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Need to Eat 2009

I have started compiling a list of places I really want to eat in 2009, and was looking for some extra recommendations. I've lived in Chicago for quite a while, and that's the reason why some places are not on my list!

Alinea
Schwa
Table 52
Naha
Veerasway
Graham Elliot
Mado
Mexique
A Tavolo
Bon Soiree
Sixteen
Tru
The Curry House
Terragusto
Hachi's Kitchen
Sepia
The Gage
Bristol
Gene & Georgetti
Farnerie 58
Salipicon

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  1. Trotters, if you want to spend ridiculous amounts of money. But some say it's the best meal they've ever had. I'm not sure about that. I think the best ribs are Twin Anchors, nothing trendy, just a bar with great food and it's pleasant and friendly and a good place to watch a game.

    I'd put Everest on that list--outstanding food, impeccable service, again EXPENSIVE, but it's so beautiful that it's worth it for that alone.

    And if you haven't been there, The Billy Goat, the original under (and MAN, IS IT UNDER) the Wrigley Building. Just because you haven't done Chicago without going there at least once. It's an institution. Don't order fries.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Whosyerkitty

      "But some say it's the best meal they've ever had. I'm not sure about that. I think the best ribs are Twin Anchors"

      I know T/A in beloved by many Chicago folk, but quite honestly you could get better ribs at Cook County Jail ;-)

    2. Did you leave Mercat a la Planxa off your list or just overlook it? It is excellent and was one of the 3 featured restaurants on "Check, Please" last Friday night. The Chef's Table menu is outstanding and is offered with wine pairings as well. Chef's Table was $55.00 per person when we went there shortly after it opened; we were served about 14 different dishes, all of them memorable..

      1 Reply
      1. re: CJT

        i liked Mercat a lot. I've been to Spain and the tapas were pretty authentic, however, I felt that it was slightly overpriced and the portions were small. Yes I know it's a tapas restaurant, but I frequent tapas places, and the portions here seemed to be a lot smaller. The mariscos croquettes were filled with 1/2 a shrimp each and cost $10 for an order of 6. $14 for the coca of porcini & catalan sausage, roasted garlic and manchego is the price of a small deep dish pizza and it was TINY.

        We were a group of 6 and the bill was just over $400 before tip and we were still hungry (we are not big eaters). They charged us for extra bread, which I thought was a little ridiculous. I would not go back. I think Emilio's has better tapas for more reasonable cost.

      2. I'm not sure what the purpose of this list is. Is it to name every restaurant serving great food in Chicago? LOL!

        The list above seems reasonable as a list of places to try. It's easy to quibble with the choices in some of the categories (why TRU and Sixteen, but not Everest or L2O? why Salpicon and Mexique, but not Mundial Cocina Mestiza or Fonda del Mar? etc) but that's merely a reflection of the richness of our restaurant offerings. The list above seems to be heavy in the "finer dining" area, but light in ethnic choices and with very little in the way of inexpensive places in general, ethnic or otherwise.

        I don't know how other Chowhounds manage their list of places to try (whether they are just in our heads or actually written down or electronically entered somewhere). I can tell you, my list never seems to get shorter, and constantly changes as places open and close, and as I hear positive and negative reviews, here on Chowhound and elsewhere. I like to try a variety of different places. If I think back upon the places I've tried for the first time over the course of a year, I like to find at least one or two places from each of a bunch of categories: haute cuisine, contemporary American, Italian or French bistro, creative Mexican, Asian, barbecue, etc. And hopefully I also have a chance to go back to the places I've really liked, every once in a while.

        Since the start of the year, I've tried one French bistro (La Sardine - liked it a lot), and two bakeries (Sweet Mandy B's and Bleeding Heart - both disappointing). I have plans within the next month or so to hit several of the places I've been wanting to try, including one high-end place, one French restaurant, and one contemporary American restaurant I've liked in the past but now has a new chef. Restaurant Week provided the incentive to plan two of these meals, as well as a return visit to another place I've always liked. I haven't yet made plans to try more Mexican or Asian places, but that will happen too.

        When it comes to restaurants, Chicago certainly is a wonderful place to live or visit!

        10 Replies
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Thanks for the adds to the list. The main purpose of my list is to find some special occasion restaurants that I have not tried, and to open my eyes to Chicago institutions that I have not heard of! Being relatively new to the fine dining experience I think that there are a few places that were omitted, but not on purpose! Even though my wish list mainly comprises of higer end place, I would love to find out more about the secret spots that I have not been to yet for a good mid week meal. Bring it on, I am ready to eat!!!

          1. re: redtulip

            Aha! The concentration on special occasion restaurants explains why there are few inexpensive restaurants on the list.

            One thing I've noticed is a great disparity between some restaurants that get a lot of notice on forums and in the press, and others that don't. I know there are some very deserving restaurants out there that few people have heard of.

            Some are ethnic restaurants that are suitable for special occasions, but you don't hear much about them. I had mentioned Mundial Cocina Mestiza, which is a wonderful creative Mexican restaurant in Pilsen. Le Colonial and Le Lan serves creative Vietnamese off the Mag Mile. Vermilion offers a combination of Indian (i.e. from India) and Latin-American. Shanghai Terrace is excellent for extreme-upscale Chinese dining.

            Another reason some restaurants don't get much attention is their location, away from downtown and especially if they're in the suburbs. Great places in outlying neighborhoods include Sola in North Center and Magnolia Cafe in Uptown. The suburbs are another matter, with places every bit as outstanding as those in the city, including Oceanique and Chef's Station in Evanston, Michael in Winnetka, Le Titi de Paris in Arlington Heights, Vie in Western Springs, Courtright's in Willow Springs, and Tallgrass in Lockport, to name a few. City residents should note that the two in Evanston are convenient to both the CTA and Metra commuter trains, and Michael and Vie are both just a few steps away from Metra stops with evening service.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Shhh. Stop telling people about Sola. It's one of my favorites and still not difficult to get a reservation.

              1. re: chicgail

                You know, that's what I hate. I'm not into trendy regardless of reviews. Nobody's DOING ME A FAVOR by letting me eat in their flippin' restaurant.

                And frankly, you have some wonderful little holes in the wall with great food and people that appreciate you being there, not necessarily 'high end' or 'in'.

                That's what a great city's great food is about. Not about where the Reader or a snotty guy on the news tells you you should go

                But hell, I still like Spiaggia and it's SO 90's.

                1. re: Whosyerkitty

                  Do you have a top five 'hole in the wall's that you would recommend? Love hearing about places that I pass by all the time.

                  1. re: redtulip

                    It would be very easy to walk by some of the best restaurants around without even knowing that they're there. For example:

                    Sweets and Savories ( www.sweetsandsavoriesrestaurant.com ) is on a busy stretch of Fullerton in the westernmost part of Lincoln Park. It looks like a nondescript storefront that you could easily mistake for a dry cleaners. Very good contemporary American cuisine in an upscale bistro atmosphere awaits inside.

                    Chef's Station ( www.chefs-station.com ) is located underneath the Metra commuter train station in downtown Evanston; good luck finding either of the two entrances (LOL!). Inside it, too, has outstanding contemporary American cuisine (even better than S&S, for my money) in a whimsical upscale bistro atmosphere.

                    Michael ( www.restaurantmichael.com ) is located on a busy stretch of Green Bay Road in north suburban Winnetka. The lot has only a narrow frontage, so the restaurant entrance is sideways and virtually invisible from the street. The atmosphere is casual but sophisticated, and the food, contemporary American with French overtones, is IMO the best in the entire Chicago suburbs (with the possible exception of Tallgrass in southwest suburban Lockport).

                    Of course, there's always the Violet Hour, the cocktail bar in Wicker Park. That place is *intentionally* designed to be invisible from the street, so as to resemble a Prohibition speakeasy. Not only could you pass it by, you could even pass it by when looking for it and still not find it.

                  2. re: Whosyerkitty

                    Sola is hardly a hole in the wall. It has a fairly high-end, thoughtful kitchen, very fine food. I guess I would rather y'all go and keep it going. I just love that I can get it easily when I want to.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      I think that depends on how we define "hole in the wall". If redtulip means a NICE (upscale, creative) restaurant that you could pass by without knowing it's there, then Sola qualifies (thanks to having its entrance on a side street, even though its street address is on a main commercial drag with zero signage). If he/she means a, well, a crummy neighborhood "cheap eats" kind of place with decent food, then Sola does not qualify - but neither do Sweets and Savories, Chef's Station, Michael, or Violet Hour, all of which are decidedly upscale and creative in intent (and pricing).

                    2. re: Whosyerkitty

                      I'm SOOOOOOO with you here. I do like the high end stuff, but I HATE it when you go to a high end place, and the food is something "just ok." I have a running list of places that charge waaaaaaaaay too much for their mediocre food, and get by on being a "scene" for the pretty ppl, or being able to cater to the crowds who have no idea. But, more power to them.

                  3. re: nsxtasy

                    Thanks a million for the new suggestions. More to add to the list!

              2. I went to Alinea in December and while it was GOOD, it was not amazing like I was expecting. The service was excellent, but some of the dishes were just ok and some were just too out there. Be prepared to spend over $600 for dinner for 2 with wine and coffee.

                2 Replies
                1. re: pumakat

                  I have to admit that, while my trip to Alinea was exciting, I agree it was not as spetacular as people were saying. $600 was a lot, and we split the pairings. The service was great, but I felt that some of the servers were trying ot put on an unnecessary performace.

                  1. re: redtulip

                    When I went last september, I thought the food was pretty amazing. The food at alinea is just not in the same class as food from any other restaurant in Chicago (going the whole apples to oranges routine). But I didn't care for my wine pairing either. At the end of the meal, my party all decided that getting a bottle next time would be far more economical than the tasting.

                2. Nice list But My favorite restaurant is missing
                  Blackbird
                  Also try
                  Avec
                  Publican
                  Wellfleet
                  L20
                  Topolobampo/ Fronterra grill

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: cabo91

                    I just have a hard time with the L20 recommendations. We went a couple of months ago and spent about $800 for 2 people and was entirely unimpressed with the tasting menu. They were still using gels with fish... It was just very old school and the server and sommelier were rather uninvolved in the dining process. they even paired sake with a light fish dish..... overpowered the dish entirely. I'd steer clear.

                    1. re: ChgoJeff

                      I just went to L2O a week ago and my experience was basically consistent with ChgoJeff's, although I thought the food was very good while not extraordinary, and it's a lovely space. While you don't *have* to spend $400/pp - the four-course menu is $110 before wine/tax/tip and one of the tasting menus is even less - it's still expensive. If I'm going to spend that much money, I would easily prefer any of our high-end mainstays (Alinea, Everest, Avenues, Trotter's, TRU). I posted a detailed report on my L2O meal at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/546690

                      If I had to name my top choices for higher-end cuisine without going into the super expensive places, right now I would choose Michael, Tallgrass, and Oceanique in the suburbs, and Cafe des Architectes, Aigre Doux, and North Pond in the city.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        Nsxtasy, I'm surprised to see Blackbird off your list. Did something change for you? Get tired of it? Bad experience? Just better new offerings in your opinion?

                        I would also have to add Naha, consistent, classy always.

                        1. re: chicgail

                          It's mostly a matter of new offerings. There are dozens of excellent contemporary American restaurants in the Chicago area, many of which have opened in the past few years. Blackbird stood out more when it first opened in the 1990s.

                          Although Blackbird still serves some of the best contemporary American food in the city, I think the food at Cafe des Architectes and Aigre Doux is every bit its equal, and North Pond has the added feature of its exquisite setting. Blackbird also has a few downsides; it's cramped and noisy, and there's not much sense of privacy if you're in one of that long line of tables along one wall (I hate that setup, when they're thisclose together).

                          I ate at Blackbird this past summer at a function in their private dining room upstairs; the food was fabulous but the portion sizes were atrociously small (I was still hungry at the end of the meal). However, the menu was specific to that private event and the portion size problem would not be representative of the public menu.

                          I just continue to be impressed with the other places I've mentioned, where I can reliably get some of the best food around, with a dining experience that's wonderful in every way. If we didn't have those other restaurants, I would probably be extolling the virtues of Blackbird. Of course, trying to discern differences among such excellent restaurants is very difficult, as well as entirely arbitrary; it's really an "embarrassment of riches".

                          1. re: nsxtasy

                            But isn't it wonderful that we live in a city with the restaurant options of Chicago so that virtually every price-point, food-style, ethnicity preference can be met? That it's tough to choose between Blackbird or Naha or Agre Doux or North Pond or Mado or Sola or dozens of others -- too many to name here -- is a testament to the extraordinary options we have in our culinary scene. It's hard (but not impossible) to go wrong.

                            1. re: chicgail

                              Oh, I agree, absolutely! The number of dining options in Chicago are amazing, at all levels. I travel around the Midwest a lot, and smaller cities have only a tiny fraction of our offerings. For example, they might have only one or two places serving excellent contemporary American food. There's one city I visit (Toledo) that had only one place in that category, and it closed!

                              In Chicago, it's possible to have a bad experience in a good restaurant, but it's not very easy to find a bad restaurant. I average maybe one or two meals a year where I consider a place to be BAD - and that's an extremely low average, a testament to the quality of our restaurants.

                              This is why there are so many different recommendations in response to queries here in the Chicago Area forum on Chowhound. Want a contemporary American restaurant? It's easy to come up with a list of dozens of good ones. Want Mexican? What about pizza, or burgers? Again, no problem; here are dozens of recommendations. So when a visitor from out of town comes for a few days, he/she can have a wonderful meal (or two or three) every day, and still only be scratching the surface of what we have to offer.

                  2. I went to Mexique when it opened last year and truly enjoyed a few of the dishes that were being widely touted: the crab mousse tamale, the sopas, but I was very disappointed in the duck confit served. The breast was fine, but the legs were cold and greasy. I want to give this restaurant another shot so I hope other diners have had different experience.