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SF Chowhound needs advice for Chicago Visit

My partner and I will be visiting Chicago in late June with his parents. Based on the great info I've found on this Chicago board, I have already arranged for a special birthday dinner for my partner and his family at North Pond. I debated the food vs. ambiance issue for a while, and decided to go for the "special occasion" ambiance over the "wow" food factor (it needs to be a relaxed and casual place, and when we went to Alinea when it first opened, my partner hated the length of that dinner and the pretentiousness of the food). I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that they'll have an "on" night in the kitchen. BTW, are there any recommendations on particularly good dishes at North Pond?

We will probably have one other night where we will be able to pick the restaurant. What would be a good place to go for a nice dinner near downtown (we will be staying at the new Trump property on the river) that isn't too expensive? I have a feeling that his parents might want to treat us to dinner one night, and I want to keep the price reasonable. I read that Everest has an "early bird" dinner for $50 pp which sounds like a great deal, and I think his parents would love the old-world style and service. Any other thoughts for nice places to eat for a great price? And when I mean "reasonable cost" I mean around $50 or less pp w/o wine.

The only other restaurant of note we have eaten at was Topolobampo, which was a disaster, so we won't be going back there, or to any other of Rick Bayless' restaurants.

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  1. Regarding the food at North Pond (great choice, BTW), what I found is that their dishes are assemblages of the main item plus 3-4 additional items on the plate, so you get a chance to have a bunch of different tastes as part of a course. When I ate there last fall, two things stand out. I ordered a fish main course and one of those additional items on the side was a peekytoe crab mousse that was "to die for". The other was a dessert that was an almond-flavored mousse. Of course, since they feature local and seasonal ingredients, their menu changes with the seasons, so the same things might not be on the menu. I guess what I'm saying is, don't worry too much about which dishes you pick, because some of the most amazing tastes might be things you weren't even expecting. Hope that makes sense.

    Everest is a wonderful restaurant. As you accurately note, the $50 early bird is a great deal since the restaurant is otherwise much more expensive.

    For additional suggestions, assuming you're referring to $50 for three courses before tax/tip/wine (which can turn into somewhere around $80-100 or so with moderate wine, tax, and tip), most of our casual fine dining restaurants are in that range. North Pond is one of these. Others include one sixtyblue, Aigre Doux, Blackbird, Naha, and Custom House, all of which are excellent. Within this group, Aigre Doux and Naha are walkable from the Trump Hotel.

    3 Replies
      1. re: delk

        Ok, I'm having some second thoughts on Everest...read some other reviews which said the decor was something out of an 80's country club, and in this youtube video the restaurant looks exactly like that! It does not look as beautiful and glamorous as on the restaurant's website.

        Since my partner's parents will be with us (we're in our 40's), I want a place with an ambiance they might enjoy, i.e. not too hip, or too loud, or too styled, or too casual.

        1. re: rcinsf

          The description you give: "an ambiance they might enjoy, i.e. not too hip, or too loud, or too styled, or too casual" - is an accurate description of Everest. The decor is traditional in style, and extremely elegant. If you have eaten at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, Everest is quite similar in decor/style. I don't think either one looks like an "80's country club" at all, but if you think the Ritz does, then I guess you'll think Everest does, too - in which case maybe this is just your opinion of traditional, non-contemporary decor. Also, the view out the large windows of the dining room at Everest is spectacular; it's on the 40th Floor of the Midwest Stock Exchange building, at the south end of the Loop, and looks out on the entire city, which adds to the elegant ambiance.

          Will you enjoy it? Is this what you're looking for? That really depends. There's a big difference between our handful (approx nine) of finest, most creative places like Everest, and our more numerous casual fine dining restaurants. The food is excellent at both; the preparations are more elaborate and creative at the former. Most of our finest places (including Everest) are dressy, with jackets required for gentlemen. And, except for the pre-theater special at Everest, most of the finest places run in the $175-350 range per person including moderate alcohol, tax, and tip, versus $100 for our casual fine dining places. (Incidentally, you should also be aware that Everest is unique among our top restaurants in offering free parking.)

          If you would like someplace other than Everest, we have plenty of choices. In that $80-100/pp price range, see my previous post for recommendations among our "casual fine dining" restaurants. Or if you want ONE recommendation, go to one sixtyblue. Which is casual with a contemporary decor, but not too hip or casual (or too loud or too styled).

    1. It remains so interesting to me the difference of opinion and experience at Topo. The range of opinion is just not moderate. And I'm not sure it can be explained by an occasional off night or purely subjective taste. Some people rave about their meal there; others, like you refer to it as disastrous.

      Topo and Frontera are not exactly amateur operations. What explains the wide divergence?

      3 Replies
      1. re: chicgail

        I've noticed that too. They seem to be "love it or hate it" places, with a majority loving them but a significant minority to the contrary. Just a little while ago, at the same time the OP in this topic was reporting a very negative experience, another Chowhounder posted a glowing review (at www.chowhound.com/topics/517578 ). The same seems to be true in the more extensive discussions below. I have no idea why, other than the obvious difference of opinions commonly found when discussing food.

        www.chowhound.com/topics/430394
        www.chowhound.com/topics/374850
        www.chowhound.com/topics/416506

        1. re: chicgail

          I have no idea why there's such a divergence of opinion, but certainly everyone brings a different perspective when critiquing a restaurant. We went to Topo on the recommendation of a good friend who used to cook with Mark Miler of Coyote Cafe, so we had high hopes. It was probably 3 years ago or so, so I don't remember details on the food, other than being really disappointed. I do remember seeing his cookbook prominently displayed in the front of the restaurant and thinking he had totally sold out and wasn't minding the store. I have eaten a fair amount of Mexican food as we have great taquerias in SF's Mission District, as well as wonderful "haute" Mexican cuisine at Izote and Aguila Y Sol in Mexico City.

          1. re: rcinsf

            Just FWIW regarding the "minding the store" comment, you should be aware that Chef Bayless can be found in the restaurant, more often than not.

        2. There is also a nice French Bistro called Brasserie Jo within a short walk of your hotel. It is run by the same chef who owns Everest.

          1. Nsxtay has some great recs. First, Everest does not feel 80s in decor. It is very traditional, elegant and at night, you have dimmed lights with huge windows and a gorgeous view of the city. Keep in mind that it is more formal, though. If you do not want formal, I would suggest either Naha or One Sixty Blue--more contemporary but still upscale. Check out both of their menus online. Blackbird may be too loud and minimalist (tables very close together). My other recommendation is Sepia--gorogeous room, interesting drinks and great food. If you want Italian, downtown, there are Merlo on Maple (great homemade pastas, pretty old brownstone) and Prosecco (Italian chandeliers, crystal cadlesticks)--pretty w/o being stuffy--great sommelier, chrsitian and great, diverse menu. Let us know where you end up! PS: If you like the avant garde cuisine--next time try Schwa--hard to get into, but unique food in a storefront with chefs bringing out the plates--awesome food in laid back atmosphere and BYOB.

            14 Replies
            1. re: ljero

              FYI - Schwa won't meet the OP's price target; it's $110 per person, before tax/tip (and of course doesn't include alcohol). I agree regarding the points made about Blackbird - cramped and noisy. For mid-priced Italian, I recommend Coco Pazzo or Cafe Spiaggia instead. Coco Pazzo is just a short walk away, a few blocks west of the Trump Hotel.

              Website links:
              Everest - www.everestrestaurant.com
              North Pond - www.northpondrestaurant.com
              Aigre Doux - www.aigredouxchicago.com
              Blackbird - www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
              Naha - www.naha-chicago.com
              Custom House - www.customhouse.cc
              Frontera Grill/Topolobampo - www.rickbayless.com/restaurants
              Brasserie Jo - www.brasseriejo.com
              Sepia - www.sepiachicago.com
              Merlo on Maple - www.merlochicago.com
              Prosecco - www.ristoranteprosecco.com
              Schwa - www.schwarestaurant.com
              Coco Pazzo - www.cocopazzochicago.com
              Cafe Spiaggia - www.levyrestaurants.com

              Most, but not all, of these accept reservations on opentable.com

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Thanks for all the great info, I'm definitely going to keep this list of recommendations handy as we'll probably be making annual trips to Chicago from now on. I think I'll stick with Everest (it's such a great deal, and it's on my list of Chicago restaurants I've wanted to try), and my partner is big into views. Will definitely try one sixtyblue, Aigre Doux, and some of the other restaurants when we're in town next, assuming they're still around.

                One thing I've found kind of interesting in looking at the menus of these restaurants is how much more expensive the food is in Chicago vs. San Francisco. In the SF "casual fine dining" places, entrees would generally be in the $20+ range, with a few exceptions $30+. In Chicago, all the entrees are $30+. Then again, I think the interiors of the restaurants in Chicago are probably nicer....

                I was looking at the Chicago Tribune's website, trying to find restaurant reviews, but couldn't locate any. Is there a good food critic in town?

                1. re: rcinsf

                  We have a range of prices among our casual fine dining restaurants, including many with entrees in the twenties, but our best places tend to have entrees in the thirties. And these are indeed our very best places in this category, so they're a bit pricier than others here. As a sporadic visitor to San Francisco, I have found that the prices there are similar to here for similar quality food. However, I have yet to find anything comparable in both quality and price to our best casual fine dining places like one sixtyblue, unless you consider places like Gary Danko or French Laundry, which are more expensive and really more comparable to our top tables like Everest and Alinea. In any case, I'm still working my way through the Chronicle's list of the top 100 on my occasional trips to the SFBay area, and have only hit nine of those so far. ;)

                  The Tribune has a companion website called Metromix where you can find searchable listings of restaurant information as well as links to all their reviews, including those by their lead critic, Phil Vettel. Frankly, I find that he tends to praise more often than necessary, and you can find more reliable differentiation among restaurants here on Chowhound, but that's just my opinion. Anyway, the place to go for all of this information is http://chicago.metromix.com/restaurants

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    This is for nsxtasy: I am also from Bay Area, and appreciate your detailed advice in another thread to help me decide where/what to eat in Chicago for the upcoming trip. Can you share with us what you like/dislike in SF, and how they compare with their counterpart at the same price point in Chicago? I did a search in the SF board and did not find your report.

                    1. re: foggy_town

                      I don't always report on my meals (either out of town or here at home), unless there is something really spectacular (or dreadful which is fortunately rare).

                      I've visited the Bay Area three times in the past twelve months. I did not eat in the city on these most recent trips, and it goes without saying that location is a big factor in pricing. The places I ate at were:

                      Kincaid's (Burlingame)
                      Rivoli (Berkeley)
                      Oliveto (Oakland)
                      Melange (Pacific Grove)
                      Passionfish (Pacific Grove)
                      Chow (Walnut Creek)

                      I also ate at a bunch of places for breakfast:

                      Millie's (Walnut Creek)
                      Chow (Walnut Creek)
                      Mini Gourmet (San Jose)
                      Original Pancake House (San Jose)

                      The dinners ranged in price with average entrees from $20 (Passionfish) to $30 (Oliveto) and were all at least comparable in price to what you would find in the Chicago area for similar places in comparable locations (i.e. away from the downtown areas often frequented by tourists), and in a couple of cases slightly higher than what you would typically find here.

                      I found the food to be generally very good, although I have yet to find a mid-priced restaurant there whose food absolutely blows me away, where one dish after another screams "WOW this is DELICIOUS". There are quite a few such places in Chicago (one sixtyblue, Aigre Doux, Blackbird, Oceanique, Michael, Tallgrass, Vie, Chef's Station just to name a few). However, there are also many other restaurants in Chicago serving food which is very good but not exceptional, and comparable to what I've found in the Bay Area (my dinner last week at Takashi falls into this category).

                      In previous visits, I've been to some of the splurge places in the Bay Area (the Ritz, Gary Danko, the French Laundry) and have found that they, too, are priced as high as comparable places in Chicago. The French Laundry was a wonderful experience, comparable to only a handful of places in Chicago.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        hopefully you'll have a chance to eat in SF proper on one of your future trips...I think the quality of the restaurants is higher in SF, as well as in Berkeley and Napa. I also find that the restaurants in the suburbs are priced higher, since there isn't as much competition as in SF.

                        Also, I wouldn't say the Chronicle 100 is a great guide to Bay Area restaurants...there are a lot of restaurants on that list that are pretty mediocre. Better to check here on Chowhound...

                        Finally, I find it interesting that SF hasn't embraced cutting edge or avant garde restaurants like Alinea. Maybe it's the whole Alice Waters thing and the focus on the integrity of the ingredients and simplicity of preparation, but it really isn't that popular. Daniel Patterson is doing interesting things at Coi, but a few restaurants that took a similar approach have folded in the past.

                  2. re: rcinsf

                    I'd just browse here until you see something interesting, then do a search to find other comments. The restaurant reviews here are not very good, IMO. The Reader is usually pretty accurate, but the reviews are skimpy. Still, that might be a good place to start. Easily searchable by cuisine, neighborhood, etc.

                    www.chicagoreader.com

                    1. re: Pete Oldtown

                      Also take a look at www.lthforum.com - a food website dedicated to Chicago. Its much more conducive to lengthy discussions and posting of pictures of food. I'd agree that the main paper's in town don't do very good job with restaurant reviews.

                      As far as food prices go, the "casual fine dining" is sort of an odd term that seems to pop up on this board a lot, although not elsewhere. It seems to start on the high end with the best restaurants in town that don't require jackets (Naha, 160Blue, Blackbird, Northpond, Schwa) and go down to some very good places, but nothing that I would really consider casual - as in a casual neighborhood restaurant with outstanding food. So at the high end, you are really talking James Beard Award/Food and Wine best new chef material which might account for the higher prices you see on some of those, but there are plenty of great places in town where you can get an excellent meal with 20-something entrees, and another large group of truely casual or ethnic places for a lot less. The web site listed above is a great place to dig up those lower profile gems.

                      1. re: wak

                        Wak, where do you think some of those great places are with entrees in the 20s (not counting Italian)?

                        1. re: ljero

                          Why no Italian? Maybe a personal preference?

                          At any rate, even on the list above, just about every entree on the menu at Sepia, Brasserie Jo, Coco Pazzo, Merlo, and Cafe Spiaggia is in the 20s (I know, a few are Italian...). Also Avec, Le Colonial, May Street Market, Sola, Salpicon, Sweets and Savories etc.

                          And then there is the LTH Great Neighborhood Restaurants lists with many many excellent restaurants with entreees in the teens or less, although most are very casual. That said, TAC Quick, Spoon Thai, Coal Fire Pizza, Glens Diner, Sol De Mexico, and many others are among my favorite dining experiences.

                        2. re: wak

                          "Casual fine dining", used as a term here and elsewhere, is typically not strictly related to attire, but rather to overall intent. The "casual" aspect distinguishes these restaurants, which tend to feature a la carte ordering of mid- to high-end dishes, from fancier and more expensive "splurge" restaurants which often feature many-course tasting menus, more exotic ingredients and preparation techniques, etc. The "fine dining" aspect refers to what some people call "white tablecloth" restaurants, typically characterized by upscale atmosphere and high levels of service. Many of the casual fine dining restaurants feature what is often called "contemporary" or "contemporary American" cuisine, sometimes with global influences; I would include Italian restaurants in this category as well. A broader interpretation of the term could easily be argued to include steakhouses, seafood restaurants, and upscale ethnic and "fusion" cuisines.

                          Of course, any categorization tends to be at least somewhat nebulous, and open to personal interpretation. For example, I would include in the "splurge" category certain restaurants (Schwa, moto, NoMI) based on their pricing and elaborate tasting menus, even though their business casual attire might be indistinguishable from others in the "casual fine dining" category. Others might categorize individual restaurants differently or even disagree with the use of these categories entirely, and are welcome to do so!

                          >> where do you think some of those great places are with entrees in the 20s

                          Pricing is a function of many things, one of which is the real estate mantra, "location, location, location". In and around the downtown areas, I would consider the "casual fine dining" category to include some restaurants whose entrees are in the teens, primarily "small plates" restaurants (e.g. Avec, Quartino, Cafe Iberico, Emilio's Sol y Nieve), although many of the plates at these places aren't that small at all. There are more conventional places with entrees in the high teens and low twenties, including French bistros (e.g. Bistro 110, Kiki's Bistro, Brasserie Jo), fusion (e.g. Red Light), and Italian (Coco Pazzo Cafe). Restaurants in and around downtown with entrees mostly in the twenties include contemporary American (e.g. Atwood Cafe, Custom House) and Italian places (e.g. Cafe Spiaggia, Coco Pazzo). There are many, many more restaurants in the downtown areas in these price ranges; the ones I am mentioning here just happen to be among our best and most well-known. IMO, of course.

                          Once you get away from the downtown neighborhoods, entrees in the twenties (or less) predominate, and it's unusual to find restaurants charging any more than that for most entrees. For example, you will find half or more entrees in the twenties at most of the very best restaurants away from downtown - such as Sweets and Savories in Lincoln Park, Sola in North Center, Lula in Logan Square, Magnolia Cafe in Uptown, Chef's Station in Evanston, Michael in Winnetka, Vie in Western Springs, and Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, just to name some of the very best places outside downtown. I'm not saying there aren't *any* places away from downtown where entrees are in the thirties or more - Carlos in Highland Park and Oceanique in Evanston come to mind - but there sure aren't very many.

                          1. re: nsxtasy

                            Incidentally, this pattern - prices at the best restaurants in the priciest downtown neighborhoods higher than those elsewhere - is not unique to Chicago. In San Francisco, too, the best casual fine dining restaurants in downtown are as expensive as Chicago's, if not more so. For example, Farallon is a nice casual fine dining restaurant (i.e. not a splurge restaurant like Gary Danko) in a renovated former natatorium right off Union Square, with a menu emphasizing seafood, and its entrees average in the upper thirties, somewhat higher than you'll find at Chicago's one sixtyblue, North Pond, and Blackbird. Get away from downtown (e.g. go to the East Bay) and, aside from the splurge places, entrees in the thiries are rare. Just like in Chicago.

                            1. re: nsxtasy

                              Actually, I would put Farallon in the "splurge" category as far as SF restaurants are concerned...the interiors are much fancier than most other restaurants, Gary Danko included. I think there's a difference in perception since SF has become so casual (I think you could go into practically any restaurant, save the Dining Room at the Ritz Carlton, in jeans). And as far as pricing is concerned, at Danko's 3 course/$65, 4 course/$81, 5 course/$96...so it's not nearly as expensive as the top tables in Chicago. But it probably isn't a comparable experience. I guess our "nice" restaurants are more akin to Chicago's "casual fine dining". Boulevard, another one of our "splurge" restaurants, prices its entrees mainly in the $30s.

                              I guess what's different is that many of our "top tables" are a ways outside of SF, e.g. French Laundry in Yountville, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and Manresa in Los Gatos...all little towns at hour or more outside of the city. There all the fixed price menus can run well over $100. In SF, it seems that all the restaurants price under $100 to remain competitive (exceptions being tasting menus at Michael Mina, and maybe one or two other places).

                              1. re: rcinsf

                                I did not get the impression that Farallon was comparable to Chicago's "splurge" places. It's not merely a matter of decor; our splurge places are the ones featuring super-creative dishes with unusual ingredients and preparation techniques, served in extensive multi-course tasting menus. The "top tables" you mention outside the city (SF) are comparable to our splurge places (Alinea, Charlie Trotter's, etc). Farallon is comparable in menu, etc to our one sixtyblue, Blackbird, North Pond, etc. but the prices are a bit more expensive.

                2. We're looking forward to our trip next week to Chicago...one last request...I need a restaurant recommendation for dinner next week that's near the Westin Chicago on Michigan Ave. (I think it's on the northern part of the Magnificent Mile). We're going to be there for a conference for a couple nights before heading down to the Trump. Something with good food, casual atmosphere, mid-priced (entrees in the $20s as opposed to $30s)...not looking for a drawn out dining experience, since it's a work night. Something within walking distance would be ideal.
                  Thanks!

                  P.S. I just saw that Cafe Spiaggia is on the same block as the hotel, so I think that's probably where we'll go since it was recommended earlier.