You don’t always want to spend a lot of money on a date. If it’s early on, you don’t always know how it's going to go. After all, you could wind up having wildly different opinions on the Supreme Court or the best Ninja Turtle, so probably don’t take them to Oriole. And if you’re saving up for a couple’s vacation to Maui, you’re probably not trying to spend a ton of money on a forty-course omakase.
But just because you don’t feel like dropping half of your paycheck on a meal doesn’t mean you can’t go out to eat together. Here are 19 of the best date spots that won’t also cause you to overdraw your account.
Affordability is our 16th favorite thing about Bayan Ko, a small Filipino-Cuban restaurant in Ravenswood. There’s also the friendly laid-back staff, delicious food (like croqueta tots or oxtail kare kare), and the BYOB policy. Plus not being pricey means that we could take five different dates here a week if we weren’t afraid of the sitcom hijinks that would happen if we mixed up the nights.
During the day, Cellar Door in Logan Square is one of our favorite places to catch up with a friend over coffee. But at night, the dimly-lit space becomes more romantic than the same place you were listening to someone complain about their coworkers six hours earlier. And even though most of the dishes on the rotating menu (like tortellini in marrow broth, or beets with white kimchi) feel like they could belong at a fancy tasting menu spot, just about everything here is under $20.
Superkhana is a good place if you and your date are feeling stressed out about money. It’s an Indian restaurant in Logan Square with fun small plates (like a tower of french fries and a grilled cheese with about 17 ingredients) and an oddly relaxing bathroom that plays “Waterfalls” by TLC on repeat. Plus, all of the best food here is around $10. That means you can order more dhokla and not argue about whether buying that $2000 exercise bike was bad idea.
Sure, it would be impressive (and a little creepy) to pull out plane tickets to Paris for a third date, but either way, you can only afford a flight to Green Bay. Go to Le Bouchon in Bucktown instead. It’s a charming French restaurant where dinner for two (with oysters, a Lyonnaise salad, and an excellent roast chicken) can easily be under $50. Plus on Mondays, wine bottles are half-off. After a couple of bottles of Chardonnay, you can ask them about their company’s vacation policy.
Middle Brow Bungalow in Logan Square is a brew pub where you can split an excellent pizza for under $20. Plus you’re in a bright space filled with tastefully refurbished furniture, instead of a huge building surrounded by vats of beer and the smell of spent grain. In other words, it’s more romantic than going to Revolution for a brewery tour.
Spacca Napoli is a casual Neapolitan pizzeria in Ravenswood where you can split one of the best pizzas in the city for around $16. It’s also a neighborhood hangout for families, which makes it a good choice for a low-pressure, early-in-the-game date. And it offers value in more than one way - can you put a price on the joy of watching someone discover their new favorite pizza? We don’t think so.
If you want to impress your date by taking them somewhere that’s fun and a little sceney, you should go to Etta. It’s a restaurant in Wicker Park from the same people behind Maple & Ash, but instead of $120 filets and $180 seafood towers, you can get an excellent cavatelli bolognese for $16 and a sausage-giardiniera pizza for $18. If it ever gets serious, then you can go to their sister restaurant and spend $220 on caviar.
If the date is less a romantic evening, and more of an escape pod from your shared life of bills and random errands, try The Delta in Wicker Park. It’s a laid-back restaurant that serves delicious Southern food like hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, and tamales, and most things are less than $15. Plus there’s a quiet, secluded back patio to help you forget that tomorrow you need to buy stamps.
Depending on what you’re using it for, Pub Royale in Wicker Park is either an Indian restaurant that feels like a bar, or a bar that feels like an Indian restaurant. While that sounds like an existential philosophical debate, all you need to know is that it has delicious food and excellent cocktails, neither of which are expensive. Most dishes here are about $15, so you can order things like butter chicken and chana masala, and drink one of their $11 Pimm’s Cups.
Tango Sur in Lakeview isn’t just one of the best steakhouses in Chicago, it’s the only where you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Most steaks here are under $30, plus it’s BYOB. And Bodega Sur (their sister restaurant right next door) has a wine shop. That way you can impress your date with your knowledge of Argentine malbecs. But first, you should probably Google Argentine malbecs.
5 Rabanitos is a casual Mexican restaurant in Pilsen with a long menu full of great food. And it’s so affordable that you won’t have to choose between the pibil tacos ($2.75), tinga huarache ($8.75), and the ahogada torta ($10.50). That goes for the desserts too. So if you and your date are going back and forth between the equally excellent tres leches cake and cinnamon bread pudding, you can go wild and get both for $13.
Most of the Asian-inspired dishes at Mott St. in Wicker Park are meant to be shared, like the kimchi empanadas ($11) and the everything wings ($12). And you should definitely order the $15 burger if you can snag a seat at the bar - which is the only place you can get it. But on second thought, you probably won’t want to share it, no matter how much you like your date.
There’s a lot to like about 90 Miles in Logan Square, including a large covered patio that makes it feel like summer even in the middle of February. The Cuban food (like lechón and ropa vieja) is very affordable, plus it’s BYOB and they have excellent sangria mixes. So if you bring a bottle of wine they can turn it into a pitcher of cocktails.
The large patio at Saint Lou’s in the West Loop is a great place to hang out on a date, whether or not you decide to use their bocce court. The small plates, like duck confit pierogies, are all around $10, while the entrees are $22-$30 and come with three sides, like mac and cheese or dill pickled potatoes. And if you come on Wednesday nights, you can get a bucket of fried chicken and a bottle of champagne for $40, which is as romantic as you want to make it.
There are no bocce courts, second-floor balconies, or rooftop views at Garifuna Flava, a casual restaurant in Marquette Park. But it does have some really good, extremely affordable Belizean food - like a half jerk chicken with fried plantains or tender oxtails, for around $10. Plus, their tropical cocktails are strong enough to make even a boring date interesting.
Italian restaurants generally make for good date nights (just ask Lady and the Tramp, or Garfield and Arlene), which is why you should go to La Scarola in West Town. It’s an old-school, white-tablecloth Italian spot where entrees like chicken Vesuvio or risotto primavera are around $20, and large enough to feed two people. Hopefully your meal goes the way of Lady and the Tramp, but make room for leftovers in your fridge just in case.
You could probably spend a lot of money at Irazu in Bucktown, but it would take some effort. It’s BYOB, and full of Costa Rican dishes like pepito sandwiches ($8) and empanadas (3 for $9), with the most expensive entree on the menu being a $21 surf and turf. But before you decide to buy a round of oatmeal shakes for everyone in the restaurant, you should know that it’s cash only.
Instead of taking your date somewhere expensive in the West Loop where you can show off your credit card limit, go to Green Street Smoked Meats - where you can impress them with how many pounds of brisket you can eat instead. It’s a first-come-first-served BBQ spot in a warehouse-like space if the warehouse were manufacturing twinkle lights and bathtubs filled with beer cans. If your date suggests splitting a Frito pie, you’ve probably found the one.