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Wicker Park Update Bar Hopping/Fine Dining

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My wife and I have a full day In Chicago. We are looking for an area where we can park the car and walk from place to place, checking out lounges and restaurants. We have just spent the last few years in LA and we are taking our time driving back to our hometown, Cleveland, OH. I have been working as F/B Director for Donald Trump's LA Golf Course so needless to say, the less pretentious the better!

We hear the Wicker Park area is perfect for this. Looking for suggestions from where to park, where to go to lunch (casual, truly a Chicago restaurant) where to go to dinner (fine-dining without the stuffiness) and local flavor taverns (we love the joints the locals frequent).

Will be posting from the road starting Sept. 29...Anahwahee in Yosemite, small bites along Rt. 6 in Nevada (the middle of nowhere but I'm determined to find local flavor), Kelly Liken in Vail, CO, just to name a few. Stopping in some small towns along the way, trying to find that local flavor that is truly unique. Also, wherever we land in Chicago.

Looking forward to your suggestions.

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  1. my favorites in wicker park / bucktown are as followed:

    people's tapas / music bar: casual place for tapas and sangria
    spring: fine dining seafood restaurant
    takashi: fine dining french / contemporary american (with japanese fusion)
    hot chocolate: strong in dessert but not shabby in the savories either
    violet hour: lounge with a hidden entrance and cool ambiance
    mirai: sushi restaurant (not my favorite in chicago but still good)

    1 Reply
    1. re: mountsac

      I 2nd the recs for Spring, Takashi, Hot Chocolate, Violet Hour.

      Other possibilities:
      Lunch
      Irazu is a great mom&pop Costa Rican place. Cheap eats and the different varieties of shakes are excellent.
      Piece is a local brewery and serves New England style pizza.
      Ear Wax Cafe is an eclectic joint serving breakfast and lunch.

      Dinner
      Mado is an unpretentious farm-to-table restaurant.
      Cafe Matou for authentic French cafe fare, very romantic.
      Le Bouchon for old-school French bistro.

      Tavern
      Map Room for HUGE selection of beer

      -----
      Irazu
      1865 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

      Le Bouchon
      1958 N Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

      Cafe Matou
      1846 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL 60647

      Piece Restaurant
      1927 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

      Mado Restaurant
      1647 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

      The Map Room
      1949 N Hoyne Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

      Earwax Cafe
      1561 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622

    2. First must: Mado - I just ate there for the first time last night and it was the best meal I have had this year . . . spectacular and byo. madorestaurantchicago.com.

      Hot Chocolate - Always great, but mostly for desserts.

      Here's what I wrote on lthforum.com about my meal at Mado (see the site for more reviews and pictures):

      I have to admit that I went into my meal (first meal indeed) at Mado with some skepticism. I looked at the menu, read others' reviews, looked at pictures - it all just seemed so simple, nothing special and perhaps limited. I knew I wasn't going to love it; I thought I might like it. Wow was I wrong - loved it, and this might have been the best dining experience I have had this year (easily topping heavyweights such as Avenues, L.20 and the like).

      I arrived at the restaurant for an 8:30 reservation. I was immediately struck by the beautiful simplicity of this place - casually elegant yet very relaxed and inviting. As I waited for my friends to arrive, I'm pretty sure every member of the restaurant's staff approached me at one point or another to make sure that I had been taken care of. Unfortunately, tables of diners were lingering over booze and not vacating the restaurant. All of a sudden, our 8:30 reservation turned into a 9:00 dinner. The staff was very apologetic about the delay.

      We didn't ask to be compensated in any way, but within a couple of minutes of being seated, we were treated to a complementary charcuterie plate; the bread, mustard and pickles and still and sparkling water. All of a sudden, I was reminded of my experience at Piccolo Sogno, and was thinking how much better Mado handled the situation. The charcuterie consisted of the salami, chicken liver and pork terrine. All were excellent but my favorite was the pork terrine - sublime.

      Appetizers included a wonderful corn chowder, heirloom tomatoes with olive oil and sea salt (nice but it didn't excite me since I've been eating very similar tomatoes from farmers' markets all week and I just think this was too simple a preparation), the spicy greens with pig's head and peaches, and bruschetta with pork fat and a fried egg. As good as the corn chowder was, the latter two appetizers were my favorites.

      The greens, pig's head and peaches was amazing. Two reluctant tasters at my table tasted and fell in love, immediately erasing all fears of pig parts and other presumptively unappealing animal parts. It was just the perfect composition of flavors, evoking memories of many a summer bbq (think smoked ribs and peaches).

      The bruschetta was extremely simple, but it was layer of pork fat between the fried egg and the toast which elevated this dish to perfection and made this the best bruschetta I have ever tasted.

      Mains - While waiting for a table, a woman nearby was brought the pork shoulder and she was oohing and aahing immediately upon tasting. I decided then that I would be ordering the pork shoulder. Imagine my disappointment when I was told they had run out of the pork shoulder. My disappointment turned to joy as I ended up enjoying the best whitefish presentation I have ever tasted - really. The whitefish, with the roasted onions, tomatoes, peppers and greens (pictured in Dansch's photo above) was a match of crispy tender whitefish, paired with the wonderful sweet-sour combo from the vegetables. Seemingly simple, but then why have I never had whitefish prepared so well. This dish could introduce whitefish to an entirely new generation of diners who might have grown up watching their elderly relatives destroy the dish.

      The hangar steak with gorgonzola polenta was also excellent, perfectly cooked to medium rare and the polenta was so creamy. But I preferred the trout with bacon which was also fantastic - whole trout, beautifully cooked and the bacon/lardons was outstanding.

      After all of the above, you might think dessert would have been an afterthought. But I'm a dessert fanatic and I thought Mado's desserts were about as good as I've tasted anywhere.

      My favorite was the cornmeal cake with goat cheese, apricot jam and candied almonds. Have you ever tasted the almond pound cake with pine nuts at Pasticceria Natalina? If you have, you know how good a pound cake can be. Well, this version blew PN's version out of the water. The combination of ingredients, the ultra creamy goat cheese (mousse-like), the fresh taste of apricot and the crispy, sweet almonds made this the best dessert I have tasted all year, hands down.

      Amazingly, the yogurt sponge pudding with blueberry compote and candied pistachios was pretty close behind. Aschie30, I loved the minimal sweetness which really allowed the tang of the yogurt to perfectly marry the blueberries and pistachios, but for all I know Allie re-tried the dish and added a bit of sugar. In any event, simple yet perfect.

      The rice pudding with cherries was also excellent and so creamy. The migas chocolate bark, made with luscious dark chocolate and toasted bread crumbs, seemed so simple and, yet again, so perfect.

      Service throughout the night was stellar - attentive, relaxed and friendly. They could be teaching many a restaurant how to take care of your customers. The future is bright, really bright at Mado and I'm just sorry it took me so long to get here.

      For drinks, Map Room and Violet Hour (likely to have to wait).

      1 Reply
      1. re: BRB

        Mado got a piece of hate mail! See their website under What's Happening. How can people be so stupid?

      2. Mado is pretty delicious -- might be perfect to go there and then head to Hot Chocolate for dessert and then (depending on your stamina) to the Violet Hour for after-dinner drinks. All three of these are heavily featured on the national dining/imbibing scene but none of them are pretentious and all are delicious! Other options include the Bristol, which is a short walk down Damen (great shopping strip that your wife may enjoy) and Takashi, as mountsac mentioned.

        For lunch I'd go to Birchwood Kitchen (http://www.birchwoodkitchen.com/), a new sandwich shop that hasn't got a ton of play on the boards yet, but check out the menu (the lamb french dip! The speck with celery cream!).

        And since you put bar-hopping in the post title, I have to recommend The Bluebird in addition to Violet Hour. Right next door to Hot Chocolate with excellent bar food and an even better beer menu, it might make a nice pre-dessert stop-in.

        Enjoy!

        2 Replies
        1. re: Kaelin

          I would typically recommend Hot Chocolate for dessert after any meal, but having had the desserts at Mado, I'm not as eager to recommend my usual fave Hot Chocolate.

          1. re: Kaelin

            Good call on Bluebird. How could i have forgotten?

          2. violet hour is a must for one amazing cocktail, then head to map room/ bluebird for beers

            I agree that bristol would be a good stop, get a moscow mule...the only place in chicago that ive found actually knows how to make them correctly.
            Earwax is great for lunch, quirky place and a mostly vegitarian menu.

            1. I lived in Wicker Park for a few years. My dream evening would be:

              1. Schwa for dinner

              2. Hot Chocolate for Desert/drinks