While Chicago is far north of the hotbed of delicious and hearty cuisine that exists in the south of the US, there are plenty of restaurants in Chicago serving southern cuisine that hold up to the quality, taste, tradition, hospitality, and love for cooking that comes from the south. Three of Chicago’s best restaurants focused on southern food can be found in some of the city’s far north neighborhoods including Edgewater, Andersonville, and Lincoln Square. In Cajun/Creole cooking the three major ingredients – onions, peppers, and celery – are known as the holy trinity. That’s why I like to call Pearl’s Southern Comfort, Big Jones, and Luella’s Southern Kitchen the north side’s holy trinity of southern cooking in Chicago. But who is the best of the bunch? Read below to find out!
Restaurant Ratings and Reviews
Pearl’s Southern Comfort
In a close third place finish is Pearl’s Southern Comfort, a sizable and cute spot up in the Edgewater neighborhood serving Cajun and Creole comfort foods, beer, and cocktails for brunch, lunch, and dinner.
The outside of Pearl’s has a southern feel to it but upon entering the building, which is lined with southern furnishings like the lights, chairs, and decorative artwork, you get the full New Orleans vibe. One of the best parts about Pearl’s is actually what’s outside and above the building, as the restaurant has a fantastic rooftop patio with some great views. The only downfall of sitting up on the patio is that the menu is more limited, but you can still get some downright delectable dishes on the rooftop!
Pearl’s Southern Comfort doesn’t just have great food, they also have a lineup of solid cocktails. I really enjoy their Sazerac, a traditional New Orleans variation of a whiskey or cognac cocktail with bitters and sugar. The restaurant’s take on this classic cocktail was perfectly smokey with a bit of sweetness and bitterness from the added ingredients. I absolutely despise Bloody Marys, a drink that seems to be extremely polarizing and always outdone by the garnishes on top rather than the actual drink itself. You either love it or hate it, except for my cousin Alex, who tries Bloody Marys all the time even though he doesn’t really like them. He and my girlfriend, Erin – a super-fan of Bloody Marys – got the cocktail for brunch one morning and both enjoyed it. Erin said, “I liked the celery salt on the side and the inclusion of the green bean.”
One of the best things at Pearl’s is their Creole Cornbread that can be enjoyed as a starter, shared side, or all to yourself if you please. Of the three southern restaurants in this review Pearl’s wins on the best cornbread. Their cornbread is extremely soft and moist as it is baked fresh and it is topped with hot sauce honey butter that makes for an incredible sweet, savory, and spicy trifecta of flavors!
Another great starter dish is the Boudin Balls, another staple in New Orleans cuisine. These balls are Boudin sausages rolled in panko and lightly fried to crispy golden brown perfection. The dish is served with a tangy Creole remoulade for your dipping pleasure.
Another excellent dish served at Pearl’s is their Gumbo, which is excellently seasoned and has a great smoky flavor. It’s a little more soupy than most gumbos I’ve had but all in all it is one of the better gumbos around the Chicago area.
When outside on the patio the entrees on the menu are mainly sandwiches served with fries, but they are all solid. One of my friends got the Shrimp Po Boy, a traditional New Orleans sandwich with fried shrimp, lettuce, tomato, & spicy tartar served on a french roll. I was told the shrimp was nice and crispy but that the sandwich lacked a bold flavor. I went for the Pulled Pork Brioche which included Carolina pulled pork and house made pickles served on a brioche bun along with a side of creole mustard slaw. The pulled pork was tender and had nice smoky and tangy flavors that paired well with the pickles and slaw.
Another barbecue dish that I’ve had from Pearl’s is their Kansas City Style Ribs, but I was pretty underwhelmed by both the ribs and the side of mac and cheese. The ribs are dry rubbed, smoked, and smothered in Pearl’s house BBQ sauce which sounds like it would make for a fantastic rack of ribs, but I found them to be dry and the flavor profile of the rub and sauce to be way too sweet for my taste. The mac and cheese served on the side wasn’t great either as it was dry and bland.
While Pearl’s dinner and lunch food is great, I like their brunch fare a bit more which is served only on Saturday and Sunday. One of their most interesting dishes on the brunch menu is the Breakfast Poutine. The dish includes pulled pork, gravy, cheese curds, and two eggs any style atop a bed of crunchy pork cracklings that makes for a plate bursting with different unique flavors and textures.
While the Breakfast Poutine was innovative and tasty, the best dish that I’ve had at Pearl’s thus far was their Poached Egg Cochon. This brunch entree is pretty simple but oh so delicious, as it features smoked pork, poached eggs, and gravy atop two golden brown biscuits and it is served with some tasty potatoes. The runny yolk mixed with the smoky pork and rich gravy create a trio of flavors that pairs perfectly with a soft buttery biscuit.
When eating heavier southern foods it is always difficult to save room for dessert, but if you do opt in for dessert you usually will not be disappointed. At Pearl’s Southern Comfort I had the pleasure of trying their Banana Bread Pudding which delivered on the spongy and soft texture and packed a lot of flavor, but more caramel than banana. It was a wonderful way to end a beautiful summer evening on the restaurant’s patio.
In second place is Big Jones, a restaurant that has been one of the crown jewels in the amazing Andersonville restaurant scene. Big Jones features Southern heirloom cooking with a focus on sustainability. From the companies website, “Chef & co-owner Paul Fehribach’s vision is grounded deeply in the rich and diverse heritage that is the Southern kitchen, using the ark of history to bring you food that is as refined as it is down-home satisfying.”
The outside of Big Jones features a striped green and white awning that is reminiscent of the same colored and striped style of awning found at the famous Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. The interior is very minimalist but still manages to feel homey and rustic with farm-focused artwork, unique chandeliers, and wood furnishings throughout the restaurant. The front of the space is larger and features a view of Clark street through a giant window that lets the sunlight pour in while a long and skinny hallway holds the rest of the tables inside. Big Jones has an lovely small patio out back that is delightful for dining during those warm Chicago summer days. Their whole staff and overall service is amazing!
As you walk out to the patio Big Jones proudly displays a line up of its well-deserved awards, including three consecutive James Beard Foundation Awards from 2013-2016.
Big Jones offers an excellent selection of southern-inspired frozen, shaken, and stirred cocktails including the frozen Bishop (rosé, roasted pineapple, orange, Batavia Arrack, and spices), the shaken Hemingway Daiquiri (New Orleans Crystal rum, fresh squeezed grapefruit, lime, and maraschino liqueur), and the stirred Sazerac (Rittenhouse rye, cane syrup, Herbsainte, Peychaud’s bitters, and lemon twist). While sitting on the patio one eveing I went with a classic New Orleans drink called the Pimms Cup which was the perfect balance of sweet, smoky, and sour. Another person at my table opted for the Nola Sling, which includes vermouth, gin, botanicals, lemon shrub, cucumber, and mint for a refreshing and herb-flavored drink.
More recently when Erin and I sat inside the restaurant we tried some other cocktails including the Rhubarb Julep and the Desert Mule. The Rhubarb Julep is a frozen drink featuring Evan Williams bourbon, mint, and rhubarb that didn’t make for the greatest combination of flavors, with the bourbon outweighing everything else. Meanwhile, the Desert Mule was a winner, combining La Luna mezcal, house ginger beer, lime, mole and bitters for a refreshing yet smoky cocktail.
Big Jones has an ample array of amazing starters to share. Their cornbread is my second favorite in the city, as it is cooked in a cast iron skillet making the sides a bit crispier but retaining a whole lot of moistness and butter goodness inside as it is made with bacon fat and served with whipped Driftless Breeze honey butter. Another item that is baked to perfection at Big Jones are the biscuits. The biscuits are among the best in the city, a bit crispy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside. Lathering on the butter and Aunt Rita’s blackberry jelly that are served with it is a must!
Recently Erin and I tried the Gumbo Ya-Ya at Big Jones. The waitress warned us that the chef cooks his roux (a mixture of white wheat flour and a cooking fat that is browned and used to thicken sauces, stews, and gravies) as long as possible, giving the gumbo a great smokiness but also leaving a very bitter aftertaste. She was right on as the gumbo had a perfect smoky and spicy balance but the bitter aftertaste was a bit too much for us.
Another dish that was a bit of a letdown at Big Jones was the Butcher’s Pork Duet. The entrée is a sweet tea-brined and lightly smoked pork loin, served with a crispy boudin ball, baked bean puree, sweet potato hash, and crackling. I shared this dish with some others when out on their patio and everyone agreed it was just ok, as the pork was a bit tough and the ingredients on the side just didn’t come together well with the pork for us.
One of the most hyped up dishes at Big Jones is their fried chicken which is fried in leaf lard, ham drippings, and clarified butter and served with two sides of your choice. After hearing about this fried chicken for so long it was a must-have dish when I went to Big Jones for the first time. It was a decent entrée as the chicken was cooked well and juicy, with fantastic crispy breading. Yet, I felt the breading lacked flavor, making it just a well fried and quality piece of chicken that doesn’t really stand out from the pack of other great fried chicken options in Chicago. The sides the table and I opted for – turnip greens and sweet potato hash – were very flavorful and made for great pairings to add a little oomph to the pretty bland fried chicken.
One of my favorite dishes at Big Jones is the Pork Shoulder Po Boy, which I think is a special on their menu form time to time as well as their Shrimp Po Boy. The pork featured in the po boy that I ate is pecan wood-smoked with sweet and tangy barbecue sauce and a creamy slaw served on a baguette. Everything about the sandwich was delicious, as the bread was crispy with a soft inside, the coleslaw was refreshing with a bit of sweetness, and the pork was extremely tender and delivered great smoky and piquant flavor profiles.
The favorite dish that both Erin and I have had at Big Jones is something a bit unexpected, the Mutton Daube Glace. We both had never had mutton (aka sheep) before and I believe the waitress mentioned that the dish was new and temporary to the menu. This dish should be a permanent or at least more reoccurring option on the menu because it was incredible. The mutton is braised with wine and onion and then combined with creamed Appalachian blue barley, topped with crispy fried greens that makes for a rich and flavorful dish with an assortment of textures. I think the seasonal entrees and specials are way better than many of the permanent staples on the menu.
Big Jones also has some great brunch offerings including brunch platters like their benedict and hot cakes. I really enjoy the Biscuits and Gravy, made with Creole chaurice sausage gravy, two poached eggs, and served with turnip greens. Their Potatoes O’Brien is also a nice side to add onto any plate, as it tastes fresh and is perfectly crispy.
The desserts at Big Jones are fantastic but for so long I never had enough room to grab one after such a heavy and huge meal. The first time dining at Big Jones my friends and I witnessed a guy who ordered dessert (something chocolate) and was literally licking his plate clean. It was from that moment that I knew at some point I had to save up some room in a future meal at the southern restaurant to try their dessert. During my most recent meal at Big Jones I had the pleasure of trying their seasonal Strawberry Shortcake – made with sweet biscuits, fresh strawberries, and homemade whipped cream – and the Pot de Creme, a creamy chocolate custard with notes of bourbon and caramel, topped with nuts and a dollop of whipped cream. The strawberry shortcake was very refreshing on a hot summer’s day while the pot de creme was the ultimate rich and creamy dessert. If you can I highly recommend you save room for a dessert at Big Jones.
Luella’s Southern Kitchen
Luella’s Southern Kitchen located in Lincoln Square is the winner by a long shot as they offer the most consistently amazing dishes and for the most part at cheaper prices than Pearl’s or Big Jones. Chef and owner Darnell Reed draws influence from his grandmother Luella’s southern roots in Mississippi and the recipes he learned when younger. You can get a great sense of what this restaurant serves and stands for by checking out this video from Check, Please! This crown jewel of southern cooking in Chicago offers a collection of traditional southern plates like po boys, catfish, fried chicken, gumbo, and shrimp and grits as well as their own twists on American classics like mac & cheese, french toast, and eggs Benedict. They also have the nicest and down-to-earth staff and quite the amazing service. If you want to indulge yourself for brunch, lunch, or dinner then make Luella’s your next go-to spot!
Both the outside and inside of the restaurant are pretty plain, not going for the southern themed aesthetics that others in the city go for. However, there is always some great artwork up hanging on the walls of the fairly small interior of Luella’s. The thing is you don’t come for a pretty interior when you dine at Luella’s, you come for the amazing food.
My love for this restaurant is backed up from the many awards that Luella’s has won like the 2016 Critics Choice Award for Best New Southern Restaurant and the Best Mac & Cheese at Time Out’s 2017 Mac & Cheese Smackdown. The restaurant has also been featured on the Michelin Bib Gourmand Guide in recent years.
Luella’s has some of the staple southern sides and starters like biscuits, cornbread, and gumbo. Their Buttermilk Biscuits with Homemade Jam is good but when I had the biscuits they were a bit dry and the jam was just ok to me so Big Jones wins the battle of the biscuits. The Skillet Cornbread with Honey Butter at Luella’s is great, but again it is more dry than I would like, so it also loses the battle of the cornbread against Pearl’s and Big Jones. However, that’s where the “losing” stops for Luella’s as every other side dish, dessert, and entree I’ve had has been absolutely incredible.
The Braised Collard Greens is a very generous portion and it is phenomenally cooked and seasoned, made with ham hock, roasted garlic, and creole seasoning. The collard greens makes for a great side, especially with their fried chicken. Also since it’s green and a vegetable you can pretend it’s healthy!
The mac and cheese and gumbo are sudo-sides, options that can easily be scarfed down as a main meal or shared among the table as an appetizer. The gumbo is the best I’ve had in Chicago, made with a dark roux, creole seasoning, carolina gold rice, chicken, Andouille Sausage, and my personal favorite hot sauce Crystal’s. This bowl of gumbo is among the chunkiest I’ve had and boasts a mix of great smoky and savory flavors with a nice kick at the end.
Their mac & cheese is among the best in Chicago and they have a 2017 Time Out Chicago Mac & Cheese Winner award to prove it. During my first visit I actually had that as my main entree and it hit the spot! I believe I had the braised short rib mac & cheese but Chef Reed has been known to change up the mac and cheese from time to time to a BBQ brisket and smoked jerk chicken version as well. The dish is extremely creamy, decadent, and multi-textured with the tender meat and crunchy breadcrumbs. It’s a heavy and rich dish so I recommend sharing it, but then again you risk fighting your friend for the last mouth-watering bite so I guess do so at your own risk.
One of the most popular entrees at Luella’s Southern Comfort, and Chef Reed’s personal favorite, is the Shrimp & Grits. It’s made with New Orleans barbecue shrimp and cream cheese grits. My friend Andy had this dish the first time we dined at Luella’s and he loved it, mentioning how creamy the grits were. There are two grits in Chicago that Andy has claimed he likes so much that he would take a bath in and this is one of them (the other is at Honey Butter Fried Chicken), so this shrimp and grits is a must for any fan of this food or anyone who is thinking about taking a nice relaxing bath in hot steaming grits.
The only type of po boy that I’ve ever seen Luella’s serve is a shrimp one made with New Orleans French bread, Cayenne remoulade, and served with seasoned fries on the side. My buddy Alan went with the Shrimp Po Boy one time and wasn’t a big fan though as he said there was too much breading making the sandwich hard to eat and too crispy. I’d love to see a roast beef po boy at the restaurant at some point though! I have no doubt it would be delicious.
For dessert Luella’s almost always offers fresh beignets dusted with powdered sugar. While these beignets are good they just don’t hold a candle to the fluffy and warm beignets offered at the famous Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Still, if you are craving something fried and sweet grab an order at Luella’s.
Like Pearl’s Southern Comfort and Big Jones, Luella’s Southern Kitchen has an amazing brunch, but Luella’s has some of my favorite brunch options in the city. Their Southern Bendict hits the spot made with Slagel Farm pork belly, poached farm eggs, Creole Holandaise, and cracked pepper on a cheddar biscuit. The soft texture of the pork belly, crispiness of the biscuit, and richness of the egg yolk and holondaise sauce makes this dish a winner.
After the owner’s aunt telling me that I had to try their Brown Sugar and Bourbon French Toast and then seeing this towering thing of beauty being carried to another table I knew I had to try it the next time I was back. Recently I ordered it and I was not disappointed. It is the best french toast in Chicago and is only runner up to the french toast at the Griddle Cafe in Los Angeles for me. The french toast is so soft and packs a punch of maple, brown sugar, bourbon, and buttery flavors. It’s truly incredible!
This whole review has been building up to this one magnificent dish. Luella’s Nashville Hot Chicken & Waffles is perfect in every way. The fried chicken is in my top three of all time and when this masterfully breaded and spiced chicken is paired with a terrific sweet and fluffy Liege waffle I have to crown this dish the best fried chicken and waffles in the country that I’ve consumed (on several occassions for that matter). The chicken is crispy and has the perfect spice level, leaving some heat to linger at the back of your tongue after every bite. When paired with the sweet and maple-flavored waffle it makes for a bold combination of sweet, savory, and spicy. I’m not the only one who is hooked on this dish. After I tried this fantastic fried chicken and waffles for the first time I knew I had to bring everyone possible back to try it. My friends Alex, Andy, Erin, Saul, Phil, and Alan are among those that agree it’s the best of its kind. Andy goes even further to say the chicken is his favorite fried chicken he’s ever had. This is a dish you better not pass up if ever dining at Luella’s for brunch!
For a city so far away from the south it’s somewhat surprising that Chicago has so much quality southern fare. You can’t go wrong with any of these restaurants as they all offer their own specialties and experience. However, if you can only pick one I strongly recommend Luella’s Southern Comfort. Your taste buds will thank you later!
-Michael Averbook, Foodie Extraordinaire