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Apr 12, 2009 10:14 AM

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:

    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: 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 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.