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I Think I've Exhausted most "casual fine dining" in Chicago! Need new ideas...

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Although I feel very fortunate to be able to (almost) claim this, I really need some ideas! We have visitors coming to town in a few weeks and I'm at a complete loss for dinner ideas for them (they've also tried some of the top tables in town)...

I wold love for something new (for both nights) and have already tried such places as: North Pond, Cafe Spiaggia, Spiaggia, Custom House, Aigre Doux, Sepia, Spring, Green Zebra, Everest, Les Nomades, MK, Kevin, Chalkboard, Bistro Campagne, Frontera Grill/Topolo, etc., to name a few...

Is there anything really new - and excellent - out there that I may be overlooking or do not know about? Exceptions will have to include Alinea, Tru, Trotter's, etc... not looking for something THAT over the top this time around. Most types of food welcome, although the genre of "contemporary American," etc., is probably preferred. To make it easier, I would probably steer away from Thai, Greek, Mexican, and/or Chinese.

Please help! TIA...

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  1. What about Old Town Brasserie? I haven't been there yet, but the people I know who've been have raved about it.

    1. Well, I can't speak from personal experience, since I haven't been able to get a reservation until next month (I'll be going the first week of February), but the below review of Old Town Brasserie might whet your appetite (as it did mine):


      1. Well, you haven't mentioned my absolute FAVORITE casual fine dining restaurant in the city - one sixtyblue. If you haven't been there, GO! It's not brand new, but it's just superb in every way. www.onesixtyblue.com Similarly, you also haven't mentioned Blackbird, my second favorite in this genre, also a longtime favorite and just excellent. www.blackbirdrestaurant.com If you ask me, these are the two best casual fine dining restaurants in the city. Other excellent places you haven't mentioned include Naha, Sweets and Savories, and two relatively recent entries, Boka and Takashi.

        If you would consider traveling away from downtown, places in outlying city neighborhoods include Magnolia Cafe (in Uptown) and Sola (in North Center), and in the suburbs, Oceanique (Evanston), Tallgrass (Lockport), Michael (Winnetka), and Vie (Western Springs). Don't pooh-pooh these last four because they're in the suburbs; these four are as good as any four contemporary American restaurants in the entire city, IMNSHO, and I've had some of my very best dinners of the year at all of them.

        You've mentioned Cafe Spiaggia, so you can also consider other Italian places (e.g. Coco Pazzo, Vivere, Trattoria No. 10, Pane Caldo, Merlo on Maple). Similarly, you've mentioned Bistro Campagne, so you can also consider other French bistro places (Bistro 110, Kiki's Bistro, Brasserie Jo). And you've mentioned Frontera Grill/Topolobampo, so you can also consider other Mexican places (Salpicon, Adobo Grill).

        One more possibility... by any chance, are your friends big fans of chocolate desserts? If so, the Lobby restaurant in the Peninsula is a unique experience. I've had dinner there several times and I've found that the food (contemporary American) is excellent, the service is exemplary, and the setting is very nice, with huge windows on one side of the dining room. (I haven't seen it since their recent remodeling, though.) What makes it unique is that, Thursday through Saturday evenings, they serve their Chocolate Bar. This is an all-you-can-eat buffet of 30-40 different chocolate-based desserts, in smallish portion sizes so you can try a lot of different ones. Many are just okay but any chocolate lover will find at least a few that are absolutely superb. Not cheap, around $32, but unique, and wonderful if that happens to be something you would enjoy.

        3 Replies
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Thanks for all the recs, everyone!

          nsxtasy, I left many out of my list and I have in fact tried onesixtyblue, all the Italian places you listed (2 exceptions), as well as the French and Mexican places! I was just trying to give you an idea...

          But I certainly will keep in mind the Lobby at the Peninsula (you don't mean Avenues, do you?) and I've ALWAYS wanted to try the Chocolate Bar! At some point I will also trust your judgement on the suburban places - but for this particular weekend, that won't fly. The MIL is very much into "see and be seen" and she would not take kindly to traveling OUTside of the city!

          Blackbird, on the other hand, is NOT a place we've been but it's always been on my list. however, for some reason the last time I looked at teh menu, it didn't really call out to me. I will have to look again...

          Thanks again for the wonderful feedback!

          1. re: DKS1

            Glad to hear you've tried so many. Of course, that makes it more difficult to find ones you haven't mentioned! Definitely check out Blackbird.

            The Lobby is not Avenues (the expensive dress-up splurge restaurant in the Peninsula). The Lobby serves contemporary American food, and is a "casual fine dining" restaurant (i.e. jackets or ties not required), with pricing typical of such restaurants (I don't recall exactly how much I've paid, but most such places typically go somewhere in the $70-100 range per person for several courses including moderate alcohol and tax/tip). I've found the food there to be consistently excellent (while not nearly as unusual as Avenues, of course). You can read the menu on their website (no prices, sorry) at http://chicago.peninsula.com/pch/dini...

            1. re: nsxtasy

              I stayed at the Peninsula a couple years ago and the bar by the lobby offered glasses of Krug champagne. I've never been anywhere else that had my favourite Champagne available by the glass.

        2. How about Bonsoiree?

          2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

          1. West Town Tavern is always great.

            1. We have been to West Town Tavern many, many times and usually love it. However, before our last visit - on a Friday night - we had only been during the week. Our Fri. night experience was significantly less pleasing than our other 4 or so visits during the week. Maybe the kitchen was thrown off by that...

              I'll have to look up Bonsoiree - haven't tried/heard of that. Thx!

              1. you have to try blackbird...

                also: Naha and May Street Market

                1. I wholeheartedly second the Old Town Brasserie recommendation. I went about two months ago and found it fantastic. It is a great place to take out-of-towners due to the world-renown chef (Roland Liccioni, formerly of Le Francais), the outstanding food and the cool vibe. Enjoy! (I also am a big West Town Taven fan, but doesn't seem like that would be "new" for you, according to your post below.)

                  1. Graham Elliot Bowles, chef at Avenues, is leaving to open his own restaurant at the old Harvest on Huron location. I believe it will be called Graham Elliot's. Should open up around May. Schwa is also supposed to re-open in the next few months if you've not been there. Report has it that they will start takng reservations in the next few weeks. Neither may be options for your guests timeframe.

                    Naha and Blackbird came up on earlier posts, but I imagine you might have already been there. May Street Market has been excellent on a couple visits. I'll also chime in for Old Town Brasserie. Le Colonial is always fun. For Italian, Merlo on Maple or Coco Pazzo if you haven't been. Moto would be a change of pace.

                    Tasing meny at Sweet and Savories is always worth the trip.

                    Not sure what you are really after in a dining experience, but there came a point when I had also tired of the Chicago high-end dining scene and I started spreading my wings to some of the more casual/ethnic eateries and have had many wonderful meals that in their own way, for me rival the places you mention. Places like Lula's Cafe, Glen's Diner, Kuma's Corner, Coalfire Pizza, or, although you say you're not a fan, some of the local Ethnic options like Spoon Thai, Sol De Mexico, Tank Noodle, Katsu, etc. Really, anywhere on this list: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

                    This is not fine dining of course, but exploring the full range of options in Chicago can be more fun and lead to food that I find just as enjoyable and delicious as I've had at the places you originally mentioned.

                    1. I love Bonsoiree- it's BYOB and they are not open on sat nights, but definitely worth a shot. I had by bday dinner there, and they were so accommodating as 9 of us had the big course tasting menu and only a couple ordered a la carte. Was never disappointed in anything we tried, and in fact, it has opened my palate up to a few things that I didn't even know I would like (and I have been to all the places on your list as well.) $5 corkage, they do have glassware, but if you bring something really nice, you may want to bring your own stems.

                      And thoroughly enjoyed May Street Market. Loved the Pinot Meunier Bottle- such a steal on the menu!

                      1. I would recommend Cafe 28 on Irving Park near the Ravenswood line - their brunches on Saturday and Sunday are reasonable and very yummy. Their stuffed french toast is to die for. And their honey Jalapeno pork chops with eggs are excellent. This is a cuban-mexican restaurant (which I know you said to shy away from mexican - but this is a must try in my opinion) - Have been there several times and have never had a bad meal. http://www.cafe28.org/brunch.php

                        1. I am a HUGE Blackbird fan, and it seems to me to be right in line with your "contemporary American" preference. Almost all the industry folks would say that Avec, next door, is their favorite place in the city, but I have to be honest, I was underwhelmed when I last went. I am not sure if this is against posting rules (I am new to the boards) but I work at Sola, in Lincoln Square, and I think the food is truly excellent. Not because I work there, but because I am a foodie. It is American/Hawaiian, with an Asian flare. But my all time favorite restaurant in Chicago (and no I have never worked there) is Sweets and Savories. They have had a recent service makeover, which is good because I have seen people unhappy with the service in the past. There is nothing worse for a server than going out to dinner and wanting to jump up and fill other people's water or mark them for their next course, and that used to happen there occasionally...it seems to be much better now. The food has always, in my opinion, been utterly unforgettable. Forget the menu and get the tasting (as many courses as you can afford) and I promise you will be happy.

                          1. Not sure if all of these qualify as "casual fine dining" but here are some ideas for you - these are places I've been and would recommend:

                            Table 52 (I hear they're taking reservations for April now)
                            Yoshi's Cafe
                            Le Lan
                            Sweets and Savories (I strongly agree with the previous posters)
                            Bonsoiree (again, strongly agree with the previous rec)
                            Old Town Brasserie (again, aside from service glitches, worth trying)
                            Brasserie Ruhlmann (I ate here with a large party and had a set menu that I wasn't too thrilled with, but maybe you'll find something you like)

                            A couple of places that are on my own list to try:
                            Cafe 103

                            1. I'd 2nd the reccomendation of May Street Market - I went there for the first time last week, and I'd not hesitate to put it on the same level as Blackbird and North Pond, which are my favorite "casual fine dining" reataurants in the city.

                              Personally, I'd stay away from Naha - I've been there twice and the meals, on both occassions were mind-numbingly bland.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: mattlap_2000

                                That's funny; "mind-numbingly bland" is how I would describe my most recent meal at May Street Market. I was particularly looking forward to their signature "bleu cheesecake" appetizer, which sounded like a great idea, but it just didn't wow me in any way, nor did the rest of the meal. Based on what I had heard, I thought they might be worth putting into the pantheon of our finest "casual fine dining" restaurants, but I was severely disappointed. Not that it's bad; it's not. The food just isn't as likely to impress the way Blackbird, or North Pond, or especially one sixtyblue do.

                              2. Been living here only since summer, so haven't been to all the places your tried. In my experience, your best bets for places you haven't tried are Blackbird and Vie, IMO haven't had better meals anywhere else in the city. I'd also consider Sola if you haven't been, think its better than a lot of the more vaunted places on your list (Sepia, Aigre, Doux). I also like the Paramount Room a lot, much more casual than many of the places you name (basically feels like a bar) but the food is underrated, much better than Bluebird which someone mentioned as an option.