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2 Foodies need recs for Chicago visit

DH & I will be in town for a conference in June. We like the hidden gems - the restos that have excellent food & service (decor less important) for a price that is worth it. What we are not looking for is fancy upmarket steak-houses with lots of "suits" etc. We don't mind fancy, but are seeking the smaller, local chef-run places. We like any type of food , but prefer places that focus on local &/or seasonal ingredients or ethnic cuisine. We have 3, possible 4 dinners so let the recs begin! We'll be staying downtown and can take taxis but would like to keep the cab fare below $15-20 each way.

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  1. Not hidden, but Blackbird is great. Expensive, but not break-the-bank. Ditto Custom House (i.e., great, expensive, but not outrageously so). I also like Salpicon (Mexican), in Old Town. It's a short cab ride from downtown. I think your best money-is-no-object choice is Alinea, in Lincoln Park near Steppenwolf Theater. Chef's a genius, really.

    1. A real hidden jem:
      Amazing regional cuisine.

      1. if you are up for a trip on the el, take the blue line to logan square, exit at kedzie, and walk two blocks to lula cafe...focused on local/organic/sustainable in a cozy, unpretentious dining room. fantastic farm dinners on monday nights...closed tuesday. its an absolute gem.

        1. The problem with hidden gems, especially in Chicago, is that they don't remain hidden for long. As an example, Alinea was ranked the top restaurant in America by Gourmet Magazine, Blackbird has won James Beard restraunt of the year Great Lakes Region, and North Pond was nominated this year (Alinea won). All very good restaurants, but I don't know that I would call any of them hidden.

          I think Lula fits the description a little better.

          In that same vein, you might consider Sweets and Savories. Meets all your criteria - chef run, seasonal, excellent food. I'd recommend the chef's tasting menu - a bargin at $60.

          Instead of Blackbird, I might recommend Avec - run by the same chefs, and next door to Blackbird, but a little more casual. Outstanding food. Last weekend we had the Chorizo sutffed Mejool dates, hanger steak, yellow beet bruschetta, and red wine sausage. All outstanding, except for the perhaps the sausage. Total meal for two with one glass of wine each came in around $80. Important to also note that its communal seating, so be prepared to get cozy with the neighbors. That can be fun, or, as on our last outing, it can mean having to listen to a 50 year old divorcee b*tch about how 52 year old men all want to meet 30 something women. But the food is great.

          Salpicon is great. Used to be one of my regulars when I lived in the area.

          Some of the best ethnic is farther out than a $20 cab ride, but I hear wonderful things about a couple Thai places - Sticky Rice and TAC. Do a search and you'll find plenty more.

          My favorite Italian is Coco Pazzo. (not Coco Pazzo Cafe). Not your old school red sauce Chicago Italian, but a more refined Tuscan cuisine. The Stracci with white truffle oil and seasonal vegetables is outstanding. Nice northern Italian wine list.

          In China Town, I have been to Lao Szechuan which is quite an experience, but you better like spicy cuisine. For the adventurous you can sample a varitey of organ meat and other mainland Chinese specialties. FYI, its BYO.

          5 Replies
          1. re: wak

            Thanks, all. I'll do some more research and likely be back soon with some more specific queries. This sounds like a great list to start with :-)

            Anyone else who wants to throw in their 2 cents on Lula, Avec, Blackbird, Sweets & savories, Salpicon, or Alinea, please chip in. I can only choose 3 & those sound like my prime choices right now....

            1. re: jcanncuk

              Those are all really different places.

              If you're looking for something high-end, you can't go wrong with Alinea (without a doubt my favorite restaurant).

              Avec and Blackbird are both great, but also different. Avec is a fun place to hang out, have some interesting wines, and some nice rustic small plates.

              Blackbird is a classic example of 3-star dining in Chicago. Well executed, local ingredient/market-driven. If you like pork products, I can't recommend it highly enough.

              You can go a couple of different ways with Sweets and Savories. If you want a higher end meal, go and get the tasting menu ($60 all nights except for Mondays when it's $50). Or, if you go on a Wednesday you can get the Wagyu hamburger with truffle mayo and "duck liver pate" for $10 (it's normally $17). This is an awesome burger.

              Salpicon is a nice alternative to Topolobambo (personally I prefer it over Topo). Great food, and an equally great tequilla list.

              1. re: jcanncuk

                Sorry but was not impressed at Sweets & Savories. Good but uneven quality preparations with smug, brusque service. No plans to return.

                Much prefer Scylla, which I believe meets your criteria in every way. Highly recommended. Superb meals with fine service in a low key but appealing, comfortable setting. Check previous threads. Like S & S it's on the North Side and should meet your distance parameters.

                As for Lula Cafe, the single brunch experience left us much impressed.

                1. re: burton

                  I agree about Sweets and Savories; the food was not particularly inspired (sprinkling everything with truffle oil does not make it special), but the overbearing waiter with his oafish swagger really ruined what should have been a nice evening out with friends. Ditto on Lula; good ingredients, but the preparation and presentation are bordering on amateurish. Lula's service, while pleasant, is also relatively unprofessional; personally, I don't understand why this place gets so many favorable write ups. For my money, the Blackbird or Naha would be my first choices.

                  1. re: Vinny Barbaresco

                    Wow, I can't believe the bad stuff about Sweets & Savories. Just to confuse you, I love the place. I am headed there on Saturday with out of towners. I know the waiter you are talking about and I don't like the guy either. Seems to be the top complaint about the place. I went onc and he scolded another waiter right next to my table. I will report back and let you know if the quality somehow changed. Remember, it is only 60 bucks for that tasting, that's the best deal in the city, if you ask me!

            2. Kumas Korner, belmont & sacramento
              Good food (the kumas burger- 1/2 lb sirloin, aged cheddar, carmlzd onions, fried egg), great prices, great people watching.

              Roseangelies- 1314 W. Wrightwood Ave
              not he best italian, but great food at amazing prices- 16 oz peppercrusted NY strip for $18 with decadent sides

              El Barco - Ausgusta & Western
              Authentic mexican seafood at afforadble prices. enormous portions

              Cafe Bolero- Cuban on Western, south of Fullerton

              la Scala - grand & halsted, old school italian charm, COZY and delicious

              1 Reply
              1. re: salaboutme

                Don't you mean La Scarola at Grand & Halsted?

                La Scarola
                721 W. Grand Ave.

                Not so hidden, but usually a fun place, and I'm glad you capitalized COZY)

              2. I agree with some of the suggestions above, not so sure about some of the others.

                Regarding the recommendation of Alinea, it's not clear whether you are really looking for a dress-up, fancy, expensive place. Alinea is certainly the reigning champ in our haute cuisine genre, but you should be aware that dinner there typically runs $250-400 including tax, tip, and wine (without going crazy). Yes, PER PERSON. If you're looking for additional recommendations among our finest places, see this topic: www.chowhound.com/topics/368683 (Some, particularly Everest and Schwa, are a lot less money than Alinea.)

                In the more casual, down-to-earth part of our restaurant scene, my top recommendation continues to be one sixtyblue. The food is absolutely spectacular in every way. It's a local, independent place, a couple miles west of the Loop. If anyplace in this topic (other than the super-expensive fancy places) is a "don't miss", it's one sixtyblue.

                Other places in the city where I've had food almost as good as one sixtyblue include Blackbird (previously mentioned above) and Aigre Doux. North Pond (also mentioned above) is also excellent (and its location in Lincoln Park is exquisite) and, for Italian food, so are Coco Pazzo and Cafe Spiaggia. Naha and Custom House and Bistro 110 are worth considering as well. IMHO these are the very best of our casual fine dining restaurants in the city (and if you get to the suburbs, you can throw in additional wonderful places including Oceanique, Michael, Le Titi de Paris, Vie, Courtright's, and Tallgrass).

                I'm not fond of Avec, which is owned by the same folks as Blackbird, for two reasons. First, the communal tables. Maybe you like them; I don't. Second, their no-reservations policy. I don't like waiting (or the uncertainty of not having a reservation). Yes, their food is good, but I'll take Blackbird over Avec for both of these reasons.

                I ate at Sweets and Savories last month. I thought it was very good, but not as good as the very best places I mention above. And it was hardly the bargain some people make it out to be; my dinner cost as much as similar dinners at one sixtyblue and Blackbird. I think a lot of people like S&S for its unlikely location (unlikely neighborhood, nondescript storefront) and/or the affability of its staff. And, as I mentioned, I liked it, but I just don't think the food is as good as at one sixtyblue or Blackbird. (Some of the dishes at S&S were excellent, to be sure, but not *all* of them the way I usually find at the latter two places.)

                Website links:
                Alinea - www.alinearestaurant.com
                Everest - www.everestrestaurant.com
                Schwa - www.schwarestaurant.com
                one sixtyblue - www.onesixtyblue.com
                Blackbird - www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
                Aigre Doux - www.aigredouxchicago.com
                North Pond - www.northpondrestaurant.com
                Coco Pazzo - www.cocopazzochicago.com
                Cafe Spiaggia - www.levyrestaurants.com
                Naha - www.naha-chicago.com
                Custom House - www.customhouse.cc
                Bistro 110 - www.levyrestaurants.com
                Oceanique - www.oceanique.com
                Michael - www.michaelrestaurant.com
                Le Titi de Paris - www.letitideparis.com
                Vie - www.vierestaurant.com
                Courtright's - www.courtrights.com
                Tallgrass - www.tallgrassrestaurant.com
                Avec - www.avecrestaurant.com
                Sweets and Savories - www.sweetsandsavorieschicago.com

                1. I'd vote for Scylla - we had an excellent dinner there. It's very cozy. We also had a great meal at Naha, and it is probably closer to where you will be. Not far from downtown and walking distance to Michigan Ave. area. Lots of local, seasonal ingredients there. Lula is also local, seasonal food and I had a great brunch there. It may be a little far from where you'll be unless you take public transit --the blue line of the el will get you there.

                  1. I just got back from Chicago and had a great meal at MK. Our criteria matched yours almost exactly. We did a bunch of research beforehand and it came down to MK and Blackbird. While Blackbird sounded amazing, I was worried about how trendy it seemed.

                    We had a lovely meal at MK. http://www.mkchicago.com/ One of the reasons we chose it was because on Sunday and Monday nights they have a market menu. It is a $50 price fix 3-course menu that includes wine pairings with each course. The market referring to fresh farmer's market ingredients.

                    I started with grilled flatbread, roasted zucchini, caramelized onion, white anchovy, piquillo pepper, arugula, and manchego

                    Then had pan roasted alaskan king salmon, steamed baby beets, nichols farm creamed spinach, with horseradish emulsion.

                    And for desert a warm rhubard crumble, tangerine ice cream, with pistacio shortbread, and citrus salad.

                    Everything was stellar and the wines were amazing. Also, the cocktails were great as was the service. Not too trendy but a pleasant space. It was a little removed from other spots, sort of on its own, but we actually walked from downtown. We are from NYC though, so walking is in our blood. It was probably a 30-40 minute walk. The cab would definitely have been under $20.

                    I will be posting pictures soon on my blog. www.kitchencocktail.blogspot.com

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: gardengirl

                      Had to choose places that take reservations (I HATE waiting around when I am hungry!!), and many places were booked b/c of the HUGE conference next w/e....so, we booked Custom House, Salpicon, and MK. Please, all Chicago CHers, speak up now if you think any of these will be particularly disappointing! :-)

                      1. re: jcanncuk

                        I'll just add to gardengirl's very good review that MK is known in Chicago for their excellent french fries.