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The honest truth: Can't-miss dining in Chicago


I'll be flying from DC to visit my boyfriend in Chicago next week, and we have ONE night (Friday) to dress up and celebrate our time together. We're both young professionals, so money does matter, but we are also obsessed with good food and will be willing to pay (within reason) for a truly extraordinary meal.

I've read some of the previous posts about the "top" restaurants like Alinea and Charlie Trotter's -- are these places are really worth the trip? I've read about One SixtyBlue and Blackbird being comparable in quality but a bargain in price, but posts like this one - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/404709 - make me wonder. If you could recommend one restaurant for a happy, special reunion between two young foodies, what would be my best bet?

I really appreciate your help with this topic, and I'm so excited to be visiting Chicago!

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  1. Alinea is worth it, Trotter's hasn't been worth it in a long time.
    Moto is worth it if you want a very surreal food experience.
    Everest isn't, especially if you're on the younger side.
    Nomi is, in my opinion.
    If you're coming from DC a steakhouse might be a nice treat since other than Ray's I don't think there's a decent steakhouse in all of DC.

    7 Replies
    1. re: jpschust

      In all honesty, practically every "famous" steak house in Chicago also has a branch in DC. And in my opinion, Ray's is way better than all of them (and much better than anything you can get in Chicago).

      1. re: thomasec

        I'd agree with Ray's being better than the chains in Chicago, though something about the ribeye at Gene and Georgetti has my heart.

      2. re: jpschust

        Well, I was all excited about our dinner in Chicago and now I am a bit skeptical due to your response. My boyfriend and I are in Chicago for one night. We wanted to eat at a quality restaurant, with a romantic ambiance that is not too contemporary/modern. Everest was recommended to us by a few posts, and so I booked it. Why do you agree??? Sorry, just trying to get the scoop. There is a lot of pressure on me in choosing the restaurant we eat at our only night in Chicago.

        1. re: bawood

          You will have a WONDERFUL experience at Everest. It's the perfect choice for what you're looking for - romantic ambience, traditional decor, wonderful view, and spectacular food.

          Read as many posts, from as many people as you can, and don't be swayed by a single person's negative posts (or, for that matter, a single person's positive ones, either). The food, the service, the atmosphere, the view - all are exquisite. Everest has the very best service I have EVER experienced in a Chicago-area restaurant, by far, and the food is absolutely sublime.

          If you'd like to read another report on Everest from this month, from a couple on their honeymoon, go to www.chowhound.com/topics/440437

          1. re: nsxtasy

            How on earth can you guarantee that? If get a server who's actually trained in fine dining and knows how to serve a table, along with a palatable first course that is more than bland, yes- you might have a very good time, or you might have the time we had. There are plenty of places we've been where we know the service and staff to be consistent, Everest simply isn't one of them.

        2. Go to Japonais. Great food, great atmosphere- it is young and hip - and where all the celebrities flock to in the city (when they visit)

          Blackbird would also be a great place to go - but isn't as romantic. Japonais is right on the river, and the downstairs cocktail lounge outside is not to missed

          1. I would place Alinea, Avenues and Moto in a class all by themselves based upon the creativity that goes into the food, and I would put Alinea at the very top, hands down.

            I love Blackbird -- the food's always fantastic -- but it's in a different class . . . just a simpler, albeit excellent approach. However, Blackbird tends to be pretty loud. I would highly recommend one of the first few. Schwa is also excellent and byo, but I doubt you will be able to get a table on such short notice . . . it's very small.

            As for Trotter's, I disagree that it isn't worth it, although there are places I prefer.

            Japonais - I think it's decent but I think it's more about the scene than the food and it also gets loud, which may not be great if you're trying to re-connect. In any event, the chances of you getting an extraordinary meal there are nil.

            1. I think both kinds of restaurants are very good at what they do - the casual contemporary restaurants (e.g. Blackbird, one sixtyblue, Aigre Doux) turn out delicious food, typically in the $80-120 range per person including moderate wine/alcohol, tax, and tip, and the splurge restaurants (Alinea, Avenues, Everest) typically in the $150-350 range per person. All have wonderful food and excellent service, IMHO. The difference is in the level of service and creativity. You have similar choices back home in DC, I'm sure.

              Think of it this way. At the more casual type places, you are likely to have food you're familiar with - and (hopefully) all the food items will be absolutely delicious. Whereas at the splurge places, you are more likely to have food you've never had before, combinations you've never had before, things you may never even have thought of - and again (hopefully) all the food items will be absolutely delicious. Is the latter worth paying a lot more for, than the former? That's up to you. In either case, the three places I've named in each category would be my top picks for what you're asking for.

              1. In a deliberate back to back comparison of Charlie Trotter's and Avenues my girlfriend and I agreed that CT won, although not by much. Both had exceptional food and are worth every penny but we felt there was a slighly nicer flow to CT's menu. The big pluses for each - CT for outstanding wine pairings (highly recommend the pairing instead of a bottle or two) and overall service. Avenues - the kitchen "theater" sitting.

                You could not go wrong with either of these choices. If you do opt for Avenues ask the Captain to call ahead to the bar and reserve a table for an after dinner drink, it was a very nice ending to a wonderful meal.

                And opinions are just that so to add my two cents I COMPLETELY disagree that CT is not worth the money.

                1. It can cost $1,000 for two at Alinea. Although it may be the best meal you have ever had, it is hard to say whether it is "worth it" or "within reason". I think that when people stretch to afford something, small issues become magnified and often the experience becomes a "great, but..." or worse. You never can tell for sure what you will like or whether your server will have an off night (there are bad reviews of Alinea), and if you spend a lot more than you want to, the bads will be magnified.

                  Only you know your budget or how you would feel about spending $1,000 for two for a meal. Blackbird and 160 are not in this league price-wise, but both are great. I like Boka, Japonais, May Street Market as well. All cost far less than the high end restaurants. I think Schwa is great, but it's difficult to get in.

                  Figure out what you want to spend, and then pick a place where you can not only get several courses and have dessert, coffee, cocktails, etc., and you buy the wine because you want it, not because of price. That way you can spend three or four hours comfortably. Anyone who can't get a great meal in Chicago for a third the price of Alinea is not trying.

                  From a culinary point of view, Alinea is the best meal I have ever had, but also the most expensive. In terms of most enjoyable evenings that included dining out, it may not be in the top 5. I would never go back if I had to pay for it.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: abhalsey

                    Great post regarding value to budget ratio. I don't know that I'd say it's the best meal I've ever had, nor the most expensive, but I did think Alinea was a great meal.

                    1. re: abhalsey

                      I respond not to disagree with you that Alinea is expensive, but to say that it is an amazing restaurant offering a food experience you can get very few places and that I don't think a comparison of Alinea to Blackbird is really meaningful -- apples and oranges.

                      In any event, the only way it can cost $1,000 is if you do the full tour ($195/person) with wine pairings (about another $130) and tip well beyond belief.

                      The 12-course menu with wine pairings is amazing and runs about $225/person . . . not cheap by any means but certainly far less than the tour.

                      1. re: BRB

                        The full tour plus wine pairings for two of us with a 20% tip was close to 1k- over 900 for sure. I can pull up my cc receipt if you want, but I can assure you it was near 1k.

                    2. i think that it depends on what you enjoy about dining to determine your decision. Alinea is top notch gastronomy. Trotters is meticulous execution. Blackbird is all about seasonal and sustainability(although i haven't been since the new chef took over) moto was a little too cutesy for me, while i thought some of the courses were not successful in their flavor profiles. I would recommend North Pond, a highlight of local/seasonal and one of the most truly chicago restaurants. North Pond and Blackbird are the two that are the most unique to our town because teh farms that everything comes from are in the midwest. I think in the higher facets of fine dining, ie. trotters and alinea, they could be in any city and the experiece would not differ. Avenues is a great choice for the food, but i felt the room to be awkward and service off-putting. So i would think about what you are looking for and keep those things in mind because everyone is different, its all about what you like.

                      1. Are you sea-foodies? If so, I say Spring. Nice romantic atmosphere, and certainly top-notch food.

                        1. I also highly recommend Boka and if the weather permits, sitting in the outside patio. Great food and very reasonable compared to Alinea which is right next door. Also, for Asian food with atmosphere, Sushi Samba on Wells is an experience. I like the circus and have never had a problem with the food.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: dlpens

                            I can't speak to the very top restaurants in the city, as I've never been to places like Alinea, Charlie Trotter's, Avenues, etc. I'd love to try them, but for me, I have a really, really hard time justifying that price. I still think $200 for a meal for 2 is a really special occasion. The only places in that range that I've been to in Chicago besides primarily steak places like The Saloon, Gibson's, The Chop House and sea food places like Hugo's Frog Bar and Bob Chinn's are 160 Blue and Blackbird. If you're going by taste alone, Blackbird blows away everything I've had in its price range, though it isn't perfect by any means. It is loud, crowded, and in your face. But it is also fun, the service is great, and the food is spectacular.

                            The other day I had Blackbird for lunch and 160 Blue for dinner. I really liked 160 Blue. The service was very good, though the waitress didn't know much about the dishes even though she claims to have been there since November. However, taste wise, it really wasn't fair to have eaten there a few hours after Blackbird. Blackbird's flavors explode on your palate. 160 Blue is much more subtle. It is a lot more quiet and more subdued, but I really don't think that 160 Blue can compare. So, bottom line, is if you want to spend in the $200 per couple range, based on my limited experience, you go to Blackbird. I still want to try Spiaggia Cafe, North Pond, Frontera Grill and Augre Doux in that price range, but I can't imagine they'll be better than what I've had.

                            1. re: tdmccarthy21

                              tdmccarthy21 - You might really consider getting a reservation at Schwa. Nine course menu for $105 and its BYO, so all things considered, its the best deal in town for food of that qulaity. IMO. Including the two bottles of wine we brought (Riesling and Ridge Pinot) it came to around $300, or about half of other places of similar quality. The food is different, but on the same level as a Trotters/Avenues. In fact I enjoyed the food more than Trotters, although I might give Avenues an edge on the food. What you don't get is the pampering service of those other restaurants, or the exceptionally well chosen wine pairings, but the food alone is worth it.

                              Given the difficult reservation policy, if you call now you should get a resservation right in time for a special holiday meal...

                              BTW, of your must tries, Spiaggia Cafe was exceptional but much more casual than Blackbird, and less expensive it seems. North Pond is the one that I really want to try out. I've been to Aigre Doux twice and see no reason to go back, and Frontera is good, but not particularly better than many other excellent Mexican restaurants in the area. Once again, good for a causal meal, but not quite the dining event of a Blackbird or even 160 Blue.

                              1. re: wak

                                Thanks for the response. I've read a lot about Schwa and agree that it sounds fantastic. It was an oversight on my list, but maybe because I'm aware of the difficulty in obtaining a reservation. Sounds like I need to make it a priority ahead of all the other 3 star type places I listed.

                              2. re: tdmccarthy21

                                One other suggestion for you, if you'd like to try one of the top chefs in town without paying the high price: Everest. Everest tends to be slightly less expensive than Avenues, Alinea, etc to begin with. The real value is that they offer a three-course pre-theater special at 5:00 and 5:30 for $50 every night they're open except Fridays. So if you don't go crazy with alcohol, you can have a wonderful meal there (on the early side) for about what you would pay at more casual places like Blackbird. Based on my visits to Everest, the food is spectacular, the service is exquisite, and the view from the top of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building is charming indeed. www.everestrestaurant.com

                                  1. re: tdmccarthy21

                                    i found Tru to be a great experience......

                            2. Sorry it took me so long to wrap up this thread! I'm sure you're all wondering where we decided to go...

                              After much debate, we chose Blackbird, and it was a surreal experience. They seated us right outside and we enjoyed a wonderful evening of great food and terrific service. I asked for our waiter's recommendations for everything from the wine to the dessert, and he never steered me wrong. The food was delicious, and all in all I think it was precisely what we were looking for: an affordable gastronomic delight. To top off the evening, the lovely Top Chef host, Padma Lakshmi, stopped by for a late meal with a large group of people. She likes it, I liked it, everyone should try Blackbird!

                              Thanks so much for all your suggestions, everyone!