first visit to Chicago-looking for memorable meals
Blackbird (on Randolph) is awesome.
Also, if you can find a way to get out of the immediate downtown area, A Tavola is exceptional. Small menu, but everything on it is fantastic. The gnocchi in black butter with fried sage leaves is out of this world. It would be only a short cab ride from downtown-- it is near the United Center.
I have been to A Tavola a mere once, so take that into account in what I say below.
I found the food very, very good, and as we were with the kids, very accomodating. Still, I found the food extremely expensive for what they offered. Perhaps it's some latent prejudice on my part on what I think Italian food should cost, but it did seem high for what we ordered.
Do others think the place is expensive or appropriately priced?
Last night we ate for the first time at Bin 36, and I really enjoyed it. Note that it's pretty expensive if you eat in the dining room and get the tasting menu, but the tavern menu is less expensive and if you are in the dining room you don't have to get the whole tasting (the waitress said "consider this our the specials of the evening" and did warn us that the wines on the tasting menu were much higher by the glass than their usual glass offerings).
If you like cheese they have a very nice offering - you can order individual cheeses to make your own platter.
Bin 36 is on Dearborn just N. of the river, in the same building as House of Blues (Marina Towers). 339 N. Dearborn St. phone 312-755-9463 - reservations for dining room, tavern is walk-in - I have no idea how crowded it is on a week night, definitely make reservations for weekend.
Also on the same block as Topolobampo and Frontera Grill is Zinfandel (on Grand), which prepares regional American fare. The regional focus changes monthly and I find it quite good--the cuisine is inventive and I don't find it duplicated much anywhere else. I travel to Chicago about once a quarter, and I always make a point to have dinner at Zinfandel once before to leave town.
re: Daniel C
Zinfandel is an excellant idea. For some reason, Zinfandel stays well under the hype meter, even though the food matches any other chef-centric mid-scale place. In fact, we went to Zinfandel for my birthday.
As much as I like the food at Zinfandel, I am even more enamored with the drinks and the pre-meal cornbread with maple-butter. The drinks featured a huge selection of wines by the glass, especially zins, micro-brews and (semi-)micro-bourbans. The mix for the bloody mary uses home made worshershire sauce!
In addition to the dinner, the saturday brunch is really good. Oddly, Zinfendal is closed on sunday.
I have to second the Frontera Grill suggestion. If you don't get in for the first seating, hang out in the bar, order a few margaritas & the appetizer platter for the wait. You'll have your appetizer whetted by the time you sit. And don't miss the desserts! But, if price is no matter, make reservations @ Topolobompo - much more refined. For a weekend, I'd make the reservation at least 3 weeks in advance. The food is amazing at either one.
I'm only an occasional visitor to Chicago, maybe twice a year, so I'm sure others participating in this board will be able to offer you more depth, but whenever I'm in town I try to get to either Frontera Grill or Brasserie Jo's.
Frontera Grill tends to get very crowded, but it's certainly a wonderful place to try pleasing regional Mexican cuisine. If only they had tongue on the mehu more often!
If they line's too long, walk around the corner to one of the best brasserie style restaurants I've seen anywhere outside of France or Belgium. That's Brasserie Jo. Although it's part of a group these days, it remains reasonably authentic. Excellent quality oysters. I had the cassoulet in December and it's just what the doctor ordered. And the steaks are among the most flavorful around. Yes, they're no soft, fork tender pieces of beef. Instead, they're chewy. But that's fine by me, and a helluva lot more true to French cooking than a filet mignon would be. And remember, this is a brasserie, so while the wine is fine, beer is better. Especially since the fare here is particularly hearty (mostly Alsatian, even down to the choucroute).
Although my home city of Philadelphia offers many fine dining experiences, it's tough to find a true brasserie.