Nothing beats eating a just-plucked tomato still warm from the sun.
In the quest for the freshest food, restaurateurs and chefs are going hyper-local. Even in the heart of Chicago, some innovative restaurants are homegrowing produce on patios and rooftops as part of their farm-to-table fare. Here’s an up-close look at standout restaurant gardens in the city and North Shore.
Savor a full sensory experience at this brand new concept café in Logan Square. Starting with a dinnertime stroll through the garden, sample a Midwestern omakase (chef’s tasting menu) that’s crafted around produce that inspires you. Owner Chad Little and chef and owner Leonard Hollander explain that their approachable, sustainable, artful cuisine is different each time. Maybe you’ll end up with rooftop-honey-glazed salmon with fried green tomatoes and a dragon tongue bean salad and, to sip, a handcrafted cocktail garnished with pickled nasturtium buds. A morning and midday menu is also available. Altogether, 60 different varieties of extraordinary vegetables, fruits and herbs are cultivated in the alley garden and massive rooftop farm, which are also home to seven beehives. The Green Exchange, 2545 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago, 312-866-0795
Logan Square’s sublime pie café uses the freshest seasonal fruits they can get. The charming back patio, with an orchard feel, includes plum, apricot, nectarine and peach trees and a vegetable plot. Owner Michael Ciapciak says their backyard garden appeals to the inner farmer in us all. Fruit, herbs and veggies from the restaurant’s harvests and from local farms are used to create sweet and savory offerings. During a recent visit, the chef was harvesting ripe peaches to create hand pies and a homespun jam. 2051 N. California Ave., Chicago, 773-276-8888
The home of the “Greenest Caterer in America” is a hidden West Town treasure. A front house cafe serves up breakfast and lunch, with rotating daily specials. Just steps out the door, owner Heidi Moorman Coudal transformed an adjoining vacant lot into a sprawling urban farm. Around 90 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and edible flowers are organically grown in 50 raised beds, alongside three beehives. While the bulk of staple and specialty crops are used to supply weddings and high-end events, a majority of the canteen’s leafy salads are homegrown. Outside, meals can be enjoyed on a long farm table centered within the lush garden. 412 N. Wolcott Ave., Chicago, 312-455-1019
French pastries from this beloved Lincoln Park destination sure hit the sweet spot. Ever notice the pretty bachelor button and johnny jump-up petals on the fruit tarts and panna cotta? These edible flowers, along with herbs and greens, are grown in 16 EarthBoxes on the roof and sidewalk planters. Committed to sourcing from local sustainable farms, pastry chef and owner Sandra Holl says having access to a rooftop garden makes it that much easier. Seating on the second floor overlooks the blooming garden. 1220 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, 773-883-1313
With his authentic Mexican cuisine, chef and owner Rick Bayless has been a pioneer in the local food movement in Chicago since the late 80s. His side-by-side Near North restaurants have long paid homage to local farmers and homegrown produce. What started as a salsa garden, the XOCO rooftop now grows Chinese long beans and herbs in addition to tomatoes. Offsite at the Bayless’ Bucktown home, a beautiful production garden spread over three city lots grows crops every which way. Bountiful chili peppers, lettuces, microgreens, edible flowers and specialty herbs (such as hoja santa) supply the restaurants. Television shows, parties and limited tours also take place in this stunning edible backyard. 445 – 449 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-661-1434
If you’re looking for a cozy dining spot right in the middle of a rooftop farm, here’s the place. Perched above Roots Handmade Pizza in West Town, Homestead’s 80-seat rooftop patio adjoins a spacious organic gardenbed, vertical hanging gardens and planter boxes filled with vegetables, fruits and herbs. Utilizing the harvest, executive chef Chris Davies serves up rustic yet refined cuisine. Friendly waitstaff wearing flannel shirts deliver sophisticated, seasonal delights like the summer panzanella that features homegrown marinated tomatoes and preserved kale, with housemade sourdough, burrata and a burnt-leek vinaigrette. 1924 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 773-332-2354
Relish the finest local ingredients prepared with an innovative twist at this upscale North Shore hotspot. Chef and owner John des Rosiers says it all comes down to amazing flavor. Up on the rooftop, 28 Smart Pots brim with heirloom tomatoes, peppers, greens, herbs and novel crops. The produce is sprinkled throughout the ever-changing menu, which has included, for example, bruschetta with homegrown ground cherries and tomatillos paired with smoked ancho peppers, marinated feta and spicy romesco. For the chocolate and wild mulberry dessert, ripe berries were shaken down from neighborhood trees (dedication!). Also heat up with des Rosiers’ limited versions of salsas using rooftop peppers at his adjoining taqueira, The Other Door. 28 E. Center Ave., Lake Bluff, 847-295-1000
This popular Logan Square boheme-bistro is celebrated for its inventive menu inspired by seasonal, local ingredients. Chef and owner Jason Hammel, who’s worked with Midwest farmers for the past 16 years, says they like to grow strange things such as lovage, shiso leaves, green coriander seeds and bronze fennel crowns to add a special touch to dishes. While a lovely planterbox of herbs and edible flowers surrounds sidewalk seating, you might not realize another 18 containers sit up on the roof. Italian dandelion and mustard greens prosper under grow lights in the basement, too. 2537 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago, 773-489-9554
O’Hare’s indoor array of 26 verdant towers is more than a thing of beauty under bright lights. It’s the first and only airport aeroponic garden in the world. Produce is grown without soil, chemicals or fertilizers through root misting. The resulting herbs, greens, peppers, beans and edible flowers can be enjoyed year-round at airport restaurants including Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Tuscany, Wolfgang Puck and Stanley’s Blackhawk. Escape travel stress with a tranquil green moment at the Urban Garden located in the Terminal 3 Rotunda, which also includes a yoga room and mother’s room. The garden is part of widespread sustainability initiatives by Chicago’s Department of Aviation. 10000 W. O’Hare Ave., Chicago
Surprise, Skokie Country Club is way on top of the local food trend too. Over the past two years, they’ve introduced three culinary gardens, nine beehives and even a flock of egg-laying hens. While vegetable production is mostly set back by the paddle courts, an ornamental kitchen garden is showcased near a dining patio and the golf pro shop. Executive chef Richard Stanton designs the menu around the extensive, often unique vegetables and herbs. A recent special featured garden beets and honey-goat cheese topped with hazelnut “soil” and garden sorrel. Since this is a private club, it’s time to dine with friends who happen to be members. 500 Washington Ave., Glencoe, 847-835-0600
For over 20 years, owners Helen and Mike Cameron have been leading the sustainable restaurant scene in Chicago. In 2008, the Edgewater hangout broke ground with the first certified organic rooftop farm in the U.S. Now it grows more than 50 crops with 120 varieties and hosts two beehives. Diners can visit the roof farm at special events, including the annual Vegetarian Harvest Dinner. Fresh veggies have a starring role in the sunshine salad and plenty of other special dishes. Last year, the Camerons opened Greenstar Brewery, Illinois’ first organic brewery, located next to the Lakeview location of Uncommon Ground. Homegrown hops and black currants have flavored a few beers. 1401 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, 773-465-9801; 3800 N. Clark St., 773-929-3680