Updated March 19, 2018
Air travel from Chicago is always unpredictable. Winter snowstorms and summer thunderstorms mean you never know when you could be stranded on the runway for hours, making even a quick flight feel like an eternity. Don’t risk resorting to the pre-fab in-flight snack boxes; be sure to grab-and-go something yummy on your way to the gate instead.
Once sad dining deserts, both Midway and O’Hare have stepped up their game in the past few years. And while there’s no shortage of hot dogs and pizza — this is Chicago, after all, and you’ve got to give the people what they want — you’ll also find some tasty, and even (gasp!) healthy options available once you trudge through the security line.
Café L’Appetito (Boulevard)
Breakfast sandwiches, panini, classic subs, and generous entrée salads, all with a decidedly Italian accent, are on the menu at this long-time Chicago favorite, which grew from a tiny Italian grocery store to a mini chain with stores in East Lakeview, the Gold Coast, and at bustling Midway Airport. Take a little taste of home with you as you fly off to exotic locales.
This Chicago favorite, which combines art and Mexican cuisine at its original Pilsen location, can now be found at Midway. Many of your favorite authentic Mexican favorites can be ordered, from burritos stuffed with Cochinita Pibil (slow-roasted pork) and Pineapple or rich Barbacoa (braised brisket) to Ezquites (corn on the cob dipped in melted butter topped with cotija cheese and a sprinkle of chile piquin) and Steak Quesadillas. Breakfast Burritos with potato, egg, crema, and beans or chorizo and egg are special favorites. Quick service and full service available.
Pegasus on the Fly (Midway Triangle Food Court)
This counter-service eatery offers Mediterranean cuisine, with all-day breakfast, soups, salads, savory filo pies, sandwiches, and various snacks on display. You can’t go wrong with a Mountain Pita-Wrap Omelet, the Mushroom and Emmental Cheese Artopita, Greek Salad (with or without grilled chicken), or Lamb Kebob Pita, followed by Greek Rice Pudding or Baklava. There are many healthy options here, including Greek yogurt, oatmeal, fruit salad, and hummus.
Pizza Vino (Concourse A, Gate A7)
If you’re feeling the need for a quick Italian meal, you’ll be happy here. Reliable flatbreads (BBQ Chicken, Meat Lover’s Breakfast, and Veggie among them), soups, Italian hero sandwiches, pasta, and salads share the bill with a few wines by the glass. Perfect to transport on board.
Tabo Sushi (Boulevard and Concourse B, Gate B14)
James Beard Award-winner Takashi Yagihashi (Slurping Turtle) is the man behind this quick-serve sushi option, so you know that the quality will be good, although the menu is quite limited: nori-wrapped sushi rolls (California, Spicy Tuna, Spicy Salmon), limited Nigiri (salmon and tuna), and a few specialty rolls (Dragon Roll with eel and avocado, Dynamite with tempura shrimp, salmon and avocado). Small but mighty!
True Burger Co. (Concourse A, Gate A5)
Got an early flight? Grab an Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Egg & Cheese sammy on a toasted English muffin. Or go for the breakfast of champions: one of their killer specialty burgers, like the Blues Burger (8 ounces of 100 percent fresh Angus beef with blue cheese, smoked bacon, and “True Spread,” aka special sauce on a brioche bun). Turkey and veggie burgers are also available, as is a solid Grilled Chicken Sandwich topped with Havarti cheese, honey mustard, avocado, and spicy arugula. Added plus: Chips are made in house.
Healthy Quick Eats
If you’re health conscious (more or less!), smoothie options at Glacier City (Concourse B, Gate B19) will fit the bill, especially the honey-sweetened Green Tea Blueberry Banana with a protein or flax mix-in. If you’re looking for gluten-free snacks — think popcorn and freshly roasted nuts — then Nuts on Clark (Boulevard) is your go-to stop.
Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless (Terminals 1, 3, and 5)
This is my go-to stop before most flights, assuming I have time to wait in line — because there’s almost ALWAYS a line. But it’s worth it for the mouth-watering Milanesa Torta, a crunchy fried chicken breast layered with smooth black beans, pickled jalapeños, cheese, cilantro crema, and avocado-tomatillo salsa; the Bacon & Queso Mollete, an open-faced breakfast sandwich, is a close second. And what would a three-hour flight be without a Frontera Deal-Maker Margarita? Healthier options include the Greek-style yogurt topped with Berry Compote and Frontera Granola, or perhaps the Taqueria Salad topped with Chipotle Chicken or Smoky Garlic Shrimp.
Stefani’s Tuscany Café (Terminal 1)
It’s carb time! Pretend you’re on your way to run a marathon, sit down and order the Linguine Shrimp Diavolo, or perhaps the Mezzelune Formaggi Cipriani (half-moon pasta stuffed with cheese in a shallot-cognac cream tomato sauce). Tuscan Frittatas and Stuffed French Toast are highlights of the breakfast menu, while Salmone al Forno and the Tuscany Salad are some of the healthier lunch or dinner choices available. And for a real taste of Italy, they serve Lavazza coffee drinks.
Goose Island Beer Company (Terminals 1 and 3)
This brewpub serves up a juicy burger (add Wisconsin cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon for maximum calorie loading), cheese and charcuterie platters, Fish & Chips, and Spicy Sriracha Wings. Healthier options include the Vegetable Misto Salad, Veggie Chili, and shrimp cocktail. And of course, beer, glorious beer.
Publican Tavern (Terminal 3 Concourse)
Chef Paul Kahan joins fellow James Beard Award-winning chef (and his old boss!) Rick Bayless in catering to the hungry hordes at O’Hare with this modified outpost of his popular Publican concept. Seasonality, approachability, and sustainability are the buzz words at this full-service concept, borne out by a menu stocked with downtown favorites like Slagel Farm Chicken and Pork Shoulder Chops, an encased meat homage to the great “Hot Doug” Sohn, Wood-Oven Roasted Vegetables, and hearty Ribollita Soup.
Summer House Santa Monica (Terminal 2 Main Hall)
Lettuce Entertain You is slowly but surely taking over ORD (see all the action at Terminal 5!), and if that means regular access to Summer House’s Cauliflower Hummus and/or the Super Greens Salad with added Chicken, then I am so down with it. Straight from Cabo-by-way-of-Lincoln Park are the Grilled Surfer-Style Baja Fish Tacos made with local tortillas, guacamole, roasted tomato salsa, and pico de gallo, and the Venice Beach Chicken Sandwich (with avocado, bacon, Havarti, pickles, and onion on brioche bun), served with crispy fries, is worthy of sitting down. Full-service and grab-and-go options available.
Wicker Park Sushi Bar (Terminal 2)
Yes, there is sushi at O’Hare, and it’s fresh and appealing. There are grab-and-go options, but if you have time, sit down and enjoy. Inventive maki rolls, shrimp and oysters by the half dozen, Asian salad plates (the Beef Tenderloin Salad is particularly satisfying), and even a Green Tea Tiramisu are on offer. What’s healthy? Just about everything, as long as you don’t overdo it on the mayonnaise-based or soy sauces. Remember, loading up on sodium right before a long flight is a no-no.
Healthy Quick Eats
Load up on antioxidants at Vosges Chocolates (Terminals 1, 3, and 5) — I don’t fly unless I have a bar of Coconut Ash & Banana or Pomegranate & Goji Super Dark Chocolate in my purse. Want to think outside the (admittedly large) Starbucks box? Head to Argo Tea (Terminals 2 and 3) for a 100-calorie Hibiscus Apple Chiller or 160-calorie Iced Chai … and those are the large sizes!
Headed out of the country? You’re in luck, as the choices in Terminal 5 rock, with many outposts of Chicago standouts.
A well-chosen selection of BB menu favorites awaits: Hot Pepper Shrimp, Mongolian Beef, and Chicken Potstickers all make an appearance. Healthier options include brown rice and the Emperor’s Tofu & Vegetable dish, plus they source all-natural beef and chicken here.
Caterer to the rock stars Debbie Sharpe delivers her freshly made wraps, sandwiches, flatbreads, and super tasty baked goods to your tummy. I love the California Dreaming Sandwich (honey-roasted turkey, Swiss cheese, avocado, sprouts, lettuce, tomato, and lemony mayo on multigrain bread) and the rich Lobster Bisque. Healthier options include the Tandoori Chicken Wrap, the Goddess Chopped Veggie Salad, and the Yogurt Parfait. Chase it down with a Matcha Green Tea Latte made with Rishi tea.
Represent, Wicker Park! This is a more contemporary Italian menu, from the blister-crusted pizzas to the crisp panini. Try the Funghi Pizza with its umami-laden wild mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, and prosciutto or the Capri Panini stuffed with smoked mozzarella, artichokes, sun-dried tomato, and mixed greens. Healthier options include a simple arugula-based Insalata Bosco or the Pollo Insalata, a perfectly seared chicken breast atop balsamic-dressed greens.
You’re here for the bao, pillowy-soft steamed dumplings filled with sweet and savory fillings. The BBQ Pork and spicy Mongolian Beef are favorites, as is the healthier Whole Wheat Vegetable option. Perfect for transporting directly to your seat on the airplane next to the screaming toddler. More effective than thumb sucking for comfort.
In keeping with the Lettuce takeover as intimated above, R.J. Grunts Burgers & Fries (chili cheese fries a messy must), Mediterranean-themed quick service Urban Olive (think pita platters with chicken, steak, veggies, or falafel, Greek salad, etc.) and long-time River North hotspot Hub 51 have joined Wow Bao and Big Bowl in the International Terminal fray. Hub 51 is pulling out the stops with must-orders from their original restaurant menu: Sushi Rolls (mmmm, Crunchy Tuna Roll with tempura rice!), Pulled Chicken Nachos, Ahi Tuna Poke, a “First-Rate” Cheeseburger, Braised All-Natural Chicken Tacos, Brussels Sprouts Salad, and more. Just don’t get so involved in the food that you miss your flight!
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.