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NYer in Chicago - tell me your secrets! (Please read)

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I'm meeting an old friend next weekend in Chicago (my first time there.) She's an American coming from Switzerland and I'm a NYer and true chowhound. We'll only be there a couple of days, so I want the food to be memorable. I'd love to hear some local suggestions. We're not looking for super fancy four star places, just local places with nice ambience for talking that have consistently good food. Basically, I want to know your favorite places that you return to again and again, despite the fact that there are hundreds of other places you know you should be trying.

I'd love to eat as Chicagoans do, meaning should I try deep dish pizza, or is that unnecessary? How about steak? For some reason I feel like steak may be one of those things Chicago does well (though, again, what do I know?)

We are open to any and all cuisines. One specific thing we are looking for is breakfast. My friend is craving a "real, American breakfast". By that I think she means a wonderfully executed brunch type menu -- eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.

I'd personally love to find a nice restaurant with good food and pleasant ambience that makes a really good martini. Not looking for a menu list of gimmicky drinks, just a place that knows how to make a solid, classic cocktail.

Lunch suggestions can even be street food if you think that makes the most sense. Just tell me what you would suggest someone do to fill her tummy while she's in Chicago for a few days.

I know this is a super general request (which is why I added the "Please read!") so if you've gotten this far, thanks for indulging me!

In terms of geography, we're happy to walk/cab it, but I don't want to do a huge amount of schlepping since we'll only be there 48 hours. We're staying at the Swissotel.

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  1. Here are a few suggestions. You can get a great martini, steak, and dover sole at Keefer's. Cool atmosphere and you can definitely talk. It is not too far from your hotel. For breakfast, I would suggest Ina's on Randolph. For deep dish--this is a controversial topic for Chicagoans, so I'm sure others will have different thoughts--you can go to Lou Malnati's on Wells or Uno's or Due's. Another great place for dinner is onesixty blue. I think it is a great spot for dinner and drinks, plus there is wine bar across the street if you're up for post-dinner beverages. Enjoy!

    1. For a nice (casual fine dining) dinner I suggest Aigre Doux. It's in River North on W Kinzie St (a 5 minute cab/15 minute walk from Swissotel) and a great place to linger and have a nice meal. Alternatively I also really like Naha (N Clark and ?W Illinois) just a few blocks away also in River North--chef just won (after 8 years) a Beard award. No gimmicky drinks in either spot.

      For an alfresco evening and a really great gimmicky drink try the rooftop at ZED451--it's a mini-chain, but I really like their funky Old Fashioned is good!

      For breakfast I really like Flo (on West Chicago Ave) about an 10-12 minute cab from Swiss. Mexican influenced breakfast and wonderful Intelligentsia (local chicago) coffee. Alternatively another breakfast is Wishbone on Morgan and Washington, just West of the Loop (again 10 minutes cab from Swiss--the Swissotel is not in a great eating area, I used to work in the building next door). I eat here at least weekly, both before work and on weekends. Southern style but can just do bacon and eggs if you want. For a greasy spoon full of Chicago's finest go just 5 blocks further west of Wishbone on Monroe Street to Palace Grill.

      1. Deep Dish Pizza -- I agree with an earlier post that recommended Uno, Due or Lou Malnoti's, but there are many opinions out there and with many threads here discussing it to death. The original is Uno and Due (1940's) and Malnoti's was started by a relative. Food served at the Unos chain is nothing like these places.

        Steak -- some good places (again different points of view), but I wouldn't bother. A steak is a steak is a steak.

        Breakfast -- Some fabulous places include Orange and Bongo Room. I'm not the fan of Wishbone I used to be (it's across the street from Oprah's Harpo Studio). A Chicago landmark is The Original Lou MIchells on West Jackson. Triple filtered water for coffee, all double-yolk eggs. Near the Exchanges so there are lots of traders there. Ina's also a great suggestion, as is Meli's Cafe on Halsted St. in Greek Town.

        Lunch -- we don't have much in the way of street food, but you might want to make your way to Portillos for a Chicago Hot Dog or Al's or Mr. Beef for an Italian Beef.

        Martinis -- can't help you. Don't drink 'em.

        Dinner -- I agree with Aigre Doux or Naha (especially Naha), and would add Sepia as a great option.

        Some of the best, most interesting food here is upscale and regional Mexican. Frontera and Topolobampo lead the way, but they have their detractors. Many like Salpicon (not me) or Adobo. If you want to get into the neighborhoods, Pilsen has some amazing inexpensive and authentic restaurants (Nuevo Leon is best known).

        Have fun. Eat well and let us know how it goes.

        1. Hello,

          I know what you mean by "eat as Chicagoans do," but must underscore that we don't eat deep dish, brats and steaks all day. I'm only saying this because I'm a New Yorker and have just moved to Chicago a year ago. Chicago has really amazing food, so you should think less "Chicago" type food and more "flat out good food." What do New Yorkers eat? Not just bagels and lox, NY style pizza and Magnolia cupcakes! Same goes for Chicago.

          Having said that, here are a few gems I have found since moving here:

          1. Spring - amazing seasonal food in a fun neighborhood.
          2. The Bluebird - great and reasonable
          3. North Pond - again, great seasonal food
          4. Sai Cafe - some of the BEST sushi I've ever had (yes, including sushi I've had in NYC)
          5. Walker Brothers - if you're lokoing for good American breakfast - in the burbs though
          6. Violet Hour - excellent for cocktails. This may even surpass places like E.O. in NYC.

          Enjoy!

          1. I have been in NY for a year and miss the following Chicago food options on an almost daily basis:

            Hot Chocolate: There deserts are better than anything I have had in New York. The place blows chicalicious out of the water.

            Spring: Simple, good food. Reminds me of Blue Hill a bit, but more comfortable.

            Blackbird: The service is hit or miss, but when it hits, it is a great place for dinner and their lunch options are a steal.

            Alinea: The best meals of my life have taken place there.

            Gino's East: Not to start a debate, but if you want deep dish, this is my favorite in the city.

            Piece: Great brew pub and new haven style pizza. Their house salad is great.

            Hot Doug's: If you want a hot dog, go there.

            Schwa: A wonderful place. Know before you go

            1. I agree with most of what's been said above, but one note about breakfast. Since you'll probably do a couple of these, give Lou Mitchell's a try as suggested above. It can be hit-and-miss nowadays but it is really old-school Chicago--go on a weekday if you can to avoid lining up. Note that some mentioned above, such as Bongo Room (which is quite good), are more known for their high-end offerings: designer pancakes and eggs-benedicts than a typical bacon-and-eggs chowdown..

              1 Reply
              1. re: jbw

                I think brunch at hot chocolate is the best in the city

              2. I second Hot Dougs for a good hot dog, but be prepared to wait outside for a while. It's in Roscoe Village, so you are going to have to get out of the downtown area, but if you want a real Chicago dog, it's worth it, IMO. On Friday's and Saturday they serve fries fried in duck fat.

                I agree that Bongo Room and Orange can be a little to trendy for a real American breakfast type place and the lines are way out of hand for the quality of food IMHO. I'm actually surprised that no one has mentioned the Original Pancake House either on Rush or in Hyde Park. The one on Rush is close to were you are staying. Big portions and great pancakes (they have bacon pancakes/waffles on the menu if you are felling adventerous). Again, if you are going to the one on Rush, be prepared to stand in line for a bit, but the service is really good and you get in and out really fast. Yolk is OK, but it can be hit or miss and is pretty new.

                I think that Gino's has the best deep dish and I love the Chicago style assuage and pepperoni combo. I don't really care for UNO, and because it's a national chain now, it's not worth it.

                If you are looking for ethnic fusion type places I would recommend Opera, which is Asian inspired and is in the near south loop area, so it's a little less toursty. Carnivale and Nacional 27 are fantastic Latin places too. Carnivale is bright and fun and friendly, while Nacional is a little more romantic, but they also have Latin dancing which is always fun.

                1 Reply
                1. re: meloneyd

                  " I don't really care for UNO, and because it's a national chain now, it's not worth it. "
                  This makes no sense. The original, on Ohio, is not a part of the chain. The chain is horrible and gives Uno's (and Chicago pizza) a bad name. But the original is still has the original receipes.

                2. You've already gotten plenty of good suggestions, but as a transplanted New Yorker myself I think I know what you are looking for. I urge you to get out of the downtown/River North/Gold Coast neighborhoods, where many of these suggestions are located. Many of the low key, comfortable places with good food are in the surrounding neighborhoods, where most Chicagoans live.

                  For solid French Bistro fare with great atmosphere, try Le Bouchon in Bucktown. Another is Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square.

                  For good, rustic Italian food in a fun space, try Anteprima in Andersonville.

                  For breakfast, I agree that Hot Chocalate in Bucktown is a good bet, especially for sweet breakfast (chef is a pastry chef of some acclaim), but also for savory. Another good spot not yet mentioned is M. Henry in Andersonville.

                  I am not an avid Martini drinker, but I do like a good Gibson. I've found that some of the old school hotels make the best Gibsons, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same held true for Martinis. You're a tourist in Chicago, so what the hell: try a martini in the lobby bar of the Drake. It's a neat space, a bit like the Plaza used to be in NY.

                  If you think you are going to be doing some sight seeing during lunch time, you might be near the MIllenium Park Grill (very good Bloody Mary and good for lunch - reminds me of Boat House restaurant in CP), RL (Ralph Lauren's restaurant, which actually is fun and pretty decent), or Cafe Spiaggia (sp?) which is pretty upscale at night but more modest for lunch.

                  This will provoke native Chicagoans, but don't bother with the deep dish. It will make you feel sick, especially in the summer. Besides, I'm sure you've been to Uno in New York.

                  Chicago's lots of fun with too many good places to mention, and I hope you enjoy it.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: what I want

                    Gee might as well go to the Seasons for that martini, we had a wonderful time there with their martini's and these great snacks they include. Also I just
                    posted in another thread the Hancock Tower lounge has really good cold
                    great sized martini's as well. Cheers!

                    1. re: what I want

                      just for the record, alot of "native chicagoans" think deep dish pizza is a tourist item, and a terrible representation of pizza at that. I and many like me only eat thin crust pizza.

                      1. re: swsidejim

                        . . . and even those who do like deep-dish would never eat at an Uno's chain outlet, which has nothing in common with the original Uno's (or Due's) on Wabash other than its name.

                        1. re: jbw

                          That's the same thing said about Malnati's. But the original in Lincolnwood is to die for, and the BEST, IMHO. Unfortunately, that's a haul from downtown (do NOT rent a car if you're staying in the city; the parking here will kill you too and if you can cab anywhere downtown), so I'd go with the original Uno. As far as a true dog goes and not some snooty gourmet dog (??!!) Gold Coast is fine. Steak? I still like Gene & Georgetti. Very old school, but I've been going there since I was little and I'm nostalgic.

                    2. I'm cheap. My favorite places are Lou Mitchell's for breakfast (across from Union Station), Cafe Iberico for tapas and Hopleaf for great Belgian food and beer. The first two are walking distance (although a fairly long walk) and the latter is off the Red Line in Andersonville (a lot better option than a cab).

                      People come to Chicago just to eat at Lou Mitchell's. Best breakfast in town. There is always a line, but it moves fast. If you want to jump the line, take seats at the counter.

                      The ham is stupendous, but the bacon and sausage are good too. Home made locally. Great hash browns, lotsa jam for the (GREEK) toast. You get several options on the toast, go with the greek.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Pete Oldtown

                        I'd agree with everything except the hot dog part. If you want a Chicago hot dog go to Portillos. If you want to experience sausage and meat combos in a variety of fascinating combinations on hot dog type buns go to Hot Dougs.