So you’ve lucked into Chicago Bulls or Blackhawks tickets, or maybe you’re on your way to see Katy Perry, Jay Z or Arcade Fire weave their particular brand of musical magic. Either way, you’re headed to the Madhouse on Madison. The big quandary, of course, is where to eat beforehand? The United Center is awesome for many reasons, but sadly, food intended for the general public is not one of them (unless you’re in the market for a lukewarm Chicago dog or crappy nachos). So check out our list of where to eat before (or maybe even after) your United Center visit — whether you’ve got 30 minutes or two hours — and let the food energize you for an evening of spectating, cheering and singing along.
1400 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-563-1010
It’s always a treat to dine at Bill Kim’s bellyQ because the Asian flavors-inspired cocktails (think ginger, passion fruit, Thai peppers and 5-spice) are always on point, and there will be Savory Scallion Pancakes ($12), Lamb Buns ($9), Korean Fried Chicken ($8) and Peanut Noodle Salad with Poached Shrimp ($12) available. Got plenty of time before the puck drops? For $60 per person, belly up to the Grill Tables and cook your own beautifully seasoned meat or fish as part of a three-course meal. In a hurry? Pick up a Phat Noodle ($12.95) or pile of Pork & Cilantro Potstickers (4 for $6.95) to go at Urbanbelly next door.
161 N. Sangamon St., Chicago, 312-243-4016
I can’t rave enough about this Roman import, where the pizza is served al Taglio style, meaning long, rectangular pizzas that are cut to order with scissors and priced by weight. The topping lineup is constantly changing, but there are about 15 different pizzas at any given time. The crust is thick, but with a light and airy crumb structure and a very crispy bottom. My favorite was the Potato, Mozzarella and Rosemary pizza, although the Crostino (mushroom with sausage, mozzarella and chopped parsley) was a close second. Suppli (fried stuffed risotto balls) are also available if you’re still feeling peckish. There are a few counter seats, but this is a stand in line, pick up your food and head out kind of joint.
814 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-455-8114
You’re literally pre-gaming, right? So you’ll be needing one of de cero’s gorgeous Crushed Cucumber or Spicy Mango Habanero Margaritas ($10) before heading out for the night’s festivities. Add a mezcal float for $2? Don’t mind if I do. And anytime is taco time! I’m partial to the Battered Shrimp ($5) with avocado crema, onion, avocado and cilantro in a soft corn tortilla or the chile-rubbed Al Pastor ($4) pork tacos with grilled pineapple and red onion. This is no place to stint on the Guacamole de Casa ($7.75), because it is totally calorie-worthy.
1748 W. Lake St., Chicago, 312-366-2294
Much of the seasonal produce here comes from their on-site urban garden, used judiciously by Chef-Partner Devon Quinn, who has created a sophisticated oasis in a somewhat food-desolate section of West Lake Street. Vegetables shine here, like the Blistered Fresh Beans ($8) with romesco, hazelnuts, lemon and mint, or the Chili-Roasted Carrots ($8) with bay-scented labneh, cashews, capers and cherries. Salmon Croquettes ($13) are a lovely starter, and the house-made pastas make carb loading a pleasure. Entrees might be a little rich for your pre-concert meal, especially after dropping the Benjamins on your favorite artist’s latest concert tour, but you can come back for those another time.
844 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-491-0844
My Paleo friends all swear by this place, because not only are the burgers (beef, turkey, veggie) grass-fed/free-range/organic, but also available on gluten-free buns or in a lettuce cup, so everyone’s dietary needs can be cheerfully accommodated. The Ultimate Beef Burger ($14.75), topped with Muenster cheese, bacon, arugula, caramelized onions, and horseradish aioli, all served on a griddled brioche bun, is a happy intersection of good intentions and deliciousness. The Roasted Jalapeño-Smoked Cheddar Fries ($7.75) are crispy, spicy, and oh-so-tasty. There’s also a Seasonal Salad ($10.75) option if you’re aiming for the much lighter side. Craft beer pairings are suggested with each menu item, so you don’t even have to think that hard. And did I mention the fantastic PIE? Go à la mode or go home.
1645 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, 312-243-4276
This enormous gastropub features dozens of TVs (in case you’re running late but don’t want to miss the opening jump ball) and offers complimentary shuttle service to the United Center — a major perk in cold weather, when even a short walk is nearly insurmountable. This is serious bar food, like Animal Tots ($10), tater tots piled high with pulled pork, cheese curds, grainy mustard, gravy and a fried egg (Lipitor should be an additional garnish), PBR Can Chicken ($23 whole/$16 half, with choice of two sides), and a Footlong Grilled Cheese ($12) with three types of cheese, candied bacon, chipotle spread and two fried eggs on a baguette. Hankering for pizza? They’ve got both Chicago deep dish and thin crust styles.
1140 W. Madison St., Chicago, 312-243-2097
The newest of the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants, MAD Social is the brainchild of Gina Stefani, Phil’s daughter. It’s got a hip but friendly vibe, all reclaimed wood and industrial touches, befitting the updated American cuisine. Don’t miss the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($14), the leaves tossed with toasted garlic chips, scallions, wonton strips and sesame seeds in a yuzu-soy vinaigrette, or the fun Togarishi-Spiced Chicken Lollipops ($12) served with dill-caper ranch. Chicken and Waffles ($21) make a strong stand here with a thin, crispy chicken milanese cutlet atop a churro waffle, topped with crisp pork belly, maple syrup and MAD hot sauce, and the ubiquitous Avocado Toast ($14) here gets a fortuitous makeover with the addition of fresh crab meat, arugula, pico de gallo and a generous shaving of fresh Parmesan.
1020 W. Madison St., Chicago, 312-888-3041
The West Loop got real lucky with the arrival of Chef-Owner Sarah Grueneberg’s pasta-centric Italian restaurant, and if you haven’t yet been, get thee hence. I love the ‘Nduja Arancini ($8) as a starter, little fried tomatoey risotto balls with spicy, spreadable ‘nduja salami mixed in, to be dragged through a creamy tonnato sauce. Or the Oma’s Green Mountain Salad ($15), just the thing to freshen your palate before diving into the divine house-made pastas, especially the Wok-Fried Arrabbiata ($17), made with black and white tagliolini, ground shrimp and spicy tomato sauce. But it’s the Cacio Whey Pepe ($14) that I order every visit, made with imported Mancini bucatini, Pecorino Romano cheese, crushed peppercorns and lightened with ricotta whey. It’s flat-out astonishing.
1659 W. Ogden Ave., Chicago, 312-226-1888
It’s just a four-block walk to the United Center from this hopping sports bar, the official restaurant of the Chicago Blackhawks. The menu covers the usual sports bar food suspects — flatbreads, wings, nachos, sliders and burgers — but with some cheffed-up touches, like pretzel buns, two-year aged Cheddar, house-smoked tomato sauce, hand-cut fries, and the like. There’s a lot to like about parking once for dinner and a show (or game), too.
Because you’re not the only one who’s hungry…
We hope you’ll get the chance to check out all of these incredible local restaurants, but the next time you do, take a moment to remember how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy such fabulous food. Feed your stomach, then your soul by paying forward your good fortune and supporting one of these food-centric nonprofits.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.