Did I mention that I am a vegetarian? Just getting that out of the way because, you know, I'm not going to be able to tell you how the sear a steak. But aside from actual how-to meat-eating, I hope to tell you lots. To begin with, eating vegetarian is no longer a narrow niche. Particularly in Chicago, where even places with menu items called Pig Destroyer can serve you a veggie burger ten ways.
So, below, I bring you a non-exhaustive round-up of my favorite vegetarian restaurant options in the city, organized by 100% arbitrary categories that I just made up. Add your own in the comments!
Best Small Plates
Mana Food Bar is a new favorite of mine. As the name suggests, it is a bar. A food bar. It's long and lean, seats only a few at a time and, appropriately, serves small plates. Though their inspiration runs the gamut of the world's cuisine, these small plates (for the most part) are built around vegetables. It should be clear from this list that I'm not opposed to "fake meat." But, at home, I like to cook vegetable-centrically, and believe in the kind of eating that grounds itself (no pun intended) in plants. Mana Food Bar does this extremely well.
Best Vegan Pan-Asian
Previously known as Alice and Friends, The Loving Hut is part of a chain of vegan restaurants around the country run by followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai. I've not been to their other outposts, but the one in Chicago is terrific. I like absolutely everything on the menu, but maintain a particular fondness for the the spicy Run Away Potato and their various barbecued offerings.
Best Chicago Style [N]otdog
The Chicago style hotdog is, as you know, iconic. But, as you also know, made of meat. Not so at Huey's in Andersonville. They offer a veggie dog dressed up with all the classic Chicago, ketchup-eschewing fixings. It's really something special.
I've long been a fan of (best diner winning) Chicago Diner's version, but I'm going to go rogue on this one and say the newish Revolution Brewing Company has the best vegetarian reuben in the city. It's made with tempeh and doesn't try to approximate the bright reddish hue of corned beef. The tempeh itself is moist and earthy. The sauerkraut is sour and crunchy. The Russian dressing is perfectly tangy. It's a great sandwich from top to bottom. Though somewhat limited, (especially in comparison to managing partner Josh Deth's other restaurant--and best wrap winning--Handlebar) their other vegetarian options are great too.
Best Bar Food
This place used to be known as Stadium West, but I only discovered it as the Dragonlady Lounge. It gets the best bar food title not for being "bar food" so much, but for being the best food I've ever been served in a bar. I made my first visit on a quiet week night with four friends. We were greeted by the owner/operator/bartender/cook/server. We all gathered 'round the kind, grandmotherly woman in the Hello Kitty apron and she mapped out a family-style menu for us. First the dumplings, then the pancake, and on through ever more delicious courses. They have a famed Thursday vegan buffet, but I must admit, I've never been. Hopefully soon. See you there?
Best Fine Dining
The Green Zebra may get this title by virtue of being the only vegetarian fine dining in the city, but it's still worth celebrating. They have a talent for extracting big flavor from texturally light dishes. Their menu changes seasonally and though not among this season's offerings, a mushroom broth I had there a year or so ago did this flawlessly. See also the stout foam (paired with rye spätzle, kraut, smoked caramelized onion, and caraway) on their current menu.
Let me first say that I like everything on Handlebar's menu. It's mostly vegetarian, elevated bar food without a hint of snobbery. But among their offerings, there's one that [my loved ones and I] just won't quit: the Buffalo "Chicken" Wrap. At their worst, wraps are dry, lifeless "diet" food. At their best, they are this. The crispy romaine against the spicy buffalo-ed seitan is so, so good. With a side of garlicky greens and a hoppy IPA, this is my dream meal.
Soul Veg is comfort food at its most comforting. I've never had a better barbecue sandwich than their Barbecue Twist. I've taken lots of people here over the years and someone always orders it. And then loves it. It's super saucy and piled on a soft bun. As a result, it's terribly messy in the best way possible. Even if you don't get down to the restaurant very often, keep an eye out. Soul Veg sells prepared foods at a number of stores and cafes around the city.
Run by students of the late Sri Chimnoy, Victory's Banner has what I like to call 'the magic.' Perhaps most magical is their brunch. Many have praised the luxe, peach-buttered french toast. And it is a real highlight. But their entire menu--robustly spanning the spectrum from sweet to savory--has something for everyone. On the savory end, there's the wonderfully messy Egg and Sausage Bagel Sandwich or the Uppama. And if you're one of those people who can't decide between sweet or savory, you're covered. They do balance better than anyone except, possibly, Sri Chimnoy himself. The curry omelet with apple chutney case in point.
I'm still not totally comfortable giving the best reuben award to another. It was long my favorite plate at the Chicago Diner. But with a true diner-style, gigantic menu, the Chicago Diner has lots to praise: breakfast, pasta, meatloaf, beans and rice, sandwiches, sweet potato fries, vegan baked goods, milkshakes, and more. They're one of the oldest vegetarian establishments in Chicago and helped to set the stage for the many meatless options we have on the scene today. They're a classic and they're great at what they do.