There’s no denying it—traditional French cuisine is having a major moment right now. And with more than a handful of delicious eateries ranging from classic bistro to white tablecloth dining, it may be hard to choose where to feast on exquisite French fare.
Here are the 10 best French restaurants in the Windy City
The romantic ideal of a French bistro is alive and well at quaint Bistro Champagne, where a tiny bar by the entrance is ready with your aperitif. Light slants through wooden Venetian blinds, bouncing off cream-and-brick walls in the welcoming dining room. Choose a white cloth-covered table inside or dine outside under the garden’s twinkling lights and green tree branches. Inspired accompaniments make for memorable versions of rustic French standards. Start with a large, savory bowl of soupe à l’oignon gratinée capped with a thick layer of melting Gruyère. Then, discover their pitch-perfect duck pithiviers, wild mushroom duxelles and hazelnuts in puff pastry with a Madeira reduction. Brown butter pain perdu tucked with black figs.
Tucked away from the buzz of the Magnificent Mile, Bistronomic is a great place to cool your tired heels. Jaunty red awnings beckon brightly, and the revolving door spins guests into a warm room that’s focused on the bonhomie of dining with friends. Oxblood walls, gray banquettes and a central bar play up the bistro feel, while the kitchen conveys creativity with fresh renditions of tasty classics. Rusticity and elegance come together in a fillet of Lake Superior whitefish that is pan-seared to golden-brown and matched with spring ratatouille, preserved lemon and puréed eggplant. Exquisitely crisp feuilletine is a glamorous upgrade to the classic Kit Kat bar, folded with hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate and finished with a sweet-tart orange sauce.
This posh bistro is clearly visible to passersby thanks to its large windows and distinctive signage. Hushed and intimate inside, the dining room is awash with a palette of soothing greys and dressed up with herringbone floors along with black-and-white photography. Servers may be casually dressed, but are attentive and engaging. Brindille’s menu bears a strong Parisian accent influenced by the chef’s love for French cuisine. Roasted chestnuts are whirled into a creamy soup and poured over compressed apple, wild mushrooms and puffed rice. Spot-on Dover sole meunière is plated with a purée of watercress and golden-crisp pommes rissolées. And for dessert, preserved cherries are just one option to fill the baked-to-order almond clafoutis.
Bringing a bit of je ne sais quoi to Little Italy, Chez Joël is a stylish setting packed with expats recalling their travel stories. Here, walls gleam with ice-blue accents and windows are dressed with velvet as well as some lovely art that adds to the overall lure. A cozy bar in the back is ideal for sipping, but then get down to business by partaking in this kitchen’s cuisine—classic French mingled with global effects. For a pleasing trio of flavors, cuisses de grenouilles à la Provençale, or frogs’ legs, are cooked with garlic, spinach and just the right dab of butter. Poulet aux champignons, or chicken breast, is then sautéed in a deliciously rich white wine- mushroom- and cream-sauce. Classic desserts, like the crème brûlée, are not a bad way to go
Cochon Volant Brasserie
Though it’s attached to the Hyatt, Cochon Volant is a favorite with Loop locals and sightseers alike for its timeless warmth. Round bistro tables and bentwood chairs are clustered across the mosaic-tiled floor, while a broad, marble-topped bar is bustling with patrons from lunch to happy hour. Brasserie favorites dominate the menu, ranging from rustic French onion soup to lavish raw seafood plateaux. Steak frites is juicy and flavorsome with a tender prime cut of bavette, offered with five sauce options like a classic béarnaise or rich Roquefort. Breakfast is delicious, but for those who don’t have time to sit and stay a while, the takeaway bakery lets commuters snag a pastry (cinnamon or coffee donut holes are never a bad idea) and coffee to go.
Maude’s Liquor Bar
It’s impossible not to love this place. The overstuffed curio cabinet and blue French metal chairs aren’t true antiques, for this gorgeously disheveled and rather classy brasserie isn’t as old as the mirror’s artful patina would have you believe. A handsome bar mixing contemporary and classic cocktails adds to the vintage atmosphere. Fill up on French comfort food under the glow of mismatched crystal chandeliers, or head to the second-floor bar to snack on oysters and frites. The Lyonnaise salad is downright beautiful, tossing escarole, frisée and baby romaine in chive vinaigrette beneath a soft boiled egg and chunks of grilled pork belly. Steak tartare satisfies from beginning to end, and the crème brûlée makes for a deliciously textbook finish
Summit the historic Chicago Stock Exchange building via a private elevator to reach the sophisticated—though never outdated—scene at Everest on the 40th floor. The sunken-level dining room stays dimly lit by contemporary circular metal light fixtures, all the better to gaze admiringly at the views from the windows framing this formal space. Heavy white linens and abstract bronze sculptures adorn each table, at which smartly dressed guests take it all in. Alsatian Chef Jean Joho keeps to French tradition on his degustation and prix-fixe menus, with nods to local ingredients among the classical techniques and pairings presented nightly. Where other chefs may feel the need to update and tweak time-honored dishes, Everest celebrates the classics. Subtle hints of ginger in a rich Gewürztraminer butter sauce complement succulent chunks of fresh and meaty Maine lobster. This may be tailed by two thick, bone-in lamb chops featuring ribbons of fat that are toothsome but never too chewy—their richness amplified by a silken spring garlic flan and bed of crisp green beans that soak up the thyme jus. Cap it all off with tart and sweet pistachio vanilla succès dabbed with red rhubarb jam.
Pressed-tin ceilings? Check. Brick-and-Dijon color scheme? Of course. Le Bouchon proffers the quintessential bistro experience, where straightforward French cooking never goes out of style and the regulars keep returning for more. The informal atmosphere gets convivially raucous as the night goes on with thirsty and hungry hordes lining the bar and petite dining room. Over in the kitchen, familiar and approachable favorites rule the menu: soupe à l’oignon, wearing its traditional topper of broiled Gruyère on a moist crouton, oozes and bubbles over the sides of a ramekin. And an ample fillet of saumon poché napped in beurre blanc is the very essence of simplicity. A lunch prix-fixe keeps the wallet light but belly full.
Though the casual dining movement seems unstoppable, this elegant holdout still likes to kick it old school. Here, along with classical French cuisine, guests are also treated to suited waiters and cart brigade service. In fact, this quaint two-story townhouse, set in the heart of Streeterville and decked out with throw pillow-lined banquettes, fresh-flower arrangements and an upstairs tea salon, makes for the perfect backdrop. Just past the entrance, find a small parlor and polished bar, which also doubles as a fine perch for a pre-dinner martini in an etched glass. Come dinnertime, diners look forward to a prix-fixe menu that allows them to choose between various courses, including an ahi tart, warming mushroom soup and sweet Grand Marnier soufflé.
Margeaux Brasserie is one swank spot. Housed inside the Waldorf Astoria, this restaurant marks the first Chicago venture for the popular Mina Group, led by esteemed San Francisco-based chef, Michael Mina. The space is bright and airy, with light streaming in through the large picture windows and lots of luxe velvet and leather details. Kick things off with perfectly caramelized duck wings a’ l’orange. Diners may then choose to linger over dishes like the warm tomato Tatin, paired with puff pastry, Camembert and pistou. While a bone-in rack of lamb takes satisfaction to the next level when coupled with stewed chickpeas, piquillos and fennel, turnip with roasted lamb jus and a croustillant filled with braised lamb rib is the very picture of decadence.
By Lenz Pierrelys