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Jan 4, 2009 02:26 PM

Birthday dinner for out-of-towners, new Chicago ideas?

We come to Chicago often and have done many of the well known restaurants (Trotters, Tru, Graham Elliotts, Everest., Kevin....). Looking for something we haven't tried for a birthday dinner, we are adventurous diners, but would also like an interesting or romantic atmosphere. Intrigued by Boka's food, the new Eve, Les Nomades, Naha (but might be closed next weekend), Sepia & Otum. Blackbird looks interesting but not sure about the small, colder looking interior. Can you give your input on recent dining experiences as these places or other suggestions? Checked out Alinea & L20 but they may be a little too pricey right now, although I would like to hear more about L20. Thanks!

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  1. It sounds like you're looking for one of our many mid-priced, upscale "casual fine dining" restaurants rather than the expensive high-end dressy "haute cuisine" type places (three of which you've already hit and all of which are more expensive, which you say you're trying to avoid). First, for this reason, I would rule out Les Nomades, which is a high-end place in the same pricey category as L2O, Everest, Trotter's, etc. (I've been there and it's the one place in this group that, while fairly good, did not impress me as much as the others).

    Our mid-priced places tend to break down into a few discrete sub-categories:

    - contemporary American
    - Italian
    - French bistro
    - upscale ethnic
    - seafood
    - steakhouses

    Here are recommendations for each category. I won't go into a lot of detail about most of them, but if you'd like more information, LMK and I'll be happy to provide it.

    - contemporary American

    For a romantic restaurant, North Pond is wonderful. The food (contemporary American cuisine from James Beard award nominee Chef Bruce Sherman) is excellent, and the service fine. What distinguishes North Pond is its setting and history. It's located in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, not just the neighborhood of the same name), facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. The renovated building at one time was the warming shelter for ice skaters on the pond. (Skating is no longer permitted.) The small front room has floor-to-ceiling windows with that gorgeous view. Even the rear room is romantic, with an open kitchen along the rear side of the room. However, I should mention that winter may not be the best time of year to have to walk through the park, and the window seating that offers the best view may be less than comfortably warm. But it's a very special place, and a unique Chicago experience.

    one sixtyblue is a wonderful restaurant, with an elegant contemporary decor. It was my favorite restaurant under its former chef, who left a few months ago, and reports I've heard from others since then are that the new chef is continuing its great reputation.

    You ask about Blackbird. They serve some of the very best food around in this category. However, you ask about the interior, and that's where the drawbacks lie. Many of the tables are in one long line along the left side of the dining room as you enter, and they're pretty darn close together; privacy isn't its strong point. It can also be quite noisy. But did I mention that the food is outstanding?

    Sweets and Savories is another unique place, different from your typical place in this genre. For one thing, you'd never suspect a fine restaurant lies inside from its nondescript storefront exterior. But it's very good.

    Other contemporary American restaurants suitable for a celebration dinner include Aigre Doux, MK, Naha, and Custom House. (Kevin has closed.)

    It sounds like you lean towards contemporary American, so I'll just provide a few examples for each of the remaining categories I listed above; if you need more information or comparisons, I'll be happy to help.

    - Italian

    Cafe Spiaggia -
    Coco Pazzo -
    Vivere -

    - French bistro

    Brasserie Jo -
    Kiki's Bistro -
    La Sardine -

    - upscale ethnic

    Mundial Cocina Mestiza (Mexican) -
    Topolobampo (Mexican) -
    Shanghai Terrace (Chinese) -
    Vong's Thai Kitchen (Thai) -
    Le Colonial (Vietnamese) -
    Vermilion (Indian-Latin) -

    - seafood

    Hugo's -
    Shaw's -
    Fulton's on the River -

    - steakhouses

    There are a lot of these, and there is no consensus among Chicagoans on the very best. Feel free to read plenty of our opinions at
    If I had to choose one steakhouse in the downtown area, with great steaks, but also with additional advantages (a wider variety to its menu than most, and a more upscale contemporary atmosphere rather than the boisterous one of a stereotypical steakhouse), it would be:

    David Burke's Primehouse -

    Your instinct about the prices at Alinea and L2O is correct. Here's what they're charging, and how they compares with a few other places around town:

    1. L2O
    4 courses $110
    12 courses $165

    2. Alinea
    12 courses $145
    26 courses $225

    3. Avenues
    4 courses $75
    8 courses $115
    15 courses $145

    4. TRU
    3 courses $95
    9 courses $145
    also available a la carte

    Note - I am NOT criticizing these high-end places in any way! In fact, I am planning to go to L2O within the next few months. By all reports, L2O offers excellent food (with an emphasis on seafood) and a fantastic overall dining experience. But where price is a consideration, well... those are the numbers.

    1. i just went to Sepia last night, and i really loved the atmosphere and interior decor. it's not over the top quiet and romantic, but it's definitely not loud either. the lighting is dim and very warm, which makes it romantic and ideal for a date. the food was great too, but not as great as Blackbird, which is probably my favorite restaurant in the city. If you really want standout food, go to Blackbird. Even though you'll be pretty near other diners and that it can get loud in there, I don't find the atmosphere to be cold. The interior is just minimalist, and the service is very friendly. If you really care about interior decoration and a more romantic atmosphere, go to Sepia because the food is still good. If you care more about really amazing food, go to Blackbird.

      2 Replies
      1. re: phr208

        What kind of food does Blackbird and Sepia specialize in? Sound like beautiful places.

        1. re: LadyintheKitchen

          Both Blackbird and Sepia specialize in contemporary American cuisine. The best way to get an idea of their food is to look through the menus they have posted on their websites. A link to Blackbird's is above; Sepia's is

      2. We are not looking for a steak place....more fish eaters but love unique meats like venison, pork belly, shanks, etc. Although I keep going back to Blackbird as an option, has anyone recently enjoyed Boka (former Charlie Trotter employee) or the new Eve? Thanks!

        2 Replies
        1. re: kacollier

          I last ate at Boka probably a year ago and I enjoyed it. Another spot you may want to consider is Perennial. It's new-ish, same owners as Boka, chef is Ryan Poli.

          1. re: kacollier

            > more fish eaters but love unique meats

            You would probably enjoy Custom House. Chef/Owner Shawn McClain has three restaurants: Custom House ( ), which specializes in meats; Spring ( ), which specializes in seafood; and Green Zebra ( ), which is almost entirely vegetarian. Custom House is in the South Loop, on ground level with big picture windows so you can watch people walking by. I ate there this past year and absolutely LOVED the sweetbread appetizer and the bone-in short rib main course (served with horseradish cream puffs!), although I was a bit disappointed in the desserts.

          2. I would go to Aigre Doux. Fabulous food - perfect setting