Brooklynite's first visit to Chicago
Please be patient--I know you've received many similar questions....
I will be spending a weekend with a family member in Chicago in May. We both like to splurge on a nice dinner once or twice a year. This will be my first time in the city, and I am almost entirely unfamiliar with the dining scene.
Here are my criteria, along with numerical ratings, 10 being the most important:
Mind-blowing winelist: 10
Warm, highly informed but unintimidating service: 10
Casual (as opposed to stuffy) vibe: 8
Celebrity chef: 7 (very superficial, I know)
Has palpable "character" or unique atmosphere: 7
Unusual ingredients (or unusual use of ingredients): 6
Straigtforward, gutsy (as opposed to refined/fussy/complicated) cuisine: 6
Obviosly, not everyone of these criteria needs to be met (and the final two may even contradict one another slightly), but the first two are of primary importance.
I know my requirements basically described NYC Chowhound favorite Babbo to a tee, but, no, I am not necessary looking for that restaurant's Chicago equivalent. In fact, somewhere quieter and less exclusive than Babbo might even be preferred (it would be cool if it we wound up in not the most loudly acclaimed restaurant, just the best).
I'll do a separate post later asking for cheap local & ethnic Chicago eats, but for now I'm just looking for a "special occasion" type of place. Thanks
I would like to second green zebra. I think that it fits all of your criteria.
My ratings according to your criteria:
Mind-blowing winelist: maybe 7
Warm, highly informed but unintimidating service: 10
Casual (as opposed to stuffy) vibe: 9
Celebrity chef: 10 (very superficial, I know)
Has palpable "character" or unique atmosphere: 9
Unusual ingredients (or unusual use of ingredients): 9
Straigtforward, gutsy (as opposed to refined/fussy/complicated) cuisine: 5
The first time I went to this place I was recommended a wine that the sommelier described with the most perfect and original description I have ever heard for a wine. She described it by calling it "flinty". The atmosphere is pretty laid back, and I would definitely say that it is the least snobby of the terrific restraunts that I have been to. The one think that I can say about it is that it may be too cool for it's own good. The service is a perfect balance between enough attention and not too much. If anybody says that it doesn't have unusual ingredients / combinations they are straight up wrong. The celeb chef and character assessments are equally undeniable.
I think you will find it to be exactly what you are looking for if you don't feel a strong need to eat lots of meat.
Regarding BYOB policies, I think the policies here in Chicago are similar to those in New York. Most of the more expensive places serve wine and are not BYOB-friendly; many of those in the "cheap eats" category welcome the BYOB diner.
I think some of the replies above underestimate the ability of the OP to evaluate the information presented and to decide for himself what he wants. As he readily admits, some of his stated criteria conflict with each other. Why not present him with choices and information to enable *him* to decide where to go? For example, Alinea may not meet every criterion, but neither does any other place, and he admits that he is not necessarily "looking for another Babbo". Maybe he wants the service, celebrity, character, ingredients, and cuisine of Alinea for one night, maybe the casualness and uncomplicatedness of One Sixty Blue or Oceanique on another night; maybe not. Either way, he can decide for himself - and it helps that decision to know that we have a place like Alinea that is as unusual and unique when it comes to the cuisine, that is widely recognized throughout the food world.
As for the numbered lists I have provided in my posts (which Mike derisively refers to as "laundry lists"), I think they ought to be helpful to the OP for several reasons: (1) The links in those lists to the restaurant websites enable him to get an idea of the food that is offered, as well as the wine list itself, which is often posted on the website. (2) They give an idea of where a given place stands in relationship to others that were not mentioned. For example, places like Blackbird and Spiaggia that had previously been mentioned are very good indeed, but there are a few other similar places that are just as good or better IMHO, but may not have as many people familiar with them (for various reasons). Then the OP can decide for himself whether to go with the place that has the best chef/food, or perhaps another which has a better wine list. I'm sure he welcomes as much information as we can provide to him; the more the better.
Mike mentioned the "wine galas" at Va Pensiero, which is a great suggestion. Many of these restaurants have special wine events of various sorts. Some of them are better than others about posting up-to-date information on their websites. Oceanique holds a wine dinner the last Wednesday of each month and posts it on its website. Regarding BYOB, One Sixty Blue has "dust off that bottle night" the last Friday of each month (with no corkage fees). Check on the restaurant websites for more information.
Finally, one additional recommendation that should be mentioned but has not yet been: Bin 36. Bin 36 is a combination of a restaurant and wine bar, and does very well at both. If you're looking for a place with excellent food, outstanding wine selections, casual vibe, etc, it's worth considering. www.bin36.com
re: Yaqo Homo
Nsxtasy nailed it! You can't go wrong with those recs.
For more casual straight forward cuisine:
Greektown: Santorini or The Parthenon.
Totally different: Raw Bar in Wrigleyville for a unique blend of Persian and Egytian flavors. Very casual with piano bar attached. Friendly staff/owner
Carnival: Nuevo Latino. Spectacular space with fun Latin music and dance. Creative food and drink in a vibrant atmosphere.
Al-Kaiyyam for Lebanese or Noon-O-Kabab for Persian. Both are BYOB.
Chicago style Deep Dish: Lou Malnati's or Gino's East. Very filling and delicious!
Unique Belgian Ale House; Hopleaf at Clark and Foster in Andersonville. Great selection of Belgian Ale, great local crowd, great Belgian style Bar food.
These additional recommendations are good ones, but are starting to slide into the genre of "cheap eats", to follow later according to the OP. If and when you're ready for that aspect of the discussion, you may want to go through these previous topics:
Quintessential Chicago Cheap Eats
Brunch and Breakfast
What do any of these places have to do with "Mind Blowing Winelists??" That's the first criterion. Right there you can eliminate about 99% of the restaurants in Chicago or anyplace else.
I wouldn't even put North Pond in that category. Great restaurant, chef, environment, straightforward food and SERVICEABLE, APPROPRIATE Wine list, but mind-blowing ? Nah....
For the very top tables with celebrity chefs - the ones with national reputations that are actually well-deserved - here are pretty much the creme de la creme, in order:
1. Alinea - Grant Achatz - www.alinearestaurant.com
2. Avenues - Graham Elliot Bowles - http://chicago.peninsula.com/pch/dining_01.html
3. Everest - Jean Joho - www.everestrestaurant.com
4. Charlie Trotter's - Charlie Trotter - www.charlietrotter.com/restaurant
5. Tru - Rick Tramonto - www.trurestaurant.com
6. NoMi - Christophe David - www.nomirestaurant.com
7. Schwa - Michael Carlson - www.schwarestaurant.com
8. moto - Homaro Cantu - www.motorestaurant.com
9. Spiaggia - Tony Mantuano - www.levyrestaurants.com
I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Alinea, since it's considered by many to be the very best restaurant in the country.
Blackbird is NOT in this group. It's very good, but really belongs in a separate category which I call "casual fine dining" because it has a more casual vibe, rather than a celebrity chef vibe. And in this category, I would consider the following places, as you can see I rate some of them above Blackbird:
1. One Sixty Blue - www.onesixtyblue.com
2. Aigre Doux - www.aigredouxchicago.com
3. Custom House - www.customhouse.cc
4. Spring - www.springrestaurant.net
5. Blackbird - www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
6. Naha - www.naha-chicago.com
7. Sweets and Savories - www.sweetsandsavorieschicago.com
8. North Pond - www.northpondrestaurant.com
9. mk - www.mkchicago.com
Seafood restaurants and steakhouses are two specific genres that don't necessarily fit into the above. For seafood:
For steakhouses, there is a full list with lots of discussion at www.chowhound.com/topics/359377
For creative Mexican, which you asked about, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are both very good for food, although they can be crowded and noisy. Note that Frontera Grill only accepts reservations first thing in the morning (8:30) the day you are dining. There are several other good choices as well:
I assume you're looking in the city only; if not, please say so, as there are more great fine dining places in the suburbs (Michael, Oceanique, Vie, Courtright's, Le Francais, Carlos, etc).
You can't go wrong with any of the places named here.
Wow! Thanks for the great post.
It's helpful that you divided the more casual places from the more ritzy celeb chef restaurants.
I'll likely be staying well outside of downtown in the Edgewater neighborhood (though I'll certainly be spending a lot of time downtown). Are any of the suburban gems you mentioned in close proximity to Edgewater?
re: Yaqo Homo
Edgewater is about 7 miles north of the loop, so its not particularly convenient to most of the places listed, but also not too far by train or cab.
The closest quality dining experience I can think of is Sola. http://www.sola-restaurant.com/ Not a celeberty chef, but excellent food. Tends more to the casual side. Wine list is good, with a decent selection in the $30-80 range. Its all listed on the web site. I had an excellent meal there late last year.
Downtown, Blackbird is a great option. Another consideration is Green Zebra. Genuine J. Beard winning, Gourmet top new chef winning cook (Shawn McLain -nalso runs custom house and spring). http://www.greenzebrachicago.com/inde... The catch - its vegetarian, and only the most determined carnivores leave missing the meat one bit. I think it would hit most of your criteria.
If not that, I'd recommend 160 Blue which I found outstanding in all ways.
Neither is convenient to Edgewater, but if you're goig down town anyway, its all about the same.
re: Yaqo Homo
Edgewater is on the north side, between the Uptown neighborhood to the south and Rogers Park to the north. Since you're in Edgewater, you may want to consider a couple of additional "casual fine dining" places located in Uptown, just south of Edgewater but further north than those I previously mentioned:
You may see references on this board to Andersonville, named after its Swedish heritage; Andersonville is part of Edgewater. It is the home of two notable bakeries a block apart, Swedish Bakery ( www.swedishbakery.com ) and Pasticceria Natalina, a new Sicilian bakery described in the topic at www.chowhound.com/topics/372142 If you are looking for a place for breakfast in Andersonville/Edgewater, consider M. Henry ( www.mhenry.net ); note that it gets busy on weekends.
In response to your question about the suburban restaurants I mentioned, Evanston is the first town north of Rogers Park and is the location of Oceanique and other excellent restaurants in the "casual fine dining category":
1. Oceanique - www.oceanique.com
2. Chef's Station - www.chefs-station.com
3. The Stained Glass - www.thestainedglass.com
4. Va Pensiero - www.va-p.com
5. Jacky's Bistro - www.jackysbistro.com
6. Campagnola - www.campagnolarestaurant.com
I *love* Oceanique (which specializes in seafood, BTW, and has an awesome pastry chef) and I think it's as good as the very best of the "casual fine dining" places in the city. Oceanique and One Sixty Blue (also Chef's Station and Aigre Doux) are the kind of places where you can order a bunch of items, and every bite of every dish is to die for. True treasures of our local restaurant scene.
The other suburban places I mentioned are a bit further away, and the places I previously mentioned (most of which are in or near downtown or the near north side) will be just as close or closer. Edgewater is within a 20-25 minute drive by car/cab (in non-rush periods) of all the Chicago and Evanston places mentioned in this topic so far, and is also convenient by public transportation (el, our subway) to most of them. See www.transitchicago.com for public transit info.
Incidentally, you mentioned a "mind blowing winelist" as a big criterion. A good place to start might be Wine Spectator Magazine. They have given their Award of Excellence to 94 restaurants in Illinois, including the first four I just listed in Evanston, and you can see the complete list of 94 here:
Click on the column headings to sort by restaurant name, city, or award.
Andersonville is not a part of Edgewater. It is it's very own neighborhood. Although since the name of it has gone on to equal pricey real estate, the boundaries have expanded to enroach into Edgewater.
If the OP is going to be in Edgewater and is looking for some good food that is BYOB, you may want to check out Indie Cafe and Broadway Cellers. Both around the 6000 block of Broadway by Thorndaele. If you want to get into Evanston, take the Granville or Thorndale RED line north to Howard. Then tranfer to the Purple line. 30 mins tops into Evanston.
> Andersonville is not a part of Edgewater. It is it's very own neighborhood.
Actually, most of Andersonville is indeed part of Edgewater. Edgewater is an officially-designated community area with boundaries between Foster and Devon, and Ravenswood and the lake, and DOES include most of the neighborhood known as Andersonville, as noted on the Edgewater Historical Society website at www.edgewaterhistory.org as well as at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgewater_%28Chicago%29 Thus, restaurants such as M. Henry ( www.mhenry.net ) and food stores such as Swedish Bakery ( www.swedishbakery.com ) and Pasticceria Natalina ( www.pasticcerianatalina.com ) are located in the neighborhood called Andersonville as well as in the community area called Edgewater.
As Andersonville has become more gentrified, more and more food stores and restaurants have opened, and the popular connotation for Andersonville has expanded southward across Foster Street into the officially-designated community of Uptown. The Hop Leaf Cafe ( www.hopleaf.com ), which is was mentioned by amoncada below, is in this part of the Andersonville neighborhood, in the Uptown community. The Hop Leaf is known for its French bistro food (mussels and fries) as well as the beers that amoncada mentioned.
The eastern portions of Edgewater are not considered part of the Andersonville neighborhood. In addition to Indie Cafe and Broadway Cellars mentioned by lbs in her post, another good restaurant choice in the area is That Little Mexican Cafe on West Bryn Mawr, for upscale and provincial Mexican food. Here are website links for these places:
One thing to keep in mind (and this is why I did not recommend Alinea in my original reply) is that none of the very top places in town have the type of atmosphere (or really even they style of cooking) that I think the OP is looking for. Per Se is obviously one of the top places in NYC (if not the country) but it's a totally different experience than Babbo. Same analogy would apply here with the top places versus the others.
Right. Alinea is complicated to the max, super cutting-edge. Not the "straightforward, uncomplicated" cuisine the poster initially requested.
And not all the restaurants on the laundry lists above truly have "mind blowing wine lists" as the Poster listed as their PRIMARY criterion.
Just one thought on this for the poster... Chicago, like NYC, has some truly mind-blowing wine STORES and numerous great restaurants with very byob-friendly policies. Ultimately, dollar-for-dollar, if wine is your primary objective and you want the best selection but don't want to be double or triple-keystoned price-wise, BYOB makes alot of sense.
In any cuisine type you care to name (italian, french, middle-eastern, asian, mexican, etc.) there are great byob friendly chicago restaurants. When I'm travelling to NYC there are any number of great BYOB friendly restaurants (especially out in the boroughs) that enable a diner to have a world-class meal with byob wines that often aren't even offered on the restaurant's wine list and at much lower price points than they would be if they were.
re: Chicago Mike
Good point, Chicago Mike. I actually have a couple of wine stores I've been wanting to visit while I'm there. However, when I'm at a good restaurant, I do enjoy reading a good wine list and chatting with the sommelier.
Except at inexpensive places with no liquor license, I find that New York restaurants aren't particularly BYOB-friendly (compared, to say California). Is Chicago so different?
re: Yaqo Homo
Yag, I would say in general Chicago is probably more byob friendly than NYC.
But you have some great destinations there... Sriraphai for Thai, Malagueta for Brazilian, La Tavernetta in Italian, the Kabab Cafe for Middle-Eastern, many of your great greek restaurants, etc. etc. that are all very byob friendly.
I remember I had a meal at that interesting bengali place... mina? a few years ago that was byob... so the opportunities abound in NYC, imo.
But sometimes, like you say you want to be catered to, etc.... if you're doing Everest, for example, call ahead and make sure Alpana Singh is working that evening (for the celeb factor). Enjoy.
Also, as another aside, since you're staying closer to evanston, you might want to inquire at Va Pensiero if they are having one of their "wine galas". If so, these are pretty good events. They have a Wine-Spectator recognized first-rate italian wine list but their wine galas are really good, for less than 100 all-in. Their website calendar hasn't been updated but here's the link to some past events and you can call them and find out:
If they aren't having a special event when you're in town then the restaurant isn't as interesting, IMO and you'd probably be better off with the other recommendations in this thread.
re: Chicago Mike
Yes, this is true. There was a NY Times article about sommeliers a few months ago. Singh said being a sommelier wore her out. She said she was tired of spending all of her Saturday nights lugging silver trays around and singing happy birthday to people--sorry if I'm misquoting you, Alpana; she's some kind of consultant now.
re: Chicago Mike
Looks like you've spent some significant time in Queens! Queens is brimming with top-notch cuisine in very casual settings, and I agree that those types of places (Spicy Mina, Malagueta, Sripraphai) welcome BYOB. It's the finer dining places that make you feel less comfortable doing so. I will definitely check out Va Pensiero.
I was poking around some of the other threads and saw someone brought up Rick Bayless (speaking of celebrity chefs).
What do you chowhounds think of his restaurants (Frontera & Topolobampo)? I can't imagine a Mexican grill restaurant having a "mind-blowing" winelist (tequila, maybe--at least that's how it goes in New York), but I imagine some of my other criteria would be realized....
Interesting that you want both "unusual ingredients" AND "straightforward, uncomplicated"...
Anyway, that's at the bottom of your list while great Wine List is at the top. So, it's really hard not to recommend Everest, home of BOTH a celebrity chef AND celebrity master sommelier, great winelist, and relatively straightforward cuisine.
They have the great service. Not overly casual but not stuffy either. Reasonably unique atmosphere/view....
Since your "baseline" is Babbo you might want to look at Spiaggia also... excellent winelist, creative haute Italian cuisine... slightly less casual than Babbo but not to point of stuffy by any means. Very nice location, etc.
Others to consider: MK and NoMi both stay within the "straightforward" cuisine criterion while maintaining "vast" winelists...
Once you ease off on the "uncomplicated" criterion then some other possibilities open up, IMO... Tru and Charlie Trotter principal among them.
Wherever you choose, your feedback will be much appreciated.
re: Chicago Mike
You are right to point out that some of my criteria potentially (but not necessarily) contradict each other, which is why I rated them in order of importance. In any case, my list is only a rough and subjective guide to what I'm after.
My dining companion (not his 1st visit to the city) has arlready been to Everest and loved it, so we are not opposed to going again. Charlie Trotter is also being considered (see http://www.chowhound.com/topics/392388).
Of the places I'm unfamiliar with, Spiaggia sounds like a winner; and I will research MK, NoMi and Tru further. I really appreciate all the suggestions
I completely agree with the Blackbird suggestion! I was there last month and it is unbelievable. Most definitely the closest thing to what you are looking for. The food is unique and the presentation is amazing. The owners and chefs are wonderful. It is hip and chic, but relaxed at the same time. It's small and can be very busy on weekends, so make a reservation! My only other suggestion would Gibsons Steakhouse- a MUST for all visitors. It is not Peter Luger's, but Chicago steaks are "wet" aged versus "dry" aged as Luger's. It is a celebrity hot spot and the steaks and side dishes are incredible. The desserts are enormous so save room!