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Jul 15, 2008 03:22 PM

Charlie Trotter's

I am curious to find out if there have been other experiences similar to ours. My wife and I went to Charlie Trotter’s for our anniversary. We have been to a number of the top restaurants in the US and abroad, and we were very excited to finally dine at Charlie Trotters. We now live in Chicago, and given its reputation, we were really looking forward to ranking this restaurant up with the very best. However, we left very underwhelmed.

The meal started out on a very bad note, as the menu listed the first course as Blue Fin tuna. Although the waiters brought out a sardine dish that was not very good, and they offered no explanation as to the change. We thought it was just the amuse, but the next course was right in line with the 2nd dish (which in of itself wasn’t that exciting either). Despite continuing a little perplexed, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th courses were superb and right in line with what we were expecting: complex, inventive dishes that were paired excellently with the wine. But just as it was picking up speed, the desert courses were back to sub-par. They brought out one dish, and immediately brought a second desert course. This would have been fine, however all 4 plates had ice cream on them, and we felt as if we were up against the clock to eat both dishes quickly before the ice cream melted. Lastly, the night finished on bad foot as well. We look over to the table next to us, and the Blue Fin tuna dish that I mentioned earlier was being served…and it looked excellent. Kind of felt a little cheated to be served Sardines when the table next to us got Blue fin. All in all, the dishes were well excecuted, but the meal as a whole seemd rather disjointed.

I really don’t mean to be critical, as I rarely complain about meals. But when you are paying $700+ for a dinner and only 3/7 of the courses are up to expectations, we left with a bad taste in our mouth. I haven’t given up completely and be interested in another try, but it really made us scratch our heads. Any thoughts?

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  1. Certainly not characteristic of Charlie Trotters. I've had many meals there over the years and they've been nothing but excellent on every level... food, service, wines, etc. I'd drop a note to the restaurant and let them know they dropped the ball.

    1. Over the years, with many dollars spent, at regular dinners and special dinners, I and my dining chums have found Charlies to be a humorless, self-important, and ultimately boring place to eat.
      On top of that, Charlie himself has usually presented himself with an air of "holier-than-thou".
      In other words--the place is a drag. I stopped going there a long time time ago.

      1 Reply
      1. re: qzq

        Charlie, himself, may indeed be humorless, self-important and boring and he is the "source" of the restaurant. Nonetheless, I have never found my experiences there to be anything less than hospitable, accommodating and very pleasant. The staff goes out of its way to meet every need and request.

        If the OP experienced the problems that s/he describes, those should, indeed be brought to the attention of the management.

      2. I cannot back up WineTravel more strongly - write them a letter - seriously. If the courses weren't to your liking I'm not sure there's much that can be done - but the fact that you were served a different type of fish than the menu stated and the fact that two courses were on your table at the same time are two major gaffes that needs to be addressed.

        I've only been to CT once several years back and the entire meal was flawless - service, food, timing, etc.

        1 Reply
        1. re: chris

          Thanks for the throughts, and I will certainly take the suggestion of writing a letter to the restaurant. I was given a "chef for a day" as a gift, so I'll be getting an even closer look at the inner workings of the restaurant.

        2. I had a very similar experience there last weekend:

          First course was crab, instead of prawns. No mention of this when we were selecting wine to be paired with our meal. We called them out on it and they didn't even know the menu had been changed!

          The next few courses were pretty good, though unremarkable (I'm thinking an $80 tasting menu, not $165).

          Then the desserts were TERRIBLE. All of them had horrid liquor jellies that tasted like dorm room jello shots (i swear i detected the evil taste cuervo gold in the tequila jelly).

          To top it all off, my wife ordered a sherry to pair with one of the desserts on the menu, and they did another unannounced substitution for the listed dish -- so the pairing wasn't as expected (though still ok). We brought this to our server's attention, and he couldn't explain it -- making up some BS about improvisation in the kitchen (and not apologizing for skewing the pairing).

          Another odd note -- we selected a good pinot for our second bottle. The sommelier said "interesting" in reaction to our choice -- as if we'd committed some faux pas. He did not then elaborate at all. We had to ask for further comment -- should we get that bottle? He then said that he "didn't often explain himself" but that it was amazing we'd picked a wine he'd been pairing with this menu until last week. So we'd picked a great bottle, but he wouldn't even tell us that until we asked -- very off-putting. And isn't a sommelier in the business of explaining wine??

          Pacing was fine, with a few hiccups on bringing the nonalcoholic pairings to one in our party, but I was shocked that 1) they substituted 2 dishes listed on a menu printed that day, and 2) they weren't able to smoothly/professionally react to that.

          I can't imagine going back. I'd dine there for free but it was an absurd waste of money. There are dozens of restaurants in san francisco where I live that offer better food and service for far less (in a more expensive city).

          6 Replies
          1. re: 99paa

            Although I found that most of the grand menu courses were flawless, I had a bad experience with the wine service at Trotter's a few months ago. It was special occasion for me and my dining companion -- it was also our first (and last) visit. Because it was Trotter's, my expectations were pretty damn high and I left completely underwhelmed.

            The evening started off wonderfully. A complimentary glass of champagne and the woman who greeted us at the door could not have been more inviting. Shortly after we were seated and presented with the wonderful wine catalog, our "server" (not the sommelier) gave us an overview of the menu options, inquired about allergies, and asked me about our wine plans for the evening. The "standard" pairings did not excite me, so I ordered a pretty significant bottle of champagne and told our "server" that we would like to pair courses #3 and beyond with two 1/2 bottles -- a white Burgundy and red Burgundy. She nodded and left. I simply assumed she was either going to bring the sommelier over, or come back to hear what I selected. Not an unreasonable assumption.

            We finished the champagne around Course #3 and there was no sign of our server or the sommelier. So, we didn't have anything to drink with Course #4 -- not a huge deal for a three star restaurant, but again, Charlie Trotter owns this place. The next course (squab) hit our table and our wine glasses were still empty. At this point, I became pretty fricking annoyed. I patiently waited and looked at my squab for a couple of minutes hoping that someone (perhaps our missing server) would notice that I wasn't tearing into this poor pigeon and stop by to inquire. This did not happen. So, I flagged down another server and explained the wine issue. She was completely apologetic and quickly brought us a terrific pairing. Our initial server graced us with her presence around the first dessert course and I admittedly gave her a somewhat cold shoulder .

            As I was leaving the restaurant, I informed the woman who initially greeted us of our wine problem. She seemed shocked and apologized profusely. I've had wonderful wine service all over the country and was surprised with my experience at Trotter's. I think there may be an undercurrent of complacency over there. I do not plan on going back, and I'm still kicking myself for not securing a reservation at Alinea.

            1. re: alexi612

              I have been to many 'top' restaurants in many cities. Usually I go to a 'big' convention once a year and my wife and I go to a 'fancy' restaurant in whatever city the convention is at. This year it was in Chicago and we made the horrific mistake of going to Charlie Trotters. I am really not exagerating in saying it was the WORST experience and food I have EVER had. I don't know how this restaurant gets it's reputation, but the food was just horrible and the service was 'fakely' attentive. By that I mean that whenever they came to serve the food, two waiters would serve me and my wife at the same time. However, I had to ask for my water to be refilled several times. I will NEVER go to this place again !


              1. re: bjassin

                Ever since I learned about fine dining after graduating from University in ’05, Charlie Trotter is one of the places I would like to go. That curiosity finally became a reality in late Spring ’09 … sadly, it’s quite disappointing (or do I expect too much?)

                Food (and wine) – 90/100

                I ordered the grand menu, so there’s no excuse that the restaurant would not serve its best dishes. Here are a few comments about what I ate:
                - the sea urchin was so-so. Then they also made ‘shaved ice’ with sea urchin flavor, what??? I was surprised to taste Japanese sea urchin like this – hardly any sweetness
                - the next dish is basically unagi. I would say it’s quite good – tasty and not too strong (unlike some sushi places which sometimes put heavy ‘sweet’ sauce)
                - my alaskan salmon was rather poor – it’s soggy and somewhat tasteless
                - the duck breast was alright thankfully, but nothing special. I found the duck gizzard/confit and cabbage were too strong (cloying); the good thing is the mint & yoghurt paired quite well with this dish
                - this would be the last main course. The veal was good, but then the side dishes went wrong: hardly any taste with the morels (out of season/left over already?) and the sweetbread was hard and not sweet at all (not sure if they know how to prepare it)
                - I could not recall anything wow in my desserts – just ate them and let’s get over it – they looked complicated, but not taste that good in your palates.

                The interesting part here was the non-alcoholic beverages pairing to the food. Unfortunately, many of them did not work well – even the drink by itself sometimes tasted weird such as: fenugreek & lemongrass, peach & lemon was quite horrible. The wine list is impressive though

                As many claimed that Trotter is one of America’s great chefs … I left dumbfounded. Is this the best that American’s top chefs can offer? Well, it’s not complete disaster, but then the food, in general, was boring and uninspiring. Furthermore, it’s contrived and somewhat complicated with (often) uncommon ingredients that do not work together – not mentioning the small portions. I will give 90 pts; in my notes it’s equivalent to ‘low’ 2-star Michelin

                Service (and ambiance) – 89/100

                The staffs were not too friendly to the point of cold and a bit arrogant. Sometimes, they checked about the food, but did not seem to welcome the not-so-positive reviews. The restaurant was quite full (80%). I saw chef Trotter standing/hiding just outside the kitchen watching the dining room. My dinner was quite fast, nearly 2 hours only. During this time, I did not see the chef going out greeting any guests at all. The atmosphere itself was not too bad: nice flower decorations, classical ambiance and the place were quite spacious.

                Based on this one visit, I think it’s correct that since the beginning of ’08 – many diners said this place is declining. It seems that the chef Trotter does not know that there are many other much better restaurants out there. He definitely will not be able to cook creative food like his neighbors Alinea or Avenues and I don’t expect that; however, even they did not do a good job in doing what they always do (L’Ambroisie may not be creative, but they’re really good in preparing the classical dishes – in fact, one of the best in France). I don’t see any niche here, thus unlikely to go back. It should not come as a surprise that Charlie’s 2 restaurants in Vegas did not work out – nobody really wants to dine this kind of food. And the NY one, I think it’s better that it never opens otherwise it’s unlikely to work out (expect lots of negative comments for New Yorker)

                Well, I wasn’t that regretful to come here satisfying my curiosity about one of America’s legends … I left satisfied after leaving French legendary restaurant at Paul Bocuse, but not here – probably, it’s the wrong comparison to put Trotter at Bocuse’s level, no? The overall dining experience was 89.5 (aka barely make it to 2-star level). If there’s no improvement in the food’s tastes in the next 2-3 years, I expect this to be one-star establishment by then …

                The pictures of my meals:

                1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                Charlie Trotter's
                816 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60614

                1. re: Bu Pun Su

                  >> the sweetbread was hard and not sweet at all (not sure if they know how to prepare it)

                  Huh? Sweetbreads - the thymus or pancreas of an animal, usually a calf - are not supposed to be sweet!

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    Yeah, the sweetbread comment confused me as well. Further, Mr. Trotter is, or maybe was, a great chef. However, I've been to Trotter's at least 8 times over the last 15+ yrs. and twice in the kitchen. The place is nothing like it used to be and given our last trip in July of 10 I see no reason to go back. There are simply too many great places in Chicago to waste the time and money on Trotter's. Its too bad because at one time this was probably one of the best restaurants in the US.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Sorry for the confusion and let me clarify
                      What I meant by sweet is actually some hint of sweetness since since the thymus is generally sweet and rich tasting though not the kind of dessert's sweetness =)

                      I suppose after eating wonderful sweet bread at L'Arpege (caramelized and balance - a subtle sweetness is there) and Le Bristol (braised with dried fennel, gingerbread and its cooking juice) - both have some "sweet flavor and creaminess". These are the standards I used on how sweetbread is suppose to taste

                      Arpege ris de veau -
                      Bristol veal sweetbreads -

                      Guy Savoy one is alright, but the one at Trotter is disappointing

            2. I've said this on this board before, I have been fortunate to enjoy fantastic meals all over the world and Trotter's was the worst fine dining experience I have ever had. The five people who were with me all agree. IMHO, and I know many disagree, Trotters is pretty much a place for people who have more money than taste. Sorry!

              2 Replies
              1. re: mjpd

                Haha =) well said
                Trotter's is "only" two-star after all and the decline has been quite consistent in the past few years
                Perhaps, we should not be too surprised

                My worst "3-star" used to be De Karmeliet - until 2 years ago, it was replaced by Le Bernardin (some of you may find it surprising - I had lunch with my friend, she already warned me for having 2 so-so meals there but I insisted and eventually swallowed the bitter medicine ...)

                1. re: Bu Pun Su

                  I ate at Le Bernardin last year and it was fantastic!