Walrus

Chicago, IL

383 posts in this topic

We'll be in Chi-town for one, and only one, nice dinner in September -- so where should it be? It's been years since I lived there...are Everest and Charlie Trotter's still the creme de la creme? Or has Tru taken their place? How's Aubriot faring these days? We haven't been to Topolobampo yet -- is it worth making it our one nice meal?

I think that Ray's is better than any steakhouse I ever visited when I lived there, and I'm not really looking for a "different" restaurant like the Green Zebra, etc.

We'll be doing "regular" restaurants (read: my old haunts) with friends -- I'm looking for a special place for just the two of us smile.gif

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I was just out last month and had meals at Trotter's and Topolobampo. Both were excellent, but if I was going back I would go to Topolobampo.

Trotter's was nearly flawless, but so are several places here that you could go to that would match or surpass it.

Topolobampo was soemthing more unique. I was afraid that it was yet another of those places where the chef and the restaurant's reputation exceeded reality. Not the case at all. This is still a vibrant, fun restaurant. We did the tasting menu and every course was better than the next. Exciting flavors, without a touch of overbearing heat.

And the margaritas are now my litmus test for those drinks in the future. But be careful - they go down smooth and quick.

Here are links to my comments "elsewhere":

Topolobampo

Charlie Trotter's

Edited by bilrus

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I haven't been to Trotter's since 2000, but from what I hear, it has been coasting for the past several years.

And from what I've heard, Alinea is firing on all cylinders right now.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I haven't been to Trotter's since 2000, but from what I hear, it has been coasting for the past several years.

That's what I've heard too, although I've also heard that it is maybe more reliable than some fo the other high-end Chicago places, if not as potentially spectacular.

In the link that I posted (I don't know know if you need to register to read it or not), I compared my meal there to my first meal I had at the Inn at Little Washington, one of my first really high-end meals. Nice, very professional, but unstuffy service. Technically correct cooking, ranging from excellent to merely good. But I'm not sure it would wear as well on a second or third visit, just like my second dinner at the Inn. It was still the same, but you go back wanting more.

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I'm not really looking for a "different" restaurant like the Green Zebra, etc.

I really enjoyed a meal I had at Spring last time I was there. It's owned by the Green Zebra people, but don't rule it out because of that-- it's not really anything 'different'.

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I ate at Trotters last year and while everything was beautifully presented, excellent service, etc. it was kind of a sterile meal...after the last course I was left with a "that's it" feeling...although then they served the dessert course which were numerous and delicious.

But for the bucks you'll spend at Trotters I think the Lab or Maestro are equal if not better, or I'd rather go with the tasting menu at Komi...maybe I've been spoiled by too many over the top food board related blow out events in DC!

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We'll be in Chi-town for one, and only one, nice dinner in September -- so where should it be? It's been years since I lived there...are Everest and Charlie Trotter's still the creme de la creme? Or has Tru taken their place? How's Aubriot faring these days? We haven't been to Topolobampo yet -- is it worth making it our one nice meal?

I have tried Tru 1 1/2 years ago and until this day I think it is the best tasting menu I have experienced (Citronelle, Maestro, Le Bec Fin, Morimoto, La Mer, Clio, etc...) (I am secretly hoping that dinner at Per Se next week will top it!!).

The service was immaculate. My hubby was alittle "warm" after couple glasses of wine and tried to take his coat off. Instead of saying that he must have his coat ON, the waiter whispered to him that the temperature of the restaurant was high and that he will immediately adjust it so that it is cooler (btw, it was not warm...I had my shawl WRAPPED around me). Details such as: small tables next to the chairs for purses, versace tea cups to serve the chilled soup, the decor, pastry to eat with coffee the next morning made it a first class experience.

The food...we had the Grand Tasting...total of 10-13 courses (maybe more). Each of us had a different plate for each of the courses...meaning about 40 unique creations to oooo and ahhhh about! The cheese cart still makes my stomach grumble...

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Thanks for the info!

I've made reservations at Tru for our fancy dinner and gone ahead and made reservations at Topolobampo, too -- couldn't resist! :P

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I would recommend Avenues at the Peninsula off of Michigan Avenue. Trotters and Topolobampo are good, but there are fresher places to go that are equally good, if not better. I think Avenues is one of more under-rated places in Chicago.

As a caveat, I just moved from Chicago last summer.

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Ok, schedule is as such:

Thursday, arrive, spend day with Grandmama, dinner at Alinea; Friday, day in Chicago, lunch at Topolobampo, dinner at TRU, drinks with friends...somewhere...hmmm...; Saturday, G-ma's 88th! Hooray! Lunch at Emilio's in Wheaton, plane to Minnesota and more family events :P

Thanks for your help!!!

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Sounds like a great agenda!

Don't forget Hot Dougs (www.hotdougs.com) or Mr. Beef for a lunch spot! BTW Aubriot has been closed for a few years now...

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Sister & Brother-in-Law are heading to Chicago this weekend for a quick getaway from parenthood. They're looking for a nice place to eat that 1) won't break the bank, and 2) doesn't require a "nice" outfit!

Any suggestions of "hidden gem" type neighborhood places? Preferably near downtown or Wrigley Field. Thanks!

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A friend has asked me about what I know of Alinea. I know nothing of it and looking on eGullet I saw a lot of pages that at the moment I don't have the time to invest reading. Would someone be kind enough to summarize the "need to know" about Alinea for me in 3-4 sentences and I can pass that along? I trust you all dearly! :P

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A friend has asked me about what I know of Alinea.  I know nothing of it and looking on eGullet I saw a lot of pages that at the moment I don't have the time to invest reading.  Would someone be kind enough to summarize the "need to know" about Alinea for me in 3-4 sentences and I can pass that along?  I trust you all dearly!   :P

I haven't been, but here's what I've gathered:

Despite the crazy hype they built up on eG, the off-the wall preparations and servings and their self important proclamations, the first reports were mostly raves accompanied by extensive photos, as would be expected from people who had been clamoring to get in for months. But the reports continue to be excellent, a bit to my surprise. In fact just this week they recieved four stars from the Chicago Tribune.

General info - pick from 8-, 12- and 24-course tastings, priced at $75, $110 and $175. Courses that, to my eye at least, read anywhere from very appealing to bizzare. They have already completely changed out every course on the full tasting menu. Very modern, almost austere rooms. Excellent, polished service.

A few more than four sentences, but a lot quicker read than the hundreds of posts on eG.

Edited by bilrus

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I haven't been, but here's what I've gathered:

Despite the crazy hype they built up on eG, the off-the wall preparations and servings and their self important proclamations, the first reports were mostly raves accompanied by extensive photos, as would be expected from people who had been clamoring to get in for months.  But the reports continue to be excellent, a bit to my surprise.  In fact just this week they recieved four stars from the Chicago Tribune

General info - pick from 8-, 12- and 24-course tastings, priced at $75, $110 and $175.  Courses that, to my eye at least, read anywhere from very appealing to bizzare.  They have already completely changed out every course on the full tasting menu.  Very modern, almost austere rooms.  Excellent, polished service.

A few more than four sentences, but a lot quicker read than the hundreds of posts on eG.

Just what I needed. Thanks, Bill.

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Sister & Brother-in-Law are heading to Chicago this weekend for a quick getaway from parenthood.  They're looking for a nice place to eat that 1) won't break the bank, and 2) doesn't require a "nice" outfit!

Any suggestions of "hidden gem" type neighborhood places?  Preferably near downtown or Wrigley Field.  Thanks!

most of wrigleyville is pretty much dominated by sports bars, and if the cubs are in town, expect to wait a while.

wish i had something better to add, but the wife's family all live in arlington heights (past o'hare), and, shall i say, don't have an adventurous palate (for that matter, they don't even have a mildly entertaining palate either). as such, the extent of my restaurant adventures in chicago have been limited to lou malnati's and portillo's sausage (course, i love lou's and portillo's).

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portillo's sausage (course, i love lou's and portillo's).

Of the food from Chicago, I miss Portillo's the most. It boggles the mind that when you ask for a hot dog out here with "everything," that means mustard AND sauerkraut. Let's not even talk of the Italian Beefs and proper Polish Sausages. The good thing is, though, that you can order Portillo's online and they will send you a frozen party pack or whatever it's called.

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Of all the many kinds of "beef" sandwiches I have ever had (i.e. cheesesteak, beef on weck, roast beef po'boy) the Italian beef at Johnny's in Elmwood Park would be my first choice. Many, many years ago in the early '80's there was a place a couple of doors down on North Avenue called Al Gelato that had fantastic gelato. This is the "early" Al Gelato before it was sold in the late '80's or so and their recipes were changed. That was the best ice cream/gelato that I ever had in a store anywhere. I heard of it because of a cover story about them in Chicago magazine. Both Johnny's and Al Gelato became something of a biannual tradition for me in my business travel for a number of years.

Sooner or later somebody here will realize that Italian beef, when done properly, is a great sandwich that people will buy. And hot gardiniera is still my favorite of all hot peppers, especially from Tenuta's from Kenosha, WI. I literally order bottles of this by the case from them.

http://www.tenutasdeli.com/Peppers___Musta...__mustards.html

Last, Uno's pizza tastes much better in Chicago at either Uno's or Due's than it does anywhere else. I really think a fair analogy is like the original Ledo's vs. all of their other locations.

And then, of course, there is caramel popcorn from Garrett's near Marshall Field's.

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Thanks, guys! A friend of mine in Chicago put them onto a place called Thyme which might just fit the bill. The website looks like a place I wouldn't mind hitting a time or two.

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Now that we've got our dinners set, we're looking for a place where three families can meet for breakfast on Saturday morning...it has to be breakfast, rather than brunch, because we have my grandmother's birthday lunch that day...any ideas?

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Now that we've got our dinners set, we're looking for a place where three families can meet for breakfast on Saturday morning...it has to be breakfast, rather than brunch, because we have my grandmother's birthday lunch that day...any ideas?

"Toast" in Lincoln Park near DePaul.

(773) 935-5600

746 W Webster Ave

Chicago, IL 60614

Haven't been since I moved away (duh), but it's very very kid-friendly and a pretty funky take on breakfast. Gets crowded quick though. I would do it earlier rather than later.

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I'll second Toast. I've been there a couple times and really enjoyed it. Also, two places in Wrigleyville, Orange (3231 N Clark St) and Southport Grocery (3552 N Southport) are very good. Thought Ann Sather's (a local chain which alot of people recommend) was disappointing. Chicago's a great brunch town, though.

"Toast" in Lincoln Park near DePaul.

(773) 935-5600

746 W Webster Ave

Chicago, IL 60614

Haven't been since I moved away (duh), but it's very very kid-friendly and a pretty funky take on breakfast. Gets crowded quick though. I would do it earlier rather than later.

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Okay... we're going to Chicago for Thanksgiving. But this is not a Thanksgiving dinner question. This is a where-can-we-still-get-a-reservation-the-Saturday-after-Thanksgiving-for-fancy-romantic-dinner question.

Alinea is out, they have no space, more's the pity. I'm not sure about Charlie Trotter but I suspect they're out too. Topolobampo? Any place y'all are aware of that doesn't take reservations, and therefore gives us just as good a chance to get in as anybody else?

Any type cuisine is fine, although I'm not cuckoo for sushi.

My parents spoke highly of Spiaggia -- anybody been?

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For one dinner, one blowout Best of Chicago dinner, I would take Tru over Trotter.  Reservations are extremely difficult but try.  It is a GREAT restaurant and worth the effort.

I could not agree more. I have found Trotter's to feel tired, and the food to be reaching for something that it never achieves. On the other hand, I consider my one meal at Tru to be one of the best I have ever had.

Another restaurant that I believe to be one of the best in the Midwest is Everest. It is that very rare combination of great food and view to match.

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Okay... we're going to Chicago for Thanksgiving. But this is not a Thanksgiving dinner question. This is a where-can-we-still-get-a-reservation-the-Saturday-after-Thanksgiving-for-fancy-romantic-dinner question.

Alinea is out, they have no space, more's the pity. I'm not sure about Charlie Trotter but I suspect they're out too. Topolobampo? Any place y'all are aware of that doesn't take reservations, and therefore gives us just as good a chance to get in as anybody else?

Any type cuisine is fine, although I'm not cuckoo for sushi.

My parents spoke highly of Spiaggia -- anybody been?

Not cuckoo for sushi, huh? Is it the fish or is it the presentation?

Truthfully, I'm a fan of Chilpancingo. Reservations would be needed but it's not as hot a ticket as Bayless's joints.

Hmmmm. Maybe Kotobuki could........never mind. :lol:

Edited by CrescentFresh

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I nabbed a 6:30 at Moto on OpenTable just to make sure we're not completely pantsless if nothing else comes through. Please carry on recommending.

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We had a fabulous meal at Tru -- even given the strong recommendations we had received for it, we were surprised at how lovely it all was :lol:

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I suggest that you look into 2 places: Zinfandel (located in River North, near Topolobampo) and Meritage Cafe & Wine Bar (Bucktown).

http://www.fabuloustravel.com/gourmet/travel/zin/zin.html

Snippets from the above site:

Zinfandel's menu offers a flavorful marriage of culinary styles from across the United States. So diverse are the foods, Susan enjoys preparing a changing monthly menu of specials in addition to the regular fare. Each month focuses on a different region and the styles of cooking native to that area.

Regular fare offered year-round at Zinfandel includes starters like Dungeness Crab Springrolls with Sesame Cabbage Slaw and Tamarind Honey Sauce, a Southwestern Quesadilla of Wood-Grilled Vegetables with Sundried Tomato and Olive Salsa, Modern Midwestern Bierkase with a Goat Cheese Cheddar Spread made with homemade Worcestershire and salads such as the famous Zinfandel 'Wilted' Salad with Organic Field Greens, Wood-Grilled Onions, Toasted Pecans. Perennial main courses include Pan-Seared Diver Sea Scallops with Mushroom-Leek Risotto and Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette, Pan Seared Atlantic Salmon with SautŽed Spinach, Shiitakes and Dried Cranberry-Walnut Sauce, Wood-Grilled Mahi-Mahi with Herbed Rice Pilaf.

Every occasion at Zinfandel begins with fragrant buttery cornbread served piping hot with wonderful buckwheat honey butter, dumped into a basket at the table from a cast iron skillet. This treat was as good as any cornbread I've ever encountered in the South.

The all-American wine list is one of the best in Chicago. Drew Goss puts much care into choosing the wines that will compliment the delightful recipes at Zinfandel. This attention to detail has earned the restaurant both a Wine Spectator Excellence Award since 1994 and a Wine Enthusiast Award.

Meritage: http://www.meritagecafe.com/home.html

Great restaurant with an impressive wine list (as you might have guessed). The have an outdoor heated tent-like seating area that is neat, in addition to very good food. And, you can book reservations on OpenTable I think.

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I suggest that you look into 2 places:  Zinfandel (located in River North, near Topolobampo) and Meritage Cafe & Wine Bar (Bucktown). 

Zinfandel, I believe, closed years ago. Shame, too. I had a couple of very memorable meals there.

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Zinfandel, I believe, closed years ago.  Shame, too.  I had a couple of very memorable meals there.

Bummer! It's been a few years since I've been to Chicago (obviously)...

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I could not agree more.  I have found Trotter's to feel tired, and the food to be reaching for something that it never achieves. 

After eating at Trotter's last year and having had tasting menu dinners here in DC, I'd have to agree that Trotter's is not worth the money...at Trotter's price point I'd rather eat at Maestro...well below Trotter's price point I'd rather spend my money on tasting menus at Komi or Eve or Corduroy. They may not be the "temples of cuisine" that Trotter's strives to be, but you'll have a much better meal!

Edited by Tweaked

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Woo-HOO!

After a few weeks of calling Alinea every few days and getting a tip from the nice gentleman on the reservations line that today might be a good day to call -- they call to confirm Saturday reservations on Tuesdays, and sometimes people drop out -- I have secured a table for two. We can't do the tour, since it's four hours long and the table is booked later that evening (shades of Ray's!), but that's actually good, as it will help us exercise some restraint about the whole business.

I am SO excited!

Moto sounded interesting but more like Minibar, which we've done -- Alinea is a whole different level of appealing, in my book.

Will report back next week.

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I enjoyed that, particularly this bit:

I hadn't formed a conclusion about Alinea but I will say that Gray provided something, in contrast, that was missing at Alinea. I'm not sure what is was exactly, maybe a combination of time, the privacy accorded by food that doesn't require a chaperone, by food that requests an audience of several minutes from you

That is perfectly why Alinea holds no appeal for me. Or Minibar for that matter.

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Someone should invent special diapers so that freaks can just pee in their pants around course 17 .

De-gusto-pends.

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I dunno...

Last night I was eating a hunk of 3 year old provolone and drinking a 1985 Ridge cabernet and was about as hapy, food wise, as I have ever been in my mouth. No particle accelerators necessary. Just hand made products and time.

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That is perfectly why Alinea holds no appeal for me. Or Minibar for that matter.

The food at both is incredible. Powerful flavor, inventive combinations, beautifully arranged. But I would go back to minibar, and I wouldn't go back to Alinea. Because that formality, that distance, is really jarring.

At minibar, since you're right there with the chefs, their enthusiasm is contagious. The feeling is more, "Hey, look what we made! Try it! Do you like it? Isn't it awesome?"

Whereas at Alinea, it's more, "Here is a combination of ingredients that Chef has put together for you, I will list where they came from because the terms are unfamiliar to you, and here's how we've controlled the experience to enhance it." Now, the pheasant breast served on the end of a branch of smoking oak leaves may have been the most delicious bite I put in my mouth this year. Especially with the matched wine. But it wasn't fun. Foie gras wrapped in cotton candy on a toothpick, THAT was fun. That entire meal made me giggle.

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So...

If I have like one or two places to go, knowing my taste for Palena and less so for molecules, where do I go? Also, I know about steak places, so I mean beyond those.

And what's with this Pop? Champagne bar? Curious.

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So...

If I have like one or two places to go, knowing my taste for Palena and less so for molecules, where do I go? Also, I know about steak places, so I mean beyond those.

And what's with this Pop?  Champagne bar? Curious.

I just relocated to the Midwest from DC last fall. Palena was one of my favorite places there.

I'd suggest North Pond in Chicago's Lincoln Park. My wife and I had a fabulous dinner there last New Year's. Stellar wine list as well. Shawn McClain's Spring and Green Zebra would be worth considering as well.

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So...

If I have like one or two places to go, knowing my taste for Palena and less so for molecules, where do I go? Also, I know about steak places, so I mean beyond those.

And what's with this Pop?  Champagne bar? Curious.

Check out Blackbird. Don't be thrown off by the hyper-modern interior, this is just great food. I hear good things about Avec too, which is their sister restaurant next door of small plates.

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I just relocated to the Midwest from DC last fall. Palena was one of my favorite places there.

I'd suggest North Pond in Chicago's Lincoln Park. My wife and I had a fabulous dinner there last New Year's. Stellar wine list as well. Shawn McClain's Spring and Green Zebra would be worth considering as well.

I will second Spring. I had a very good meal there when I was in Chicago a few months ago.

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I have decided to take a quick trip to chicago the weekend of 2/10-12 to see an exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. Any recommendations on where to stay near there? Restaurants? I'd prefer something within cab distance.

Edited by Heather

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I have decided to take a quick trip to chicago the weekend of 2/10-12 to see an exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History.  Any recommendations on where to stay near there?  Restaurants?  I'd prefer something within cab distance.

well, the chicago hilton is relatively close. :lol: there are also a handful of kimpton's in chicago, but i am unsure if they are south of the river or not. and, there's also the mccormick place marriott, which is probably the closest to the field museum.

in addition to all the wonderful places listed above, should you just want a lunch or dinner of comfort food, go to lou malnati's for chicago-style pizza.

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there's also the mccormick place marriott, which is probably the closest to the field museum.

in addition to all the wonderful places listed above, should you just want a lunch or dinner of comfort food, go to lou malnati's for chicago-style pizza.

Althought the McCormick place marriott probably is the closest to the field museum, it's near nothing else (other than [drum roll please] McCormick Place (the convention center)). I wouldn't stay there. While downtown chicago (certainly the loop) is dead on weekends, I would rather be there than McCormick Place--at least you could walk to river north or magnificent mile from the loop. Also, remember, cab fares are calculated more sensibly in Chicago than in DC (read here: no obscure zone system devised as a way to rip people off). Cab fare isn't too much, and, it's easy to take a bus from MI Ave. down to the field museum.

I know it doesn't get much love these days, but I used to love Topolobampo (the fine dining portion of frontera grill of Rick Bayless fame). I haven't been in years, and I think some of the lack of love is a reflection of Bayless's decision to hawk BK, as well as many other young chefs opening restaurants of a similar style. I'm not sure (??) it's because the food quality has deteriorated. I think Frontera is fine but unremarkable--Topolobampo I love.

Finally, I have to admit, I hate Chicago style pizza (lou malnatis or otherwise). I know lots love it, but at least check it out (does Lou Malnati's have a web site?) before you spend money on it.

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Thanks for the tips. I've been informed on another board that I'm being taken for Mexican for lunch, but Topolobampo is on my list for dinner.

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Finally, I have to admit, I hate Chicago style pizza (lou malnatis or otherwise).  I know lots love it, but at least check it out (does Lou Malnati's have a web site?) before you spend money on it.

i bet you like that thin and crappy new york style, huh? chicago-style is the way to go. oh, don't bother with either pizzeria uno or pizzeria due.

here's the link to lou's, they also run the taste of chicago service, where you can order a lou's pizza, eli's cheesecake, carson's ribs and everything you need to make a chicago-style hot dog, but i think the portillo's italian beef set is a separate purchase.

my wife is from chicago, so we had our wedding in chicago, and we all stayed at the mccormick place. and yes, i agree that other than mccormick place, it's not near anything else, except soldier field and the field museum, but that's because they aren't near anything else either.

if you get a chance, i hear they are now doing "devil in the white city" tours, if don't feel like going to the art institute.

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Thanks to those who offered suggestions, on the thread and via PM. I got an incredible deal at the big Hilton downtown, so that's where I'll be staying. (seriously folks, if you want a nice hotel CHEAP try hotwire.com) Friends are taking me to lunch at Nuevo Leon for homemade tortillas and guisada. Here is a link to their eGullet.com thread about Nuevo Leon, which itself links to an amusing thread about crazy drinks you no longer partake of.

Not sure where dinner will be but I think I'm in good hands. I'll report back on Monday.

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headed to chicago for a long weekend in May

Has anyone been to Custom House? Thoughts?

http://www.customhouse.cc/

funny you should ask brr, I was just there :)

Its a handsome, modern restaurant, lots of sleek lines and high windows. Great natural light. The bar and one wall of the restaurant is decorated in interlocking stone of some kind.

We had lunch there and prices are reasonable, $6ish for apps and $10-15 for entrees which range from sandwiches to 'proper' entrees.

I had asparagus soup with creme fraiche which was ok - it just seemed a little lacking in taste. I then had hangar steak with duck fat fries - both were excellent and the fries were among some of the best I have ever had.

My wife had the steak sandwich with caramelized red onions and horseradish which was also very good and a side of polenta, which while not being as thick as I would have expected, was creamy and delicious.

Service was subpar, but after we mentioned DR.COM things improved (KIDDING!!!). Our first server was a sullen young French (?) lady who did little to hide her contempt of us, our child and our stroller. We were not apprised of the lunch special, and waited an age for her to take our order. After she took the order she dissapeared and it wasn't until towards the end of the meal we were informed her shift has ended and she had gone home.

We reluctantly relayed our concerns to the GM (we're really not the complaining type but are slowly coming around to the realization that unless you say something you'll just end up all piseed off) who responded with concern and some comped desserts, a delectable mint cho chip ice cream sandwich and a very dense and chocolately brownie type thing and a trio of sorbets (mango, rhubarb and coconut) - we literally licked our plates!

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After an unfortunate plane ride from DC to Chicago last week in which we were sitting on the plane for about 5 hours before we even took off, a visit to Tobolobambo was the greatest gift that my in-laws could have given me.

Although my husband and his parents decided to do the $75 Oaxacan tasting menu and the $40 wine pairing, I opted for a la carte. A complimentary bowl of guacamole with vegetables (jicama and cucumbers mostly) and chips to dip in it was served. When the rest of my party enjoyed their Mochomos (crunchy beef) followed by a spicy soup with bits or ribeye, I savored my Ceviche Yucateco, a blend of shrimp and calamari flavored with citrus, avocado and peppers with a glass of Scharffenberger brut . My soft-shell crab entree consisted of a single crab, deep fried and then cut in half on the plate, served with leafy greens. The crab was delicious, but I was just a tad over-fried for my preferences. In the meantime, my tablemates enjoyed lobster in a green sauce and some sort of beef (sorry, I can't remember!). For dessert, I thoroughly enjoyed, but could not finish, the cajeta, a goat's milk caramel with ice cream. The rest of my party had a dessert sampler.

The margaritas were delightful. The classic margarita was delicious, but the orange-ginger margarita had a kick (which I loved).

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Why can't we have a Mexican restaurant like Topolobampo / Frontera Grill here? I had lunch at Frontera last Thursday and everything - ceviches, enchiladas, pork tacos with pineapple and bacon (pork with pork is always a good idea) was better than any Mexican I've had here in this area. And I agree on the margaritas - this time I went with the "summer" margarita - lime, tequila, cucumber and cilantro - refreshing as an open fire hydrant on a day when the temps were in the 90s.

The next night after dinner at Alinea, Grant Achatz asked where else I'd eaten on my trip and when I told him I had eaten at Frontera Grill the day before his eyes lit up and he said "I just love the flavors there."

Good food is all about the flavors.

More on that below.

As for Alinea - everything you've read is true - the good and the bad.

The good is very good. A beautiful spare set of rooms with more personal space than any restaurant I've been to. Gracious, if a bit self-conscious, service. And food that works more often than it doesn't and sometimes soars beyond what you expect.

This was more serious, less scientific cooking than I expected. If Minibar is the free-wheeling, whimsical side of this family of cooking, Alinea is the serious, career minded younger sibling. The dishes that worked the best were the ones that didn't try too hard to dazzle. A perfectly cooked piece of fish stood out despite being crusted in peanuts and the plate being dotted with a berry sauce - that's right - peanut butter and jelly with the fish taking the place of the bread. Someone in the kitchen showed some seriously good knife skills evidenced in dishes with the smallest imaginable brunoises of cucumber or summer vegetables. A dish of luscious, barely seared Kobe beef cubes was served with cubes of perfectly ripe watermelon dusted on two sides with cocoa powder to provide a visual and textural complement to the beef. A cold potato soup served with a hot potato ball, a sliver of truffle and a petite cube of butter challenged in terms of texture and temperature, but the flavors are classic. When the true skills in the kitchen and the excellence of the ingredients were allowed to shine it all came together.

So what was bad? The highly touted utensils and dishes especially designed for the restaurant and specific dishes for the most part don't add anything and in some cases detracted from the dishes, making them awkward and hard to eat. The service, as I mentioned was a bit self conscious, as it has to be when it is necessary to provide a set of instructions with more than half the courses. Some of the attempts at playing with textures were really unpleasant - I particularly remember dry (celery?) leaves in a dish that made the dish almost hard to swallow. The sweeter courses - there really isn't a distinction between savory and sweet, more like a continuum that is reflected in the bubbles on the menu - were among the weakest dishes served.

So I left with mixed emotions - thoroughly glad I went, having eaten some fantastic food and enjoying my time there. But I have the sense that Chef Achatz and Alinea are capable of even more.

The dishes that worked for me were the ones that were the most grounded in reality. Not boring. Each of the truly great dishes had an interesting flavor combination, or a play on texture or temperature, or a unique preparation technique. But only when the flavors spoke louder than the technique did the dishes truly rise above.

I'm not asking Alinea to be more like Acahtz's former employer, French Laundry, because that isn't what Chef Achatz wants to do and not every chef needs to be like Keller. But maybe by letting the innovation and skill in the kitchen serve the flavor rather than science, Alinea could be in that conversation of "Best Restaurant in the United States."

BTW - I think I overheard the woman sitting at the table next to me say that she was from DC. And of course all the discrimitating restaurant geeks from DC are DR members. So if you are reading this were you at Alinea last Friday?

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Why can't we have a Mexican restaurant like Topolobampo / Frontera Grill here?
Yes! I said the exact same thing to my husband! I'm sick of bad Tex-Mex, I want real Mexican, and good Tex-Mex too for that matter.

And by the way, I was at Topolobambo last Thursday as well....

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Not having been to Chicago before and more than likely not going back for awhile, I've found myself in a dillema. This september I'm making a three day trip: first night casual and relatively inexpensive.Maybe a rays the steaks kinda place or a Hanks oyster bar, something only to be found there and partially represenative of what is grown/raised there. Second Night: Big Dinner (Heres the dillema) Charlie Trotters(Ive been told to save my money; I feel like I need to be able to say I've eaten there at least once seeing how it was so important in contributing to the US dining scene) Le' Everestl (my co-workers and chef are really praising this one), Blackbird(I'm all about the deconstructionist/El Bulli thing right now) or Tru.

Whaddya think?

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If you are really into the "Deconstructionist / El Bulli thing" go to Alinea. I went to Trotter's last year and while it was good, it wasn't memorable.

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Not having been to Chicago before and more than likely not going back for awhile, I've found myself in a dillema. This september I'm making a three day trip: first night casual and relatively inexpensive.Maybe a rays the steaks kinda place or a Hanks oyster bar, something only to be found there and partially represenative of what is grown/raised there. Second Night: Big Dinner (Heres the dillema) Charlie Trotters(Ive been told to save my money; I feel like I need to be able to say I've eaten there at least once seeing how it was so important in contributing to the US dining scene) Le' Everestl (my co-workers and chef are really praising this one), Blackbird(I'm all about the deconstructionist/El Bulli thing right now) or Tru.

Whaddya think?

The best Italian beef in Chicago and perhaps the single best taste of any in the city is at Johnny's on West North Avenue in Elmwood Park which is about five or six miles from downtown. Al's has a following, too, but these split most of the "best" of Chicago votes for Italian beef. I would argue that Johnny's is superior to: Mother's roast beef with debris, the White House/Jim's cheesesteaks/Schwabl's beef on weck or any other roast/sliced/chopped beef sandwich I have had anywhere. I may even put this above the marbled beef brisket sandwich (on white bread) at the Luling City Market. A few comments about Johnny's: http://chicago.citysearch.com/review/3742957

With all due respect to Tru, Trotter's, Everest, etc. this is THE Chicago meal you should have. Ask for it "wet" with guardinera. I would also consider a pizza at Uno's or Due's which are DIFFERENT from any other Uno's anywhere. If you have a rental car (take a cab to Johnny's if you don't-it's worth the cost) also give serious considertion to Lem's for bbq'd ribs which rival the best anywhere in America.

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I would also consider a pizza at Uno's or Due's which are DIFFERENT from any other Uno's anywhere.

Don't make a special trip for this. The pies are OK, but not worth it. There is another post above that mentions lou's.

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Don't make a special trip for this. The pies are OK, but not worth it. There is another post above that mentions lou's.

Sorry, but I disagree. I prefer the original Uno's/Due's to Lou Malnatti's, Gino's East and a half dozen other places I've had deep dish pizza at in Chicago. There are reasons that Uno's has survived since the early '40's: it's has legitimately good pizza which are well worth the 35 to 45 minutes you will wait for them. But I am ONLY talking about the original locations since some of their pans are the same pans they have been using for literally decades. Any other Uno's location is a different pie.

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I just saw that Chicago has it's own renegade chat:

http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?t=9172

and, there's always www.skilletdoux.com.

Ex Chowhounders started this about three or so years ago after one deletion too many from Leff. The Chicago board went from 125-150 posts per day-literally overnight-to 10-15 each day. Several who posted then and still do on this board are absolutely outstanding and expressive writers; Chowhound lost a lot when they left Leff.

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I'm heading to Chicago in a month for a special occasion and would love to find a memorable restaurant to go to before heading to see Wicked. Hoping for something I'd like as much as Restaurant Eve and/or 2941. From research so far, I'm considering Spiaggia and Everest, but am open to other options of all kinds.

Any suggestions from folks who've been there recently? Thanks!

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I've never actually been to chicago, but I've been to the airport a few times now, and if my layover is long enough, I always head to this little hot dog stand in between two terminals where they have Goose Island Honker Ale on tap. It's a bit dumpy, but for that two hour layover, it's not a bad spot to hang out. The hot dogs aren't great (they don't have sauerkraut either), but they could be worse. And the beer's good :)

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From research so far, I'm considering Spiaggia and Everest, but am open to other options of all kinds
Ok, I haven't been recently, but I wasn't very impressed with Spiaggia the time I went there. I've never been to Everest, but a friend who worked in the kitchen there (as well as Charlie Trotters and a (formerly? not sure if it's even still open) well-regarded restaurant on the North Shore, Carlos', didn't think much of Everest.

I'm well aware it doesn't always get much love on various boards, but I've consistently (over 10-12 year period) had good to great meals at Topolobampo (including just a couple of months ago). I would heartily recommend it, and it's very different from anything I've had in DC.

I've never been to Tru, but would love to try it.

From reading boards (not actually eating there) people used to have a love/hate thing with Alinea. It's somewhat similar to Minibar. So, if that's not your thing, Alinea may not be for you.

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Thanks for all the comments! I'll look into Tru - it made the short list before but seems to have gotten knocked off it. Interesting that there are both fans and non-fans of Spiaggia. Any particular items that they do well?

Also, anyone familiar with a place called one sixtyblue? I'm finding some good reviews of it and am now pretty interested...

I did Minibar last month and while I loved the experience, I'm not looking to repeat it. So Alinea is out this time.

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Another couple of good ones are blackbird (highly stylized American food), and Aria Restaurant, in the Fairmont off Michigan Avenue. (Aria is my treat when I'm on expense accounts on business)

Don't forget Frontera! It's still Rick Bayless, and nto as fancy, but oh so good. You can also sit at the bar and see Rick cruise around his kitchen, authoritarian as Darth Vader, while getting toasted on splendid margaritas.

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Thanks for all the comments! I'll look into Tru - it made the short list before but seems to have gotten knocked off it. Interesting that there are both fans and non-fans of Spiaggia. Any particular items that they do well?

Also, anyone familiar with a place called one sixtyblue? I'm finding some good reviews of it and am now pretty interested...

I did Minibar last month and while I loved the experience, I'm not looking to repeat it. So Alinea is out this time.

I cannot be more serious in what I am about to type: the best meal that you will have in Chicago is at Johnny's on West North Avenue in Elmwood Park. (7400 block, I believe) I believe that Tru is currently the best restaurant in the Chicagoland area; I also believe that the first bite of "wet" beef with gardiniera is the single best bite of anything in the city. Perhaps in the Midwest. Before you laugh put a post on the Chicago board referenced above and see what kind of feedback you get. There is NOTHING within 700 miles of D. C. that even begins to approximate how good the first bite of an Italian beef at Johnny's is....

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I'm heading to Chicago in a month for a special occasion and would love to find a memorable restaurant to go to before heading to see Wicked. Hoping for something I'd like as much as Restaurant Eve and/or 2941. From research so far, I'm considering Spiaggia and Everest, but am open to other options of all kinds.

Any suggestions from folks who've been there recently? Thanks!

I'm currently in Madison, Wisconsin and my wife and I have been down to Chicago several times over the past year or so. I can personally recommend Cafe Spiaggia, Spring and North Pond (located in Lincoln Park north of downtown). I've heard very good things about Alinea, Aria, Avenues, Schwa, and Blackbird but haven't eaten at those (only at Blackbird's cousin Avec next door).

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I'm generally not in the habit of speaking poorly of restaurants but I can't hold back on this one. (as a preface I was dining with my g/fs family<whom I was meeting for the first time and trying to pitch them on the whole "I'm in restaurants for a living{not that it's bad, it's just a hard sell}oh and by the way I've shown your lovely niece the way out of public administration and right into the gritty hands of the beast">) I made primetime reservations, scoped out the menu ahead of time, used some resources to find the signature dishes and pressed my sunday best. I can't begin to describe how excited I was, this was to be the highlight of this trip. We arrived right on time for our reservation and were promptly sat......you know what it's hardly worth the words.

1. 8-10 minutes for initial greet (thumping house music)

2.greet: "welcome to ?????????, may I start you off with something to drink?" "Okay, then I'll let you peruse the wine list."(menu: "Attire provided by Joseph Boubba)

3.8-10 minutes later "did you select a wine?"..."okay, I'll be right back with that."(thumping house music)

4. 50 year old maitre'd/owner dressed like an extra from studio 54 kissing patrons asses while litterally whipping around to tell the busboy(who by the way was the most redeeming part of the meal. My water glass never got below 3/4 full and as soon as the host/uncle was done with his last bite, plates were cleared with out so much as a "klink". in fact my girlfriend made a comment about kidnapping and bringing him back to d.c.)to pull out chairs.

5. Goofy waiter in $800 suit presents me the wine and pours for the host.(house music thumping)

6. Amuse, an obvious freezer cleaner little or no thought put into this one.

7. First course, good not great.

8. Entree, again well done but not what I would expect from a restaurant with this reputation.

9. Cheese/dessert menu. G/fs Uncle "Can you tell me a little about this cheese selection?" (I know the difficulty of tracking and memorizing cheese profiles, Jesus, I worked for Dean Gold for a year and this was not a Dino 15+ selection, this was four cheeses!) "well this one taste fresh and well I haven't had the chance to try these others." Ummmm....okay. The menu says it was last updated Aug 16, I guess he must of been too busy picking out that nice suit.

10. Cheese and dessert courses....well they were "fresh".

11. I made my way to the restroom only to see 5 james beard nominations and three awards. Thats when I fell to my knees and wept like a baby.

12. Lou Mitchells has a badass breakfast.

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C'mon-- if it was that bad all around, name names!
Reads like Blackbird to me. Not my favorite dinning experience.

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Is there anything good to eat in or near Lisle, or should I just resign myself to room service?

I'm trying to decide if Chef Paul's Bavarian Lounge is worth braving the impending weather.

That's far from my part of town, but the LTHForum awarded Fabulous Noodles in Lisle a Great Neighborhood Restaurant award.

Not in Lisle, but fairly close is Katy's Dumpling House, an award winner in the most recent round of GNRs.

There's also a branch of another GNR winner, Lao Sze Chuan in Westmont or maybe Downers Grove.

Obviously, there's a strong Chinese representation in that part of Chicagoland! Feel free to post more about your interests, mobility, etc over on LTH and I'm sure the people who know that part of town better will be happy to offer their suggestions.

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Reporting late on my trip, but better late than never. We ended up having an incredible dinner at Spiaggia for our anniversary. The staff was attentive and helpful the whole night. I had the most amazing appetizer that I've had in ages - a mix of raw and marinated fish including tuna with caviar, sea bass with radish and fennel, and yellowtail with a tomato basil sauce. It was divine. My husband had the scallop which was also fantastic. For the pasta course, we split two amazing dishes - gnocchi with a truffle cream sauce and ravioli with a brown sugar sauce. The main/meat course we split a beef dish, which was nice. Desert was a dark chocolate crepe with caramel gelato for me, sorbets/gelato for the husband, and delicious petit fours, the best of which was a chocolate bon bon with a fresh mint ice cream center. All in all, an experience I'd recommend to anyone for a special occasion!

Our other big meal was a trip to Gino's for deep dish...it was a good deep dish pizza though I think I'll stick to pizzas that don't require a 50 min wait!

Thanks again to all who offered suggestions!

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I've never actually been to chicago, but I've been to the airport a few times now, and if my layover is long enough, I always head to this little hot dog stand in between two terminals where they have Goose Island Honker Ale on tap. It's a bit dumpy, but for that two hour layover, it's not a bad spot to hang out. The hot dogs aren't great (they don't have sauerkraut either), but they could be worse. And the beer's good :)
I had a 4 hour layover at O'hare last month thanks to a delayed flight. The hot dogs were not bad (2 became my dinner) and based on my walk thru of B&C terminal this was the best of the options.

I tried the Eli's cheesecake stand and was very disappointed. It was not bad, but it was not good either. My immediate reaction was that of "this tastes fake" as opposed to nice and creamy. I will be going thru O'hare 3 or 4 times a year now - suggestions are welcome (Ideas for their security line are welcome too).

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Reporting late on my trip, but better late than never. We ended up having an incredible dinner at Spiaggia for our anniversary. The staff was attentive and helpful the whole night. I had the most amazing appetizer that I've had in ages - a mix of raw and marinated fish including tuna with caviar, sea bass with radish and fennel, and yellowtail with a tomato basil sauce. It was divine. My husband had the scallop which was also fantastic. For the pasta course, we split two amazing dishes - gnocchi with a truffle cream sauce and ravioli with a brown sugar sauce. The main/meat course we split a beef dish, which was nice. Desert was a dark chocolate crepe with caramel gelato for me, sorbets/gelato for the husband, and delicious petit fours, the best of which was a chocolate bon bon with a fresh mint ice cream center. All in all, an experience I'd recommend to anyone for a special occasion!

Our other big meal was a trip to Gino's for deep dish...it was a good deep dish pizza though I think I'll stick to pizzas that don't require a 50 min wait!

Thanks again to all who offered suggestions!

You're making a value judgment that you prefer pizza that isn't cooked to order. By definition authentic Chicago deep dish is cooked to order and takes 50 minutes or so. What you want to "stick to" is going to be a lesser pizza. Perhaps one sitting around left to warm. Just don't expect it to taste anywhere near as good. And, there's no need to eat it in Chicago. This kind of pizza will taste the same in Birmingham/Omaha/Denver as it will in Chicago. Sorry for my attitude by the best takes time...and patience. Gino's East, at it's best, is exemplery Chicago deep dish pizza. It just takes time to bake.

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Any word on Avec, Blackbird's sister restaurant or Follia? I was thinking of going to one of those this weekend. I will be in town Saturday night for a wedding.

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You're making a value judgment that you prefer pizza that isn't cooked to order. By definition authentic Chicago deep dish is cooked to order and takes 50 minutes or so. What you want to "stick to" is going to be a lesser pizza. Perhaps one sitting around left to warm. Just don't expect it to taste anywhere near as good. And, there's no need to eat it in Chicago. This kind of pizza will taste the same in Birmingham/Omaha/Denver as it will in Chicago. Sorry for my attitude by the best takes time...and patience. Gino's East, at it's best, is exemplery Chicago deep dish pizza. It just takes time to bake.

Joe H - I definitely understand that deep dish takes time! I just think that as far as pizza goes, I'm okay with a thinner crust and a shorter waiting time. But that isn't a comment on the quality of Gino's East - it was a great deep dish!

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I had a 4 hour layover at O'hare last month thanks to a delayed flight. The hot dogs were not bad (2 became my dinner) and based on my walk thru of B&C terminal this was the best of the options.

I tried the Eli's cheesecake stand and was very disappointed. It was not bad, but it was not good either. My immediate reaction was that of "this tastes fake" as opposed to nice and creamy. I will be going thru O'hare 3 or 4 times a year now - suggestions are welcome (Ideas for their security line are welcome too).

I said it once and I'll say it again: The Berghoff (don't remember the terminal) is an excellent stop for a sandwich. Its 100-year old original site downtown recently closed, but the airport outpost is supposedly still open. Berghoff Web site

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Any word on Avec, Blackbird's sister restaurant or Follia? I was thinking of going to one of those this weekend. I will be in town Saturday night for a wedding.

I really enjoyed Avec. I was there with a group of friends back in January and we ordered several small plates to share. Everything was tasty. One thing to note is that it's not a place to go if you're looking for a quiet, intimate table. Seating consists of a long banquette down one side of the restaurant and, on busy nights, you will be packed in.

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Wow. We found a gen-yu-wine old cafeteria place called Manny's completely by accident this past weekend. They have a corned beef and pastrami sandwich that'll knock your socks clean off. 10 bucks, I think, and a gazillion people in line clamoring to get one at 1pm on the day after Thanksgiving. If you find yourself in Chicago and you've got yourself a car, give it a try.

Breakfast at the Peninsula was, well, the most I've ever spent on breakfast. Very pretty room. The ricotta hotcakes with almonds and Grand Marnier syrup were incredibly delicious; the grit cakes were utterly bland and not even all that warm. Order with care.

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Wow. We found a gen-yu-wine old cafeteria place called Manny's completely by accident this past weekend. They have a corned beef and pastrami sandwich that'll knock your socks clean off. 10 bucks, I think, and a gazillion people in line clamoring to get one at 1pm on the day after Thanksgiving. If you find yourself in Chicago and you've got yourself a car, give it a try.
Manny's is legit. It's where I first impressed my then-boyfriend ... he doubted that a teeny-tiny person like me could put away one of their corned beef sandwiches, and a massive latke. I proved him wrong. :P

I wonder if my friend the meat-slicer is still there. I went so often during my three years in Chicago that he recognized me, and got started on my regular order the second he saw me in line.

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Any recommendations for restaurants near the Wyndham (North St. Clair) that are especially good for solo diners? I'm heading to Chicago again on business and generally prefer to dine at the bar when I'm on my own. Is Topolobampo nearby and if so, does it have a bar? I don't know Chicago at all.

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Any recommendations for restaurants near the Wyndham (North St. Clair) that are especially good for solo diners? I'm heading to Chicago again on business and generally prefer to dine at the bar when I'm on my own. Is Topolobampo nearby and if so, does it have a bar? I don't know Chicago at all.

You're about 8 blocks from Topolobampo. They do have a pretty good sized bar, although it is really part of Frontera Grill. Still very good though, but no guarantees of getting a spot at a busy time. Worth calling ahead to see how busy they are.

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You're about 8 blocks from Topolobampo. They do have a pretty good sized bar, although it is really part of Frontera Grill. Still very good though, but no guarantees of getting a spot at a busy time. Worth calling ahead to see how busy they are.

Depending on precisely when you will be in Chicago, be aware that Topolbampo (and Frontera) are closed from 1 Jan to 8 Jan for a holiday season vacation. We tried to make a reservation during that week and found out, alas, that both will be closed.

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Shoot! I'm in Chicago Jan 2-4. :P Any other ideas?

How about Cafe Spiaggia? Less formal sister to Spiaggia.

980 North Michigan Avenue, Level 2

Chicago, Illinois 60611

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Any recommendations for restaurants near the Wyndham (North St. Clair) that are especially good for solo diners? I'm heading to Chicago again on business and generally prefer to dine at the bar when I'm on my own. Is Topolobampo nearby and if so, does it have a bar? I don't know Chicago at all.
If I'm not mistaken in my geography, you're also near Bin 36, a very cool yet semi-casual wine-centric place. Check out the menu HERE. You may also want to take a peek in Chicago Magazine, which has a pretty extensive dining guide. Enjoy!

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Smart people bring a hat to Chicago. Even during an unseasonably temperate January (50s and sunny today), the wind and sinking temps at night meant cold ears for me tonight as I walked the eight or so blocks from my well-situated hotel to Cafe Spiaggia (N Michigan @ Oak/ "One Magnificent Mile"). As I walked to and from my delicious meal, I marveled at the number of people lined up outside the Michigan Ave Cheesecake Factory shivering. :P

The entrance to Cafe Spiaggia and its dressier, more formal sibling Spiaggia doesn't impress. Customers enter an ordinary looking office building and take the escalator to the second floor before walking down a characterless hall. A curve and a bend later, you reach Spiaggia and further down, Cafe Spiaggia.

As a solo diner, I was offered a table or a seat at the bar, and chose the latter. The dining room in which I was seated was dimly lit, cozy and rather crowded. I immediately felt comfortable. The bartender, Blanca, handed me a menu and took my order for a glass of 2005 Tocai Fruilano (at $12, it was the third least expensive; I believe the range was $9-17). After a few sips, Blanca was kind enough to top off my glass. Class.

Blanca confirmed that I could order a half order of pasta which helped me make up my mind. I had first considered both of the two soups offered (pappa al pomodoro, $8; Tuscan bean soup with wheat berries, $7), but opted to start with a half portion of cappellacci stuffed with butternut squash and dressed with* butter and sage and a sprinkling of parmesan and amaretti biscotti crumbles. The cappellacci - sort of a standing up version of cappalletti is my layperson's explanation - were served piping hot and in my haste to scarf down the terriffic pasta, I burned my mouth about three times. Oh well. It was worth it. Pasta perfection.

My main, porchetta with creamy yellow polenta and sauteed broccoli rabe (it does not appear on the outdated online menu), did not disappoint. Porchetta is a dish my mother cooked frequently while I was growing up. Whereas she cooked it to well done-and then a few more minutes, just to be sure!!-this porchetta was tender and [insert synonym for moist here]. Although I'm not a diner who typically enjoys the fat of meat, in this dish it was cooked to near liquefaction and added to the overall taste and texture of the dish. Broccoli rabe, combined with wonderfully buttery polenta, made me clean my plate.

I was persuaded to have dessert (shocker) and chose the apple crostata with house-made caramel gelato. It was the least successful dish of the night, but still good. The gelato had a lot of ice crystals, and the apple skins, while in thin ribbons, were near impossible to cut with a fork. It saved me a few calories - I'll think of it that way.

My bill including tax and tip came to $67.

*I considered using the Sietsema favorite "lapped with" but restrained myself :D

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My friend and her husband took me to Bongo Room for breakfast today. I ordered badly. :P

Note: the online menu isn't up to date (surprise, surprise), but overall the menu was pretty similar.

Per my usual habit, I wanted something sweet with a side of bacon. I ended up with a half order of cranberry cornmeal pancakes with some sort of caramel on top. Typing that, I want to smack myself for making the choice. My friend D ordered a half order of pumpkin seed pancakes, a choice that made me say "really?"

D's husband J, a chef who has cooked at Alinea and other notable restaurants, ordered best: a breakfast burrito. He said he liked it, but I didn't buy it and I don't think D did either. We caught him mentally dissecting the sauce atop the burrito when it arrived.

One more bit of strangeness: my latte was served in a glass pint glass. Too hot to pick up for those first delicious ten minutes. Odd.

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Had a recent chance to accompany mrsdcdavidm on a trip to Chicago.

First evening’s dinner was at Café Spiaggia, a place we had been to before and enjoyed immensely. The three seafood specials caught my eye. A razor clam appetizer consisted of chopped, gently seasoned and breaded clam mounded onto an open clamshell and baked. Good flavors and textures, albeit overpriced, in my view. A half order of squid ink spaghetti with chilies, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and whole blue shrimps was a terrific balance of flavors and textures; the hand-cut spaghetti (square edges!) was perfectly cooked. Main course was a seafood stew consisting of lobster, scallops, and monkfish in an exquisitely flavored broth; nothing overpowered the stew and the individual flavors stood out well. Mrsdcdavidm started with a salad of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes roasted to bring out the flavor, and basil; the dish proved that an off-season insalata caprese can work if done right. She opted for an order of gnocchi for her main course, and it was both delicate and substantive, but not eye-popping.

We definitely will return to Blackbird, the site of our delightful second dinner. Although small and somewhat noisy, the food and service were superb. The menu seemed almost religiously seasonal. My cheese salad was an artful mound of a shaved Vermont shepherd cheese, roasted quince, fennel, mache, and kumquat, all dressed lightly with hazelnut oil. Her salad was a dish for both the eyes and the tastebuds: centered on a white plate was a roughly four inch cylinder (not a basket) made out of crispy potato shards and filled with Belgian endive, basil, pancetta, a poached egg, and a Dijon dressing; the server deftly sliced it vertically and it shattered to fill the plate with colors and textures. Her main course was a grilled veal tenderloin accompanied by bits of veal sausage, turnips, dandelion greens, and apricot chutney; it all came together nicely. I had a superbly braised prime beef short rib accompanied by roasted quince, cabbage, turnip greens, and an intriguing “duck streusel.” The service was outstanding overall, but one incident stood out that will endear me to Blackbird and that stands in contrast to many DC restaurants: when I selected a modest wine to go with dinner, the server (who I think was also in charge of the wines) realized right away that they were out of that selection, and advised what she thought would be an equivalent style…that was one-third less expensive! Her advice was excellent.

Ahh, the final night we splurged with a visit to Alinea, Grant Achatz’s seductive redefining restaurant, and it is everything it is cracked up to be. The ambience is perfect. Walking down the softly lit, non-parallel walls of the entryway toward a distant vanishing point magically opens a panel that whisks you inside to a personal greeting (how did they know we were on the other side of the panel?). The dining rooms are spare of decoration, save for widely spaced black tables, restful colors, and subdued lighting. The impeccable staff took us under its collective wing and guided us through a three-hour, 12-course adventure in sights, sounds, flavors, and textures. Much has been written about the food and the presentations (most recently in the Washington Post -- WP Richman Article ) so I won’t go into a lot of detail. What struck us, though, was the absence of artificiality, “cuteness,” and pretension in the dishes. Every dish had a purity of flavors and a multiplicity of sensations from first glimpse to last swallow. Sure, some presentations are quirky and a bit theatrical, like perfectly cooked duck accented by mango and yogurt, the plate served on a linen pillow of juniper-scented air that perfumed the duck as the pillow slowly deflated…but it worked fantastically! Another course, a simple white dish on which was centered steelhead roe, cucumber foam, coconut, and bonito flakes, tasted different in every bite. One warning—we opted for the accompanying nine wine selections, which were a fine complement to the food, but the pours were quite generous and we were glad for the cool walk back to the train station! One doesn’t go to Alinea to satisfy a need for sustenance and nutrition or to calm hunger pangs. One goes to experience the creativity of a master who can tantalize your senses with his art. It was worth it.

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Ahh, the final night we splurged with a visit to Alinea, Grant Achatz’s seductive redefining restaurant, and it is everything it is cracked up to be.

How far in advance did you have to make a reservation? Is there any special procedure like at French Laundry?

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How far in advance did you have to make a reservation? Is there any special procedure like at French Laundry?

Although the concept of Alinea may have "jumped the shark" as they say, it is still in demand and the place is relatively small. We made the reservation 6-7 weeks in advance, and at that had to settle on Sunday because Friday and Saturday were full. Midweek reservations are probably easier. No special procedure--just call and propose some dates.

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Spent a few days in Chicago...

Japonais - Clubby sushi place. Place to see and be seen is my guess. I did not see any Japanese people there. Stuff not that authentic, but not bad. Had some uni, which made me realize I had some uni that was truly off (my first experience) at Kotobuki. Great spot if you're into trendy. But not if you want the real thing.

Cuatro - Nuevo Latino spot not far from McCormick Place (convention center). Had a fantastic room for a group dinner. That's all it had going for it, and unfortunately I was the one who made the selection. Had a ceviche that had a tomato sauce which reminded me a lot of tomato soup with a lot of lime juice in it. Disgusting. Pork chop marinated in sugar cane juice, with what I am guessing was mashed yucca and green beans. Chop was not bad - I liked the sweetness. Yucca - a little dry. Green beans - undercooked and underseasoned. Hazelnut flan with chocolate cake. Flan was iffy, cake was disgusting and porous but tough. Like it had been moist once and sat drying out all day.

Chicago was starting to look a little grim. Which is a darned shame, because I know there are a lot of excellent places.

The last night, went to Alinea. Called and asked for a reservation the week before, and got in on a weeknight. Made a few adjustments and it was easy-peasy. 12 course + 2 gratis courses. Perfect intersection of art and craft. All this talk of "molecular gastronomy" is a joke. They are just a few techniques implemented in a whole range of solid basics that would stand alone very well by themselves. The man knows how to cook, it's not just the illusion of it.

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I will be heading to Chicago for a conference in a few weeks, and my husband will be joining for the weekend. I am thinking of doing Tobolobambo on Friday night, and either Spring or Scylla in Bucktown/Wicker Park on Saturday. I'd rather not do a big blow-out meal on the scale of Tru/Charlie Trotter's/ etc., not that we could probably get a reservation at this date. Is Tobolobambo going to be a formal meal? Is it worth it or is there somewhere else (not super-formal) I could better spend my dining dollars? I'm also thinking of Cafe Spiaggia.

Also, thoughts on Spring vs. Scylla (or some other more neighborhood-y place)? Both appear to emphasize seafood, and have a modern/hip vibe.

Thanks.

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Is Tobolobambo going to be a formal meal? Is it worth it or is there somewhere else (not super-formal) I could better spend my dining dollars? I'm also thinking of Cafe Spiaggia.

Topolobampo isn't terribly formal - tasting menu style, but since it shares space with the more casual Frontera Grill, it is farily laid back. I think it is defintely worth a visit as the cooking is unlike anything you can get here.

As for Cafe Spiaggia - I haven't been, but jenrus went last time she was in Chicago and didn't have much to say about it. No rants or raves either way.

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