Anyone who’s studied abroad or ever traveled in Europe can attest to the fact that while there may be no place like home, the transition back into the American foodscape can be a bit bumpy. American food, in general, just isn’t as fresh as European food, and you can taste the difference. While we’re all familiar with the romantic vision of winding, colorful spice markets and daily jaunts to the local marketplace for baguettes and flowers, here in Chicago, one quickly realizes these visions aren’t too easy to find in this city.
The Bensidoun family picked up on this fact too and decided to do something about it. The Parisian family has been market moguls since 1953 and decided to spread its European lifestyle ideals abroad by opening up open-air and indoor markets throughout the U.S., including 11 in the Chicagoland area. Among these is the Chicago French Market: designed to capture the sense of community found in European markets, it features 30 individual specialty vendors of local produce, meats, seafood, breads, pastries, artisan goods and beyond, all located in the commuter-convenient MetraMarket just off the Clinton El stop in the West Loop. The market is a true taste of France in one of the most American cities there is; and, it’s a jackpot of the freshest artisanal foods you can find in Chicago, all in one place.
Walking in, you’ll probably be overwhelmed — as you should be with any good market. Vibrant organic fruits and vegetables hang out alongside rows of artisanal chocolates and candies, and the competing aromas of every variety of ethnic cuisine imaginable pull you in multiple directions at once. Don’t get flustered; whichever aisle you choose to meander down first will reap rewards. Another thing that makes the Chicago French Market great is its size: it’s big enough to offer something for everyone, without the labyrinthine expanse of some European markets that keep you wandering for hours.
If you’re famished right off the bat, make a beeline for Pastoral directly to your left. This Chicago institution made its first home in East Lakeview and quickly spread to four other locations, including the Chicago French Market. Dedicated to its service as a European-inspired neighborhood cheese, specialty food and wine shop, Pastoral dishes up some of the most delicious, high-quality salads and sandwiches around. Try the Caprese Pastorale for the freshest pesto you’ll ever eat, served atop a perfectly baked baguette with mozzarella and tomatoes, or the Cali Chevre for an unexpected, refreshing combo of goat cheese, homemade almond butter and avocado.
The market is also a great place to shop for gifts. When everything is so fresh and natural, you can truly taste the difference, and your loved ones will thank you for it. When it comes to showing the love, you can’t go wrong with a bottle of really high-quality olive oil or balsamic vinegar, and family-owned Oh, Olive! serves up the best of the best. Everything is incredibly fresh, straight from Modena, Italy. With flavors like fig or dark chocolate balsamic and blood orange olive oil (samples encouraged!), it’s truly a gift that keeps on giving.
For the comfort food lovers among us, Spicy Monkey Soup Company is the “artisanal Cheesie’s,” with organic, locally-sourced and customizable soups and grilled cheeses inspired by days spent in grandma’s kitchen. Lillie’s Q is another purveyor of high-end classics; named “Best New BBQ Restaurant in the Country” by Food & Wine magazine in 2011, it’s definitely worth a try. Health nuts will love RAW.’s outpost as well as seasonal local produce from Produce Express. And for dessert, Vanille Patisserie is a one-stop shop for gourmet French pastries. The handcrafted creations merge European tradition with contemporary tastes, like macarons in tequila lime, milk and honey or strawberry lemongrass flavors.
Along with innumerable made-to-order and artisanal goods vendors, there are also prepared meals from a plethora of local restaurants to choose from, as well as specialty smoothies, coffee, health drinks and gelato. If you’re making a meal of it, indoor and outdoor seating areas are available, but the grab-and-go options make it incredibly simple to stop by the market en route to work or class with a delicious artisan meal in hand. Since the market is directly connected to the Metra’s Ogilvie Transportation Center and is open year-round everyday except Sunday, it’s convenient enough to make it a regular part of your downtown excursions. Whether you want to make believe you’re strolling through Paris in Chicago or you’re just looking for a centralized gathering of the best local food around, definitely check out Chicago French Market next time you head out of Evanston.
Address: 131 N Clinton Ave., Ste. 7, Chicago IL 60661
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri: 7am to 7:30pm, Sat 8:30am to 5:30pm, Sun: closed