After you’ve gotten your fill of the po’boys, king cakes, and general food-filled frivolity of Mardi Gras, Lent is a time to reel it in and cut back on the excess. For many, that means a diet anchored by fish and seafood, and thanks to Chicago’s abundance of quality seafood-centric restaurants, you can have your cake and eat it, too. And by that I mean you can cut back on the indulgence without sacrificing flavor or quality. Here are some of the city’s best seafood restaurants to check out during Lent—and beyond.
The hottest new restaurant in the city comes from the biggest restaurant group in Chicago, as RPM Seafood makes a glorious splash on the Chicago River, courtesy of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. After previous hits RPM Italian and RPM Steak, partners R.J., Jerrod, and Molly Melman, along with Bill and Giuliana Rancic, shine a spotlight on fish and seafood with this waterfront oasis, which rounds out the multilevel complex that’s also home to RPM Events and Pizzeria Portofino. As the name implies, seafood is the star, and considering the top-tier caliber of talent behind the restaurant, including pedigreed chef Bob Broskey, you can rest assured that the menu boasts some of the world’s finest and freshest ingredients. It is divvied into categories such as Crudo & Tartare, Seafood Towers, Delicately Grilled, Seafood Steaks, and Globally Inspired. Examples include bone-in swordfish rib eye, charcoal-grilled black bass, peekytoe crab de Jonghe, bluefin tuna otoro, king crab spaghettini, and a plate of prawns in olive oil that looks as beautiful as stained glass.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Portsmith is the most underrated seafood restaurant in the city; maybe even one of the most underrated restaurants in general. Housed inside the Dana Hotel, the sleek upscale concept comes from Fifty/50 Restaurant Group and features a menu of elevated—and at times playful—nautical fare, including fried oysters in squid ink panko, lobster pot stickers with soy caramel, and ahi tuna tartare with umami shrub and market chilies. Heartwarming perk: Portsmith also partners with the Shedd Aquarium’s sustainable seafood program to ensure utmost ingredients that you can really feel good about.
Sushi restaurants could comprise their own category for a seafood roundup, but instead I’ll whittle it down to my very favorite. From twin brother chefs Melvin and Carlo Vizconde, Kai Zan is a homey, pint-size sushi temple in Humboldt Park that exhibits a mix of modern and traditional Japanese cooking techniques. The ever-changing menu is always filled with dynamic delights, from barbecue eel and oyster-wrapped escolar to shrimp tempura makimono. The budget-friendly omakase is a great option, as well.
Of all the groundbreaking Mexican restaurants in Chicago from Rick Bayless, Leña Brava is the one with the most focus on seafood. Specifically, the menu here is rooted in the cuisine of Baja California Norte, with much of the menu cooked over a wood-fired grill. Look for shareable, group-friendly dishes like whole striped bass, black cod al pastor, and octopus carnitas, which are all designed as an homage to Baja’s eclectic melting pot culture. The restaurant also sports a deep raw bar brimming with the likes of snapper aguachile, seafood cocktails, and sashimi-grade albacore tuna with Baja uni and pumpkin seed hummus.
Two Lights Seafood & Oyster
The folks behind Tortoise Supper Club, one of my favorite timeless spots in River North, have another hit on their hands with this seafood-focused Old Town venture. The major difference between the two sister spots is that Two Lights is awash with light and a coastal motif reminiscent of an oceanside getaway. That sentiment carries over to the food, as well, as husband-and-wife owners Keene and Megan Addington borrow inspiration from their trips to Maine for a menu filled with the freshest oysters and seafood. Start with salmon ceviche and fried calamari with giardiniera aioli, before diving in with New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, Bar Harbor mussels, lobster frites, and shrimp with linguini and chile flakes.
When one door closes, a chic new one swings open. Such is the case at Café Cancale, a stunner from the always amazing One Off Hospitality Group (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican, Big Star), which opened in its former Publican Anker space. Gone are the dark, rustic pub vibes; in its place comes a sunny, French-inspired bastion of seafood and Carrara marble. Inspired by the town of Cancale, along the western coast of France, the restaurant is a throwback to a memorable birthday trip for chef Paul Kahan. While there, he presumably swooned over oysters and wine, because both take starring roles on the menu. The food skews lighter and brighter than stereotypically rich French fare—look for shareable dishes like Lyonnaise salad with smoked eel; brussels sprouts with smoked ham, tonnato, and walnut picada; snow crab omelets with green salad; and scallops with rice soubise, endive, mushrooms, and pistachio allaide.
GT Fish & Oyster
Over the past several years, Chicago has experienced a big uptick in seafood-centric restaurants. One of the pioneers of that tide is GT Fish & Oyster, an exemplary seafood mecca from Boka Restaurant Group and venerable chef Giuseppe Tentori. Still at the forefront of the city’s must-eat seafood destinations, this sleek River North staple is known for fresh oysters, clam chowder, shrimp bruschetta, ceviche, steamed mussels, whole roasted fish, caviar service, and anything else you can dream up.
It’s seafood with a Spanish accent at this beloved Lakeview go-to, easily one of the city’s premier neighborhood stalwarts. The casual, warm eatery features dishes perfect for sharing and grazing, like crunchy prawn heads, ceviche on squid ink tostadas, salt-cured anchovies, skate wing with chorizo-sherry vinaigrette, mussels escabeche, salt-cured anchovies, smoked trout toast, and seafood fideos with toasted capellini and saffron. Each plate is bright, flavorful, and unique, exhibiting a style of coastal cooking rarely seen in Chicago.
Brown Bag Seafood Co.
Seafood in Chicago is certainly not confined to full-service restaurants, as seen with the rampant success of local fast-casual mini chain Brown Bag Seafood Co. Now with several outposts scattered throughout the city, it’s easy to understand the appetite for such a concept, which hinges on fresh, high-quality seafaring ingredients in an upbeat atmosphere bedecked with whimsical seaside decor. Menus are customizable, allowing patrons to select their fish, preparation method, and presentation, along with sides. Options include broiled whitefish, crispy cod, and curry fish cakes, and items can come as a sandwich, salad, tacos, a “veggie box,” or a grain-based “power box.”
One of the few authentic smoked fish shacks left in the state, this frills-free South Deering staple cooks everything from salmon and trout to shrimp and eel over wood, serving it up in a standing-room-only space at bargain prices, and it has been doing so since 1929. Whatever you order, food here is best enjoyed at one of the sparse picnic tables on 95th Street, by the bridge over Calumet River. Sides include cheese sticks, sweet potato tots, fried pickles, and macaroni salad.
Shaw’s Crab House
You’re guaranteed to have fun at this enduring seafood spot, a decades-old River North icon that features oysters, crab legs, lobster rolls, sushi, and lots more in both its lively oyster bar and glamorous main dining room. The sprawling restaurant serves one of those something-for-everyone menus, from raw oyster platters and Maryland-style crab cakes to mussels, ceviche, sushi, oysters Rockefeller, gumbo, chowder, stone crab claws, and one of the most famed lobster rolls in the city.