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Looking for a special dinner

I need some advice on where in Chicago to go for a unique, can't miss dining experience. I live in the city, but my Mom is coming to visit from Canada for her birthday and we're looking to go to a really great restaurant to celebrate.

We've been to Alinea and Moto before, and had wonderful meals at both places. Tru, Schwa, and Avec are all frontrunners for this next trip, but we're having trouble deciding. We're looking for someplace with outstanding food and a unique atmosphere, without being too stuffy.

Any advice? Any restaurants that I'm not thinking of that we just have to try?

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  1. I think the first thing to decide is what kind (i.e. level) of experience you're looking for. Do you want to go to a high-end place like Alinea, where everyone is dressed up and the level of service is top notch, with an army of waitstaff who magically appear whenever anything is needed, and are you willing to pay $200+ per person? Or do you want a more casual fine dining experience, such as at Moto, where you can dress a bit more casually and the bill comes to half that figure?

    If you want a high-end experience, the list is short; I recommend Everest, Avenues, TRU, Charlie Trotter's, or Spiaggia. Along with Alinea, these are the very best restaurants in the entire city. All offer spectacular food and exquisite service. Everest also has the view of the city from the top of the Midwest Stock Exchange building, and Spiaggia is unique among this group in its Italian cuisine.

    If you want a more casual experience, we have quite a few outstanding contemporary American restaurants. IMO you'll find the very best food at Cafe des Architectes and Aigre Doux. However, for the "unique, can't miss dining experience" you're looking for, I recommend North Pond. North Pond features contemporary American cuisine from James Beard award nominated Chef Bruce Sherman. What makes it so unique is its exquisite location in the middle of Lincoln Park - in the park itself, not just the adjacent neighborhood of the same name. It faces its namesake pond, with the city skyline over the opposite shore. The renovated building formerly served as a warming shelter for ice skaters on the pond. All of which makes North Pond a local treasure, one that will provide a unique experience with lasting memories of Chicago for years afterward. www.northpondrestaurant.com

    You'll find links and more recommendations for fine dining, formal and casual, in the discussion at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/602985

    10 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thanks for the response! :) We need to decide in the next couple of days so we can nail down a reservation.

      Of those restaurants mentioned above, do you personally have a favorite? If you were only in town for an evening and had to choose one, which would it be? I realize that they are all fabulous places, just wondering if there were any personal standouts for you.

      We are willing to shell out for another high-end spot like Alinea, if it's worth it. On the other hand, we don't want to rule anything out just because it's more casual.

      1. re: Chriskoo

        They're all great places, really. I've had simply wonderful meals at all of them! However, there are certain meals that are so unique, you simply MUST do them once (at least), for which descriptions don't do them justice, and whose memories you treasure afterwards - even if you don't necessarily rush back there a few weeks later to repeat them. Alinea is one of those experiences; I'm sure you'd agree. I feel that North Pond is another one. The experience of walking over from the edge of the park and finding the restaurant building hidden in the arboreal landscape, of arriving (preferably before dark) and seeing the pond and the skyline, of dining either in view of the pond in the front room or in view of the open kitchen in the rear room, and leaving (preferably after dark) and seeing the skyline again but this time lit up at night - all of that makes North Pond a unique experience.

        And oh yes, the food at North Pond is world-class as well! One of the things I enjoy about the food there is the way the dishes are plated. They typically put as many as 4-5 items on a plate - the main item, of course, but a side of this, a timbale of that, etc. And each item on the plate is its own little discovery, its own taste. You may not love *every* item on the plate, but you'll probably find at least one or two that are fantastic.

        So even though my own personal favorite is probably Cafe des Architectes - I've loved just about everything I've had from Chef Noguier and Pastry Chef Imaz in numerous visits to this and their former place - if my own mother were coming to town and I wanted to take her for a "unique, can't miss dining experience", I would take her to North Pond. Assuming she had already been to Alinea (otherwise Alinea is where I would take her).

        Hope that makes sense!

        Incidentally, all of these places (with the exceptions of Alinea, Schwa, and Avec) accept reservations on Opentable.com

        Will she only be here for one dinner? Otherwise, don't forget that you can dine at others of these as well during her visit, while designating one as the birthday celebration dinner...

        1. re: Chriskoo

          Alinea is worth it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

          TRU would be my second choice. It is no less spectacular in terms of the brilliance of both the kitchen and the service. You will be delighted.

          Trotters would be my #3, altho, I haven't been there in a few years and we have had some less than enthusiastic reports lately.

          Everest and Avenues are both top-of-the-line as nsxtasy notes, but somewhat more conventional in their style of food preparation.

          1. re: Chriskoo

            I would recommend TRU, Spiaggia, or Avenues, in that order. Your mom will probably get pampered the most at Spiaggia.

            I would hesitate to recommend Schwa, especially for this occasion you are planning. The experience will most definitely be the most unique compared to all the other places mentioned already. But with your mom coming into town, i strongly suggest you don't go through the heartache of trying to get a reservation. Mr Carlson is a mad genius with food. But trying to get through to get a reservation is harder than Frodo returning the ring. That's how Mr Carlson rolls, and you play by his rules.

            1. re: ms. chow

              Thanks for all the great input everyone! Right now it's a toss up between Spiagga and North Pond. Tru is still a contender too but we think that the experience may be really similar to that at Alinea (which was amazing) so we may try something different this time.
              Also, I'm curious, has anyone had good/bad experiences at L2O? The concept looks promising but I'm interested to hear what people think of it.

              1. re: Chriskoo

                My experience at L2O was amazing. The food is markedly different from the other high-end places. If i have to describe it, it is Japanese in spirit and French-based in execution. The ingredients are definitely the star. They do take creative liberties on some molecular gastronomy, but that is done to enhance the dish. For some people, it could come out as underwhelming i suppose. Example, a shabu shabu of medai. Shabu shabu is a japanese style of fondue, except with broth. Medai is a butterfish. So a bowl of hot broth, where you dip raw fish. Makes you think, i could've done that at home. But the crux of Japanese cuisine, and what L2O appropriates here, is the zen-like simplicity of it all. The broth is the most delicious kombu dashi,a nd the fish pristine.

                The wine program to me is very earnest, as you can see from the 2 young sommeliers. I'm a big fan of sake, so is Ms. Pabros. We also had an Austrian pinot that was magnificent. Now, i call myself a wino (lol), but Austrian? Pinot? Amazing.

                The room is very minimalist. Again, this might turn people off, but i think it's a perfect fit for the food. A lot of metals and leather and stone. Service is superb without being too intrusive. They will even offer a town car service if you need a cab.

                And the fish! The menu includes a glossary of the Japanese terms. How cool is that?

                1. re: ms. chow

                  Agreed, L2O is fantastic. The quality of the fish is unmatched here in Chicago.

                  ETA - L2O has been nominated for a James Beard award in the Best New Restaurant category.

                  1. re: jesteinf

                    Agree-
                    If you have 3.5 hours and $165, prepare yourself for an amazing dining experience at Chef/Owner Laurent Gras' L2O in Chicago. We had dinner there Saturday night, celebrating our wedding anniversary and it was by far, one of our top five meals. L2o's Spring tasting menu is 12 courses, plus a few they bring throughout the night. But essentially there are 8 savory courses, which does include a ribeye steak for the meat eaters. Most of the fish is flown in over night from Japan and the taste is fresh, unique and presented in amazing fashion. The first course is a fish called Medai, it is raw, but has a wonderful smoke flavor and lime emulsion. Other courses include Tuna, Shimaaji, Kampachi, Cod Fish, Artic Char, Swordfish and Hiramasa. Dessert is made up of many courses as well, including the best souffle we have ever tasted, dripped with praline sauce. Chef Gras was very gracious and made time to meet us, despite our inability to speak French. We were told he is working in the kitchen every night. The staff arranged a quick impromptu tour on the kitchen area, prep and even the spice closet. Finally, I can't say enough about the service. L2O's service is very much like what Charlie Trotters used to offer, very personalized and attentive staff quietly moving about the room - like an orchestra presenting a concerto. It is a very relaxed pace, it seems the chef and kitchen is allowing diners to not only enjoy each course, but to slowly digest each component, and there are many. Many of the dishes resemble Grant Achatz's molecular gastronomy. Each amazing course is a story filled with many layers, many components, each placed into the dish at different times. It is a gift that only some chefs can achieve. L2O has been open for a year now in the Lincoln Park West area. Faithful fans have been able to follow Chef Gras' progress, the opening and the amazing reviews on his blog, http://l2o.typepad.com. You can also read more about L2O on their site, http://l2orestaurant.com.

                2. re: Chriskoo

                  My recent dinner at L2O was a huge disappointment. Not that it was bad - it was enjoyable enough, and the decor is wonderful, a big attraction - but if you're going to pay $200+ per person, the food and service ought to be fantastic and flawless, and they weren't. There were a few excellent dishes - and I LOVED those little caneles - but others were just okay and not at all impressive. Most of them were strikingly beautiful in appearance, but some were disappointing in flavor/taste. And I'm not the only person who has found at least one dish highly oversalted. The seafood had hits and misses (the skate was particularly disappointing), whereas I've found the seafood dishes consistently outstanding at other high-end places that don't emphasize seafood. In addition, the wine service was amateurish. And placing an automatic gratuity on the bill for a party of six is something I would expect to see at Applebee's, not at a restaurant that purports to be a luxurious experience (as is also true of the attire of a few of the other diners in the dining room). You can read the detailed report I posted on the dinner I had there, as well as decidedly mixed reports from others, in the L2O discussion at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/546690

                  Again, I had a good dinner there, with food and service that was enjoyable, albeit flawed. However, since there are half a dozen places in Chicago where you can get a flawless, spectacular experience for that considerable sum of money, I would choose one of those other places instead of L2O, unless you're really into interior decor to the extent that you don't mind food and service that are less than exceptional.

                  As for the choice between Spiaggia and North Pond, they are both wonderful, each in its own way. Spiaggia has the level of service and pampering you expect from an expensive high-end restaurant, and the cuisine is Italian; North Pond has its exquisite setting, and the cuisine is contemporary American. If this birthday dinner isn't a surprise, you might want to run it by your mom and see if she has a preference.

                  1. re: Chriskoo

                    If you'd like more info on what L2O is all about, I would highly recommend checking out the restaurant's blog:

                    http://l2o.typepad.com/

            2. Ok here's an update.
              We've made some decisions and I'm going to call for reservations tomorrow. Friday night (the birthday night) we're going to go to North Pond. We are going to attempt to get a reservation at Schwa for Saturday night, and if that doesn't pan out, no big deal, we'll head to Avec.
              For lunches we're definitely going to RJ Grunts in Lincoln Park for the awesome salad bar, and also possibly Blackbird and the Urban Belly.
              Thanks for all the help everyone! This was a very hard decision. My mom doesn't come to Chicago very often and we really appreciate trying world class restaurants while we have the chance. Last time it was easy, we wanted to go to the best in Chicago, Alinea was the clear winner so we went there and it was amazing. Now that we've had Alinea there are a lot more contenders!

              1. i am the MUM that will be celebrating my birthday in Chicago !!! Thanks to everyone who has posted so far. We are having a terrible time making up our minds where to celebrate, as there are so many choices.....Another idea that has surfaced, is the afternoon Kitchen Experience at TRU. It sounds pretty interesting. Has anyone tried that ? or is there a Chef's table that is really cool... Look forward to any insight into these ideas ! Many Thanks

                1. Just thought I'd update everyone on our experience. We ended up at Tru for the afternoon Kitchen Experience, and stayed for dinner afterward. It was exactly what we were looking for. We had a great time helping in both the savory and pastry kitchens, and had an unbelievable meal. They let us do a ton of hands on prep, and we were able to get to know the kitchen staff and chefs.
                  We were impressed with everything (especially the food) and we truly enjoyed it. :)