Sure, Chicago can rightfully brag about all its James Beard award-winning restaurants and chefs. But the city is equally proud of its more diverse and affordable eats. Line up and chow down on juicy burgers, subs, donuts, ethnic specialties, and traditional Chicago fast foods. All the recommendations below for cheap eats in Chicago do carry-out and have limited seating.
The Best Cheap Eats in Chicago
These are the best cheap restaurants in Chicago, slinging savory satisfaction for just a few bucks.
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Revival Food Hall
Many delicious choices for cheap eats in Chicago are all under one roof at the Loop’s 24,000-square-foot Revival Food Hall. Here you’ll find 15 fast-casual, only-in-Chicago food stalls. Order fresh-made tacos, gelatos, poke bowls, pasta, lobster rolls, barbecue, fried chicken, sweets, salads, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, BLTs, breakfast bowls, and more. Grab-and-go or sit a bit at communal tables in the industrial-chic, converted 1907 office building.
Topping locals’ lists of must-visit cheap restaurants in Chicago is Saigon Sisters, serving Zagat award-winning Vietnamese fare in several downtown locations. Regulars rave about the lemongrass curry chicken banh mi sandwich with pickled red onions and mayo on a crusty French baguette. Wagyu beef and hoisin glazed pork belly bowl meals make filling, flavorful meals. Gluten-free, vegetarian, and halal preparations are available upon request.
Fatso’s Last Stand
All-hours, no-frills food makes Fatso’s Last Stand in Ukrainian Village one of the best spots for cheap eats in Chicago. All-beef hot dogs, Polish and Italian sausages, and juicy burgers are cooked over an open flame. Fatso’s is famous for its creamy homemade mac ‘n’ cheese, meaty chili, and seasoned, fried crispy jumbo shrimp baskets. It’s open till 4:00 a.m. on weekends, catering to partiers and night-shift crowds. Expect a wait at peak hours.
Furious Spoon’s Michelin-star chef Shin Thompson handmakes the noodles served at five Tokyo-style ramen shops around Chicago. Hip-hop music throbs in the small, casual restaurants with communal table seating. Ramen bowl meals are composed of assorted vegetables and a choice of pork belly, chicken, or fish cakes floating in a savory broth. The name Furious Spoon references the proper way to eat ramen—in a fast fury. That means using chopsticks to cinch the noodles and slurp them up before the hot broth overcooks the bowl’s contents.
Touted as one of the best cheap restaurants in Chicago, this throwback Wicker Park diner packs ’em into leatherette booths and a 41-stool counter. Seasoned waiters sling heaping platters of innovative Tex-Mex and Southern soul food all day and into the night. Of the many musts on the menu, try the zesty seafood ceviche and the sweet corn tamales stuffed with goat cheese and squash. On the first Sunday of every month, locals come in for an authentic Cuban-inspired menu, including rum cocktails and DJs spinning sultry Cuban vinyl.
J.P. Graziano Grocery & Sub Shop
Line up for a sub sandwich and leave with an armful of authentic Italian foodstuffs, tasty souvenirs of your Chicago visit. That’s what happens when you come for lunch at this four-generation, family-owned West Loop grocer opened in 1937. Speedy sandwich makers hand-build beautiful subs with layers of Italian meats, cheeses, and marinated vegetables. Favorites include the classic Italian, red pepper tuna, and prosciutto di Parma topped with a fresh mozzarella Caprese salad. Always leave room for Graziano’s house-made gelato.
Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken
Open daily, this artisan donut shop is a local go-to spot for cheap eats in Chicago. Customers line up to place orders for oven-fresh baked donuts and brioche bun sandwiches filled with succulent breaded pork tenderloin, fried chicken, barbecue, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon, and/or avocado. The creative donut varieties baked daily depend upon the chefs’ moods, but might include candied maple bacon, chocolate ganache-glazed, or Michigan apple fritter. There are always gluten-free and vegan options as well. Locals love the aioli-maple-slathered deep-fried chicken between sugary doughnut halves—with fries, of course.
The crave-worthy burger born at award-wining American diner Au Cheval has earned its own retro-rustic shack in the Wicker Park neighborhood. Seating in the red brick, no-frills place seats a lucky few, so carry-out prevails except in warm months when diners pack the patio picnic tables. Small Cheval’s simple menu lists a hamburger and a cheeseburger with melted cheddar cheese on a toasted puffy bun. You can top your burger with pickles, onion, homemade Dijon mustard-mayonnaise, maple-glazed bacon, lettuce, and/or tomato. The tiny bar serves thick ice cream shakes, cocktails, and beer.
Looking to sample Chicago’s quintessential casual food? The city’s Italian beef sandwich ranks right up there with deep-dish pizza and Vienna hot dogs. Local lore says the sandwich’s origin dates back to Italian immigrants working in Chicago’s old Union Stock Yards. It consists of slow-roasted beef sliced thin, simmered in a seasoned broth, and piled into crusty bread. To bite into Italian beef history, head to the original Al’s Beef stand founded in 1938 in the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood northwest of the Loop. Really hungry? Get the hefty Big Beef sandwich. Can’t decide? Go for the combo beef and char-grilled Italian sausage.
A true Chicago-style hot dog adheres to this simple but steadfast rule: They are all-beef Vienna sausages served on a warm poppyseed bun, topped with only mustard, and “dragged through the garden.” That’s Chicago-speak for required trimmings of green relish, diced raw onions, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dill pickle wedge, and a sprinkling of celery salt. While locals have strong opinions about which outfits hand-build the best Chicago-style dogs, there’s little discussion about what Chicago’s granddaddy hot dog stand is. It’s Superdawg! The iconic drive-in restaurant on Chicago’s Northwest side opened in 1948. Look for the cartoony, 20-foot-tall hot dog figures standing on the drive-in’s roof. A classic Superdawg hot dog sports a tangy, pickled green tomato wedge and comes atop crinkle fries.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Chicago Travel Guide
- 9 Best Hotels in Chicago
- 10 Best Cheap Hotels in Chicago
- 9 Stylish Boutique Hotels in Chicago
- 9 Must-See Chicago Attractions
- 10 Best Day Trips from Chicago
- Chicago with Kids: 9 Fun Family-Friendly Activities
- 10 Best Places for Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza
- 10 Best Restaurants in Chicago
- What to Wear in Chicago
- What to Pack for Chicago
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—Original reporting by Kit Bernardi
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