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Special Occasion Restaurants - Haute Cuisine and Casual Fine Dining

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It's been a while since we had extensive discussions of our fine dining and finer dining restaurants here, and there have been some changes in the roster since then. So I thought I'd start a new topic, which we can update as further changes occur. As always, all opinions are welcome!

First, a word about the terminology I'll use here. I tend to think of these restaurants as falling into two categories: (1) "haute cuisine", or fine dining, or top tables; and (2) what I like to call "casual fine dining". Of course, restaurants don't always fit neatly into precise categories! But here are the differences that represent the reasons for the distinction I'm trying to draw. The "haute cuisine" restaurants tend to be more expensive, typically $200-300 per person including moderate wine/alcohol, tax, and tip, whereas the "casual fine dining" places are more typically $80-100/pp. Most of the "haute cuisine" restaurants are dressier, with 80-100 percent of the gentlemen wearing jackets, whereas the "casual fine dining" places are more casual, with few jackets and business casual attire the norm. Most of the "haute cuisine" restaurants feature multi-course tasting menus, whereas the "casual fine dining" places have menus that are primarily a la carte (although there are exceptions on both sides). And most of the "haute cuisine" restaurants feature a higher level of service, although describing the difference can be arbitrary (and service experiences may vary).

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HAUTE CUISINE
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If you were to put together a list of the top chefs and restaurants here in Chicago, it would look something like this:

1. Alinea - Grant Achatz - Lincoln Park - www.alinearestaurant.com
2. Everest - Jean Joho - Loop - www.everestrestaurant.com
3. Charlie Trotter's - Charlie Trotter - Lincoln Park - www.charlietrotter.com/restaurant
4. Avenues - Curtis Duffy - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - http://chicago.peninsula.com
5. TRU - Rick Tramonto - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.trurestaurant.com
6. Spiaggia - Tony Mantuano - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.spiaggiarestaurant.com
7. NoMi - Christophe David - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.nomirestaurant.com
8. Carlos - Carlos Nieto - north suburban Highland Park - www.carlos-restaurant.com
9. L2O - Laurent Gras - Lincoln Park - www.l2orestaurant.com
10. Schwa - Michael Carlson - Bucktown/Wicker Park - www.schwarestaurant.com
11. Les Nomades - Chris Nugent - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.lesnomades.net

One restaurant which may or may not belong on the above list of our finest restaurants is Sixteen, in the new Trump hotel, where I have not yet dined. Opinions?

These represent our finest restaurants. Is one restaurant necessarily better than another in this group? That's like arguing which pair of the perfect shoes is more perfect, or which of several supermodels is more beautiful. The fact is, you can get a wonderful meal and a wonderful dining experience at any of them!

As noted above, all of these restaurants are expensive, with dinners typically running upwards of $200 per person. However, there are specials and deals at a lower cost (and more being introduced all the time, in these recessionary times). If you're looking for the "bargains" in the group, Schwa is BYO; the cost for the food ($110 for the ten-course menu) is comparable to the others, but you will save on wine by avoiding restaurant markups. Everest has a 3-course pre-theater menu for $50, and Schwa now has a 3-course menu for $55. Carlos runs periodic specials. NoMI is the only one on this list that is open for lunch, at a lower cost than dinner.

With the exceptions of L2O and Schwa, all of the above restaurants are dressy; gentlemen will be out of place without a jacket. (See my detailed report on L2O regarding their attire.) Aside from private clubs and the possible exception of Sixteen, these are the ONLY such dressy places in the Chicago metro area, AFAIK.

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CASUAL FINE DINING
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There are many more restaurants in this category, throughout the city and suburbs. Here are some of my favorites in the city:

1. Café des Architectes - Martial Noguier - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.cafedesarchitectes.com
2. Aigre Doux - Mohammed Islam and Malika Ameen - River North - www.aigredouxchicago.com
3. North Pond - Bruce Sherman - Lincoln Park - www.northpondrestaurant.com
4. Blackbird - Paul Kahan - West Loop - www.blackbirdrestaurant.com
5. Custom House - Shawn McClain - South Loop - www.customhouse.cc
6. Spring - Shawn McClain - Bucktown/Wicker Park - www.springrestaurant.net
7. Naha - Carrie Nahabedian - River North - www.naha-chicago.com
8. Sweets and Savories - David Richards - Lincoln Park - www.sweetsandsavoriesrestaurant.com
9. MK - Michael Kornick - River North - www.mkchicago.com
10. Atwood Café - Heather Terhune - Loop - www.atwoodcafe.com
11. May Street Market - Alexander Cheswick - West Town - www.maystreetmarket.com
12. Rhapsody - Daniel Romero - Loop - www.rhapsodychicago.com
13. The Lobby - Michigan Avenue/Streeterville - www.peninsula.com/chicago/en/dining/d...
14. Sola - Carol Wallack - North Center - www.solarestaurant.com
15. Magnolia Café - Kasra Medhat - Uptown - www.magnoliacafeuptown.com
16. one sixtyblue - Michael McDonald - West Loop - www.onesixtyblue.com
17. Lula - Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds - Logan Square - www.lulacafe.com
18. Green Zebra - Shawn McClain - West Town - www.greenzebrachicago.com
19. moto - Homaro Cantu - West Loop - www.motorestaurant.com

And here are some of my favorites in the suburbs (with the direction from the city indicated in parentheses):

1. Tallgrass - Robert Burcenski - Lockport (SW) - www.tallgrassrestaurant.com
2. Michael - Michael Lachowicz - Winnetka (N) - www.restaurantmichael.com
3. Oceanique - Mark Grosz - Evanston (N) - www.oceanique.com
4. Vie - Paul Virant - Western Springs (W) - www.vierestaurant.com
5. Chef's Station - Peter Mills - Evanston (N) - www.chefs-station.com
6. Le Titi de Paris - Michael and Susan Maddox - Arlington Heights (NW) - www.letitideparis.com
7. Courtright's - Jerome Bacle - Willow Springs (SW) - www.courtrights.com
8. Gabriel's - Gabriel Viti - Highwood (N) - www.egabriels.com
9. Le Vichyssois - Bernard Cretier - Lakemoor (N) - www.levichyssois.com

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DETAILED REPORTS
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I've posted detailed reports on dining experiences at some of these restaurants in the following topics:

Aigre Doux - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/365436
Café des Architectes - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/598661
Carlos - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/489069
Chef's Station - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/116164
Custom House - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585040
Everest - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/477620
L2O - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/546690
The Lobby - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/437014
Michael - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/351457
Oceanique - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/585615
one sixtyblue - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/598661
Tallgrass - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/403032

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THIS IS NOT A COMPREHENSIVE LIST!
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Most of these restaurants offer food that is best described as "contemporary American", a category that is quite broad and includes influences from many other cuisines around the world. The border between contemporary American and French cuisine, in particular, continues to blur, as cuisines evolve and borrow techniques and ingredients from each other.

There are certain types of restaurant that I have not included in these lists, even though they would otherwise fit in the description of upscale "casual fine dining" restaurants. The reason I have not included them is that there are already extensive discussions and numerous recommendations of their types of food in other topics here on Chowhound. I am referring specifically to the following types of restaurants:

Steakhouses - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/359377
Seafood - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/370202
Sushi - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/362763
Italian - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/360990
French bistros - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/602957
Upscale ethnic - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/502320
Greek - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/119233
Tapas - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/370492 and http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/366524
Mexican - http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/463572

Also, I have not been to every nice restaurant in the Chicago area! So I apologize in advance to those who are wondering why their favorite restaurants are not listed. Some of the places I have not yet visited (but hope to try at some point) include Sixteen (as already mentioned), Perennial, Publican, Table Fifty-Two, Boka, and Sepia in the city, and Sugar Toad in Naperville, Montarra in Algonquin, and Barrington Country Bistro in Barrington. Remember, you're welcome to add reviews and recommendations to this topic (as I myself will do as I visit additional restaurants)!

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HOW DO I DECIDE?
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Deciding on a restaurant in the Chicago area is difficult! In smaller cities, the number of such restaurants is a tiny fraction of what we have here. We have an "embarrassment of riches". When you include all those other types of restaurants described in other Chowhound topics, as noted above, you can be choosing from literally hundreds of nice restaurants that are all quite good! There are various things that distinguish one restaurant from another. One is type of food; even within the lists in this topic, there are some restaurants that emphasize seafood (Oceanique, Spring), some vegetarian cuisine (Green Zebra), some local and seasonal ingredients (North Pond, Lula), some "molecular gastronomy" (Alinea, Schwa, moto), etc. Location may be a big factor in deciding; sure, sometimes it's fun to drive halfway across Chicagoland for a "destination restaurant", but there are times when the convenience of a nearby location trumps other factors. Maybe you want to go back to a place you've enjoyed in the past, or maybe you enjoy trying new places. Finally, I am a huge advocate of looking at the restaurant menus on their websites; if a menu sounds appealing, that is a definite plus, but if it doesn't sound appealing, that may be even more important in your decision.

We have an incredible number of great and noteworthy restaurants here in the Chicago area. I hope that this information is helpful to other Chowhounds in deciding where to go to enjoy them!

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