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SF Hound with One Dinner in Chicago

  • j

I'm going to be making my first visit to Chicago at the end of May for a conference at the Renaissance, and will have one dinner to myself before I return home to Northern California.

I've heard that Chicago is best known for its steaks and its Italian food, but I'm always up for an adventure - truly, I'm looking for the best meal in town that's at least reasonably close to my hotel (< 15-20 minutes by cab or public transit). I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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  1. You are lucky in that the Renaissance is right on Wacker drive in the middle of Chicago. The only drawback is that you are within a 20 minute cab ride of so many great restaurants its hard to pick one - everything from your Italian and steakhouses, to Alinea and Charlie Trotters, and almost anything else. Chicago is one of America's great food cities, so there a lot from which you can choose. We've gone far beyond the Italian/Steak House tradition, although there are great options there if that's what you want.

    If you give an idea of what you like (price, cuisine, food preference, preferred atmosphere, etc) it will be easier to narrow things down.

    8 Replies
    1. re: wak

      I agree 100 percent with wak's post.

      Just to give you a few ideas of what we have to offer...

      We have "top table" fine dining restaurants that are as good as, and even as widely acclaimed as, the French Laundry. Some are more expensive than others ($250-400/person vs $175-250, including tax, tip, and moderate wine). These are also mostly "dress up" places where, for example, it's appropriate for men to wear a sportjacket and often a tie.

      We have contemporary "casual fine dining" restaurants whose food is superb and which are not as pricy as the former category (figure $75-125/person).

      We have ethnic restaurants of every stripe, not only in the "cheap eats" category but also in the fine dining genre, everything from provincial Mexican, to fusion (pan-Asian, French-Vietnamese, Latin-Indian), to Greek, and just about anything else.

      We have our unique Chicago-style deep-dish pizza that you won't find anywhere else.

      And yes, we have more conventional food, too, such as Italian, steakhouses, and seafood restaurants.

      Some restaurants bridge more than one of these categories - Italian top table, casual fine dining with an emphasis on seafood, etc.

      In these (and other) categories, we can give you some quick recommendations, as well as referring you to extended discussions of those options. As wak noted, just let us know what your preferences are.

      1. re: nsxtasy

        Thanks for the posts. You two sound like exactly the expert Hounds that I need to be talking to. In thinking about it more, I'm looking for the quintessential Chicago experience. And while I do love pizza, I'd say that I'm looking for a bit more ambiance.

        So, with that in mind, let's limit the conversation to Italian, steakhouses, or Italian Steakhouses. As far as price, I'm thinking no more than $100 for two courses and a cocktail (since I know that wine can heavily skew a price).

        Let me know if there are any additional details that would be helpful. Thanks in advance for your help.

        1. re: JGUSC

          Check out these previous discussions on...

          ...Italian:
          www.chowhound.com/topics/360990

          ...steakhouses:
          www.chowhound.com/topics/359377

          Both topics are recent as well as comprehensive.

          Quick picks:
          Italian - Cafe Spiaggia ( www.levyrestaurants.com ) or Coco Pazzo ( www.cocopazzochicago.com )
          Steakhouse - Gibsons ( www.gibsonssteakhouse.com ) or Mortons ( www.mortons.com )
          Italian steakhouse - Gene and Georgetti's ( www.geneandgeorgetti.com )

          There are many, many more places in these categories, of course...

          1. re: JGUSC

            Well, I'm going to go against the grain here, sorry. The Italian restaurants in Chicago are nowhere near the caliber of Italian food in SF. I think a SF visitor would be disappointed if his/her only meal in Chicago is Italian.

            Steak: if you like steak, I'm sure you'll find something good here. But, as Akatonbo said in a post several months ago, the Chicago stockyards have been gone for decades -- our steakhouses get their beef from the same place every other city does, so there doesn't seem to be anything uniquely "Chicago" about steak anymore.

            For a Chicago meal that's true to the present day instead of outdated associations, I'd recommend a high-end Mexican place like Topolobampo, even though there's a current thread where some people report disappointment with Topolo and Frontera. SF doesn't have anything comparable.

            OR, since the OP says, "I'm always up for an adventure", how about something in the so-called molecular gastronomy vein? Alinea is beyond the OP's budget, but the 5 course option at Moto would work ($70).
            http://www.motorestaurant.com

            Or (more conventionally) perhaps one of the lower-priced options at Avenues? I think the 3 course option is $90.

            1. re: Amata

              I guess I'd agree with that. The days when Steakhouses and Italian food were the best you could do in Chicago are long gone, although I think there is some great Italian food in Chicago (never had it in San Fran, so can't make a comparison there.) I'm not a big fan of steakhouses in general, so I can't add too much there.

              Assuming you just want a good meal within your budget, here are some places I like:

              160 Blue (only been there once, but the best meal I've had in a while)
              May Street Market
              Cafe Spiaggia or Coco Pazzo (both Italian)
              Blackbird (or Avec - same owners)
              Green Zebra (Vegetarian)

              1. re: Amata

                If we're throwing in options for reasonably-priced meals from the (non-Italian, non-steak) top chefs in town, we *must* mention the $50 three-course pre-theater menu at Everest, 5:00-5:30 every night they're open except Friday.

                I also agree with the additional suggestions wak makes.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  In the realm of non-Italian, non-steak places that are reasonably priced, I'd have to recommend Salpicon (excellent Mexican - on par or better than the Bayless establishments) and Le Colonial (incredible vietnamese).

                  1. re: ChicagoJen

                    There's a Le Colonial in San Francisco; the menu is identical to the one here. I like Le Colonial, but there's not much point in visiting the one here.

                    To the OP: with respect to the Italian choices mentioned, none listed are as good as, say, Incanto, IMO. Again, what's the point? And steakhouses - you've got Harris'. Go for something different that you just can't get in The City, and that's Haute Mexican, so go to Topolobampo. I've been to SFO a million times over the past 30+ years, and I've always thought it funny that the one thing that's impossible to find is good - I mean really good! - Mexican food. Weird. Anything else - no problem.

        2. If I were you, I'd go to Alinea http://www.alinearestaurant.com

          It's being hailed as one of the best restaurants in the country, truly a unique experience that I think you won't find anything close to in Chicago. You want adventure, this is it.

          2 Replies
          1. re: elrushbo

            I agree with the comments above from others. People who come from other cities often have a tendency to look for the kinds of food they find at home, rather than trying the best of what Chicago has to offer. You can find good Italian food and good steakhouses in any major city. Ours are very good indeed, but really no different from elsewhere. I would concentrate on what Chicago does best and more uniquely.

            To support what elrushbo said, I think Alinea is a great suggestion if you appreciate fine dining. It might be best described to a San Franciscan as similar in style and acclaim to the French Laundry, but where you don't have to win the lottery to get a reservation there. Chicago has some of the very top chefs and restaurants in the country, and they are doing things you won't find in San Francisco proper. Any of these will provide a superlative dining experience:

            1. Alinea - Grant Achatz - www.alinearestaurant.com
            2. Avenues - Graham Elliot Bowles - http://chicago.peninsula.com/pch/dini...
            3. Everest - Jean Joho - www.everestrestaurant.com
            4. Charlie Trotter's - Charlie Trotter - www.charlietrotter.com/restaurant
            5. Tru - Rick Tramonto - www.trurestaurant.com

            You won't hit your $100 threshold, but if you enjoy great food, it may be worth it for one meal. Expect to spend $250-400/person, including tax, tip, and moderate alcohol, at Alinea, Trotter's, and Tru; $175-250 at Avenues, and $150-200 at Everest. Everest also offers a $50 three-course pre-theater special at 5:00 or 5:30 every night they're open except Fridays. Also note that these are dress-up places, e.g. with most gentlemen wearing jacket and tie.

            Chicago also has some spectacularly good casual fine dining places, led by One Sixty Blue (mentioned above by wak) and also including Aigre Doux, Sweets and Savories, Custom House, Spring, Blackbird, Naha, etc. You can expect to spend $75-125, all in, at these places.

            One Sixty Blue - www.onesixtyblue.com
            Aigre Doux - www.chowhound.com/topics/365436
            Sweets and Savories - www.sweetsandsavorieschicago.com
            Custom House - www.customhouse.cc
            Spring - www.springrestaurant.net
            Blackbird - www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
            Naha - www.naha-chicago.com

            The suggestions (by sundevilpeg) of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are also good ones. Regional Mexican food you won't find elsewhere. www.rickbayless.com/restaurants

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Wow, there are some great places on here. I might have to make a repeat trip just to get a few extra meals in. Thank you all so much for your time and thoughtful feedback.

          2. Cut to the chase. Go to Hot Doug's for a hot dog (or sausage of the day) and duck fat fries.