Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >
Mar 9, 2010 03:27 PM

first time Chicago

So foodies help me with some suggestions. Going for the first time to Chicago and I love food. Staying in the River north area but will travel anywhere for a great meal that makes Chicago special.I want to spend the whole time eating from the best Chi dog and deep dish to 5 star to pork chop hole in the walls.I LOVE FOOD.Just keep me away from what you can find everywhere else.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. What a great way of looking at your visit!

    Here are places and foods I suggest, all unique to Chicago.

    Deep-dish pizza - in River North, you can go to the place where it all started - Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due. They're still there, and they're still excellent. Phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes for your pizza to bake.

    Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches - Right in River North on Ontario Street, there are two places, a block away from each other, and you can get both of these local specialties at either of them: Portillo's ( ), and Al's Beef ( ).

    Fine dining - We have a restaurant that was recently ranked one of the ten best restaurants in the WORLD. It's called Alinea, from Chef Grant Achatz, and it will blow your mind. To get an idea what it's like, check out the comic strip at Yes, it's expensive (figure $300 per person including moderate wine, tax, tip), and dressy (jackets for gentlemen), but it's unique and it's here. It's in Lincoln Park, about two miles north of where you're staying.

    Rick Bayless's restaurants (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, XOCO) - Chicago has a collection of wonderful restaurants specializing in creative provincial Mexican cuisine, which is difficult to find almost anywhere else this side of the border. Rick Bayless is widely recognized for bringing this trend here, and his restaurants are still excellent and providing the most creative Mexican food in town. Topolobampo is the most expensive, although it's surprisingly affordable at lunchtime, and accepts reservations in advance but books up long in advance for dinners, not as much for lunch. Frontera Grill is not as expensive, but accepts only a handful of reservations and keeps most of the dining room available for walk-in traffic. Waits for a table can be lengthy on weekends and at lunchtime. XOCO is his take on Mexican street food and I've found the food there excellent when you are in the mood for lighter fare; beware long lines at lunchtime. They are all at the same location, in the middle of River North.

    North Pond uniquely represents Chicago for its setting, located in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, not the adjacent neighborhood of the same name) facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. The renovated building formerly served as the warming shelter for skaters on the frozen pond in the winter. The food is contemporary American featuring local and seasonal ingredients from James Beard Award finalist Chef Bruce Sherman. It's about three miles north of River North.

    Our new French Market, located just west of the Loop in one of the train stations, is worth a visit. Keep in mind that it just opened a couple of months ago, and it's not fancy. However, it has several dozen food booths and these include some of the very best that Chicago has to offer. Highlights include the croissants, entremets, and French macaroons at Vanille Patisserie; the artisan chocolates at Canady Le Chocolatier (whose main shop is in the South Loop, also not far away); the cheeses at Pastoral; and the rainbow cookies at Delightful Pastries.

    While you're here, go to Garrett's Popcorn. There are several locations in the Loop and one on Michigan Avenue, all walkable from River North. They have caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, or a mix of caramel/cheese. Yum!

    Fox & Obel is our premier gourmet food store, with the finest meats, cheeses, and other basics, as well as the finest baked goods and other prepared foods. Don't miss the yummy cinnamon swirl rolls at the bakery counter! There's a cafe in the rear if you want to eat anything on the premises, from a cup of coffee to an entire meal prepared to order. It's on the other side of Michigan Avenue a short walk from River North.

    Most of our better restaurants, including North Pond and Topolobampo (but not Alinea), accept reservations for free at

    Enjoy your visit, and feel free to ask more questions!

    8 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      WOW, I don't know where to start thank you for the greatest post ever.Alinea tasting menu looks like the meal of a lifetime, and I'm a big fan of Rick bayless and was planning to go to Frontera. You have opened up some great suggestions and I will most likely hit as many as possible starting with stocking up at Fox and Obel and than going for a couple of dogs and a slice.You must be a foodie too because you understand how perfection can come in fine dining or wrapped in a bun.You even found me something to munch ( as I walk around looking for my next great scarf..I also want to do a Chinatown trip and would be up for any dim sum/ noodle shop suggestions you might have, thanks again for a killer post.traumachef

      1. re: traumachef

        For Chinese, my tastes lean towards Szechuan food. My favorite restaurant there is Double Li ( ). Also good is Lao Sze Chuan ( ). You can find dim sum at Cantonese places like Phoenix ( ).

        1. re: nsxtasy

          This is becoming fun. I too lean towards Szechuan but a stop in a little bite shop is always fun if done well. . And I will always travel anywhere for a food experience.

      2. re: nsxtasy

        You're amazing nsxtasy. As a lifelong Chicago resident, you ALWAYS nail it! You deserve the Chowhounds Medal of Honor. Keep up the great work and advice.

        1. re: Bothrops

          Thanks for the kind words! :blush:

        2. re: nsxtasy

          This is a great help! We will be in Chicago for three days in June and want to make the best use of our time. This separates the wheat from the chaff and lets us focus on what is unique to Chicago instead of a repeat of what we have here in Berkeley/San Francisco. I can not remember a post on any Chow board as useful as this. Will report our experiences.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Hi nsxtasy,
            Just wanted to thank you for writing this information above... although not intended for me specifically, it made my planning for my Chicago visit both efficient and delicious!

            We went to Frontera Grill the first night, and although the service wasn't spectacular (we had a table of 9), the food we ordered blew us away. I had a roast suckling pig special (Wed. night) that was melt-in-your-mouth incredible, and I tasted several other dishes for which I don't remember the specifics. My specific service complaint was that I ordered the trio of ceviche, and it never came. It wasn't on the bill and I was incredibly full, so I didn't hassle it, but technically a misstep. Also, we were visiting from San Diego, so we found the guacamole to be a bit too sour cream and not enough lime for our tastes. But those quibbles aside - it was a flavor explosion, and I was the hero of the evening for having gotten us in there. :o)

            Next morning - breakfast at Bongo Room. Thursday morning, and we were one of two tables there at 8am, but my friend and I shared the brioche french toast drizzled with vanilla bean cream sauce and caramelized bananas and the chorizo avocado omelet. Service there was very nice, and it did get busier before we left. My friend and I nearly came to blows trying to get the last bits of the vanilla bean sauce, too!

            Dinner that night at Cafe Iberico - a group meal I didn't plan, but for a group, it wasn't bad. It was a bit loud for my tastes (as was Frontera, now that I think of it), but that's probably because I'm getting old and crabby. Or something like that.

            Dinner next night at North Pond Restaurant. After being in the hustle and bustle of the conference for a couple of days, being there was like getting a warm hug from a best friend. The setting was gorgeous, the architecture of the building beautiful, and the food impeccable. Service was amazing - not overly friendly or hovering, but always gracefully there when you need someone. The amount of food on each dish is small, but I am too, so it was perfect for me. The flavors were very innovative (e.g., wild mushroom flavored sausage on coarse polenta with pear and pork belly) and the food was beautifully cooked. I was completely restored after our visit.

            Lunch the last day was a hot dog and cheese fries from Portillo's. We enjoyed listening to the woman calling the numbers... she was a hoot. Great dog - flavorful with a soft, steamed hot dog bun.

            Dinner was at Sable, and my friends and I grazed ourselves into a food coma. Bacon wrapped dates, fried chicken/waffles/syrup, bison short-rib sliders, pork rilletes (sp?) with pickled apricot and a bit of brown mustard seed... and other stuff I can't remember. Piled on a warm rhubarb crumble for good measure and rolled back to our hotel.

            Then, just before getting to my gate, I remembered Garrett's Popcorn. Stopped by to pick up a bag of Chicago Mix and another of Caramel. Holy God.

            So, you might well be single-handedly responsible for about 5 additional pounds on my frame, but I really feel like I made the most of my time in Chicago. Your recommendations were much appreciated - I pulled all this together pretty quickly before I left. Can't wait to go back and try other spots... thanks a million for your help!

            Cafe Iberico
            737 N Lasalle Drive, Chicago, IL 60654

            Bongo Room
            1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

            Frontera Grill
            445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

            North Pond
            2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

            1. re: nsxtasy

              In reviewing my reply above, I see that I mentioned Rick Bayless's restaurants and why they are special. However, I did short shrift to their influence on other Mexican restaurants around Chicagoland. Bayless has been here many years, and during that time many of his staff have gone on to open their own restaurants. So have others who have come directly from Mexico. We now have a lot of restaurants turning out creative, provincial Mexican food totally unlike what you'll find in other cities around the country (with the sole exception of Los Angeles). Of course, you can find conventional Mexican food everywhere this side of the border, but most cities don't show the creative side of Mexican cuisine. I recommend checking out the menus on the restaurants' own websites to give you a better idea of this type of food. In addition to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, my favorites are Mundial Cocina Mestiza, which is in Pilsen on the southwest side about four miles west of the Loop; Mexique, which is in West Town two miles west of the Mag Mile; and Mixteco Grill in Lakeview on the north side. There are at least a dozen more good ones all over the city and in a few suburbs.

            2. Looks like nsxtasy has put you on the right path.

              I never miss an opportunity to mention Hot Doug's for an unusual experience.


              Make sure you check out Today's Specials.

              The line is out the door and around the corner on Saturdays, but that's part of the fun (chatting up your line-mates). Arrive in plenty of time, then shut the door at 4:00p.

              23 Replies
              1. re: sis2catbat

                You should be aware that Hot Doug's is located some distance from downtown. Allow 30-35 minutes by car or taxi, 70 minutes by public transit, each way (in addition to the time spent in line).

                1. re: sis2catbat

                  I've seen hot Doug's on the food channel and although I really want to try a couple of local "Chicago dog'spots that nsxtasy suggested, I have mapped out how to get to Hot Dougs and will most likely take a taxi. Maybe I can bribe the driver into a round trip if I offer to spring for lunch.

                  1. re: traumachef

                    I'm not sure it's a "round-trip" in the traditional sense. In addition to lunch, plan on standing in line for a at least 30 minutes. The line will be out the door, down the block to the alley and beyond.

                    1. re: chicgail

                      You'll be paying for a lot of waiting time for that cab, if you don't get a separate one for the return. Cabs charge $2 for each 6 minutes of waiting time. And that's on top of the $15-20 the cab will cost you each way from downtown.

                      You'll save a lot of money doing it via CTA (public transit - ). If you buy a fare card (instead of paying cash when you first board), you can transfer for another 25 cents for up to two more rides within 2 hours. A $5 fare card will get you there and back with the transfer each way. You can get there from downtown by taking the Blue Line to California and then the #52 bus north on California, or by taking the Red Line or Brown Line to Belmont and then the #77 bus west on Belmont to California and walking a couple of blocks north.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        Once again good advice, I forgot about the long wait.I'm starting to feel like I know my way around and I haven't been there yet.And my appetite is growing. So is a beef sandwich something unique to Chicago? I was told by somebody I met that this is a must munch along with peppers.Also a south side pork chop sandwich,hmm I don't know about this one. You can tell where his taste buds are coming from, but I don't want to miss anything if its good..I'm not a fan of taking pictures when I go on a trip, but I love food so much I take pics of everything I eat because that's the memory I want to take home.

                        1. re: traumachef

                          Yes, Italian beef sandwiches are a Chicago specialty. You can read more about them in Wikipedia at

                          I'm not aware of a south side pork chop sandwich - not that one doesn't exist, but it's not widely considered a common local specialty.

                          1. re: nsxtasy

                            The pork chop sandwiches are probably Jim's Original and the next door Maxwell Street Polish.

                            1. re: delk

                              There are a bunch of Jim's in the area where you can get a pork chop sandwich (quality often depends on the stand and the time of day), as well as an excellent Polish sausage sandwich (which also has a claim to being a Chicago original). More here:


                              The Jim's mentioned above is not far from the original Al's #1 Beef on Taylor, one of the better exponents of an Italian Beef (unlike Jim's you'll want to avoid the other Al's sites for the most part).


                              Lot of controversy on where Al's stands in a top 10 list, but it's usually in the upper 5. (Johnnies is often #1, but that's out in the burbs).

                              By the way, both Al's #1 and the oroginal Jim's are in walking distance of Manny's, another Chicago icon (search to find much info) but if you decide to try all 3, come with an appetite.

                              1. re: jbw

                                Thanks for the advice, I will try Al's and Jim's. I went to menupages and printed the menus and google maps for directions.Looks like an easy destination with some great food.

                            2. re: nsxtasy

                              Ya just can't beat wikipedia. I have a better knowledge of the history of beef sandwiches now and even more reason to try one.Thanks again

                              1. re: traumachef

                                Please keep in mind: For every Al's fan there is just as many non-fans.

                                Al's is actually a love it or hate it beef. Personally, I hate it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the lovers will slam me, fine.

                                I live walking distance from the "vaulted Taylor Street" location and go about 2-3 times a year to make sure I'm not missing something.

                                Honestly, I don't think I am. Yes they have good fries.

                                Should you try them? Of course! Should you judge beefs on a sole visit to Al's? NO

                                1. re: traumachef

                                  If you don't want to do Al's, have the beef and dogs at Portillo's.

                                  1. re: nsxtasy

                                    Well you know that I have to do both now. Maybe I'll start at Al's and make that long trek to Portillo's afterward. This is going to be my first day's adventure and maybe a nap afterward so I have time to think about my next food adventure.I LOVE FOOD, Life is good so let's eat.

                                    1. re: traumachef

                                      Portillos offers good versions of both. One stop. One nap. One great afternoon. Or, try both. What else is there to say?

                            3. re: nsxtasy

                              Hi nsxtasy - planning a trip to Chicago in August - is there anything worth seeing near Hot Doug's or on the way or way back to make the trip out there not just for the hot dog? Thanks in advance.


                              1. re: TeacherFoodie

                                Nothing that I'm aware of. Perhaps others here know of something...?

                                1. re: TeacherFoodie

                                  First, TeacherFoodie, I would never trek out to Hot Dougs for a hot dog. There are lots of good Chicago dogs all over the city. What makes Hot Doug's notable are its much more interesting "encased meats" like Roman Luganega with Pesto Aioli, Slow Roasted Tomatoes and Burrata Cheese or the Kale and Walnut Pork Sausage with Sweet Curry Mustard and Smoked Gouda Cheese - two of today's specials.

                                  That being said, Hot Doug's is in a bit of an industrial area on the edge of a residential neighborhood. Unless you're going in a car and want to make stops to explore other more commercial neighborhoods (you don't say where in the city you will be), I'm afraid there is really nothing in the vicinity.

                                  1. re: TeacherFoodie

                                    If you're a fan of craft beer, Revolution Brewing (one of Chicago's best breweries) has a tap room that's open to the public about a 1/2 mile West of Hot Doug's. Their hours are currently 2pm-10pm, Wednesday - Saturday (though they occasionally close for private events) and they have a pretty good (and free) tour.

                                    1. re: danimalarkey

                                      Revolution Brewing is excellent. Since it opens at 2 pm and Hot Doug's closes at 4, you do have a window of opportunity.

                                    2. re: TeacherFoodie

                                      Thanks everyone for your replies. Not sure where we will be staying yet and we might have a car since we haven't decided yet whether we are flying or driving. Someone suggested staying on Michigan ave.

                                  2. re: chicgail

                                    >> In addition to lunch, plan on standing in line for a at least 30 minutes. The line will be out the door, down the block to the alley and beyond.

                                    Been there, done that. And when the line at Hot Doug's reaches the alley (as it often does), it's about a 90-minute wait.

                                    1. re: nsxtasy

                                      I've never waited close to 90 minutes. And, weather cooperating, the waits tend to be fun when I take the opportunity to chat with other people in line.

                                      1. re: chicgail

                                        If you haven't waited close to 90 minutes, then you haven't seen the line reach past the alley. If you're lucky enough to find only a 30 minute wait, the end of the line is still alongside the building housing Hot Doug's.

                                        I've waited close to 90 minutes, and have indeed chatted with other people in line - mostly about how crazy we all were to take the time to travel across town and then wait close to 90 minutes for hot dogs. Oh, excuse me, specialty encased meats. :)

                              2. I can't believe that nobody has told you to go to Avec. It is my absolute favorite restaurant. It is on Randolph Street, right next door to it's sister, Blackbird. There are no words to describe how wonderful it is and it is relatively inexpensive. It is a must try!

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: peanut.diana

                                  Very eclectic menu and looks like a lot of fun. Chorizo stuffed dates? how cool, and the beer list is wild.Very reasonable prices.Looks like a must for a small plate and a cold one.Thanks peanut.

                                  1. re: peanut.diana

                                    I think Avec is the most overrated and overhyped restaurant in the city. There are no reservations taken and you may wait up to 90 minutes or more on weekends. The seats are the most uncomfortable in town and consist of hard backless barstools at the bar, wooden benches along the wall, or what are basically backless wooden boxes at the rest of the table seats. The seating is communal; you're either at the bar or sharing an eight-top with strangers. And it is REALLY REALLY LOUD. Maybe you (or I) would be willing to put up with all of that for good food, but I've found the food there to be disappointing - not bad, per se, but nothing there has really wowed me in any way. There are so many great restaurants in Chicago where you don't need to put up with such major drawbacks.

                                    1. re: nsxtasy

                                      OUCH. I must say that after your first post, you are my food guru and I will follow any leads you suggest.I read a couple of reviews of Avec and it did say "LOUD".but as you said you (or I) would be willing to put up with noise for a great meal and I'm used loud, I've lived in L.A, San Francisco, and NYC. But that doesn't mean I have to put up with it. A good meal comes in many forms and noise levels and all I want to do is have a good time and eat.Once again thanks for taking the time to help me plan a food trip.By the time I get there I will owe you a meal.

                                      1. re: traumachef

                                        As a frequent visitor to Chicago, and also a follower and fan of nsxtasy, I'll weigh in on Avec - it is one of my favorite stops on nearly every one of my visits. I agree with his description of the scene - it's noisy, it's crowded, and the surfaces (seating and otherwise are hard).

                                        That said, I tend to keep coming back for their food, and try to block out the other aspects (and I am usually VERY bothered by noise). I typically get there early, around 5:30 PM or so, and almost always manage to get a seat at the bar right away. You may have a tougher time with more than two people but I think I've seen multiple open seats at the bar before 6 PM.

                                        I've had better luck than nsxtasy with the food and have enjoyed many meals there. I've found the chorizo-stuffed dates to be great, and I typically order a bruschetta, and perhaps their braised pork dish, or maybe an octopus starter.

                                        Consider going with those caveats, or for another alternative in the same price range, with some inventive offerings, consider The Gage, a mid-range gastropub with another good variety of tasty choices.

                                        I am going to arrive Monday for my next two meals - for me it's The Gage, and one other choice still TBD.

                                        Avec Restaurant
                                        615 W Randolph St Ste A, Chicago, IL 60661

                                        1. re: RichInMV

                                          I want to thank all of the posters that suggested so many great places to try for a first time Chicago eater.I especially want to thank nsxtasy because you understood my quest from the beginning. Although Avec/Gage have good menus, it's not what I'm looking for. if I lived there I would definitely go and check out but I don't see the connection to being unique to Chicago. I take food very serious and have taken the time to extrapolate everything that people have posted. I have a couple of holes to fill but appreciate everybody's imput and this will definitely make my trip a great culinary experience.. Thanks to all, traumachef

                                          1. re: traumachef

                                            Can you report back on what you had?

                                  2. The original comment has been removed