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Would appreciate critique and suggestions on itinerary (bit long)

Hi all. I'll be visiting from NYC at the end of next month for a few days. There are quite a wealth of suggestions here, and it was quite a feat combing through the boards. We haven't booked our hotel yet, but are thinking of staying in the Loop area. We won't be renting a car, and will be walking, taking cabs and public transportation. We can walk a lot, and are comfortable walking up to an hour and a half to restaurants -- unless it's a fancy place and we're wearing more dressy shoes or the neighborhood is just not that safe -- and I'm not super familiar with Chicago neighborhoods but will say that we can basically walk anywhere in NYC with the exception of very-industrial neighborhoods were there's not a soul in sight with the exception of an occasional psycho-killer. : ) We are just looking for lunch and dinner suggestions as we'll probably be too full and be either skipping breakfast or just picking up a piece of fruit. We are open to all from cheap eats to high end dining. This is what we have so far:

Lunch -- Topolabampo
Dinner -- Avec

Lunch -- Hot Doug's
Cubs game at 1:10P
Dinner -- 6:30P -- L20

Day full with other plans

Lunch --Giordano's
5:30P -- Alinea

Lunch -- Blackbird
Going back to NYC

These two are musts: Alinea and L20 as DH really wants to go to L20 and we really don't have anything like Alinea in NYC (WD-50 may be similar, but I wasn't too crazy about the food and have heard that Alinea is a lot better). We already have reservations.

And we are looking for a Chicago pizza experience. I've already been to Uno's and Malnati's -- I preferred Uno's because I thought their crust was better. But I'd like to try stuffed pizza as I've never had that before.

I picked Hot Doug's on Friday because it's about a couple of miles from Wrigley Field (where we'll be going to an afternoon game) and duck fat fries are available. I've read reports that the duck fat fries aren't all that, but I'm still curious about them. I roast potatoes in duck fat at home and there's a very noticeable difference to me when I roast them in duck fat and when I roast them in olive oil. I prefer the duck fat and would love to try french fries in that form. And the price is right. And the specialty sausages sound interesting to me. Sorry, but with my fear and hatred of cucumber pickles (seriously, I just can't go anywhere near them), eating a Chicago dog would be like asking me to dip my head in a vat of hot oil.

And I know Chicago has a wealth of Mexican options beyond Frontera and Topo. But DH's not too crazy about Mexican and probably won't feel like going unless it's really convenient.

I'm also aware that Giordano's and Alinea in the same day may be overkill. But I don't have to eat a lot at Giordano's (I'm hoping we can find a hotel with a fridge and bring all the yummy leftovers back to NYC), and would like to squeeze in a stuffed pizza experience on this trip.

I know Blackbird and Avec are owned by the same people but the menus sound really different to me.

Also wanted to mention that I'm not so sure if I'd be so into the Chicago beef sandwich thing. Apologies if I'm way off base, but I'm not crazy about the Philly cheesesteak mainly because of the meat, and the Italian beef sounds kind of similar.

So with that said, I'd like to know how my itinerary sounds. Does it seem like the typical tourist itinerary where there's more hype than substance (believe me, I cringe when tourists visit NYC and go to Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes as they can do so much better)? Is both Avec and Blackbird overkill? Is Hot Doug's overrated and just not worth the trip and the wait? Are there better examples of stuffed pizza than Giordano's that's within decent range of the Loop? And any must-have items from the restaurants?

And I don't think I want to spend one of my meals eating at Greektown (where I've read that the food is good, but nothing spectacular). But is it worth trekking there to explore the neighborhood? Are there a lot of specialty Greek food shops where one can browse? And to keep this all food-related (so that the mods don't interfere ; )), are there other interesting neighborhoods with food stores to browse in? How is Chicago's Chinatown compared to Manhattan's Chinatown or Flushing? Is it worth the trip?

Sorry if I'm being so long-winded. But I'm trying to be as thorough as I can so you guys have better knowledge of my situation. Thanks so much!

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  1. This sounds good. I haven't been to Hot Dougs in a while, but it has never disappointed. I'd get to Hot Dougs early Friday so you can get to Wrigley and enjoy the pre-game experience. Getting a cab afterward might be difficult. The CTA has a trip planner for bus/El routes. The Web site is: www.yourcta.com.

    Chicago's Chinatown is nothing like NYC. I think you'd be better off visiting Bucktown, which has some unique shops and restaurants.

    1 Reply
    1. re: chicago09

      Thanks for the link to the cta. The trip planner looks a lot better than the google map trip planner.

      And, yes, it sounds like Chicago's Chinatown isn't really worth a visit. Bucktown sounds interesting, and we'll try to fit it in.

    2. A couple of thoughts.

      First, to clarify, (you may be aware of this) the Loop is the part of the downtown area that is surrounded by the elevated tracks. There are hotels there, but occasionally people from other cities confuse that with the extended downtown area that includes Michigan Avenue to the north and the South Loop to the south. More hotels in the Michigan Ave area.

      Hot Dougs is unique and very good. Plan on your wait at Hot Dougs, even on Friday (well, especially on Friday b/c that's one of two days they serve fries cooked in duck fat) to be easily 30-45 minutes. Expect the line to be well down the block. HD's opens at 10:30 so plan accordingly for your game.

      Food places to browse in:
      Fox and Obels -- somewhat comparable to Dean and Deluca.

      There is a great neighborhood for checking out Asian food, especially Vietnamese, on the northside. You can get there on a Red Line train. Check the closest station to where you are staying on this website: http://tripsweb.rtachicago.com/ and get off at the Argyle Station. You'll pretty much be in the heart of this neighborhood.

      Pilson is a great Mexican neighborhood. You might want to wander around there. Two excellent restaurant choices are Mondial Cochina Mestiza and Nuevo Leon.

      Agree with Chicago09's POV re our Chinatown v. NYC and the advantages of visiting Bucktown/Wicker Park. Great boutiques and restaurants in the neighborhood. You can take the Blue Line to the Damen stop.

      Not sure I would do both Avec and Blackbird. I know the menus are different and they are both good, but you might have a more interesting time one of those days in a neighborhood. Be aware that Avec is no reservations for parties under 6 and the dining is communal: you'll be seated with other people at a large table. You might like that; you might not.

      There are other wonderful restaurants in town, but after all, one really can't eat much more than three meals a day. It's a shame, but it does limit you and I think you've got a lot of top notch options covered.

      1 Reply
      1. re: chicgail

        Oh, I totally agree with you that it's such a shame we'll only be here for a few days. That's what makes planning the itinerary so tough!

        The Argyle station does sound a bit interesting as we really don't have a huge Vietnamese neighborhood in Manhattan. There's only one Vietnamese grocery store that I know of in Manhattan, and that's the only place I know that sells rau ram. So I'm curious to see more Vietnamese grocery stores to see what they offer.

      2. MissN, basic orientation to downtown restaurants and hotels: most of what you want will be north of the Chicago River as it goes from Lake Michigan to where it branches into a Y-shape. The North Michigan Avenue corridor and its side streets have most of the good hotels, 80% of the shopping, lots of the restaurants, and virtually all of the street life after dark. The old "Loop" (south of river) is now mostly offices and tends to be quiet at night. except when the theaters let out. Major hotel exceptions are Palmer House, Chicago Hilton, Burnham and of course there are some restaurants. But if you stay in the Loop you are going to be a mile or more from much of the action. Re public transp go to CTA website for maps and fare information. Buy passes at Jewel supermarket State & Ohio to save a bunch of money over single cash fares (which don't allow transfers; you pay another fare). In this way you can also hop out "to the neighborhoods" where many restaurant bargains are---rents are very high downtown and the nifty mama-and-papa ethnic places are not downtown. Re dressing up, unless you're paying a restaurant check of >$300 for two, nobody will be dressed up. Re interesting neighborhoods: 1) Indian-Pakistani is along Devon just west of Western (Red Line subway to Loyola then Devon 155 bus to Western). 2) Chinatown (Red Line Chinatown-Cermak stop)---not nearly as big as in NY or SF. 3) Little Italy (just south of Loop---google it. 4) Somewhat Middle Eastern with remnants of Swedish, N Clark between Foster and Bryn Mawr (Clark 22 bus). 5) Mexican, Pilsen or Little Village, google them, also Sunday AM Maxwell Street Market (Roosevelt & Canal). If I had to pick one I would take Devon Avenue walking west from Western as after 8 blocks of intense Indian/Pakistani it becomes Russian then Orthodox Jewish so you get a 3-in-1. Restaurants everywhere. Also, pick up free tourist maps and brochures at Water Tower (looks like castle) just north of Chicago Avenue, east side of Michigan Avenue, enter on north face of "castle".

        1 Reply
        1. re: Querencia

          Ooh! Thanks for mentioning the Maxwell Market -- never heard of it. When I googled it, I came across this post:


          This sounds so much better than those generic street festivals NYC has where pretty much every vendor sells Mozzarepas, bubble tea, $1 Thai food and Italian sausage. Ooh! Eye tacos! I have to admit that there's a little bit of Andrew Zimmern lurking inside of me. Even if I don't like the taste of it, I'm curious to try it. And DH LOVED the street food we had when we were vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. So I think he'll be very excited by this.

          And thanks for the neighborhood suggestions. When I was talking to DH last night, he seemed more interested in exploring different neighborhoods than spending time going to museums and such (though I have to say that the surgical science museum is a must for me).

        2. Depending on whether you want lunch casual or fancy, you can choose between Frontera or Topolobampo. Personally i feel Topolobampo is better suited for dinner.

          I don't think Blackbird and Avec is overkill, especially since you are doing dinner at one, ad lunch at the other. They are distinct in their own right, despite being owned by the same people, and being next to each other.

          Chicago Chinatown cannot compare to NYC. You might want to try Uptown, where Argyle street is predominantly Vietnamese.

          Chicago downtown does not compare to NYC

          3 Replies
          1. re: ms. chow

            I can understand why Topolobampo may be better suited for dinner. Unfortunately our evenings are filled up except for one night (Thursday). So if we go to Topo for dinner, that means that we definitely won't be going to Avec.

            Which brings me to the question of -- which one would be more worth it? Blackbird or Avec? They do sound really different. I'm aware of the whole Avec waiting in line, crowded, loud experience. There are a few places like that in NYC as well, and I'm OK with it. With L20 and Alinea and Topolobampo being higher-end places, I'm thinking that a few lower-end places would balance it out. I'm also attending an event at Galleria Marchetti on Saturday (which kind of sounds high-end). There is a thing as getting burned out on high-end cuisine for me.

            1. re: Miss Needle

              Blackbird is maybe a notch or 2 below L2O, Alinea, and other top places in town. I hear ya on getting burned out. Avec might be a good option then, since the food is definitely more rustic, the atmosphere is casual, and you can get as much or as little food as you want. I presume you are going to a wedding or similar event at Marchetti. The food won't compare with L2O or Alinea, but hopefully you have a generous host. Enjoy.

              1. re: ms. chow

                Thanks! I have decided on Avec to avoid the overload. And, yes, I'm sure Galleria Marchetti isn't going to be anything like Alinea. But as I'm a huge Top Chef fan (I started the Chowhound team on Fantasy Top Chef) and as lame as it sounds, there's a certain thrill attached to going to a place that was featured on Top Chef. And, of course, I'm thrilled to take part in my friend's wedding celebration. So even if the food sucks, it won't be the end of the world.

          2. Nice itinerary - sounds well planned. My thoughts -Thursday: Just understand with Avec that it will be loud, it will be crowded, the dining is communal and you will almost certainly wait . . . maybe a long time depending upon when you go. If none of that bothers you, then you'll be fine because the food is great. If not, head to Blackbird (and yes, they are very different).

            Friday: Expect a wait at Hot Doug's . . . maybe 20 minutes, maybe 40. The duck fat fries are very good, although I prefer beef tallow as my cooking vessel for fries. But I love the sausages at Doug's and highly recommend it. Just don't eat too much b/c you'll be eating a lot at L.20. You might want to split a couple or few of the specialty sausages. And one order of fries is plenty to share.

            Sunday: For pizza, I don't know what to tell you since you've been to Malnati's and Pizano's would be almost identical. I'm not much of a fan of Giordano's, but oh well. I'd love to tell you to go to Burt's in Morton Grove for the best pizza in the Chicago area, but you'd need a car (I suppose the "L" to the Metra and then a walk would work, but I'll let you research that if Burt's interests you. And with Burt's, you absolutely need to call ahead and reserve a pizza and table (and call early in the day).

            The one thing you're missing here is Thai. A trip to Chicago without a visit to Spoon Thai or TAC Quick would be a shame. Outstanding, inexpensive and completely authentic Thai food (both offer translated Thai language menus - Spoon at the restaurant; TAC - search here for link).

            I'd probably skip Chinatown - good but you have that in NY . . . Instead, head up to Argyle (there's an L stop there) and get a banh mi sandwich or stop in one of the bakeries (I prefer Patisserie P). Argyle is mostly Vietnamese, but Sun Wah is fantastic for Chinese bbq.

            Pasticceria Natalina is also not so far from here, and it is easily my favorite bakery in Chicago. They specialize in Sicilian pastries.

            You might also like to visit Devon for Indian food/sweets. It's a fun and interesting area to visit.

            And as far as walking, you'll find Chicago to your liking. It is a very walkable city, much like NY where I'm originally from (a long time ago), and if you get tired there's always the L and the various bus routes. And if you need to find out when the next bus will be at a stop, look at a street sign indicating the bus route, find the street you are at, and go to ctabustracker.com to find out.

            1 Reply
            1. re: BRB

              I've heard about Burt's, and it would have definitely been on my list if I had a car. But I just think it would be too much trouble to get to at this time as we're not in Chicago for a super long time.

              And I also would have done Thai if the time allowed for it. So much food ... so little time.

            2. I think Hot Doug's is well worth it. You can easily walk the two or so blocks to or from Addison St. and catch a bus that will drop you off at the front door of the Cub's stadium.

              Your itinerary looks great! I'll agree that the only thing you might want to add is some Thai food. A trip to Argyle street is a revelation!

              1 Reply
              1. re: beanbreath

                Yup. It definitely sounds like Hot Doug's is the way to go. I'll try to get there extra-early so I can make it to the Cubs game on time.

                And I'm definitely looking forward to checking out Argyle Street!

              2. You guys have all been so super in helping me! Thank you so much!

                I do have a question regarding Topolobampo and Munidial Cocina Mestiza. I do plan on trying to visit the neighborhood of Pilsen. I don't necessarily have to eat there as I can eat with my eyes. But in order to fill up my stomach, which restaurant do you think is better for food? When I looked at the menus, it sounded like Munidial Cocina had more of a European influence than Topo. I'm leaning towards Topo because it sounds more "authentic" (whatever that means).

                19 Replies
                1. re: Miss Needle

                  Just ate at Munidial on Saturday and it was excellent. If I had to choose one, however, I would opt for the iconic Topo. Rick Bayliss has dedicated his life to uncovering the best regional dishes in Mexico and recreating them as culinary treasures here in Chicago. His attention to detail, freshness and authenticity is extraordinary.

                  1. re: chicgail

                    Thanks for your input. I do love watching Bayless on TV, and have wanted to try one of his restaurants. Last time I was in Chicago, I wasn't able to get reservations. I hope I have better luck this time.

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      You can get a reservation to Topolobampo on opentable.com.

                      1. re: BRB

                        Thanks. Right now I'm a bit hesitant about making reservations as I'll be flying in and arriving at Chicago around 11:00A. In the past, I've missed reservations because my flights were delayed. Would it be possible to get in without a reservation for a Thursday lunch? At many upscale restaurants in NYC, it is possible to dine without a reservation for lunch, but not for dinner. Or are reservations mandatory?

                        You guys all rock. I really appreciate your help with everything. I think this is what I have so far:

                        Thurs lunch -- Topolobampo
                        Thurs dinner -- Avec (cuz I want something more casual in the mix)
                        Fri lunch -- Hot Doug's
                        Fri dinner -- L20
                        Saturday -- Already have plans for entire day and night
                        Sunday lunch -- Maxwell Street Market
                        Sunday dinner -- Alinea
                        Monday lunch -- Giordano's (thinking about going to the Greek Town location so I can kill two birds with one stone)

                        Hopefully this is a good balance of downscale and upscale. As we've also got other commitments, I'll try to fit in as many of my neighborhood walks in as I can. Looking at my itinerary some more, unfortunately I think I'll have to save the Museum of Surgical Science for another time. Oh well -- an excuse to come back again and eat some more! : )

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          That's a nice itinerary. I don't think you'll have any problems with Topolobampo at lunch, but you might want to call when you get into town just to be careful. At that time of day, it should be about a 30 minute cab ride from O'Hare (if that). But I doubt you'll have an issue getting a table.

                          Maxwell St. Market is a fantastic idea. Just beware that if you arrive too late, you might miss some of the better items (particularly, tamales). Here's a link to a very helpful resource on what to choose at the market as there will be many, many food choices as well as crowds: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

                          1. re: BRB

                            Oh, great link! Perusing that forum a bit, I did find a link that kind of makes me wary. I hope the Maxwell Market is bustling again when I visit.


                            1. re: Miss Needle

                              I'm sure it will be . . . I wouldn't worry.

                          2. re: Miss Needle

                            If you decide to go to the Giordano's in Greektown on Monday, you might want to finish off your lunch with a coffee and pastry at a very pleasant Grecian bakery/cafe, Artopolis:


                            Altho if I had my druthers for a lunch in Greektown I'd head right over to the Parthenon for perhaps the best gyros in the world.

                            1. re: jbw

                              Thanks for the suggestion. I'm actually not a huge fan of Greek pastries, but I think a relaxing a bit with a cup of coffee sounds great after a heavy meal of pizza. Does Artopolis have outdoor seating? If not, do you know of any cafes that have it?

                              1. re: Miss Needle

                                In good weather they leave the street side of the cafe fairly open and altho, I believe you're still inside, it can be pretty close to al fresco depending on where you're sitting. By the way, they have a fairly large selection of European pastries along with the usual Greek suspects.

                            2. re: Miss Needle

                              Just a few comments to add to what others have said, and address some of your questions...

                              >> Right now I'm a bit hesitant about making reservations as I'll be flying in and arriving at Chicago around 11:00A. In the past, I've missed reservations because my flights were delayed. Would it be possible to get in without a reservation for a Thursday lunch? At many upscale restaurants in NYC, it is possible to dine without a reservation for lunch, but not for dinner. Or are reservations mandatory?

                              It depends on the place, of course. However, with the current economic recession, there are VERY few nice places where you have to make a reservation for lunch or dinner on weekdays (and not even all that many for dinner on weekends, either). Most of our nicer restaurants accept reservations on opentable.com and even if you don't want to make a reservation, you can check availability on that website. If there are plenty of openings at desirable times, you'll probably be fine without a reservation.

                              I would recommend against L2O, for a couple of reasons. One is that you are already going to one of our high-end places in Alinea, and I wouldn't do two on the same trip. Also, I ate at L2O last month (see my report at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/546690 ) and while it wasn't BAD, I didn't think the food was outstanding the way you would find at our other high-end places like Everest, Avenues, Charlie Trotter's, or TRU, yet you're paying similar prices.

                              What surprises me about your itinerary is that it has those two high-end places, and it has four occasions for inexpensive of some sort, but very little in between, where you'll find some of our best and most unusual dining. You have no dinners (and only the lunch at Topolobampo) in our category of "casual fine dining". We have some awesome contemporary American restaurants; I happen to think Aigre Doux and Cafe des Architectes are better than Blackbird, but Blackbird gets the buzz. And we have other types of casual fine dining restaurants beyond contemporary American. Aside from our Italian places which are ubiquitous for you back home in New York, and in addition to Topo and other Mexican places, we have great French bistros (see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/602957 ), a bunch of upscale ethnic restaurants (see http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/502320 ) such as Vermilion (which is a combination of cuisines from Latin America and India), and some great tapas places like Mercat a la Planxa ( www.mercatchicago.com ).

                              >> Monday lunch -- Giordano's (thinking about going to the Greek Town location so I can kill two birds with one stone)

                              Keep in mind that our "Greek Town" is really not so much a neighborhood of Greek residents; it's primarily just a 3-block strip of Greek restaurants.

                              Oh, and don't feel bad about missing Burt's. It's a crummy place and the pizza is nothing special. All hype, no substance.

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                nsxtasy, you seem to like Cafe des Architectes a lot. Is your opinion based on what it used to be, or since Mr Noguier took over? I have not been there since Mr Noguier took over the reins. Wondering how significant the difference is from before?

                                1. re: ms. chow

                                  My opinion of Cafe des Architectes is based on my dinner there this past February during Chef Noguier's tenure (see my report at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/598661 ), where I found that the quality was comparable to my previous visits to one sixtyblue when he was in charge there. I also give credit for the wonderful desserts to Suzanne Imaz, the pastry chef who followed Chef Noguier from one sixtyblue. I had not dined at Cafe des Architectes prior to their arrival so I can't tell you how it has changed from before.

                                2. re: nsxtasy

                                  As I noted before, L20 and Alinea are non-negotiable. Alinea is my choice and L20 is DH's choice. While I personally wouldn't have picked L20, compromise ensures a much happier marriage. : )

                                  And unfortunately, I only have one dinner available due to my other commitments. It's really hard to try to get a full flavor of what Chicago has to offer on such a limited amount of time. And because of my Top Chef fanaticism, it's hard to pass up Blackbird or Avec, even though there may be better restaurants out there. As long as Avec isn't hyped up as Magnolia Bakery in NYC (which sucks majorly), I think I'll be fine. I do wish I had like a week or two to spend here. Then I would totally be hitting up a lot more casual fine dining places. Unfortunately, we're talking about four lunches and three dinners. The dilemma!

                                  Thanks for your thoughts, nsxtasy. Your thorough links on the Chicago boards were very helpful in my planning. And if Greektown is just basically a few blocks of restaurants with very little shops, it may not be the wisest decision to go to.

                                  ETA: Oh, and there's actually a Vermilion in NYC -- the same one as in Chicago.

                                  1. re: Miss Needle

                                    I wouldn't worry about L.20. I've been there twice and absolutely loved both meals. If you want to see some pictures and commentaries of others' meals, see this post: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic..... And the execution at both Alinea and L.20 are first rate.

                                    As for Avec/Blackbird, again both are outstanding and both are very different restaurants. Avec is far more casual, and Blackbird is my personal favorite for fine dining in Chicago (below the first tier of expensive restaurants - i.e., Alinea, L.20, Avenues). And I think you're better off with Blackbird/Avec over Aigre Doux. And although I think Aigre Doux is pretty good, I know there are mixed feelings about the place: http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic....

                                    And yes, don't plan on spending much time walking around Greektown. If you really want a food neighborhood vibe, Maxwell Market, Devon and Argyle are your best bets (Kedzie/Lawrence area also very good, mostly for Middle Eastern, and of course Pilsen, but I'd stick with the aforementioned three).

                                    1. re: BRB

                                      Thanks, BRB. I'm still a bit on the fence about Avec versus Blackbird. I have to admit that waiting isn't the most fun thing to do. But I also hate the pressure of trying to be on time for a reservation because that takes some of the spontaneity of a trip.

                                    2. re: Miss Needle

                                      Sorry, I didn't mean to criticize, just wanted to put the itinerary into perspective. One of the things to realize about Chicago dining is that there are so many places, and so many different kinds of places, that you can't get a huge representation in one relatively brief visit, so you just pick and choose a few places based on your priorities and constraints, like you've done here. Just like New York!

                                      I'd be interested to hear feedback on your trip, particularly on L2O as well as your other stops of course.

                                      I didn't know that Vermilion has a location in New York - interesting!

                                      1. re: nsxtasy

                                        No need to apologize. I appreciate different views. It would be quite boring if we all agreed with each other.

                                        I will definitely be putting a trip report after this. I generally don't take pictures at restaurants. But maybe I'll make an exception for this trip. Thanks to everybody again! : )