Chicago’s Best Cheap Eats

With a plethora of BYOB restaurants and cuisines from around the world represented, you can eat well and still save some cash. Here are some of the best budget-friendly options in the city. Eating cheaply in Chicago is easy. While the city has more than it’s share of pricey places to indulge on creatively crafted multi-course tasting menus and delightful delicacies from around the world, it has also perfected the art of delicious, yet affordable food for the masses.

Grab and Go/Casual/Counter Service

Several of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants are also open for lunch. Come during the day and you can sample many of the same dishes as those offered during dinner, but for less cost. For dinner or lunch, you can also opt to sit at the bar. It’s a good way to get in a hotspot at the last minute without a reservation, and since you aren’t taking up a table, there’s less pressure to indulge in a full meal. Instead, you can have a drink or two and just sample a few small plates from the bar menu. Again, you’re getting all the taste and quality that the chef is known for, with less cost.

These places make for a great cheap lunch or a casual dinner. Don’t expect much in the way of service or decor; they tend to be no-frills establishments with a focus on inexpensive, delicious food.

UrbanBelly

Located in Avondale (and hence, a bit out of the way for those traveling without a car), Urban Belly offers a small number of seats in a surprisingly chic space. The most expensive noodle dishes – ramen with pork belly and udon with shrimp – are $13. Dumpling and rice plates like lamb and brandy or short rib and scallion are $7-8 each.

urbanbelly, 1542 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60622; Phone: (773) 904-8606

Wow Bao

There are three Wow Bao locations around the downtown area – in the loop, on the Magnificent Mile, and in the theatre district. Each offers breakfast baos, potstickers, and bowls. Single baos, which make a filling snack, or six-packs (which can serve as a light lunch for two people) are $7.99 and combos that include baos or potstickers and a salad or noodles are the best deal at $5.99.

Billy Goat Tavern

Remember the old Saturday Night Live “Cheezeborger, cheezeborger!” skit? Well, that was based on the Billy Goat Tavern. Located below Michigan Avenue, it’s been a Chicago institution since 1934. The Billy Goat serves a cheap breakfast (omelette, hashbrowns and toast for under $5) until 11am, but the real draw is the cheeseburger, which will set you back under three bucks.

Billy Goat Tavern, Lower, 430 Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611; Phone: (312) 222-1525

Wiener’s Circle

During the day, the Weiner’s Circle offers a casual spot for hot dogs, burgers, and cheese fries, with a small counter space and outdoor picnic tables. At night, it becomes a must-stop for the throngs of tipsy revelers leaving the bars (and in summer, the Cubs games). At these times, it’s not a place for the faint of heart (or for kids) as the staff and patrons engage is some pretty hardcore banter and trashtalk – all part of the shtick.

The Wiener’s Circle, 2622 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614; Phone: (773) 477-7444

Crisp

Located on Broadway in Lakeview, Crisp serves up some spicy Korean chicken in a variety of forms. Hearty bowls and giant half-chicken sandwiches range from $6-$9 and come in flavors like Seoul Sassy, Mild, Spicy, and Suicide.

Crisp, 2940 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657; Phone: (773) 697-7610

Lito’s Empanadas

Just outside of the park, in Lincoln Park on Clark, Lito’s serves one thing and one thing only – empanadas. Each one is under $2.50 and fillings include beef, chicken, bbq chicken, spinach, Hawaiian and vegetarian. There are even dessert empanadas like choco-banana and apple cinnamon.

Lito’s Empanadas, 2566 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614; Phone: (773) 857-1337

Frontera Fresco

For those who can’t bear to wait in line at celeb-chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera or Topolobampo (or to pay the higher prices), Frontera Fresco is a cheaper, quicker option. Located in the Macy’s on State Street, it’s a perfect spot to stop for lunch after a shopping binge. On offer are tacos ($6.95 for two), tortas, flatbreads, quesadillas, tamales, soups and sides. Nothing is over $7.95, and most items are less.

Frontera Fresco, Macy’s Seven on State, 111 N State St, Chicago, IL 60602; Phone: (312) 781-2955

Smoque BBQ

Arguably the very best BBQ in Chicago, Smoque is easy on the wallet as well. The menu is small, but excellently executed. Ribs, pulled pork, smoked brisket, chicken and Texas sausage are the only meats offered, along with sides of coleslaw, salad, mac n’ cheese, BBQ beans, fries and cornbread. A full rib meal will set you back about $20; all other plates top out at just ten bucks.

Smoque BBQ, 3800 N Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60641; Phone: (773) 545-7427

XOCO

Another Rick Bayless creation, XOCO offers a twist on traditional Mexican street food – tortas, soups, salads, and sides, plus an extensive array of hot chocolates served with churros, near the Merchandise Mart in River North. Most plates range from $8-10.

XOCO, 449 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654; Phone: (312) 723-2131

Sit Down Service/Date-worthy Cheap Eats

Many Chicago restaurants allow you to BYOB (bring your own beer, wine or liquor) to consume with your meal. This can be a huge money-saver, considering that many restaurants mark their booze-up by as much as 300%. (Add in Chicago’s high tax rate of just over 10% and booze can really take a bite out of your budget). If you plan on drinking with your meal, choose a BYOB and you’ll save anywhere from $30 to $100 per night.

For cheap sit down service, you generally can’t go wrong with a moderately priced BYOB. Bring your own drinks, and your overall costs are even lower than at a place with liquor service

Sun-Wah

Located a bit farther north of the city (in Uptown, and easily accessed via the Red Line), Sun-Wah offers what might be the best Peking duck outside of Asia. At it’s priced at a steal – the off-menu Peking duck meal is just $32. One duck can easily feed 2-3 people (4 if you order an extra appetizer or two) and includes a full duck with crispy, crackling skin carved table-side. The first course is a duck with fresh bao buns, the second is duck soup, and the third is a duck in duck-fat-fried noodles (the best option) or rice.

Toro Sushi

Toro Sushi, located in Lincoln Park, is one of the few BYOB sushi restaurants in the city. Owner and sushi chef Mitch greets every customer at this small, intimate space, and if you sit at the counter, he just might make you a few custom rolls based on your preferences. Rolls range from the familiar (California, spider) to the unusual (bbq chicken or tuna with mozzarella cheese) but all are delicious and made with only the freshest, highest quality fish.

Rique’s

GQ once called Rique’s, a Mexican restaurant located in the Korean area of Uptown, one of the best in the nation. It’s not your typical Mexican joint – chips are served with black beans instead of salsa and you can bring your own wine, beer, or even tequila and margarita mix for major savings. Most dishes, like chicken in a spicy mole or a smokey tinga sauce, are $10-$12 each.

90 Miles Cuban Cafe

With two locations (Logan Square and Roscoe Village) 90 Miles is keeping Chicago full of tasty, cheap Cuban food. It’s BYOB and serves hearty sandwiches and heaping entree plates that come with rice, black beans, and plantains. Most sandwiches cost about $6.50, with no entrees over $10.

Tac Quick

For quality, authentic Thai food, Tac Quick is a winner. Set underneath the Sheridan Red Line el tracks in Lakeview, this BYOB restaurant offers classics like pad Thai and pad see ew, plus a “secret Thai menu” or more exotic offerings such as duck sausage and papaya salad with salt crab. Most dishes are under $10.

Pizza Rustica

Craving some pizza, while others in your party want pasta? Compromise on Italian without spending too much by going to Pizza Rustica. This cozy BYOB feels just like an Italian trattoria and serves huge pizzas with doughy crusts featuring toppings like Italian sausage, mushrooms, pineapple, artichokes or spinach. Salads are heading and pasta is made by hand. Pastas are around $10 each, and large pizzas that serve 4-6 people are under $25.

Eat Ethnic

Chicago is a melting-pot city with pockets of Greek, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Italian, Irish, and German neighborhoods, which are all home to restaurants serving up that country’s cuisine. Not only are many of the Chicago ethnic restaurants BYOB, many also offer delicious meals at very low prices. At Sun-Wah, for instance, you can get a whole Peking duck, served in three courses (that can easily feed four people), for under $30. Tac-Quick serves up traditional (ask for the not-so “secret” Thai menu) and Americanized versions of Thai dishes for around $8 per plate. And at Rique’s Regional Mexican restaurant, you’ll have to work hard to spend more than $10 per person for a heaping plate of south-of-the-border specialties.

Get Out of Downtown

As in any big city, the further away from the major tourist sights you get, the lower the average price, and the better the quality. Restaurants on the Magnificent Mile and in the Gold Coast tend to fall into two categories: cheap and mediocre (tourist joints) and high-quality but expensive. Head further away to the neighborhoods where more locals can afford to live and you’ll find food that is both delicious and reasonably priced. You’ll also find that many neighborhood places have great weekly food and drink specials.

Share and Save

This certainly isn’t true across the board, but at some restaurants (think steakhouses, ethnic restaurants, pubs, and pizza parlors) the portions can be quite big. If you are traveling with a companion, save a little money by sharing an entree or an appetizer. You’ll find that you’ll still have plenty to eat but you’ll save some cash.

Go for Lunch or Sit at the Bar

Several of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants are also open for lunch. Come during the day and you can sample many of the same dishes as those offered during dinner, but for less cost. For dinner or lunch, you can also opt to sit at the bar. It’s a good way to get in a hotspot at the last minute without a reservation, and since you aren’t taking up a table, there’s less pressure to indulge in a full meal. Instead, you can have a drink or two and just sample a few small plates from the bar menu. Again, you’re getting all the taste and quality that the chef is known for, with less cost.

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