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Jan 14, 2007 04:10 PM

One Free Night in Chicago: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, or Charlie Trotter's?

I'll be in Chicago for a few days in April, attending a conference. I'll only have two free nights on which to head off on my own, the first of which is a Monday, when most good restaurants are closed.

I'd like some opinions on which restaurant to book for Tuesday night. One of the above or something entirely different?

Also, does anyone know of any good (does not have to be upscale) restaurants open on Monday nights?


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  1. Tell us what you're interested in. For example, the two Bayless restaurants are both cramped, somewhat-moderately-priced Mexican cuisine, and Charlie Trotter's is extremely expensive upscale fine dining. Both places are excellent, but they are very different kinds of restaurants.

    There are many, many great restaurants of all kinds in Chicago, everything from ethnic cuisine to fine dining, cheap eats to expensive, etc. Location may also play a factor, as there may be places close to where you'll be (which you don't mention) that meet your needs perfectly.

    Many places are closed on Mondays, but many others are open; that is not a big restriction. All you have to do is check websites - either the websites of the restaurants themselves or listings such as on Metromix - and you'll find what's open which days. For example, One Sixty Blue is a wonderful place, has some of the best food in the city, but is more casual than (and not as obscenely expensive as) the big name places in town, and they're open on Mondays.

    As for Tuesday, just about anyplace is open. If you're looking for the creativity and quality of Charlie Trotter's, IMHO you can find even better food at Everest, which is one of the very best restaurants in the city. You'll pay significantly less than Trotter's even from their regular menu, and if your schedule permits an early seating at 5:30, they have a special pre-theater menu at a bargain price.

    NoMi is another excellent restaurant, one that is open on Mondays. They are comparable in price to Everest, but I have heard that they, too, have a bargain pre-theater menu. Seasons, in the Four Seasons Hotel, is another of our finest restaurants open on Mondays.

    But again, I am just tossing out the names of a few of our many excellent restaurants. Please give some thought to what you're looking for, and how you would like to narrow it down. That will enable folks here to provide more specific suggestions to you than just "name a good restaurant in Chicago", a question to which there are literally hundreds of correct answers.

    17 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Since this will be my first visit to Chicago, I'm open to anything. However, because I've heard so much over the years about Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter, their restaurants do come to mind when I think of Chicago.

      I think that, for my Tuesday night meal, I would like to dine in a more upscale restaurant. I tend to enjoy big, bold flavours and innovative, out-of-the-ordinary cuisine. I live in Toronto and visit Montreal often (I'm an ex-Montrealer), and have access to some great restaurants in these two cities. Good, authentic Mexican food is non-existent in Toronto and Montreal, which makes me lean more towards Rick Bayless's restaurants.

      From what you've written, in addition to masha's reply, below, it seems that my Monday night options might include some very good, possibly discounted, establishments.

      1. re: FlavoursGal

        Topo's a good choice, particularly if you don't have the opportunity to dine on high-end Mexican cuisine at home It's a bit more upscale than Frontera, and unlike Frontera, I believe, it takes reservations for something other than large groups. Here's their site:

        1. re: jbw

          Thanks, jbw, I've already been to the website and noticed that Frontera doesn't take reservations. I actually did try to make an online reservation at Topolobampo, but it's not possible until the month prior.

          I think this will probably be my choice, mostly due to the junky "mexican" that we get north of the border.

            1. re: jbw

              Thanks for the link, jbw!

              Given all the raves about the food, I think I'll still head to Topo despite the rushed, sometimes crude service.

              Two questions:

              1. Does anyone have any thoughts on how a woman dining alone would fare at Topo; and

              2. What would be the chances of getting a table for one person at Frontera? I don't mind dining late (9 - 10 p.m.).

              One worry I have is that upwards of 1500 "culinarians" will be converging on Chicago for the IACP convention, which will undoubtedly make getting into many restaurants without a reservation a near impossibility.

              1. re: FlavoursGal

                Hey FG, I'm in Chicago ALL the time for work. If you want Frontera vs. Topo, your best best is to eat at the bar or go late. And something good to note: if you eat at the bar, you can order off the Topo menu as well. As for eating solo at Topo, no problem! Order a lovely margarita and everything is good. :)

                Chicago doesn't have the Monday night issues that we have in Toronto. My recommendation for Monday night is Avec. You'll get to experience how Chicago does small plates vs. Toronto (though Avec does have a few large plates as well). Once again, no reservations, but if you go before 6pm, there is usually no problem getting a seat (note: communal seating at 4 8-person tables). If you go later and there is a wait, well, there are worse things then sitting at the bar and ordering a "caraffina" of wine from their great wine list. Order the chorizo stuffed dates and if they have pork shoulder on the menu, go for it -- guaranteed to be divine.

                1. re: TorontoJo

                  I was wondering if one could eat at the bar. Thanks so much for this suggestion. I think that, rather than reserve at Topo, I'll head to the bar at Frontera and get the best of both worlds.

                2. re: FlavoursGal

                  The last time I was at Frontera (on a Saturday at 9:30 pm) there were plenty of spots open on the bar. For three people, we were told the wait would be 90 minutes, but it was closer to 20.

                  1. re: FlavoursGal

                    Don't say I didn't warn you! ;-) Seriously, I hope you have a better experience than we did. As noted in my linked review, the food was excellent, but it was hard to enjoy under the circumstances.
                    To your questions: a woman dining alone will be just fine; won't raise anyone's eyebrows at all. Chance of getting a table at Frontera, better late as you suggest. A 20 minute wait is pretty unusual in my experience. Good luck--and hope you have a great time!

                    1. re: Gypsy Boy

                      I appreciate the warning, Gypsy_Boy, honest. But if you'd been deprived of amazing Mexican food, as I have been, you'd put blinders and earplugs on too, and just savour the food.

            2. re: FlavoursGal

              Haven eaten at Topolobampo on an expense account, and not being that impressed (its honestly not as good as the upscale Mexican cuisine I churn out for dinner parties)... I would choose to pay out of my own pocket to visit some of the Regional Mexican places that Amata has recommended.

              So if you are interested in high-end... probably try Trotters.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                Eat_Nopal, I think I've missed something... Who is Amata?

                1. re: FlavoursGal

                  Eat Nopal and I have interacted on other threads but since I hadn't posted in *this* thread his reference was indeed mysterious! :-)

                  There are amazingly good resources for Mexican food in Chicago but for your situation (downtown with no car, limited time) I think the idea of eating at the bar at Frontera is an excellent one.

                  If you wanted to explore Chicago Mexican further, I'd recommend using your free Sunday morning to go to the Maxwell Street Market. Despite the name, it is on Canal Street north and south of Roosevelt Road. There are excellent vendors there selling tacos, tamales, birria, empanadas, etc. etc. The ideal time to get there is probably 9 am, before it gets too crowded.

                  Here's a link to a report on the market with photos:

                  Have fun, and let us know where you end up!


                  1. re: Amata

                    Hey FG, I should point out that the Wabash location of Bongo Room is less than a mile due east of the Maxwell St. Market. So if you have some time on Sunday morning, I'd eat at Bongo Room, then walk or take a quick cab down Roosevelt Rd. and check out the market. Mexican food in Chicago is just so many light years ahead of Toronto that it makes me want to cry.

                    OK, I'll stop babbling at you now. :)

                    1. re: TorontoJo

                      What makes me want to cry is the fact that most of my meals in this gastronomic haven will consist of banquet food in a convention centre!

                      1. re: TorontoJo

                        I couldn't agree more about Maxwell Street Mexican food.. So far this is the best Mexican food I've experienced (leagues better than Amanecer Tapatio).

                        We've also been to Topo and had a good dining experience. Both good food and good friendly service. But it was a good evening out with good food. Though I wasn't overly impressed with the meal (I had the large tasting). I am really glad I went to Topo...but I wouldn't go back. I would try out another place.


                      2. re: Amata

                        Thank you, Amata. I adore street food and street fairs. The photos on the site you steered me to are pretty enticing. I guess it'll all come down to how the weather is - is Chicago prone to April showers?

                        This site also clued me in to why the Mexican food is so great in Chicago. I had no idea that it is resident to the third-largest contingent of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

              2. Opera, in the South Loop, is open on Monday nights, featuring a 3-course prix fixe menu that is a substantial discount off their usual prices. (Also available on Tuesday nights.) It is a upscale, creative Chinese restaurant.

                1. If you have a morning free, please go have brunch at the Bongo Room. There is no breakfast like it in Toronto. The original is in Bucktown/Wicker Park, which is a 10-15 cab ride from downtown, but I believe they've opened a branch downtown somewhere. Hint: you can ask for a half order of any of the pancakes -- it leaves more room to order other goodies!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: TorontoJo

                    Thanks for all of your suggestions, Jo. I do, in fact, have the morning free on the day I leave Chicago, which is a Sunday. A perfect day for brunch!

                    And the menu at Avec looks really interesting, as well.

                    1. re: FlavoursGal

                      Perfect! Just be warned that Bongo Room is packed on the weekends. They open at 9am and there are usually people waiting. The downtown location is at 1152 S Wabash Ave. The Wicker Park location is at 1470 N. Milwaukee Ave. Note that the Miwaukee Ave. location is a block from the Blue Line, which takes you right into O'Hare airport.

                      Heath bar pancakes, crisp applewood-smoked bacon and their potatoes with melted cheddar. Sigh... heart attack and heaven on a plate.

                      1. re: TorontoJo

                        ...and surely tastier than fettuccine Alfredo!

                        1. re: FlavoursGal

                          If you decide to go to Bongo Room on S. Wabash on Sunday morning and find it to be too crowded, walk a couple blocks south to 1312 where Gioco, a very good Italian restaurant, is currently serving breakfasts on Sunday only. Their eggs benedict are very good, and if you felt in the mood, I'm sure they'd prepare a very tasty fettucine Alfredo for you, too.

                        2. re: TorontoJo

                          Another downtown alternative for brunch is Orange on Harrison. It's quite near Bongo Room. They have a wonderful brunch menu, with pancake flights (four different presentations of mini-pancakes), eggs, juice blends made to order, etc. They serve brunch on Saturday and Sunday starting at 8 a.m. They don't get busy until maybe 9:30 or so. Highly recommended if you're looking for a good brunch place.

                          Like Bongo Room, Orange on Harrison is an offshoot of another location; the original Orange in in Lakeview, and has the same brunch.

                          Orange on Harrison
                          75 W. Harrison St.

                          3231 N. Clark St.
                          Tribune review:

                          The Tribune/Metromix guide to brunches is here:
                          Click on "In a brunch crunch?" for an article about where to go when your favorite neighborhood place is crowded.

                    2. You can eat at the bar at Avec, also, and I have easily gotten a seat there (as one person) later in the evening. I would say weekends are harder than weeknights, but a single person can usually fit in anywhere :) And with the communal tables, you end up talking with the people who are sitting with you anyway, groups or not.

                      1. No one's mentioned Green Zebra. We've only been once, but look forward to a return. Vegetarian menu, but like no other, seriously interesting food. Slightly upscale-funky decor. ALso, a cab ride to Salpicon can be rewarding for Mexican.