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Character & Quality

I recently moved to Chicago and , thus far, have been dissappointed by the culinary scene. Granted, I have enjoyed the Devon street Indian spots and the Rogers Park Middle Eastern Meccas, however every time I ask for a more upscale dining spot I am often led to "Concept" restaurants that are production driven.

I am tired of asking for a great meal in a great part of town with a great crowd and being sent to Sushi Samba, Carnivale, Marche, and Grand Luxe! I can get expiriences like those anywhere.

I am currently quite frustrated. I know Chicago has what I am looking for - a restaurant a bit more upscale and intimate (good for a date) than your average ethnic enclave but that also maintains the character that an authentic restaurant affords you.

I am looking for a seemingly hole in the wall place that has the right lighting, crowd and cook in the kitchen. Intimacy is a must, which is exactly what those buzzers they hand out at Carnivale are not!

Thanks.

-pk, www.pkafka.com

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  1. If I was searching for great dining in Chicago and had been led to Sushi Samba, Carnivale, Marche and Grand Luxe, I would want to take the first train out of town (well, Carnivale might not drive me away, but the others would). Yes, Devon is great . . . hope you've explored Argyle for Thai (and some Chinese including my new beloved Octopus Whiskers at Sun Wah). If you like Middle Eastern, I hope you've also marched up and down Kedzie near Lawrence (Semiramis, Noon O Kabab, Salam). And then, of course, are the wonderful Thai restaurants Chicago offers (Spoon Thai and TAC Quick for example).

    Now I'm not exactly what you are looking for -- there's a big gap between Sushi Samba and a "hole in the wall." And you say you want a little more upscale, but I'm not sure exactly where on the spectrum between upscale and hole-in-the wall you want to fall, and I'm a little unsure about price point.

    But let me throw out some ideas and see if any interest you. One place that might be a good idea is Lula Cafe in Logan Square. No, not necessarily a hole in the wall, but it's a little offbeat and unpretentious. In general, you'll find upscale and creative, seasonal American food. Is it as intimate and upscale as what you're looking for? I'm not sure . . . that's a matter of perspective. But I've always enjoyed the food and atmosphere quite a bit. http://www.lulacafe.com/lula/index.html

    You might also want to consider Fonda del Mar in Logan Square for Mexican food (largely seafood). The food is excellent and it's a small, charming place with great service. I prefer Sol de Mexico (BYO) for its wonderful moles, although I think the atmosphere at Fonda might be a little nicer for a date, at least in part based upon location. These are two of the finest Mexican restaurants in town. http://www.fondaonfullerton.com/

    Instead of Marche, how about trying Le Bouchon in Bucktown for a French bistro. The food is excellent and authentic, and it's a very small, intimate spot (others might say crowded and loud; I can see both sides). Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square would also be a great choice, even better in the summer in their garden area. http://lebouchonofchicago.com/ and http://www.bistrocampagne.com/

    In Roscoe Village, I'd recommend Volo. They offer small plates in a very cozy, dimly lit dining room. The food is very good and the service is outstanding. http://volorestaurant.com/

    In Bucktown, you might also like Cafe Absinthe (upscale, seasonal American). It's a little dark and intimate, and the food is generally very good, although I have not been there in some time.

    Sweets & Savories in Lincoln Park might be a little more expensive than what you are looking for, but the food is great -- especially the tasting menu -- and the place lacks all pretension. If you want a somewhat similar place, there's Bonsoiree in Logan Square. Both specialize in creative food (American and French accents) with a good emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. http://www.sweetsandsavorieschicago.com/ and http://www.bon-soiree.com/cafe/

    Hot Chocolate in Bucktown might be a little much of a scene for your liking, and the emphasis is more on desserts, but I think the food is very good and the desserts are sensational. This would be a nice place to go on a cold night to finish off with their amazing hot chocolates. http://hotchocolatechicago.com/

    A couple of places in West Town might also fit the bill: Green Zebra for vegetarian. I consider it vegetarian for meat lovers like myself, because I'm typically not drawn to vegetarian restaurants and I like Green Zebra. I also quite like West Town Tavern for upscale American comfort food. Green Zebra is a little more of a scene, and I would not characterize either as very intimate (WTT can be pretty loud too). http://greenzebrachicago.com/ and http://www.westtowntavern.com/

    If you like sushi, you won't find better quality fish than at Katsu on Peterson. The food is sensational and the presentations are impressive too. This is not the place to go for showy maki, but it's a nice place with beautiful presentations of food.

    If you want really old school intimate, head west on Irving Park to Sabatino's. That's about as old school as you're going to get, and although some might find the food a little dated (Italian/steaks/continental), there's an irresistible charm in my opinion. http://www.sabatinoschicago.com/

    For old school German, hole-in-the-wall, check out Laschet's Inn on Irving Park, just west of Damen. Maybe a bit too tavern-ish for your liking, but the food is great and the staff warm and inviting. http://www.laschetsinn.com/

    I hope some of these are on target. At least it will give you some to consider. Good luck!

    And if all else fails, check out the LTH Forum's list of great neighborhood restaurants -- always a great place to start: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

    7 Replies
    1. re: BRB

      Dude! nice post. My problem is that I know exactly what I want and have this platonic vision of it. anyway, if you come back to the post, and for future repliees - my perfect place is for example an ethnic restaurant (say indian, sushi, thai, latin, cuban) that also has atmosphere. An ethnic restaurant where the aesthetic, like the flavors, is also a priority. and where if I am in a sport coat and a button down, for a date, I wont feel out of place.

      Example - Tank Sushi, Lincoln Square area.

      -pk

      1. re: pkafka

        I like Tank. You might want to check out Marigold on Broadway just north of Lawrence. A modern take on Indian, great atmosphere, good cocktails, etc. I posted the following after a very recent visit: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

        You might also want to check out Hai Yen which is pretty good for Vietnamese, and if not the one on Argyle, the newer one on Clark St. There are better Vietnamese options, but probably not more stylish (perhaps Le Colonial, but that's a different vibe altogether). I'd also still suggest checking out Lula and Cafe Absinthe. And for sushi, other than Katsu, I'd suggest checking out Bob San and Meiji on W. Randolph if you haven't already, maybe even Sushi Wabi.

        For Latin, you might also prefer Cuatro south of the Loop to Carnivale, but it's also designed to be loud.

        1. re: BRB

          Thai- this place REALLY tries for decent aesthetics. a step up from a hole in the wall. Part of the reason I love it. It really tries to be 'hip,' and the food is better than average by far. I think it's a great example of a place that gives you bang for the buck as far as food + ambience factoring in the prices. That's just my opinion, however. My description of this place is a dive that dims the lighting, plays cool urban beats, and has a clean, minimalist dining area, to distract you from the water stained ceiling tiles. I LOVE this place, and the food kicks ass. The prices are about 1-2 bucks more per dish than you would expect from a standard Thai dive, but each time I go, I think they could price their dishes higher, and it would still be a great value. You would not be out of place wearing a jacket / button down - plenty of date people there. Did I mention that I love this place?:
          Tac Quick
          3930 N Sheridan Rd
          Chicago, IL 60613
          (773) 327-5253
          (This is also one of the lth great neighborhood restaurants)

          From your first post, I immediately thought of Lula and Fonda Del Mar as well.

          For shi, I'd definitely rec Bob San, and then Katsu (little more splurgy, but if you let them choose your food, you will be hard pressed to find better.) Bob San can be a little sceney, but if you get past the hipster poseurs gorging on the fried mayo and cream cheese maki, Bob San has some pretty darn good traditional sushi happening.

        2. re: pkafka

          I know you say that you prefer ethnic, but of the places BRB mentionen, Lula's Cafe and Sweets and Savories also seem right up you alley.

          1. re: pkafka

            Hey there, check out Marigold in uptown for high end indian in a hip, yet laid back setting. I loved it on my one visit and it sounds like it could fit for what you are craving...

          2. re: BRB

            Yeah, nice post BRB!

            Although I feel that Fonda del Mar is a bit overrated and expensive for what you get. I prefer Resi's Bier Stube over Laschetts. Have you tried Mirabel on Addison? Fun local crowd.

            1. re: amoncada

              I agree -- Resi's is excellent . . . especially in the summer. I have not been to Mirabel in some time after having had a couple ho-hum experiences. Have you been recently?

          3. This discussion is all over the map! (And not just geographically!) I'm not criticizing anyone's posts by saying this - in fact, the replies thus far have been excellent - but it seems like a lot of different genres (types of food) are being thrown out as suggestions. And price ranges and styles. And, yes, different neighborhoods too.

            Some of the suggestions are neighborhood storefront ethnic places. There's nothing wrong with those, except they don't strike me as upscale and intimate. Just to give one example - sure, I would go to TAC Quick for very good Thai food, but it's neither upscale nor intimate, just your standard ethnic restaurant in terms of decor; whether it's suitable for a date depends on your personal preferences for a restaurant for dates, whether you think food alone will impress, etc. For this reason, I'm not sure they satisfy what the OP is looking for.

            Other suggestions are for upscale restaurants serving contemporary American food, and there are many, many such places in Chicago. Sweets and Savories is one, distinguished perhaps more by its unassuming storefront exterior than by anything else; Lula is another, with what I think of as a "Starbucks barista" vibe. Both are excellent; so are many, many others with similar cuisine, including one sixtyblue, Blackbird, North Pond (most romantic casual fine dining restaurant in the city IMHO), and literally dozens more. These are excellent at what they do, and IMHO serve some of the very best food in the city, and are upscale and can be romantic. However, they are not ethnic food, which the OP seems to be looking for.

            I'm not sure whether Italian food qualifies as ethnic, or if it's too mainstream, but there are a lot of Italian places which have great food and are upscale and intimate. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Merlo on Maple, or Coco Pazzo, or Cafe Spiaggia, for example.

            One other thought is that there are some upscale ethnic places that don't always get a lot of talk here on Chowhound (because similar food can often be found at lower prices at other, non-upscale places), but they may be what the OP is looking for because they combine ethnic cuisine in an upscale setting. Arun's, for Thai food, is one such place. So are Vong's Thai Kitchen for Thai food, Shanghai Terrace for Chinese food, Le Lan for French-Asian, Le Colonial for French-Vietnamese, Vermilion for Latin-Indian, etc. These are certainly ethnic restaurants where a jacket and tie would not be out of place. For Mexican food, Fonda del Mar was previously mentioned, and although I haven't been there, it sounds suitable; Salpicon is another place that combines good Mexican food with an upscale and intimate setting. (I would mention the Bayless places but they tend to be too crowded and loud to qualify as intimate.) Maybe those would be possibilities for the OP.

            One other thought is that no mention has been made regarding geography, and the suggestions discussed thus far have been all over the city. If particular neighborhoods are more convenient to the OP's needs, that would be helpful to know.

            So I'm not sure whether it's not clear what's being asked, or whether the suggestions made aren't exactly responding to what's being asked, or what. But it seems like what's being discussed here is just a little bit of everything. Perhaps the OP could give us more feedback about how the suggestions made thus far fit into what he's looking for.

            6 Replies
            1. re: nsxtasy

              nsxtasy - REALLY gotta disagree with you here.

              "I am currently quite frustrated. I know Chicago has what I am looking for - a restaurant a bit more upscale and intimate (good for a date) than your average ethnic enclave but that also maintains the character that an authentic restaurant affords you."

              I would certainly say that tac is a "bit more upscale (just a bit) and intimate than our standard thai dives." At least that is my perception when I go on a Sat night when the lights are down

              Please re-read the op's next line:

              "I am looking for a seemingly hole in the wall place that has the right lighting, crowd and cook in the kitchen. Intimacy is a must, which is exactly what those buzzers they hand out at Carnivale are not!"

              To me, this describes Tac to a TEE on Saturday evening. Sure, that's my perception of it, but dim lights, lauren hill through the dining room, candles, small space, nothing flashy like sushisamba/carnivale, sleek waitresses, laid back kinda byob crowd, and arguably better food than Arun's. Maybe I like the place too much, but that's my perception of it: A seemingly hole in the wall place that has the right lighting, and right crowd, and right cook that is a bit more upscale than the standard ethnic place.

              Sure, go to Arun's for Thai - just be prepared to pay way too much. I would not be surprised at all if you went to Arun's, and then when you tried Tac Quick, you might feel a little ripped off. And by a little, I mean a whole bunch.

              Salpicon - a great rec by nsxtasy as far as upscale ethnic ambience, but in my opinion, the food is overrated by far, and it is not a "seemingly hole in the wall type place" by any stretch.

              Anyway, pkafka, maybe a $ amount would also help some of us steer you right?

              I still stand by Lula, and Tac Quick. I might replace Fonda for latin with Sol De Mexico - a little more off the beaten path, but definitely qualifies as a "seemingly dive type place" with some great ethnic food, and a little bit of ambience - not a great part of town tho. Salpicon would be a "better" part of town.

              1. re: gordeaux

                As far as price - I do not mind paying a little more than average, but I hate getting ripped off - what I am saying is I like to get what I pay for. So far, TAC sounds great. I am going to check it out.

                I would like a place that makes a date say "wow, this place is great, how did you find it?!"
                rather than "wow, this place is cool." I guess the first quote implies "coolness" but it also shows thta I do research and dont just go where the hoards do.

                As far as Marigold (I am an avid Indian food fan) is it one of the places where the scent of Indian food is stuck on your clothes for the next few hours?

                Also, my next date is on a monday, which of this places will have some energy on a Monday night?

                Thanks so much to everyone. I am developing quite a list!

                -pk, www.pkafka.com

                  1. re: jbw

                    Thanks for the reminder. After viewing those photos taken in daylight, I've *somewhat* changed my mind, and I will admit that it's a cut above the typical ethnic neighborhood spot in decor, since it actually has some style (and some artwork) to it. However, it still doesn't strike me as upscale. Again, no tablecloths, no carpeting, no upholstered seating (when I was there, I sat on the benchseat under the dark gray artwork, and there was a thin cushion on the bottom, IIRC), etc. Of course, the reason we go to places like that is for the food, not for the decor!

                1. re: gordeaux

                  Well, I've been to TAC Quick recently - not on Saturday evening, but on a weekday evening - and to me, the atmosphere is all "ethnic neighborhood place" and "hole in the wall", and quite the opposite of trendy or intimate. You mention candles (which I don't recall, but I was in a sizable group of 10-12 with table space at a premium); my recollection was no tablecloths and formica tables and an uncarpeted floor, and tables pretty darn close together. Not that there is anything wrong with any of this - I enjoy neighborhood ethnic places! - but to me it was not at all "upscale", no "ambience", the kind of place you go for the food rather than the atmosphere. I could be wrong about a few of the details, but I doubt it; this was just a couple of months ago, and my PERCEPTION (OPINION) was that it was not at all upscale, and that (to use one criterion stated by our OP) a gentleman with a jacket and tie would be extremely out of place dining there.

                  Also, please don't make incorrect assumptions about my going to TAC Quick immediately after Arun's. In case you're interested, I went to Arun's quite a few years ago (at least ten, maybe more). I thought the food was just okay, no better than the better Thai restaurants around town at that time, and the prices, then as now, were several times higher. I haven't been back there since. But if someone is looking for Thai food in an upscale and intimate atmosphere, that certainly qualifies (even though, as my post clearly noted, it doesn't provide as much value, based solely on food and price, as neighborhood places).

                  pkafka, if you go to TAC Quick, please let us know what YOU think about the atmosphere there. Typical ethnic neighborhood hole in the wall? Trendy upscale place to impress the date? Or something in between?

                  As for the OP's question about energy on a Monday night, when I was at TAC Quick on a weekday (not Monday) night, they were doing a reasonably brisk business, and I would assume that's true on Mondays as well. If I recall correctly, Monday night is also the night that Sweets and Savories runs its double-barreled special, with no corkage fee for BYO wine, and $10 off their tasting menu; if so, they are undoubtedly busier (and have more energy) that night than other nights, but that also means that if you want to go there, you may want to make a reservation (they accept them on opentable.com).

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    nsxtasy - when I wrote this:
                    "Sure, go to Arun's for Thai - just be prepared to pay way too much. I would not be surprised at all if you went to Arun's, and then when you tried Tac Quick, you might feel a little ripped off. And by a little, I mean a whole bunch."
                    I was not very clear. I was not making an assumption about YOUR experience, I was directing that to pkafka. I think pkafka understood this.

              2. also - have any of you been to Ping Pong? I like that spot! looking for more places like it - does TAC compare?

                -pk

                3 Replies
                1. re: pkafka

                  Just for the record, I am NOT claiming that tac is "upscale." I am claiming that it is a "BIT more upscale" than the regular Thai dives we have around town, and it is a "seemingly hole in the wall kind of place" (like pkafka was looking for) with pretty darn good thai food. From what I took from what pkafka wrote, I think that tac fits the bill nicely. Especially since the op is high on the Indian food scene on Devon ( as I am also - BIG TIME) I wonder if we kinda think alike when it comes to ethnic enclaves that are a BIT more upscale, and seemingly holes in the wall. PK - never been to ping-pong, sorry.

                  P.S. If I took a date to TAC and they weren't impressed (unless it was just an off night) - they would not be the one for me. It's a neat little dive with great Thai food. They even care somewhat about presentation.

                  1. re: pkafka

                    I've been to Ping Pong a handful of times and I have to say that I'm not a fan, but I used to live nearby so it was very convenient for a last minute meal. Thus, I far prefer TAC and Spoon Thai, both of which serve some of the most authentic Thai food around. If you want to impress someone, take them to Spoon or TAC and order off of the translated Thai language menus where you'll find gems not found at most Thai restaurants in Chicago: Spoon: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?... and TAC: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?.... I prefer Spoon but both are excellent.

                    Ping Pong also leans a little toward Pan Asian, as opposed to merely Thai. But if you like Ping Pong a lot, you might want to check out Sura Thai Bistro a few blocks south of Ping Pong. I think the food is a little better and the decor is pretty cool. Here's a link to their website: http://www.surachicago.com/

                    1. re: BRB

                      This thread is bringing back so many good memories of great meals in the past that I need to plan a month of meals. I thought Spoon Thai was outstanding, although there is a lot of great Thai food in Chicago. It is a little short on atmosphere, but great food. One note - not sure if this was mentioned above - but Spoon, and I think TAC, are BYO, so bring a bottle of wine if you plan on drinking with the meal. Many of the smaller ethnic places have no liquor license.

                      And BTW, has anyone mentioned Sol de Mexico? I like it more than Fonda del Mar. I had the Ostrich on my last visit and it was to die for. Another good one to check out.

                  2. ok, so I went over to TAC. Had the right vibe - actually really enjoyed the art they had on the walls. anyway, as far as thai is concerned, the food was good. did nto blow me away but acceptable for a neighborhood restaurant and for the price i paid!

                    anyway, I am going to be in the river north/loop area this evening and am looking for a place either in river north and the west loop that has a good vibe(music, lighting), good fooda nd a bit more low key than most spots in that area... any recs?

                    Thanks.

                    -pk

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: pkafka

                      Did you order off of the translated Thai menu or the regular menu? The food off of the translated menu is vastly superior.

                      1. re: jesteinf

                        Food at TAC is especially good if you order things off the chalkboard on the wall - the specials menu. Even so, I like Pad Thai, and theirs is good too. The only difference between the regular Pad Thai and the "translated" one is that version comes wrapped in an omelet.

                    2. i'll have to go back to TAC. had no idea this alternative menu existed - sounds like my kind of deal.

                      Went to Fond Del Mar last night - frickin great - inconspicuous place in an unassuming part of town with a great menu. Eating out doesn't get much better.

                      Thanks.

                      -pk

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: pkafka

                        I think Sol De Mexico should be your next adventure for Mexican food. Sounds like it should be right up your alley.