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6 Days in Chicago - Please critique my list

Looking forward to a solid week of feasting in your glorious city. I like contemporary casual places that prioritize food over fawning servers and fancy white tablecloths. Local/sustainable ingredients are a big plus. Aiming to spend $40-$75 pp on dinners, $25-$49 pp on lunch (including tax and tip - the wife and I aren't heavy drinkers).

With some extensive research, I've created a list of 19 restaurants. Looking to narrow this down to about 12. Would appreciate any advice on what I should nix, what I must try, what I've missed, and why.

Realize a couple of these places are a schlep, but we're here to eat so we'll happily make a pilgrimage to Burt's or Dougs. We'll be staying near the Hancock building.

Thanks!

Avec
Blackbird
Burts Place
Cafe Spiaggia
Custom House (lunch)
Frontera Grill
Green Zebra
Hot Dougs
Libertine
Lula Cafe
m henry (lunch or brunch)
Mercat a la Planxa
Naha (Lounge)
Nightwood Restaurant
The Publican
Quartino
Sweets and Savories
Terragusto
West Town Tavern

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  1. It's a really good list, but you have some there I've never heard of -- Libertine and Nightwood -- not to say that's bad. I'm sure there's a lot I don't know, but I'd want to know more about them and how they made your list.

    For local/sustainable, you might want to include Mado in Bucktown and Perennial on Lincoln Ave, right across street from Lincoln Park (and the Green City Market). Neither one is much of a shlep.

    m henry is good, but a little out of the way. As a brunch/lunch option, you might consider Orange, the Bongo Room or Yolk.

    If you're choosing between Hot Dougs and Burts Place (which is in a suburb north of the city) and you have the time to wait in the line outside, Hot Dougs is the place to go. You can get good Chicago-style pizza at Unos, Dues, Malnatis or Paisanos with a lot less travel.

    6 Replies
    1. re: chicgail

      Thanks for the recs. Mado and Perennial just made the list (can't resist a place with wood oven pigs head). I was unsure about m henry, so I think I'll go ahead and nix it.

      I read about Nightwood in the Trib - it's a sister restaurant to Lula. Libertine was mentioned on this board.

      Anyone out there feel that Burt's is worth the trip? Either way, I'm definitely doing Doug's.

      1. re: Morton the Mousse

        Happy eating, man.

        And don't forget to report back. We'll want to hear all about it.

        1. re: Morton the Mousse

          I'll be doing both Doug's and Burt's this coming week (my own Chicago food frenzie!). I'll let you know what I think about Burt's, as I've been to Uno's on prior visits.

          1. re: Morton the Mousse

            If I were to narrow your list down:

            Perennial - yes

            Mado - still haven't been, but I've heard nothing but great things

            Avec - a must, even though not-so-comfortable seating, noise and waits

            Hot Dougs - again, be prepared to wait, perhaps a long time (get there real early)

            Burt's - yes (if not Burt's Malnati's/Pizano's are my next favorites - Malnati's and Pizano's are nearly identical)

            Mexican and Thai - 2 of Chicago's very best cuisines - Mexican - Salpicon, Sol de Mexico, Fonda del Mar, Mixteco Grill, Frontera/Topolobampo . . . personally, I'd skip the waits at Frontera because I think SdM and Mixteco are better.

            Thai - Spoon Thai, TAC Quick - both offer translated Thai language menus that really elevate these places to fine dining and also inexpensive. These are by no means ordinary Thai restaurants (unless you order pad thai and the like).

            Blackbird/Naha - both excellent

            Chaise Lounge - a lot of local products, but eat early or stay late to watch the beautiful 20- and 30-somethings prance about this bar/restaurant

            Lula Cafe - I always enjoy this place, although I haven't eaten there since they opened Nightwood

            Libertine - never heard of . . . you sure this is in the Chicago area?

            Quartino - fine, but nothing special really.

            M. Henry is very good, but I'd also consider Bongo Room, Uncommon Ground and Hearty Boys for brunch/lunch.

            Sweets & Savories - excellent

            Mercat - It's good, not great. Switching gears a bit I might suggest Carnivale for Creative Latin - very high quality ingredients and excellent presentations. Lots of creative drinks, but you don't need to drink to enjoy the food.

            Otom/Graham Elliot - Both offer upscale, whimsical comfort food and are very good.

            Green Zebra - hit and miss; sometimes very good, sometimes just ok.

            West Town and Terragusto - I like both but I wouldn't travel far for either. I've never been a fan of Custom House.

            Publican - I still don't think it's hit its groove like its sister restaurants (Blackbird/Avec) and not sure it will. I've had as many hits as misses.

            Cafe Spiaggia - good (others like it more than me) but I prefer Merlo on Maple.

            1. re: BRB

              Man, you guys are making this tough.

              Here's the info on Libertine. Probably wont make my short list:
              http://www.libertinechicago.com/

            2. re: Morton the Mousse

              m.henry is possibly the best breakfast/brunch in the city. Go there.

          2. Great that you are spending this amount of time in town, and have such a comprehensive list. My thoughts below on your semi-final list, and comments on other recs thus far.

            Avec, Backbird, Frontera Grill, Hot Doug's - Go. Must go.

            Cafe Spiaggia, Custom House - good.

            Green Zebra - one of the more unique places that you won't find elsewhere. It's summer and just think of all the wonderful produce available.

            Lula Cafe - My favorite restaurant in the city. So a very biased go, must go.

            m henry (lunch or brunch) - I second chicgail's and BRB's comments. You mentioned not minding the schlep. But do you have a car? Or will rely on public transportation?

            Mercat a la Planxa - Very creative Catalonian tapas. A lot more upscale than the garden-variety tapas places around.

            Naha (Lounge) - Any specific reason why Naha if you are only going to be at the lounge? If you are looking for creative cocktails, Violet Hour or Drawing Room are my top picks.

            Nightwood Restaurant - new sister restaurant to Lula. Definitely local/sustainable. A lot of the produce tastes like they were picked from the garden that afternoon. That said, this place is 2 months old. It has a lot of cache given Lula's cult following. Personally though i feel it still needs time to mature. Also, menu changes nightly. So something you ate or someone told you about will likely not be available by the time you get there. Will substitute Mado instead.

            The Publican - A current favorite for oysters, pork and beer. Could opt for The Bristol too.

            Quartino - Ok if you are in the neighborhood.

            Terragusto - Ok comfort Italian. I would highly recommend Anteprima instead. One of the few places here where you feel like you are actually in Italy.

            West Town Tavern - Good for local/sustainable. I find that Chef Goss's cuisine though is a little heavy. I usually go in the Fall and Winter.

            Libertine is on Clybourn just north of North Ave. In a previous incarnation it was an Italian restaurant if i remember right. I think that spot is cursed. Seems to change every 2, 3 years. Libertine bills itself as gastropub, but sounds to me more like bar with food.

            Otom - Used to be an excellent sister restaurant to Moto. Due to 'these hard times' and staff changes in the kitchen (last 6 months), they have gone down several notches. Such a shame.

            5 Replies
            1. re: ms. chow

              I have to admit that I have not been to Otom since the winter, so if staff changes have affected it I cannot say. But my last meal there was excellent. Do you know what changes have occurred?

              1. re: BRB

                They brought down the prices. Entrees are between high teens and low twenties. Good for us consumers right? If the food was brought down several notches along with the price, are customers really getting a deal? A lot of the wait staff left too. The service was average at best. The wine list was reduced down to a minimum, and except for the Gruet sparkling, is pretty blah.

                So on to the food. I loved Otom because of the creativity of the food, and the subtle playfulness that hints at Moto. The best vegetarian dish i've had anywhere was the seared tofu with freeze-dried peas. I love, love, love the TV dinners, with authentic German army mess hall trays. Last time prior to this, there was a foie gras appetizer with cocoa powder and cherry compote. All of a sudden, chef Darryl Nash left. He was the brains behind the kitchen. Whoever the new chef is couldn't even sustain what was already there. The menu now still reads like variations of what it used to be. But the dishes turn out to be so disappointing, and dumbed down. Also i can't remember if there used to be a 'bar fare' category. Now they do. I had the chicken and waffles. With soft boiled egg and okra. Sounds like a play on a classic comfort food. The waffle was limp and not even warm. The chicken was an uninspired piece of breast, breaded and fried. The soft boiled egg i'm scratching my head on what it is doing on the plate. There was a lone okra on the plate. My SO had the lamb shank, which used to be his favorite dish. I can't remember what was wrong, but he ate maybe 1/3 and refused to eat more. He never leaves anything on his plate!

                This was in the spring on a Friday night. Opentable showed the restaurant had availability. We booked a 2-top for 8pm. When we got seated, we were the 3rd table with customers, plus a group of 4 or 5 people at the front lounge. More people came in, but by the time we left around 10, the place was only half full. Friday night at Otom? Seemed like a lot of people already got the memo.

                When a place starts going downhill, and people stop coming, I don't know what they can do to get people back in the door again.

                1. re: ms. chow

                  Mrs. Chow, you experience at Otom is exactly like ours just a month or two ago. It was the first time we had been there, made a last minute reservation and wondered what the fuss had been about. With all the wonderful, creative restaurants in town, we won't be back.

                  Worse for them, we are huge fans of Alinea, had been very curious about Moto. The experience at Otom soured us on trying Moto.

                  1. re: chicgail

                    Having been to both - I'd rank Alinea as the best meal of my life - over a $450 customized tasting at The French Laundry, VIP (know Stratta's nephew) treatment at Alex, or meals at Manresa, Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Charlie Trotters, Providence in LA, etc.

                    I'd rank Moto below #25 on my all time list - overhyped, overpriced, and while the food is "good" it is not even in the same ballpark as those above while the service is poor at best. The presentations, still not on par with what Achatz and co are doing, are cool.

                  2. re: ms. chow

                    Ate there last night and there were a number of service issues - 30 minute delay in seating, long waits for appetizers, drinks and entrees, unclean men's room, running out of food, wines and wine glasses. Otom needs to find someone to run this place.

                    That being said, some pretty good food. The highlight for me was the wonderful mac & cheese with truffle oil, bacon and white cheddar. The pasta had a nice bite to it and the dish was creamy and had great flavor.

                    I also very much liked the grits with bbq brussel sprouts - creamy and flavorful.

                    The pork chop with bacon bread pudding was also good although the pork chop was not as hot as the rest of the dish, leading me to believe it sat for a while.

                    I'd certainly go back again for the food, but someone needs to take control of this place and run it.

                    -----
                    OTOM Restaurant
                    951 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607

              2. very ambitious list. sounds like it'll be a lot of fun! here's my two cents on the places i've been:

                Avec: excellent small plates. a must.

                Blackbird: $22 lunch prix fixe is one of the best lunch deals in town!

                Cafe Spiaggia: good food, good setting, pretentious service (i much prefer il mulino)

                Custom House (lunch): good food, but the price of the tasting menu went up a lot in the past year with no substantial change to the level of cooking or ingredients - not as good value as before (i would do green zebra or spring instead)

                Mercat a la Planxa: trendy setting and tasty food, but overpriced with small portions (the paella was ridiculously small)

                Quartino: competent in traditional italian cooking, but nothing to write home about (i prefer osteria via stato next door better)

                i would add:

                province: market-oriented menu with vibrant and fresh flavors. the interior of the restaurant is green architecture. one of my new favorites

                sepia: to me it is similar in philosophy to province - market-inspired menu. but the flavors are less bold - more balanced (setting wise, i prefer to dine at province for dinner and sepia for lunch at its lounge area)

                carnivale: vibrant flavors in non-mexican latino food and drinks, which echo perfectly with the imaginative interior design. a fun and unique dining experience. the fruits in the desserts are market-fresh and the beef is grass-fed (but still tender)

                1 Reply
                1. re: mountsac

                  I would add Boka and Katsu to the list.

                2. From what I have heard, can't go wrong at Frontera, Publican, Avec, and Blackbird. Quartino is just "eh," not a must-go. West Town good for comfort food (fried chicken, short ribs), but I don't know what they serve during the summer. Mercat is excellent but quite pricy for tapas. I'm a Doug's devotee, so imo, the line is worth the wait, which will be long, no matter what time you get there, so don't sweat it; just make sure you're in before 4p, and they're closed on Sunday.

                  If you can get into Alinea, I would highly recommend it. Definitely a meal of a lifetime.

                  Have fun!

                  1. I didn’t see Vie on this list. I guess the paramaters are Chicago. Really amazing though a drive.
                    I agree about Boka, it’s one of my favorites.
                    Alinea – what can I say that hasn’t been said, written, photographed, diaried and diagrammed? A true experience.
                    Nightwood – fantastic new addition to the scene. Simply lovely space, bright and enticing food.
                    Brunch at Green Zebra if they still do it – I love my bacon but it was shockingly good