HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >


Please help me with a dinner rec for a hard-to-please group!

I'm planning to come to Chicago in a few weeks for my big 3-0 birthday, which I will be spending with my husband, my parents who are driving down from northern Wisconsin, and possibly two of my friends.

I haven't been to Chicago in a few years and don't have the slightest idea what to pick. However, here are the things to consider (and I apologize if I sound "picky" - I'm not! I just know how annoying it is when someone asks for a rec and gives no accompanying info).

- Location: Probably somewhere either downtown, or easily reached by metra or taxi- my parents won't want to travel to some random neighborhood which they will likely consider "dangerous." :)

- I'm supposedly a vegetarian, but I do eat fish and I'm not picky about stock, etc.

- My husband is Indian. We both love ethnic food and spices. However, he loves really spicy food and he loves meat -- all types. Duck, Goat, Beef, Lamb, all of it.

-My two friends are big fans of Rachael Ray and the Cheesecake Factory, and they will be very vocally annoyed if they get teeny tiny portions of their meal.

- My husband will freak out if the dinner tastes like it came from the Cheesecake Factory.

- My dad is a typical meat-and-potatas kinda guy and can't handly anything remotely spicy.

See why this is so difficult for me? HELP!!!

I was originally thinking of finding a place that specializes in great, local, simple products, like Mado, but after looking at the menu, I don't know that there's really anything there that excites me. I've also looked into other places with upscale traditional upper midwest food, but I know that my dad will not be pleased paying $38 for walleye and turnips, no matter how great they taste -- and since he'll be paying, I'd like to be considerate.

After reading these boards, I'm also considering Mexique, but I'm not sure if everything might be a bit too "weird" for my dad :) It does, however, look like something my husband and I would enjoy.

Any help at all would be GREATLY appreciated as I need to figure this all out ASAP.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Tough one. I was going to suggest one of the gastropubs (Publican, Gage), but these are usually meat-oriented. How about Wildfire? This would not be one of my personal top choices for downtown dining, but I think it comes close to meeting all your criteria:


    A little more upscale is Lockwood in the Palmer House, but price might be an issue here. If Italian were suitable, this would provide a few more options, depending on whether you wanted to go neighborhood Italian or authentic Italian (usually a little pricier).

    1. I have in laws from da U.P, and I feel you. The mother in law loves to try new stuff when they visit (she is hooked on Indian food now!) but the father in law is meat and potatoes. He'll try anything, but you can just see in his face, he really doesn't like it. Crowd pleaser for something that at least can be interesting is usually Italian. A few pastas, multiple meats, and one dish that has a little bit of heat to it. Pocket friendly as well.

      If they aren't too meat and potatoes for Chinese food, I would suggest a trip to Chinatown as well.

      1. Yes, this is indeed a complex set of needs. I think your best bet is going to be to rely on the menus on the restaurant websites as a way of determining whether everyone in your group will find something to eat.

        I've eaten at Mexique, and this might be a good choice. As you know, it offers a combination of Mexican and French cuisines and techniques. I had the short ribs and they were excellent, and not at all "weird" (despite the accompaniments described on the website menu). They cooked them very nicely, finishing them by briefly throwing them on the grill to give the outside a thin crispness that was wonderful. I recommend that dish for beef-lovers. But if they're looking for a traditional steak, this might not be the best place (although I see they have a flank steak on the menu). www.mexiquechicago.com

        A couple of our steakhouses offer nice quality and variety to their non-steak dishes. One is David Burke's Primehouse, which is a contemporary slant on steakhouses. http://www.jameshotels.com/Chicago-Ho... Another place you could go is Hugo's. Hugo's Frog Bar is a seafood restaurant owned by, and located next door to, Gibson's, one of our top steakhouses, and they share the same kitchen. So when you go to Hugo's, you have a wider variety of seafood, and you still get to eat Gibson's steaks. Portions are generous too. www.hugosfrogbar.com

        jbw mentioned the possibility of Italian, and this might be suitable - especially since most Italian restaurants have a steak for the meat-and-potatoes crowd. Our very best mid-priced Italian restaurants are Cafe Spiaggia ( www.cafespiaggia.com - look at the website for "cafe", not "dining room", which is for its super-expensive sister restaurant Spiaggia next door), Coco Pazzo ( www.cocopazzochicago.com ), and Vivere ( www.vivere-chicago.com ). I just ate dinner at Vivere a couple of weeks ago, and I had an incredible roast duck breast, so I can assure you that their not-so-Italian offerings are also excellent - but I think any of these could meet your needs.

        Again, though, you're going to need to check out those website menus to see what will work best for your needs.

        Oh, and regarding neighborhoods - all of these restaurants are located in neighborhoods which are safe (although I suppose anywhere in "the big city" can seem scary to someone from a rural area). Mexique is on a main street in a residential neighborhood called West Town, about 3 miles from downtown Chicago; the others I've mentioned are all in areas that are part of downtown Chicago.

        Feel free to ask more questions!

        1. I'm inclined to go with Italian as the leveler. Not too strange for the Northern Wisconsin folks and enough "interesting options" for those who like a little more. It is also an easy mix for meat-eaters and vegetarians. There are many good neighborhood Italian restaurants in perfectly safe parts of town near downtown. A few that come to mind are Club Lucky in Waubansia in Bucktown, A Mano, Italian Village (real old school Chicago) and Buono Terra in Logan Square.

          Another option might be Perennial on Lincoln Avenue at Clark St., across from the park. The food and service are excellent, it's farm-to-table, few dishes will be unfamiliar, but many with interesting twists, the price is right and dress is casual.

          1 Reply
          1. re: chicgail

            You can't please all of the people all of the time. So just do the best you can. The Perennial rec is solid and the sister restaurant, Boka, is similar - though I like Perennial better. I have yet to find anyone who cannot be pleased with Naha - though check the menu on line for costs. Crofton on Wells might make everyone happy, too.

          2. Another option that you might consider is Deleece. Here is their dinner menu: http://www.deleece.com/pdf/dinner.pdf. It's a bit further from downtown than some of the other suggestions, but the menu has a nice mix of familiar meat & potatoe items, as well as more adventurous fish & spicy selections. Price points seem to be in line with your specifications too.

            1. Where is everyone staying overnight (what city neighborhood or suburban town)? There are suitable restaurants all over Chicagoland, including the suburbs, and we can probably direct you to ones that are close by, if you can tell us where everyone will be staying. A lot of the time visitors from out of town stay in the downtown areas with the greatest concentration of hotels, but that's not always the case. If they're staying in a residential neighborhood or in the suburbs, why not go to a good place just down the street? If they *are* staying downtown, though, it would be more convenient not to have to travel to distant city neighborhoods.

              1 Reply
              1. re: nsxtasy

                P.S. My personal philosophy: When the occasion is to celebrate someone's birthday, the birthday girl should be able to choose the place SHE wants to go.

              2. I would also consider GreekTown. Greek Islands is an always-reliable standby.

                1. Wow, everyone, thank you so much for all the thoughtful recommendations. I'm thinking that going with Italian might, indeed, be the best option -- however, you've given me a lot of options, I think I'll explore their Web sites and narrow it down. Then perhaps come back here with specific questions.

                  Nsxtasy - we haven't all gotten our rooms yet, but I think we'll be downtown simply so we can do some other fun stuff over the weekend without having to drive. And, by the way, I personally like your philosophy there, too -- but don't want to upset the folks! :)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: anakalia

                    If you're staying downtown, you will probably be near North Michigan Avenue (the "Magnificent Mile"), or possibly in the Loop. The three Italian places I mentioned are all very good, and you might want to choose the one that's closest to your hotel. If you're around the northern half mile of the "Mag Mile", that will be Cafe Spiaggia, which is at the north end of Michigan Avenue, at Oak Street. If you're in the Loop, that will probably be Vivere, which is right in the middle of the Loop. If you're in River North around the southern half mile of the "Mag Mile", that may be Coco Pazzo, although it's off to the west near the Merchandise Mart. If you locate the restaurants on a map, this should be pretty clear. (Note that Coco Pazzo has a less expensive sister restaurant called Coco Pazzo Cafe that's right off Michigan Avenue but it's not quite as good as the one near the Mart.) These aren't the only places in town, obviously, but they're among the best...

                  2. I am from Northern Wisconsin as are my parents... and my parents LOVE coming here for Italian food. Their favorite Italian place is Topo Gigio in Old Town... In fact, I could really go for some of their CONCHIGLIE alla SARDA... shells w/ crumbled sausage, peas in a tomato cream sauce. YUM.

                    1516 North Wells Street
                    Chicago, IL 60610-1308
                    (312) 266-9355

                    I don't know how I feel about Mexique. I really wanted t like it, but just didn't and was so underwhelmed by it. Would they go to Chinatown? When parents are involved, I always like to suggest Feast in Bucktown. It's a comfy place, with nice sized portions and a menu for everyone. It's fancy enough to get dressed cute and feel fancy, but casual enough where out of town dads won't feel out of place in their gym shoes....or camo slip ons like my dad... ;)

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tiffeecanoe

                      Feast, which is known more for their breakfast/lunch/brunch than dinner, recently opened a second location on East Delaware Place in the middle of the hotel district surrounding North Michigan Avenue. The menus lean towards American comfort food; you can see them on their website at www.feastrestaurant.com

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        Ahhh yes, that's right! I forgot that! I have a bit of an obsession with their whitefish dish. You're right, def. better known for their Brunch, but I def. prefer their dinner!

                    2. Friends who often host their parents for dinner swear by Shaw's - and it is always delicious so worth a consideration.

                      Also check if your celebration falls with Chicago Chef's week since that would bring some amazing restaurants into the affordable range. Province for example always has a lovely mix of meaty goodness with superb vegetarian ... forward thinking enough to please you and your husband but somehow not so scarey for traditionalists.

                      1. I would consider Mercat a la Planxa (Stapas). Since it's tapas, all the plates are "small" so even if one guest doesn't like it there will be others that will be more to their taste. Gives you the utmost flexibility for a picky crowd.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: gls_junk

                          The following people will be VERY unhappy with Mercat a la Planxa:

                          >> My two friends are big fans of Rachael Ray and the Cheesecake Factory, and they will be very vocally annoyed if they get teeny tiny portions of their meal.

                          >> My dad is a typical meat-and-potatas kinda guy and can't handly anything remotely spicy.

                          I like Mercat a la Planxa a lot, but it's not for everyone. Especially those two types. But feel free to check out the menu on their website at www.mercatchicago.com and decide for yourself whether it will meet your needs.

                        2. I wanted to update this after our Chicago trip - first off, thanks for everyone's great suggestions. In true annoying fashion, I studied all your suggestions-- and then ended up choosing a place based on a "real world" recommendation, from a colleague.

                          We ended up heading to Province and, I have to say, if anyone is ever facing a dinner situation similar to what I was, I'd definitely recommend it. The food was delicious, the selection was wide and the bill was quite reasonable. Even better, the waiter and bartenders were so friendly and accommodating! They explained all the dishes well, gave good recommendations and really made the night a success.

                          Meat-n-potatoes people got half-portions of the slow cooked Tasmanian salmon ($12) and the ten-hour braised lamb ($12), which they raved about. They also had a smaller BBQ short rib dish ($15).

                          My mom loved her appetizer of shrimp and grits ($9) (a recommendation from the waiter) so much that she's trying to figure out how to replicate it at home now.

                          For the less adventurous, they were able to get a lemon-garlic-honey glazed rotisserie chicken ($17) with some interesting sides.

                          I had beet and blood orange salad and a fish (can't remember which one because I just looked on the menu and they changed it!) dish that was wonderful.

                          The wine list was good. To top it all off, the bartender/waiter was so sweet - my dad ordered a G&T with a locally-made gin and the bartender could see he just wasn't a fan of it. He came over and offered my dad a more "normal" one as a replacement, and, if you knew my dad, that really won him over all night long!

                          We didn't have dessert because my friend had made a birthday cake for me back at her home, but the options looked quite tasty.

                          So, overall, I'd recommend this restaurant if you have a lot of different people to please - the menu is such that you will be able to find something to make just about anyone happy.

                          161 N Jefferson, Chicago, IL 60661