|Air travel used to mean that you would get stuck choking down wilted, overpriced airport food while waiting out the inevitable delays at O'Hare. But at one of the nation's busiest airports, there's no need to stick with bland eats from mega-corporate national chains; with a little direction, you can find plenty of Chicago favorites right in your terminal.
Heading to Midway instead? Rather than settling for Potbelly's, make a trip to one of these nearby eateries.
Berghoff Cafe, Terminal One
This pint-sized version of Chicago's oldest restaurant comes with all the trimmings: stately wood paneling, gorgeous Tiffany stained glass and communal bar seating. At only $6, the hand-carved sandwiches are a steal. Opt for the corned beef, piled high on your choice of rye, onion roll or sourdough. The fare is hearty German, but you can order pizzas, and vegetarians will swoon for its beet salad. Wash it all down with one of Berghoff's signature brews—alcoholic or root beer.
Eli's Cheesecake-To-Go, Terminal One at United Terminal B
When people fly from Baltimore, they stock up on refrigerated crabmeat—hardly an ideal carryon for a cross-country flight. Chicago's token to-go food is far more tantalizing. Eli's Cheesecake—sold by the slice or whole—puts the New York stuff to shame. Whether you're into Chocolate Chip, Candy Bar, Strawberry or creamy Original, you'll find all the favorites on sale and packaged for easy carryout at this little kiosk from heaven.
Goose Island Brewing Company, Terminal Two
If we learned anything from Charles Bukowski, it's that airports are for drinking—a lot. If bellying up to some faceless bar, dropping $9 on a watered-down cocktail and pretending to be interested in the ramblings of the guy next to you doesn't seem like a great time, head over to the bridge between terminals one and two. You'll find a tiny Goose Island Brewing Company stand, offering a selection of Chicago's finest. Grab a seat in front of the wall of windows, pop open your 312 and watch the planes taxi to and fro.
La Tapenade Mediterranean Cafe, Terminal One
Okay, so this is cheating. La Tapenade is the brainchild of HMSHost, the mega-corporation that creates concession plans for basically every major airport and train station in North America. Its parent company, Italy's multi-billion dollar Autogrill, pretty much nixes any chance that HMSHost can be mistaken for "local." So why did it make the list? Because the corporation created La Tapenade specifically for O'Hare, which means that technically we've got a Chicago original on our hands. Also, its frittata is amazing. The fresh Mediterranean cafe serves up seasonal produce and quality ingredients in paninis, flat-bread pizzas and salads.
Billy Goat Tavern and Grill, Terminal One
Probably the only Chicago landmark that can compete with the Sears Tower, the Billy Goat Tavern is the stuff of legend. Be it the infamy spawned from Saturday Night Live (Who can forget, "Cheezborger, Cheezborger, Cheezborger…"), the glory days of Chicago journalism or the whole Cubs losing-streak voodoo talk, the Billy Goat is a local institution. Tucked in the back of the Jazz Food Court in Terminal One, it offers the best cheezborgers in the airport. Its Italian beef has also turned many an extended layover into an enjoyable—albeit sloppy—culinary retreat.
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Gold Coast Dogs, Terminals Three and Five
A dog done right, Gold Coast Dogs has been teaching the laid-over masses at O'Hare about the Chicago way, with peppers, neon-green relish, pickles, mustard and celery salt on a poppy seed bun.
Pizzeria Uno, Terminals Two, Three and Five or Reggio's Pizza Express, Terminals One and Three
Every airport in the country has an Uno now, but Chicago had it first. Its individual pies are tasty enough to stave off a pizza craving, but if you'd prefer to spend your dough on a smaller local chain, go with Reggio's.