Faced with a shrimp cocktail, I am powerless. It doesn’t even have to be a good version. I’ll still drop whatever I’m doing and attack. This is even though sometimes my brain questions the whole concept (do I really want a ketchup-based sauce with some terribly expensive seafood?). But any hesitation is but a split second pause before I have a shrimp in hand ready to dunk.

Shrimp cocktail is, to my mind at least, the quintessential appetizer — not the best or most creative — but the one that pops to mind first whenever appetizers are mentioned. This is probably because the shrimp cocktail can be found all over the place, from seafood shacks to fancy steakhouses. It’s so common that when I decided to research the dish, I knew I’d end up in neighborhoods all over Chicago.

That said, when most of us think about shrimp cocktail, the version you get at steakhouses comes to mind first. Honestly, it feels like you could almost revoke a steakhouse’s license if it doesn’t have a shrimp cocktail on the menu. You’ll find the dish at Gibson’s (1028 N. Rush St.), Chicago Chop House (60 W. Ontario St.), Maple & Ash (8 W. Maple St.) and Gene & Georgetti’s (500 N. Franklin St.), and you’ll pay mightily for each order ($22.50, $23, $25 and $22, respectively).

Seafood restaurants

While steakhouse shrimp cocktails are all about making an impression (bigger is always better there), high-end seafood restaurants offer a far more measured approach. They are also, in my research, better. (These places have mostly dispensed with the traditional presentation, favoring laying the shrimp on a bed of crushed ice, with the cocktail sauce in a small saucer.)

When I asked Bill Nevruz, executive partner at Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard St.) why the shrimp cocktail served at the Oyster Bar was so good ($5.25 per piece), he said that the success of the dish is 90 percent about the quality of the shrimp.

“We source Mexican brown shrimp from the Pacific side of the Mexican coast,” says Nevruz. “A whole bunch of shrimp can be used for shrimp cocktail, but we think these are the absolute best.”

Nevruz notes that most shrimp are chemically treated, but that Shaw’s gets it shrimp from a co-op called Pacific Shrimp, which refuses to use any chemicals. He believes this results in plumper, more delicious shrimp. If I had to pick the best traditional version of the shrimp cocktail right now in Chicago, it’d be here.

But a number of seafood restaurants are starting to push at the edges of the dish. At Giuseppe Tentori’s GT Fish & Oyster (531 N. Wells St.) in River North, the absurdly juicy shrimp ($8 each) arrive lightly tossed with herbs, which I realize doesn’t sound like a huge deal, except that no other place downtown tosses their shrimp with anything. Portsmith (660 N. State St.) takes it a step further with its version ($16), charring the shrimp slightly before chilling it, which gives each bite an intoxicating smoky aroma.