violet Hour for drinks.

Disclaimer: Before visiting any of these restaurants, please keep in mind that kitchen practices may have changed since I visited, and that I may have a different gluten sensitivity level than you do, so please make sure to confirm any concerns you have with the restaurant directly. Thanks!

DOWNTOWN

We spent the majority of our first two days in the Downtown area since we were seeing Hamilton (sorrynotsorry for the brag). I’ll be honest that you’re not necessarily going to get the most stellar dining experiences of your life in the Downtown area unless you’re willing to spend a bit extra, which unfortunately we were not able to do much of on this trip. That said, we still had several really enjoyable meals.

Revival Food Hall

Raspberrry Rosewater Gelato at Black Dog Gelato

Revival Food Hall is chaotic af during the lunch hour, but you’ll find multiple great options, no matter your diet. This dining hall concept space features 15-fast casual stalls from local-only restaurants. I opted for a salad at Farmer’s Fridge, which was fairly cost-effective for downtown prices. If you’re particularly strapped for time, you can use the Farmers’ Fridge vending machine — you can choose from a number of salad options stored in mason jars. It’s basically a hipster heaven. After Farmer’s Fridge, we got gelato at Black Dog Gelato, often ranked as the best gelato in Chicago. The servers here were also knowledgeable about celiac-safe options.

If I’d had a second lunch at Revival, I’d have liked to try the incredibly popular Aloha Poké stall. I’m not sure about the exact options available, but they had a sign at the front of their line explaining which sauces were gluten-free.

Acanto

Their menu is seasonal and also I don’t remember the exact name of the pasta dish I ate, but it was a take on a carbonara and it had bacon, so of course it was going to be delicious. I particularly liked that this Italian restaurant uses bucatini for their gluten-free pasta option; refreshing to have a not-penne pasta shape (the most common gluten-free pasta of choice in restaurants). If you get a salad here, I’d recommend their caprese. They use cherry tomatoes and cut the mozzarella into smaller pieces, allowing the flavors to develop and mingle much more naturally than the thick layers of cheese and tomato you’ll typically find in a caprese.

Avocado Toast at South Water Kitchen

South Water Kitchen

I…totally did not know that a kitchen could receive a certified gluten-free designation. Bad celiac-haver over here. This is a fantastic option if you’re particularly sensitive since they are well-trained in cross contamination practices. I did my millenial duty here and ordered the avocado toast for lunch.

Do-Rite Donuts

Prior to this, I hadn’t ever eaten a gluten-free doughnut (I’m not big on substitutes unless they’re stellar). Do-Rite makes one new gluten-free option every day. The chocolate doughnut I had was surprisingly fluffy and flavorful. It’s nothing like the Krispy-Kreme doughnut you remember, but it’s still pretty damn good.

LINCOLN PARK

We only spent an evening in this area, but it was one of my favorite parts of the city!

Paella at Cafe Ba-Ba-Ree-Ba!

Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!

It had been ages since I’d been to a good Spanish tapas place, and this one was incredible. In addition to having a dedicated gluten-free menu, the server was particularly knowledgeable and was kind enough to double check with the kitchen when I had questions. I highly recommend the sangria here, but make sure to talk to your server about this, as not all of the sangria options are gluten-free. We enjoyed the Brussels sprouts salad and Iberico pork immensely. The chicken paella is a must-order though fair warning the portion is massive. We easily split what was technically two servings of paella among four, and that plus maybe one tapa would have been more than enough. We didn’t try desert here, but there were at least five gluten-free options that I recall.

If I’d had more time, I’d have liked to try: Karyn’s Cooked (vegan) and Summer House Santa Monica.

ANDERSONVILLE/EDGEWATER

We spent our third and final day in Chicago trying to get to as many of the cool neighborhoods we’d meant to visit as possible. If you attempt the same thing, I highly recommend checking out Divvy bikes. You can create an account easily and rent bikes from bike racks all over the city. The app is really easy to use, and the bike rack locations are plentiful enough that you’ll likely be able to find one pretty close to your destination. That sounds real sales-pitchy, but I promise I’m not secretly getting a sponsorship here — it was just a truly enjoyable experience that motivated me to start looking into buying a bike once I got home to Austin.

Gluten-free coffee cake!!! at Tweet

Tweet

If you only have time for one breakfast in Chicago, go here. When you arrive at Tweet, you’ll be warmly welcomed and immediately asked if anyone in your party is gluten-free. And then they hand you a complimentary piece of gluten-free cake.

I KNOW.

As if that weren’t magical enough, Tweet has one of the largest and most varied gluten-free breakfast menus I’ve ever seen. Eggs Benedict. Quiche. Waffles. Pancakes. I opted for the quiche breakfast with their delicious gluten-free hash browns. They also have great coffee.

The Coffee Studio

But of course we needed more caffeine post-brunch, so after we biked into the Andersonville area, we found this trendy spot. The Coffee Studio offers gluten-free pastries (I didn’t try but they looked good) and unique mugs. I had a matcha latte with coconut milk. My boyfriend got an excellent pourover. This would be an ideal place if you need to work remotely while in Chicago.

White wine moules frites at Hopleaf
White wine moules frites at Hopleaf

Hopleaf

The options here are somewhat limited, but the patio of this beer garden is excellent, and more importantly, you can eat the fries. I got the moules frites with the white wine sauce (please note that the bechamel version of the frites is NOT gfree) and a Zombie Killer cider — cherry-flavored and yummily smooth. Our waitress here was also literally the nicest human.

George’s Ice Cream

After stopping by Women & Children First, which is quite possibly the best bookstore in the entire world (seriously it was like someone looked at the inside of my brain and found all the books I’ve wanted to read but forgotten to write down and put them on a shelf), we ended our time in Andersonville at George’s.  They have a wide variety of flavors, and green stickers indicate which ones are gluten-free. They also have gluten-free sugar and waffle cones! I picked the delightfully fluffy lemon meringue ice cream.

WICKER PARK

We meant to spend more time in Wicker Park, but by the end of the day we spent in Andersonville, we were absolutely stuffed, so we skipped dinner and biked straight to this highly recommended bar. And then we circled the block three times trying to find the bar. And then we remembered that the bar is actually a speakeasy with a legit hidden door.

The Violet Hour

Once inside, the vibe is incredibly atmospheric, with towering high-backed chairs in the lounge area that create more privacy if you’re there with a group. We opted to sit at the bar. If you follow our lead and bike here, pack extra clothes: this place definitely warrants looking nice and not like you just biked five miles.

I first had the “Yes No Maybe So,” a mezcal cocktail with averna, lemon, and grapefruit, the perfect refreshing choice after a bike ride, and my boyfriend ordered off-menu on the bartender’s recommendation and got a mezcal old fashioned. Next I had the “Bringing on the Heartbreak,” a whimsical pink variation on a Pisco sour complete with a plastic mermaid garnish. My boyfriend asked the bartender if he had any recommendations for something similar to a Lion’s Tale, and he got another off-menu treat — a Whiskey Smash with house-made cinnamon syrup.

The cocktails at the Violet Hour were truly some of the best I’ve ever had. We also loved that they have a no-cell-phones policy. Normally my immediate response would be to photograph my drinks, so it was a welcome change to stay in the moment and really savor the cocktail. As far as bar snacks, you’ll only be able to eat the spiced nuts, but the inventiveness of the cocktails more than makes up for the limited food options.

If I’d had more time, I’d have liked to try: Dove’s Luncheonette or Mott Street.


Have you been to Chicago recently? What gluten-free spots have you enjoyed?

xo,

Jordan

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