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Apr 27, 2007 01:54 PM

SF Hound visiting - please critique my list

Fellow Hounds,

I'll be in Chicago for five days this July. I plan to have one blow out meal at Alinea, but I'm looking for more budget minded recs for the other days. For dinner, I like places that serve great food that isn't too fussy (skirt steak over filet, lamb shank over rack) in a casual atmosphere. I like to go a bit more refined at lunch, because I can get a taste of gourmet without dropping a bill. It's important to me that chefs have a commitment to using organic or sustainable ingredients.

Normally, I'd do a lot more preliminary research than this, but as you know the current search feature is basically useless. Any links to relevant threads are much appreciated.

Here's my preliminary list. I'd appreciate any feedback, answers to my questions, places that should be avoided, or any glaring omissions.

Black Bird - Looks like my dream lunch, I can't resist a pork belly sandwich
North Pond - dinner looked fabulous, but too $$$$. I noticed they serve lunch in the Summer (I'm visiting in July) but no lunch menu was posted. Anyone try it for lunch? Reports including dishes sampled and prices?
Rick Bayless - want to try upscale Mexican, but I still can't stomach spending $35/plate (I grew up on taco trucks in SoCal, so this is a bizarre concept for me). I've settled on one Bayless spot for lunch - but I can't really tell the difference between Frontera and Topolobampo. Thoughts?
Trotters to Go - I'm still pissed at him over the foie debacle, but I figure I'll give his take out a shot. Website was pretty vague, what all do they serve here? Is it appropriate for a budget dinner instead of lunch?

Prairie Grass Cafe - Looks like my kind of place. Reasonable prices, casual atmosphere, organic food
Lula Cafe - Prices are attractive, though the menu doesn't excite me. Thoughts?
Hot Chocolate - How is the savory food here? Seems really casual, which works when a place is chef-driven, but also has the potential to fall flat on its face. Should I just pop in for dessert, or try it for dinner?

Brunch - What is the best spot in Chicago for a delicious Saturday brunch? (I'll be on the plane Sunday morning)

Places I'm unsure about:
Campagnola Restaurant - No online menu (I hate that!) I eat a lot of incredible Italian food in SF, is this worth a visit? How are the prices?
Sunflower Bistro - What are their prices like? Food looks good, but the online menu leaves prices blank (I really hate that!)
Heartland Cafe - I'm curious about the buffalo. Is it any good?

I'm also looking for recs for good food shopping. Farmers' Markets, specialty stores, cheese, sausage, charcuterie, delis, or any other worthwhile food shops. Anything conveniently located near a good picnic spot?

Lastly, are there any "only in Chicago" foods that I would be a fool to miss? I'm willing to waive my organic restrictions a few times a year for something unique or special.

Thank you for any advise. I promise to give a thorough report back after my trip.


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  1. Looks like a good list. Do you realize that some of your selections are in the suburbs? Will you have a car? In particular, Prarie Grass Cafe is up in Northbrook, and is not easily accessible from the city by public transportation. Campagnola is in Evanston, much more easily accessible by public transit, but still a distance from downtown.

    You might want to combine your Saturday brunch with your farmer's market shopping. Green City Market at the south end of Lincoln Park (near Clark and Lincoln) is wonderful. It's open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. On Saturdays, there are a bunch of booths that make crepes, paninis, even pizzas (although I'm not sure if the Pizza guys are coming back this year), not to mention several outstanding bakeries with booths. There are chairs around for eating while you are there, or you can just wander out into the park for a more private picnic.
    - Orange - bright, fun brunch restaurant with interesting options like appetizers of frushi (fruit sushi) and an amazing array of juices that they will squeeze and mix fresh for you. They are open most days, so you could go on a non-weekend and save yourself the hassle of standing in line.

    Some other suggestions (although I don't know that much about which chefs use organic and/or sustainable ingredients, you should do your own investigation):
    - Chicago pizza - it's worth trying stuffed or deep dish pizza while you are here. There are innumerable discussions on this board. I think you can't go wrong with Giordano's, Edwardo's or Lou Malnati's (all with multiple locations).
    - Mambo Grill - good, not terribly expensive latin food with good drinks. It would be a good option for a casual dinner.
    - Green Zebra - sounds right up your alley. Acclaimed chef who is committed to using fresh, local vegetables. It's mostly vegetarian. I haven't been there, but it gets rave reviews. Only open for dinner, though.
    - Kevin - one of the higher end restaurants that is open for lunch. Still pricey at lunch, though. Their desserts are out of this world.
    - Cafe Spiaggia - the excellent, lower-priced sister restaurant to Spiaggia. Wonderful Italian food, including exquisite pastas. Open for lunch or dinner (Spiaggia is also wonderful, but $$$$ and only open for dinner).

    1. The pork belly sandwich at Blackbird is awesome, definitely keep this as a lunch option. I would skip Hot Chocolate for dinner. Desserts are good, but the savory part of the menu is just "meh" to me.

      1. Hi Morton,

        I know your posts from the SF board, and it sounds like you've done some solid research on what's available here. Here are a few disjointed comments (more later perhaps).

        How about doing Frontera as your Saturday brunch?

        If you are willing to go out to the suburbs, you should check out Vie in Western Springs. I haven't been there myself, but it sounds perfect for your interests. Here is a lengthy thread on (another place you should look to for Chicago food discussion):

        Are you interested in exploring the ethnic side of Chicago dining? Cuisines that are better in Chicago than the Bay Area include Thai and Mexican. Yes, I know you have Bayless on your list, but there is so much more, out in the neighborhoods. Also Greek, Czech, Polish, Lithuanian, Puerto Rican... Chinese in general is not as strong as the Bay Area, but there is a Yunnanese place, Spring World, which as far as I know is not represented out by you.

        I'd say for shopping, too, the real strengths of Chicago are in the ethnic neighborhoods. In terms of "gourmet ghetto" items, what Chicago has won't wow someone from Berkeley (for produce, your best bet is the Green City Market mentioned by SuzMiCo, and for charcuterie you might enjoy Fox and Obel, a Dean and Deluca-ish grocery). But what I think is great about Chicago is that you can go to a Polish deli or a Mexican dairy store or a Russian bakery or the giant Korean H-Mart and what you find there is the real deal, marketed to members of the community. If you want to explore the neighborhoods of Chicago, just let us know.

        By the way, if you are in the Loop and need a quick lunch, Hannah's Bretzel is all organic. Intelligentsia coffee has a couple locations in the Loop -- founded by an alumnus of Peets, and committed to environmentally and socially responsible coffee sources.

        In any event, I'm sure you'll enjoy your visit. Looking forward to hearing about it afterwards.


        2 Replies
        1. re: Amata

          p.s. I don't think Trotters To Go is worth your time. Read this report, for instance:

          1. re: Amata

            Trotter's to go probably not worth the trip just for luch.

            For food, go to the Spice House (1512 N. Wells). Every Spice you can think of. Its also in a nice neighborhood with lots of potential lunch options. If you're interested, its also a block away from the Second City Comedy Club.

            There are great Indian (2200 to 2600 W. Devon) and SE Asian (Argyle Broadway to Sheridan south on Broadway) neighborhoods with tons of specialty food stores if you are intersted. Accessible on the Red Line if you don't have a car.

            Sams is a big wine store with an excellent selection of cheese in the back - and maybe charcuterie as well. Might be a little inconvenient if you don't have a car.

            Since Chicago is known for high end Mexican Cuisine, you might want to replace one of your non-Alinea dinner's with a meal at Frontera or something similar. FYI, Frontera and Topolobampo share a kitchen, with Topolobampo having a higher-end menu. Frontera is better during the week because they don't take reservations, so the wait can get very long on weekends. Salpicon is another very good Mexican option by one of Bayless' proteges. I've heard good things about De La Costa, although I have never been there.

        2. The number one "only in Chicago" food that I'm always after is the caramel popcorn from any Garrett's,, but if you don't care about popcorn, it won't mean a thing (I realize this isn't what you're asking for). Have lots of fun. I was in Chicago exactly 11 years ago and made sure we went to a great dinner place every night.

          1. Morton, as a fellow SF hounder who lived in Chicago, I'd say to skip Trotter's. Campagnola's is average by SF standards and not really worth the price. Here are some other recos for stores and specialty shops (plus a couple of restaurants):

            Chicago has a great Polish tradition in sausages and one of the best places to go is Bobak's. It's a big supermarket deep in the Polish area near Midway. They have tons of house cured meats and sausages. Tons! Great place to get sausage for a picnic.

            For hot dogs, go to Hot Doug's. Very chicago. You can't do Chicago without a hot dog.

            Spice House in Old Town on Wells for custom spice mixes.

            Hema's for Indian (the one off of Devon) It's in a big Indian neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops. (no website, go to the one on Oakley


            Get wine for your picnic at Fine Wine Brokers.

            Go here for cheese.

            For the more higher end meat go to Paulina market, they supply many of the restaurants. A little pricey, but excellent quality.

            Brasserie Jo is a good restaurant more downtown. It's the same chef as Everest (Chicago's Fancy Fussy French place). But B-Jo is a more casual Allsacian style place that is worth at least an app and a glass, or lunch.

            Middle Eastern Bakery & Market is near the lakefront on the Northside and they can set you up with a great picnic lunch. Fresh pita.

            mHenry for breakfast on the northside.

            That should keep you busy.Sorry the list is a little scattered. But these places are all good. You'll need a car to get around.

            3 Replies
            1. re: sgwood415

              One small correction - Brasserie Jo isn't open for lunch. Hasn't been for ages, I believe.

              Morton, for God's sake, don't go to Heartland. It's just awful, and the service is atrocious. Parking is impossible, and the Red Line of the El is just a mess at the moment - it takes forever and a day to get anywhere, and for a thoroughly mediocre meal, it's not worth it. Now Lula, on the other hand, you'll like, I bet. It's always struck me as a place that would fit in well in Berkeley. The chef/owners are pretty cool kids. Give it a shot - the food is a LOT better than the menu makes it sound. Also, you have to go to Hot Doug's. Doug is The Man. Just beware of the somewhat limited hours - Doug closes up shop on Sunday, and is only open til 4. Go! Twice!! :o)

              1. re: sundevilpeg

                In the category of refined restaurants which would be less expensive at lunch, check out Custom House and Naha. Custom House sources (some? all?) of its meat from organic/sustainable places -- same chef as the vegetarian-focused Green Zebra mentioned above.

                And, to throw out a couple more dinner ideas: Spacca Napoli, for Neapolitan style pizzas in a wood burning oven? Avec, sister restaurant of Blackbird (and right next door) -- small plates, open at 3:30 everyday, no reservations. Thought it might seem redundant to go to both, a good friend of mine (now a chef) was in town a few weeks ago for the culinary professionals convention and did both Avec and Blackbird -- she enjoyed both of them but actually preferred Avec.

                By the way, Morton, where in the city will you be staying and will you have a car?

                1. re: sundevilpeg

                  Here is a link to a good article about Hot Doug's. This guy is for real. A trained chef, who is a bit quirky so he opened a hot dog restaurant. He was featured in the NY Times DIning Section a few years back. I'm not sure if this is that article exactly, but it is worth a read.