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.
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.
Superdawg Drive-In, 333 S. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling
After Jean Banchet and Bob Chinn, more and more restaurateurs made their way north to Wheeling, bringing the best of Chicago classics with them.
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.
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.”
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.”