vegetarian-friendly, near Mart Plaza
Hi – my sisters and I are coming out to Chicago for a girls’ weekend at the end of this month at staying at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza. This is the first time we have ever done this (sans parents, husband, kids) as we live all over the country. One of my sisters is vegetarian, so I would like to get some recommendations for places that are vegetarian-friendly. I did a quick search but didn't find anything. Ideally it wouldn’t be more than a $10 cab ride away from the hotel (though for something really amazing or on the Brown line, which is near our hotel, there could be some leeway.) And while casual is fine for most lunches, dinners, I’d like to do something a bit more upscale for our Saturday night dinner. (Sadly, it won’t be Charlie Trotter’s, though I know they have a vegetarian tasting menu.) Also, I’d love to find a nice place nearby to have a glass of wine or cocktail and perhaps a small bite. I really appreciate the help – I can’t tell you how many times Chowhound folks have saved my bacon while I’m traveling.
We just returned from 25 hours in the Windy City! My husband and I are both vegetarians...and here's where we went:
Fox and Obel: Had heard a lot about this place from the boards and it did not disappoint! Fox and Obel is a gourmet food shop with a cafe inside. We had a quick lunch of the Caprese Sandwich and the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich. Both were tasty, great bread! We carried out a fresh fruit tart and a Key lime tart, both were outstanding. I think this would be the most difficult to get to from Mart Plaza as it's on Illinois east of Michigan, but if you're heading to Navy Pier, stop and eat here first!
The Handlebar: Another recommendation from this board, and another great find! This is a small bar that caters to the bike riding community and has mostly vegetarian/vegan dishes with some seafood available. We were able to dine al fresco in the back patio. I had the blackened tofu fajitas, which included black beans, avocado, corn tortillas and other accouterments. Very tasty! My husband had the black beans maduro, with beans, rice, plantains stacked and topped with a spicy tomato sauce. He loved it. The Handlebar is a short walk west of the Damen Blue Line stop. You can take the El to Clark/Lake (one stop from the Merchandise Mart) and get a free transfer to the Blue.
Bongo Room: If you're going to have breakfast anywhere, I STRONGLY recommend the Bongo Room. We had the Banana Crunch Pancakes (pancakes with Nestle Crunch crumbles, topped with bananas and a lovely cream sauce) and a mushroom/onion/smoked mozzarella omelet. Both were fantastic, with the pancakes not being sickingly or overly sweet. The potatoes were seasoned well with rosemary. You can get to the Bongo room by going south on the Brown Line to the Roosevelt stop, it's less than a block east at the corner of Roosevelt and Wabash.
Wow Bao: If you are looking for a quick snack (as we were), this is perfect. Hot, Asian Buns! We had the Whole Wheat Edamame and the Coconut Cream. Very flavorful! The house made ginger ale is a must! Multiple locations around the loop.
The Chicago Diner: People either love or hate the Chicago Diner. We happen to be fans, and this visit was so/so for us. We dined on the patio. I had the Chicken-fried Seitan Steak with gravy. To be honest, it was better than real chicken-fried steak. My husband had the Oaxaca Ravioli, which he reported tasted okay, but was a little too al dente for his taste. Had a Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough shake for the road. Located in Boystown on N. Halstead, you can get there by taking the El to State and Lake (2 stops south of Merch. Mart) and get on the Red to the Belmont Stop.
Not on this trip, but for fine dining, highly recommend the Green Zebra! Located on W. Chicago (you'll likely have to take a cab), it is veg-friendly fine dining at its best! They have small plates, with a wide variety to choose from.
I did a quick search, too, and found over 100 topics with the term "vegetarian" in the last year alone.
In sum, though, the consensus is that most restaurants in Chicago will have choices for vegetarians. There is no need to go to a vegetarian-specific restaurant unless you really feel compelled.
I was looking for vegetarian-friendly places in the area of our hotel or reasonably easy to reach from the hotel and had no luck - perhaps because of my limited knowledge of landmarks other than our hotel. Sorry I wasn't more clear. And I hear you on the non-vegetarian restaurant thing, but I have actually been burned by that several times. Casual ethnic lunch places, sure, but upscale places are often less vegetarian-friendly than I'd like - I don't want my sister to have one pasta dish to "choose" from. My family still tells the story, to my horror, of the tapas place in Philly where we once took everyone. I remembered it as having a lot of options, but it turned out nearly everything had meat. I wanted to leave when I saw the menu, but they were afraid we'd be out of luck elsewhere. So, my sister's family wound up splitting several orders of the couple of things they could eat while the rest of us had a guilty feast. So, I am doubtless being over-zealous, but with some cause.
Anyway, we made reservations for our special dinner on Saturday at the Green Zebra, which looks great, and have noted the others. Unfortunately Frontera is not open on Sunday or Monday, or I might have had to push the vegetarian envelope.
I'll second rubinow's claim that you'd be hard-pressed to find places without several vegetarian options. There are a few places I can think of that would be good for a glass of something and a bite (and probably 50 more that don't pop into my head immediately). Hub 51, Cafe Iberico and Quartino are all within a mile and feature small plate options and drinks.
Another suggestion that I have read on the boards, but haven't really gotten a chance to try is Mana (http://www.manafoodbar.com). It is also on the Blue line, at the Division stop. Don't be afraid to use the El! We were staying at the Hyatt on Wacker and had no problem getting around fairly easily on the El. We even had a small snafu when the blue line was down on Sunday, but we easily got to the Handlebar by free bus. Hope you enjoy the Green Zebra as much as we did!
I would highly recommend Ben Pao. It is within walking distance from your hotel and is super delicious! Modern Chinese type food. The interior is beautifully decorated as well. I am vegetarian and this is my favorite Chinese food restaurant. Almost all of the dishes with meat can be substituted with tofu so it has tons of options for both you and your sister.
Across the street is Vong's Thai Kitchen which is also delicious and also has plenty of both meat and vegetarian options.
I highly recommend both choices, but of the two my favorite is Ben Pao!