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May 11, 2009 07:45 PM

Business Trip Chicago: HELP!!!

My fiance is coming along to a business trip to Chicago. We live near NYC and consider ourselves extremely food savvy, if you will.

Struggling to plan out our meals for the trip, here is what I've come up with so far, and the places I'm choosing between. Any advice/comments/suggestions would be appreciated!!!!

Below is what we are thinking about:

We are going to try Orange for breakfast; we haven't been able to find much else as far as breakfast. For lunch, we are going to Gino's East and Hot Doug's respectively in hopes of trying some Chicago staples.

Now to dinner:

Wednesday: Blackbird

Thursday: Gibsons Steakhouse (we will be near the airport this night)

Friday: Trying to choose between Charlie Trotter's, Tru and Avenues

Saturday Alinea

Any comments or suggestions, or places we should avoid/not miss would be helpful!

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  1. Alinea & Orange are great choices! Tru was a bit disappointing in my opinion. I prefer Lou Malnati's for Chicago style pizza. Hot Dougs is great but more of a funky twist on the Chicago dog. My sis lives in NYC and she still craves her good old Portillo's hotdog.

    1. In my opinion, Orange is still good, just not as good as it was when Dale Levitsky was chef (of Top Chef fame). It also depends upon which neighborhood you will be in. Bongo Room, Uncommon Ground, Over Easy and M. Henry are as good or better than Orange and should also be considered. Sweets are the strongest point of Bongo Room - my only complaint is that their sweet offerings can be cloyingly sweet (although they offer 1/2 and 1/3 portion sizes to help this issue). For savory breakfast items, Uncommon Ground is my favorite. Orange offers a great pancake flight which changes every week, and I also like their frushi (fruit/rice prepared like sushi - good to share before your entree).

      Blackbird - Love it! One of my very favorite restaurants in the city. It can be loud and crowded but if that doesn't scare you, you'll be in for a wonderful meal.

      Gibsons - Near the airport, it's your best bet. I work in the area and eat there frequently. It's not as good as the downtown location, but it's still good.

      Friday - Charlie Trotter's gets very mixed reviews. Service can be quite formal which I'm sure bothers some. Others who like butter and cream will not like CT's because he uses very little of both . . . instead, lots of natural flavors. I think it's excellent, but you should know what you're in for when dining there.

      Tru - I still think it's very good, just not as good as it has been. I was there almost a year ago though and things can change quickly. I would prefer it to Trotter's though, but that's just my opinion and I'm sure many others would disagree.

      Avenues - Outstanding, but you should know that Avenues is very similar in style to Alinea. Avenues' chef was formerly a sous chef at Alinea. So you may not want to do that two nights in a row.

      If you are seafood fans, you might want to consider L.20 which I love. it's not quite the molecular gastronomy you'll find at Alinea/Avenues, but the food and service are outstanding and I've absolutely loved my two meals there.

      Pizza - I agree with the other post preferring Malnati's to Gino's. Pizano's is also excellent and nearly identical to Malnati's. I suggest ordering the butter crust at Pizano's or Malnati's (a shorter, more flavorful and crispier crust)

      Hot Doug's - great choice, just be prepared to wait in line . . . maybe for 30 minutes or so.

      If looking for other Chicago staples, you might also want to consider an Italian beef sandwich (Al's in Little Italy or Mr. Beef downtown)

      4 Replies
      1. re: BRB

        I didn't know Orange was Dale's own restaurant. Since I'm not a huge fan of sweet breakfast, I may take up your suggestion on Uncommon Ground. Thanks!

        I've seen so many people argue about whether Lou Malnati's or Gino's is better. Is one more authentically "Chicago" or is it just that Lou Malnati's is better taste-wise

        1. re: gwh912

          It's just one of those personal preference things and, of course, everyone believes that what they like best really is the best.

          1. re: gwh912

            Just so you know, Uncommon Ground has two locations. The location near Wrigley Field is closest to downtown, but beware if there's a Cubs game. If you don't want to get stuck in Cubs traffic and you don't want to trek up to the other Uncommon Ground, Bongo Room would be a better bet.

            1. re: BRB

              And while Bongo Room has ridiculously wonderful sweet breakfasts, it also has great savory offerings, so either way you'll be fine.

        2. >> We are going to try Orange for breakfast

          Orange is good, not great. If you really want a GREAT breakfast, go to Bongo Room. As noted above, pancakes are their specialty, and they have some great ones, such as the pretzel pancakes with white chocolate sauce and the blueberry pancakes with almond panna cotta cream.

          You don't mention where you'll be staying, other than the one night near the airport. Bongo Room has two locations, one in the South Loop that's closer to most of the hotels, and one in Wicker Park. I believe Orange is in the process of opening their third location on the north side; note that their former location on Harrison in the South Loop is closed.

          M. Henry is also outstanding if you happen to be in Andersonville, but I wouldn't make a special trip all the way up there from downtown. Same thing for the Walker Brothers locations in the northern suburbs.

          >> we haven't been able to find much else as far as breakfast.

          There are TONS of recommendations in the discussion at

          >> For lunch, we are going to Gino's East and Hot Doug's respectively in hopes of trying some Chicago staples.

          There are lots of places to get deep-dish pizza. For the single-crust "pizza in the pan" style, I recommend Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, and the original Uno and Due; Gino's East is good too, but I would probably choose the others over Gino's East. I do NOT recommend the butter crust at Malnati's; the regular crust is better and more flavorful (the butter seems to dull the taste). There's also the double-crust "stuffed" pizza style, served at Giordano's, Bacino's, and Edwardo's. Wherever you go, you can phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake.

          Hot Doug's is not a "Chicago staple"; it is a unique restaurant serving encased meats. If that's what you want, it's fine. But if you're looking for a classic "Chicago-style hot dog", as noted in the above post, it's not the best place for that, and it's not worth the time spent getting there, waiting there, etc.

          >> Wednesday: Blackbird

          Blackbird's food is excellent, but there are significant downsides: small portion sizes, it's noisy, and most of the tables are in one row where you're about two inches from tables on either side, and practically sharing conversations. You can get food that is just as good or better, without those downsides, at our best casual fine dining restaurants, such as Cafe Des Architectes and Aigre Doux. Another excellent contemporary American restaurant is North Pond - not only for the excellent food, but also for its unique setting in the middle of Lincoln Park, facing its namesake pond with the city skyline over the opposite shore.

          >> Thursday: Gibsons Steakhouse (we will be near the airport this night)

          That's about the best choice RIGHT near the airport. If you're looking for something more unusual, you can drive 10-15 minutes to Flamingo's Seafood, an outstanding Mexican restaurant totally unlike anything you have back home.

          >> Friday: Trying to choose between Charlie Trotter's, Tru and Avenues
          >> Saturday Alinea

          Alinea is a great choice. My question is whether you are SURE you want to do two different high-end restaurants two nights in a row. If you are, all of the other three restaurants are outstanding. Additional, worthwhile choices include Everest, which specializes in French-Alsatian food, and has a wonderful wine list and a great view of the city from the 40th Floor of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building; and Spiaggia, which is our only high-end restaurant specializing in Italian food and is the President's favorite. And those two cuisines are more different from Alinea than the contemporary food at the three other places you mention.

          I do NOT recommend L2O, mentioned above; the food and service are good but flawed, not at all at the level of perfection of the rest of this group. If you're going to pay a lot of money for an expensive dinner, you ought to be going to the finest, which L2O isn't.

          Personally, I would rather have a bit more variety in a food trip to Chicago. There are so many different kinds of food that we do well. I think you're really missing out if you don't have one of our creative Mexican restaurants (which you don't have at home) - whether it's Flamingo's Seafood when you're near O'Hare, or the Rick Bayless classics downtown (Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), or Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen, or other fine places.

          Alinea is a fine choice, and so are our casual contemporary places like Cafe des Architectes or North Pond. If I had to add another dinner after high-end, casual/contemporary, and creative Mexican, I'd probably be considering either a French bistro, or Italian, or maybe something more ethnic and less upscale like Thai or Eastern European. But if you still prefer to include a second high-end restaurant, by all means do so!

          Feel free to ask more questions, and enjoy your visit!

          7 Replies
          1. re: nsxtasy

            Not sure what you mean about L.20 being merely "good" and "flawed." The service, presentation and food are exemplary. In my opinion, much better than Tru, Everest and Spiaggia. I've had two amazing meals there and soon will be enjoying a third. But I guess the best thing for the poster to do is check out the various data on the restaurant and make a decision. Of course, if you're not a fan of seafood, L.20 is definitely not the place for you. Here's a link to pictures and more comments:

            1. re: BRB

              I'm a fan of seafood, but based on my recent experience at L2O, you can get better seafood elsewhere for the same price or less. At my recent dinner at L2O, I thought a few of the dishes were excellent, while others were just okay (including the skate), and one dish was heavily oversalted and an absolute flop. The service, too, was mostly excellent, but there were serious miscues, particularly in the wine service. And there were a few other minor annoyances as well, as I noted in my detailed report. Overall, I would never call my recent dinner there "amazing"; it was okay, but for the price, I was disappointed. And I'm not the only one who feels this way; reports on all the boards have been decidedly mixed, with plenty of comments both positive and negative, including the L2O discussion here on Chowhound at

              If L2O cost $100/person inclusive like the more casual restaurants, it would be a good choice and worth considering. However, it's not. It's $200/person or more. And for the same money, you can get a wonderful, flawless meal at Avenues, Everest, Tru, or Spiaggia. By comparison, L2O does not merit inclusion in that group, unless you're judging only by price and decor, and you don't care about the food or service.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                I'm very confused. Above you say that you would "NOT" recommend L.20,and that it is "flawed." But then you link to your review from only two months ago where you call it an "excellent restaurant" and "a very special place," and you say it "deserves the acclaim it has received." Did you just return and have a bad experience? That's the only way I can reconcile your conflicting statements.

                1. re: BRB

                  No, what I said was that it's a very special place primarily because it's a beautiful space, and NOT for the food or service, which are not up to the restaurant's aspirations, as reflected in its price. I had a nice dinner there; everything was quite good, albeit far from perfect. The problem is that, with the high price and all the flaws (both major and minor), IT'S NOT WORTH THE MONEY. Not when you can go to great restaurants for the same price, which don't have those significant flaws, and whose food and service are consistently outstanding - which they most certainly weren't at L2O.

            2. re: nsxtasy

              I appreciate the help!

              I may consider looking at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo instead of a high end restaurant on Friday night....I love Mexican food, but you're right - we are unfortunately short on options around NYC. What in particular makes these different?

              Is the decision of Alinea over Charlie Trotters, however, an okay decision? I don't want to come home to find out I missed out on "THE culinary experience..."

              Sorry for the questions, but just one more; does Chicago have especially good Thai food? I know I have some places back home I frequent, but again, if it something extra special, I'd like to try them. Any suggestions?

              1. re: gwh912

                What makes Frontera/Topolobampo unique is that they are authentic Mexican (as are a number of other fine Mexican restaurants in Chicago) . . . not fusion, not Tex-Mex . . .but true Mexican. And the food at both is outstanding. Topo is just the more expensive, finer dining sibling of Frontera.

                There are Mexican restaurants in the city which I prefer to Frontera/Topo, such as Mixteco Grill, Salpicon, Fonda del Mar (original location) and Sol de Mexico (my favorite moles), and you'll do well at any of them . . . if there's a particular dish/regional food you seek, check their menus and choose that way. Sol de Mexico is the most out of the way of the bunch.

                I would take Alinea over CT's any day of the week. I think the food is better, more unique, incredibly comfortable seating . . . I could go on and on . . . and I'm a big fan of Trotter's. If you choose CT's over Alinea, I believe you will be missing "THE" culinary experience.

                Chicago has fantastic Thai food. My two favorites are Spoon Thai and TAC Quick. Both offer translated Thai language menus and these are the menus you should order from. Spoon will provide it to you when you sit down (here's a link:; TAC you'll need to ask, but here's a copy: Spoon is a minute walk from the Western Ave. Brown Line El station. TAC Quick is right next to the Red Line Sheridan station.

                These two spots serve wonderful and authentic Thai food so I wouldn't waste your time ordering pad thai or similar at either as you'll likely be disappointed. Favorites of mine at Spoon include catfish curry custard, crispy pork with Chinese broccoli, shrimp paste fried rice w/ apples, sliced omelet and pork, one bite salad, banana blossom salad, fried chicken w/ tamarind dipping sauce, curries, beef jerky and mango w/ sticky rice.

                Both Spoon and TAC are byo with liquor stores in close proximity for beer or wine.

                1. re: gwh912

                  >> I may consider looking at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo instead of a high end restaurant on Friday night....I love Mexican food, but you're right - we are unfortunately short on options around NYC. What in particular makes these different?

                  The menus at our creative provincial Mexican restaurants are entirely different from the standard tacos, enchiladas, and carne asada that you get at conventional Mexican restaurants in most U.S. cities. If you would like to understand how our provincial restaurants differ from the conventional ones, the easiest way to do that is to read through their menus. That will give you a better understanding than any description we can provide. You can find the menus for Frontera Grill and Topolobampo at You can find the menu for Mundial Cocina Mestiza, my personal favorite Mexican restaurant in Chicago, at You can find website links and directions for most of our creative provincial Mexican restaurants, and detailed reports on meals at some of them, at

                  Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are both in River North, convenient to most of the downtown hotels. Both are open for lunch at a reasonable price. At dinner, Topolobampo is very expensive; Frontera is not. Topolobampo accepts reservations on ; Frontera accepts only a small number of reservations and keeps most of the restaurant available for walk-in customers, and waits to be seated are often lengthy. (Locals try to arrive 15 minutes before the doors open, to avoid that.)

                  As for the differences between those two and other various creative Mexican restaurants, ... Other creative Mexican restaurants can be found all over the city and a few in the suburbs. Some of them, such as the newly-opened Fuego Mexican Grill and Los Moles in Logan Square, and the inconveniently-located (and in my experience, disappointing) Sol del Mexico, specialize in serving a variety of moles (deep rich sauces usually containing chocolate, although they are not usually sweet). Some of them, such as Fonda del Mar and Flamingo's, specialize in seafood dishes. Some of them, such as Mundial Cocina Mestiza (again, my personal favorite - don't miss the steamed mussels slathered with strips of poblano peppers and chunks of bacon!) and Mexique, are more bistro-like in their menu and decor.

                  >> Is the decision of Alinea over Charlie Trotters, however, an okay decision?

                  Yes, absolutely! There are so many restaurants in Chicago, that even among those most familiar with the dining scene, there is rarely a consensus about which such-and-such is THE BEST. The one category where there is anything approaching a consensus is in our high-end restaurants, where a majority would agree that Alinea is the creme de la creme, the best of the best. Alinea is a very unusual place, with amazing ingredients and preparation and presentation techniques, as you can see in the humorous (but true) comic strip at What isn't stated as often is that every single dish, one after another after another, is spectacularly DELICIOUS, with one hit after another, no misses. This doesn't take anything away from Trotter's, Avenues, Everest, TRU, or Spiaggia; you can get an outstanding meal at any of them. But most of us will tell you, if you enjoy fine dining and want to have one such meal here, go to Alinea. Period.