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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:
      http://www.northpondrestaurant.com/
      Amazing regional cuisine.
      P

      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.
        http://www.lulacafe.com

        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.
                312-243-1740

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