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Oct 29, 2008 07:33 PM

River North/East - running out of ideas?

As an SF Chowhounder, I come to Chicago about once a month, typically for 3-4 days (dinners) at a time.

I've found this to be my favorite food city in the US, and am amazed at the variety and quality of the food and restaurants you have available.

I usually stay in River North or downtown, and typically don't venture beyond an $8-10 cab ride, and so have explored (I think) most of the good, well known, "casual fine dining" places in River North and River West.

I am starting to feel like I've tried all the good ones, and don't know where to go next. I'm VERY flexible in what I'll eat, and I prefer interesting, fresh ingredients, unusual combinations, etc. My typical price limit (expense account) is about $50 including a glass of wine. I'm often solo, but sometime I can get one of my co-workers from our office to come along.

So here are my favorite places to give an idea of what I like, though I'm not sure what you can tell from this:

1. Avec - probably my current favorite, I eat there EVERY trip at least once
2. Naha - love the food, great service, fresh ingredients and interesting ideas
3. Fox & Obel - my "go to" breakfast place, great (huge) breakfasts and decent coffee
4. Vermilion - I find this to be an interesting place, like the Latin-Indian concept
5. Otom - tried this once, it's a bit clever, along the molecular gastronomy lines

I've primarily relied on Chowhound, and it's been invaluable to locate all of these places and the others I've been to. I could list them all, but perhaps it would be easiest if you have 1-3 suggestions that fit the basic geographic & price constraints.

From a food sensibility point of view, I have found nsxtacy's posts to be very similar to my taste, though some of the places are probably out of my price range (certainly no Alinea, Everest, North Pond, etc.). And I'm not really interested in eating deep dish pizza, hot beef, Hot Doug's, etc. I would welcome BBQ if there is a worthy place in taxi range but most of the well regarded places seem to be too far away.

Hope that's not too vague or confusing. Any ideas would be very welcomed - even if I have been there before, you may remind me of a place I liked but forgot about. Thanks!

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  1. You say you're looking for places that are $50 including a glass of wine; assuming that also includes tax and tip and 2-3 courses, you're probably talking about places where entrees are in the low twenties or less. (I'm surprised you mentioned Naha, where entrees are $30-35 and with an app and a glass of wine you're probably in the $75-90 range; maybe you go there at lunch?)

    Also, you say you're looking for places within a $7-8 cab ride. Would you consider a $1.75-2.00 public transit fare? That will open up a whole lot more places for you. You can find CTA transit information at

    If lunch is an option for you, there are quite a few places that would normally be above your budget for dinner, but which are open for lunch at a lower price. Blackbird (the sister restaurant of Avec, next door) and Naha (which you already know about) and Aigre Doux are three such places that immediately come to mind.

    Lula is a restaurant in Logan Square (about 4 miles west-northwest from River North and right at the Logan Square stop on the CTA Blue Line) that emphasizes fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and it is within your budget for dinner.

    Our seafood restaurants and steakhouses may meet your needs. No, you won't be able to get that $40-50 steak or 3-pound lobster, but most of the steakhouses have good burgers for $10-12, and many of the steak and seafood restaurants have some lower-priced seafood items. Those close to River North include Shaw's Crab House, Fulton's on the River, Catch 35, and Joe's. Boston Blackie's is more of a burger/pub type place, just the other side of Michigan Avenue on Grand. And Rockit Bar and Grill, right in River North, has a wide variety of moderately-priced American food.

    Cafe Spiaggia does such a great job at Italian food, and it's right in your budget, with entrees in the low twenties. There are other excellent Italian places, but many of them are going to be more expensive than Cafe Spiaggia, by a little (e.g. Vivere, Coco Pazzo) to a lot (Pane Caldo, Merlo). Granted, Coco Pazzo is right in River North, so you will save on cab fare. And its sister restaurant, Coco Pazzo Cafe, is a bit less expensive, more on par with Cafe Spiaggia; it's just on the other side of Michigan Avenue.

    There are a bunch of French bistros that will come within your budget. Kiki's, Brasserie Jo, and Bistro 110 are all right in or near River North. I've heard good things also about La Sardine, which is just west of the Loop, a long walk or a short cab ride away; I haven't been there yet, but chicgail recommended it in another topic and I've been wanting to try it.

    Other types of ethnic food are one way to enjoy a variety of food without exceeding your budget. Vong's Thai Kitchen is in River North, or you can find Thai food that's a bit more authentic and a bit less expensive by hopping on the CTA's Red Line el to TAC Quick or the Brown Line to Spoon Thai. There are other Thai places in River North but not that I've tried. For Chinese, take the CTA Red Line to Cermak/Chinatown (a cab might be $8-10) and go to Lao Sze Chuan. There are tons of Greek restaurants in Greek Town, just west of the Loop; for recommendations, see Mexican places should be within your budget, including Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (especially for lunch) in River North and Salpicon and Adobo Grill in Old Town; you can also take the CTA Pink Line to 18th Street to go to Mundial Cocina Mestiza for dinner within your budget. There are Indian places in River North, or you can take the CTA (el then transfer to bus) to Devon Avenue, where there are dozens of places between Western and Sacramento. For Vietnamese food, take the CTA Red Line to Argyle and there are a whole bunch of places on Argyle Street within a block or two of the el stop.

    We have some excellent places for barbecue. Carson's is right in River North and I like their ribs (although not everyone does). Several of our best barbecue places are strung out on the northwest side, easily walkable from stops on the CTA Blue Line. For specific recommendations, see

    So those are a few suggestions for you. It's pretty difficult to run out of ideas of places to eat in Chicago, even in the moderate price range!

    Website links:
    Blackbird -
    Naha -
    Aigre Doux -
    Lula -
    Shaw's Crab House -
    Fulton's on the River -
    Catch 35 -
    Joe's -
    Boston Blackie's -
    Rockit Bar and Grill -
    Cafe Spiaggia -
    Coco Pazzo -
    Coco Pazzo Café -
    Kiki's -
    Brasserie Jo -
    Bistro 110 -
    La Sardine -
    Vong's Thai Kitchen -
    TAC Quick -
    Spoon Thai -
    Lao Sze Chuan -
    Frontera Grill and Topolobampo -
    Salpicon -
    Adobo Grill -
    Mundial Cocina Mestiza -
    Carson's -

    8 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I forgot to mention two moderately-priced places in River North that specialize in "small plates"; since you like Avec, you'll probably like these:

      Cafe Iberico (Spanish tapas) -
      Quartino (Italian) -

      1. re: nsxtasy

        Just like nsxtasy said, your answer is to start looking in the neighborhoods. Because you spend so much time here, I would suggest the Not For Tourists (NFT) book for Chicago. It has pretty detailed maps of restaurants and services in the neighborhoods. It might give you a start on the type of areas you might like.

      2. re: nsxtasy

        Thanks - great list of places. I have actually been to about half of them, and some of the others have been considered but not visited. Lunches are not really an option since I usually work straight through the day or just grab a sandwich near the office.

        But on your list above, Lula, Cafe Spiaggia, Kiki's, La Sardine and Lao Sze Chuan sound like good places to start.

        And yes, I guess I need to get into the CTA more - I have avoided it for no obvious reason, and it would open up a lot more options.

        BTW, of your recs above (and below), I've been to: Aigre Doux, Catch 35, Coco Pazza, Brasserie Jo, Bistro 110, Vong's Thai Kitchen, Frontera, Salpicon, Quartino, Cafe Iberico, and Carsons. It's not that any of them were substandard, just not memorable enough.

        I have to say that I am continually impressed with the combinations that Avec comes up with and their menu changes monthly, so I keep going back to see what's new (and always order the bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates - one of the best tastes anywhere I have eaten).

        Thanks for the great suggestions, and I knew I could count on you ;-)

        1. re: RichInMV

          I may have overlooked these above and, if so, I apologize, but how about Crofton on Wells and Keefer's? Also, West Town Tavern. The first two are walking distance and the third would be a quick cab ride.

          1. re: vrollings

            I had a very bad service experience at Crofton on Wells and that's why I don't recommend it.

            Keefer's is a good steakhouse recommendation.

        2. re: nsxtasy

          Following up on your suggestions - I had a good trip, and followed some of your ideas.

          First night, went to Avec (I can't stay away). As usual, I went alone and ate way too much, but sitting at the bar, found people to the right and left to share some of my excess food. I had the duck confit which was excellent - a small glass jar full, way too much for one person to eat at a single sitting, so I took some back to my hotel with me. It was served with nice toast pieces that complemented the richness of the duck. My neighbors had the escargot, which were too much for them, so I tried some of that. It tasted pretty "earthy" and was very rich. Not the usual "saturated in butter and garlic" but you could really taste the snaily-ness of them. A bit much for me. And I also had the flatbread pissaladiere with house-cured sardines, bright yellow carmelized onions and olives. Very nice and the onions were wonderfully sweet.

          The next night I went to A Mano with a group from work. 5 of us ordered quite a number of dishes - several starters, a pizza, and some pastas. All were uniformly very good, and this third visit confirmed that this place is a good reliable place to take anyone, even picky eaters, and find something they will like. And the non-picky eaters will find interesting dishes. I remember the pumpkin ravioli, and the octopus salad as very good. The pizza crust was nice and thin.

          Third night was the jackpot - I made it down to Lao Sze Chuan, and I found it to be great. It's located in a kind of warehouse-mall complex with many other (mostly Chinese) restaurants and shops, and the menu was fantastic. I was with one semi-picky co-worker, so we didn't get to try any of the "Very Chinese Specials" but the three items we got were quite good. Peking noodles were fine, not great, kind of sweet with mushooms. Noodles were good, sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste, but it was a nice complement to the two other dishes we had. The dry fried green beans were wone of the better examples of this dish. Not spicy enough for me, but fine for my table mate. Nice salty crust as well, and really well-cooked. We also had the double fried pork with greens, which was excellent - thin chewy/crispy strips of pork, in a dry-fried szechuan pepper mix, with some light Chinese greens mixed in (nicely bitter). Excellent dish, and amazingly we finished all three HUGE portions between the two of us. Waddling out of there, we checked out the other 20-30 places and found a number of them I want to go back to. I finally figured out how easy the CTA is and will be back there on my next trip in December!

          Overall, the Lao Sze Chuan visit re-invigorated me and it was wonderful to find this nice (and cheap) alternative to the usual list of places.

          Now, I have to start planning for December....

          1. re: RichInMV

            A couple of ideas not mentioned above:

            Mercat a la Planxa on michigan Aveneue is my favorite newcomer of the last year. Spanish Tapas, but much more inspired than what you might expect. Not quite at the level of Avec when it comes to small plates dining, but quite good, and a great location and setting. Certainly heads and shoulders over Iberico.

            Of the places on your list, I've had luck over the years at Coco Pazzo (not to be confused with Coco Pazzo Cafe) and Salpicon, so maybe worth a second try.

            You might also try Graham Elliots, maybe a bit on the pricey side, but an interesting alternative by one of Chiago's top new chefs.

            I really enjoy Lula's, but its a hike from downtown if you are taking a cab.

            There is some great Thai food accesible by the El. Spoon Thai and TAC Quick. I'd start with Spoon, and make sure you order off the "Thai language menu" at either one(comes with translation.) Food is much more iteresting than the standard menus.

            For a different and cheap pizza experience, you could try Coal Fire Pizza.

            Lots of outstanding Mexican in Chicago, but sometimes inconvenient from downtown. If you can get to Sol de Mexico or Mixteco they are well worth the visit.

            Nice thing about the Thai places and Mixteco (and maybe Sol de Mexico??) is that they are BYO which makes them a cheap dinner. FYI, very good wine store Sams in South loop.

            And for a great burger (best in city??) and pint at a local bar, Paramont Room.

            1. re: wak

              wak mentioned something that I think is important and I'd really like to expand on those comments, and that is regarding our Mexican food. I think a lot of people come to Chicago and think, "I can get inexpensive Mexican food back home, so I want something different/better while I'm here", and don't even consider our Mexican restaurants. I think that's a big mistake, because IMHO Chicago offers some of the best Mexican food you can find anywhere outside Mexico, and our best places are not at all like the enchiladas and such you may be accustomed to. I encourage you to take a minute to look at the menus on the websites of our most creative Mexican restaurants; it should become apparent from perusing them that the cuisine is entirely different from more conventional Mexican places. You'll find links to them, along with public transit directions and other information, in the discussion at

              As for specific recommendations, Rick Bayless was a big reason for the growing popularity of provincial Mexican dishes, and his Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in River North continue to turn out some of the most interesting Mexican food in town, and Salpicon in Old Town is also excellent. I think Mundial Cocina Mestiza may be our best Mexican restaurant away from downtown, yet it's right at an el stop only about ten minutes by el from the Loop. Topolobampo, Salpicon, I think Mundial, and to a limited extent Frontera Grill accept reservations, which will make things easier for you. I like the food at Mixteco Grill but not quite as much as Mundial, I don't think they accept reservations and waiting times to be seated can be lengthy, and it's not convenient to public transportation. Sol de Mexico is even less convenient by public transit and I consider their food just okay.

        3. For your next trips, it might be good to check out Eve, located at 840 N. Wabash.

          Eve opened recently and is affiliated somehow with Tallulah in Lincoln Square, (which I've enjoyed as well). I found the decor at Eve to be very elegant, and my friends and I all enjoyed our meals. The three of us had the pranws to start with, scallops, short rib, and monkfish for entrees, and shared a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The total damage was about $60 per person after tax and tip. I was the one who ordered the shirt rib, and it was a very generous portion that I found to be quite tasty! An enjoyable meal, and probably worth checking out the next time you're in town!

          1 Reply
          1. re: jn2001

            is this eve restaurant affiliated with the one in ann arbor, mi?

          2. The original comment has been removed
            1. Rich - if you're looking for a nice wine bar, Bin 36 is right *in* River North.