Reduced to a token assortment of limp, over-steamed pasta primavera and suspect stir-fries, vegetarians have suffered for their carnivorous friends for years. And while sensitive friends kindly return the favor by spending the night at a vegetarian spot, you probably won't be thanking them after a meal of horrid meat substitutes and carbohydrate overload. Finding a stellar vegetarian meal shouldn't be so hard. In the spirit of bridging the diet divide, we handpicked Chicago eateries that satisfy herbivores' and carnivores' palates alike.
If you binged on absinthe and then someone dropped you in the alleyway of a Beijing brothel, it would probably feel pretty akin to dining at Opera. Trademark Jerry Kleiner touches like bordello red crepe lanterns and kinetic metal scrollwork meld with the Chinese haute cuisine of Paul Wildermuth. A few drinks and dishes for two easily costs about 80 bucks (a good deal more than the price of dining at more authentic Lao Sze Chuan), but when was the last time you had white truffle oil in your stir fry? Highlights from Opera's separate vegan menu—such as the chili and garlic black bean-infused tofu and noodles in chili peanut sauce—could convince your meat-eating friends to switch teams.
Jason Hammel and Amelia Tshilds perfected the art of melding haute food with needs of the 'hood in their premiere Logan Square eatery. Catering to an eclectic blend of artists, activists, students, rockers and neighborhood regulars, the chefs ensure farm fresh, organic offerings for all. The ever-changing, seasonal dinner menu always offers a bevy of vegetarian delights, such as stinging nettle faro with green and white asparagus or confit of organic beets with pumpernickel, creme fraiche, apricot and bittersweet chocolate. The stalwart cafe menu offers up spicy shitake quesadilla and Lula maki, a vegetarian melange that always satisfies.
If you have any carnivorous impulses or are contemplating a conversion, the kai thawt (Thai fried chicken) is the perfect dish to join the meat-eating ranks. On the other hand tao-huu-thawt (fried tofu with sweet and sour sauce dipping sauce) makes a fine stand-in for those sticking to their veggie guns. Be sure to ask for the "Thai Regulars" translated menu, featuring a whole world of authentic options not available on the standard menu. Somtum salad, featuring spicy greens studded with sweet papaya, a smattering of veggies and zingy lime juice perfume, is a good bet. Be careful if you prefer to stay away from seafood as many of the seemingly innocuous curries contain fish sauce.
On the surface, sending a vegetarian to Shawn McClain's Flinstonian take on a modern steakhouse might seem like sending a duck to a foie gras farm. But this is Shawn McClain, the man who brought us Green Zebra, Chicago's premier vegetarian restaurant. The man knows his vegetables, and his flair for green eats actually makes quite a showing at this flesh-focused spot. Extraordinary picks include the velvety Yukon Gold puree drizzled with fruity olive oil and baby beets dripping with sweet mascarpone tinged with the heat of pink peppercorns. Salads such as the mineral-infused Snug Haven farm's spinach, with drizzled brown butter and roasted garlic vinaigrette, will have you laughing at the suckers slurping down bone-in short rib.
Crofton on Wells
Suzy Crofton's restaurant has become such a constant fixture on Wells Street over the years that it's almost easy to forget. But unlike "it" chefs of the moment obsessed with trendy fusion cuisines and post-modernist plating, Crofton executes straight-from-the-heart, seasonal cuisine. In addition to several veggie-friendly offerings on the regular menu, Crofton dedicates a separate menu to exclusively vegetarian plates: Consider the quinoa-corn johnnycakes blanketed with chanterelles, a sweet corn emulsion and spicy poblano pepper oil. The kitchen happily accommodates lacto-ovo and vegan needs.