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How Chicago’s Famous Restaurant Row Has Changed

A few vacation destinations stand out among the rest if you’re someone who likes to combine your love of food with your love of travel. Chicago is easily one of the country’s best cities to visit if you love to eat. After all, this is the city that invented deep-dish pizza and Italian beef, and a place where you order your hot dogs “dragged through the garden,” please. Chicago also attracts its share of high-caliber chefs and restaurant owners, too, consistently churning out James Beard Award winners and Michelin Star restaurants.

In Chicago, our culinary cup runneth over, and runneth outside downtown Chicago. In fact, one of Chicago’s best dining destinations is located on the North Shore along the west bank of the Des Plaines River. That’s where you’ll find the famous Restaurant Row in Wheeling, with a rich culinary history that dates back to the early 1970s. Restaurant Row encompasses a bustling stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is home to some of the best-known local dining establishments, from fast casual to fine dining concepts.
 
Whether you’re a local connoisseur or a food-savvy visitor, Restaurant Row is where you come to learn local food culture but also sample international flavors and concepts that only Chicago-area chefs know how to produce. Restaurant Row has mushroomed over the years, and now includes dozens of places to eat or hang out with friends for a night. But in there beginning, there was only one.

Bob Chinns
Bob Chinn's Crab House, 393 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling 

In the Beginning

Before Anthony Bourdain had a hit food show on the Travel Channel, and before Top Chef started making celebrities out of up-and-coming cooks, there was Jean Banchet—one of the earliest chefs to achieve celebrity status. And it was Chef Banchet who put Wheeling on the culinary map when he opened Le Francais here in the 1970s, on a small plot along Milwaukee Avenue—the street that would later become Wheeling’s Restaurant Row. The number of diners attracted to Le Francais (and diners’ willingness to wait up to six months for a reservation) kick-started a restaurant-building boom in this Chicago suburb. Before his passing in 2013, the award-winning and renowned chef also established the Jean Banchet Awards, which recognizes excellence among Chicago chefs and raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. 

All of a sudden, following the opening of Le Francais, sophisticated and curious diners were flocking to the North Shore. Following Banchet’s lead, Bob Chinn and his daughter Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau opened Bob Chinn’s Crab House at 333 S. Milwaukee Avenue in 1982. Probably the most prominent successor to the Le Francais legacy, this locally and nationally known restaurant has brought mountains of recognition to Restaurant Row. In fact, Forbes Magazine recognized Bob Chinn’s Crab House as the nation’s highest grossing restaurant in 2012.
 
The beauty of Bob Chinn’s Crab House has always been its menu variety. Order the crabmeat vermicelli or an aged steak. Opt for chicken, lamb or pork chops. Try the fish, pasta and homemade soups. Start with a trip to the extensive salad bar, and finish with a house-made dessert. Order just about anything—you can’t go wrong.
 
But it’s the world-famous Mai Tai and trademark garlic rolls that keep diners coming back again and again, says Carly LeTourneau, granddaughter and daughter to the founders. “We pride ourselves on having the best quality seafood, flown in fresh from all over the world, served with wonderful Midwest hospitality in a casual, laidback atmosphere,” she says. “We are a bit larger than your typical family-run restaurant, but we have all the comforts and values of home.” Except at home, you don’t have photos of all the famous guests that have dined there before you hanging on the walls.
 

Superdawg Drive-In, 333 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

Top Dogs

After Jean Banchet and Bob Chinn, more and more restaurateurs made their way north to Wheeling, bringing the best of Chicago classics with them.

There’s no better place to sample the ultimate hot dog than at the legendary Superdawg Drive-In. Owner-operator Scott Z. Berman says his parents Maurie and Flaurie Berman opened the original location of this warm, approachable restaurant in the 1940s. Then, during 2010, the Berman family brought a new, fun energy to Milwaukee Avenue when they opened their second Superdawg Drive-In on Restaurant Row.
 
“We’re a fast-casual restaurant where your car is the dining room and we actually have real carhops,” Berman says. “Customers like that their food is brought on a tray with real waitering, as it was in the old days.” The hot dogs here are a special recipe, larger than most Chicago dogs and laced with extra smokiness, garlic and spices. “Everything is made just for us, from our bun to our condiments,” he adds. And to produce enough French fries to pair with these famous dogs, Superdawg peels and fresh cuts 5,000 pounds of potatoes per day.
 
Famous for its tasty Chicago-style street food, Superdawg Drive-In has appeared on the Travel Channel, Fox Chicago, Food Network with Emeril Lagasse and more. The restaurant is also listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List, by Patricia Schultz. And to keep up with the craft beer trend, Superdawg has partnered with Lake Effect Brewing to create a stout beer that honors the restaurant's famous chocolate malts and shakes.

Saranellos
Saranello's, 601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

An Explosion of Culture and Cuisine

Over the years, the lineup of restaurants along Milwaukee have changed, but one thing that never changes is the variety and quality of dining options. Today, you can find a modern, casual menu and a Napa-style tasting room at Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant. Savor crispy crab beignets or fresh hummus with feta and Mediterranean relish alongside a flight of four vintages, or ask for a risk-free taste before you order a full glass of Pinot Gris, Prosecco or Cabernet Sauvignon. Then, pair your favorite wine with entree selections such as hearty short rib risotto or pistachio-crusted grouper served with asparagus and a mustard glaze.

Cooper’s Hawk is a good example of the culinary evolution of Restaurant Row, where it isn’t just about the food, but also the experience. Remember, Restaurant Row started with a single restaurant—a destination for one meal for one type of diner. Now, you can have the type of culinary experience you want—and you can make a weekend out of it. 
 
Case in point: Westin Hotel North Shore is an excellent place to stay a night or two to explore the North Shore, but it’s also home to Saranello’s, a “red-sauce Italian” restaurant that features old-world techniques and fresh ingredients. “We handcraft all of our food and grind all of our meat in-house,” says chef and co-owner, Mychael Bonner.
 
Another popular spot for authentic Italian fare is Tuscany Wheeling, part of Chicago’s Phil Stefani restaurant group. “We serve classic recipes from Italy and our chefs are all trained [there], says Frank D'Angelo, general manager. Here you get more of the white-wine Italian style sauce rather than the red…the choice is yours.

Tuscany Wheeling
Tuscany, 550 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

The Unexpected Success of Restaurant Row 

It bears repeating that this wasn’t supposed to become one of the hottest culinary destinations in the Chicago area. It was almost rural back when Bob Chinn was looking for a location to open a restaurant, his granddaughter says. But Wheeling had a few differentiators: “The actual space was perfect for what we had envisioned, and there was so much potential for all the surrounding area to flourish,” says LeTourneau. “We wanted to plant roots in a place where we could grow with the community, and Wheeling seemed like the ideal spot.” 

Superdawg’s Berman agrees. “We existed on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, when my parents opened [the restaurant] to put themselves through school at Northwestern. It was an edge-of-the-city location, from center-city. In the 1980s, we saw that many of our customers had moved north and northwest and decided to open 12 miles north on Milwaukee Avenue along Restaurant Row.”
 
By the time Tuscany Wheeling opened in 1999, Restaurant Row had become one of the most talked about culinary destinations in Chicagoland. “Restaurant Row had some world-renowned restaurants before we moved here, and we wanted to add to that group of very well-known restaurants,” D’Angelo says.
 
“There are a lot of great memories on Restaurant Row too,” he adds. “Many customers have come to these restaurants since their children were little, and now their children are coming as adults.”
 
One of the best times to visit Restaurant Row in Wheeling is during its annual Taste of the Town, one of the Chicago area’s best annual food events, which happens every fall. More than 20 local dining favorites serve up some of their best dishes to more than 800 people.  
 
Last year, the event took place at the Westin Chicago North Shore. Some of the restaurants represented included Bob Chinn’s Crab House, Cooper’s Hawk, Allgauer’s, Morton’s The Steakhouse, Truco Taqueria, E+O Food and Drink and more.

“The Taste of the Town is a wonderful event to support the vitality of our renowned Restaurant Row,” says D’Angelo says.  The 2017 event is planned for September 29.
 

Bob Chinn's Crab House, 393 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling

Good Food, Friendly Neighbors

A culinary getaway to Wheeling is a unique experience, first because of the food, but also because of the town. “The restaurants feel very local and connected to the community,” Saranello’s Bonner says. “There’s a synergy there, so you’re always bringing your A-game. There are great chefs that work in the area, which pulls from a lot of different communities. It’s a great quality food and dining experience outside of the city.”

Restaurants along this section of Milwaukee Avenue that make up Restaurant Row generate over $90 million in revenue for our state and local economy, Berman says. “This corridor is such a vital economic driver for the area.”

“We are very close to each other, on Restaurant Row,” he adds. “As [the neighborhood] developed, it became this unique place that drew customers from a much larger area than any single restaurant would draw.”

From one came many. See for yourself and visit Restaurant Row.