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Mar 15, 2010 11:47 AM

Looking for some "challenging" suggestions...

Hi all, I'll be visiting Chicago shortly (my 2nd time) and am looking for a couple great dinner spots. I have some specific criteria, so would appreciate any suggestions you can offer.

- Looking for amazing food (price point, whether cheap or expensive, is not an issue), but in an atmosphere where I will not feel out of place in nice jeans and a nice shirt. I think this probably eliminates several places?
- Tasting menu option would be nice, but not necessary
- Looking for food that's inventive and different from the norm
- Planning to go out to a blues club afterwards (last time really enjoyes B.L.U.E.S. and Buddy Guy's), so would prefer something that's either walking distance to a good blues bar or at least not too expensive to get to by cab
- Would prefer a place that takes reservations or doesn't have huge lineups

That's it! I already have a Thurs night reservation at Frontera. I've looked at some of the places mentioned on this board and a couple stuck out to me: Green Zebra, Mercat, Cafe des Architectes and Publican. Do any of these fit / not fit the bill?


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  1. dress code:
    All of your options would be fine in nice jeans.

    They all take reservations.

    Inventive, different food:
    The food at GZ is inventive and vegetarian. Mercat is tapas and inventive. Publican is out of this world creative (drool). CdA is inventive, but IMO not that different from the norm.

    tasting menu: CdA has a 3-course chef's seasonal menu, but no tasting menu. The others all have tasting menus.

    blues club:
    Mercat is walking distance from Buddy Guy's place; CdA may be walking distance from House of Blues, but none of them is going to be a very expensive cab ride.
    Check out this link for blues clubs --

    1. Okay, I THINK the big thing you're asking about is attire. And I'll answer the question as best I can - but please don't think that I'm telling you what you can or can't wear anywhere; I am only an observer. There are two ways to tell what attire is appropriate at a restaurant: what people actually wear there, and what their listing says is appropriate attire. These two don't always correspond, either; the Opentable listing for L2O says "jackets preferred" (one of the most conservative attire categories), whereas when I ate there they were seating male patrons in blue jeans and no jackets.

      Anyway, I think you'll be fine in a nice shirt and nice jeans at any of the five restaurants you've mentioned. FWIW Opentable says Publican is "Casual Dress" and the other three (excluding Frontera, which isn't listed there) are "Casual Elegant", which I interpret as meaning a nice shirt and nice jeans are still fine. And I've seen that at the three of these places I've been - not that that's what everybody wears, but it would not look out of place. Frontera is definitely more casual and I bet half the people there wear blue jeans. I suspect the same of the Publican, where I haven't been, but ask me next week after I go there. ;) The other three, you'd probably see more people dressing a bit more sharply (e.g. khaki pants), so nice blue jeans would be in a minority, but there will be a few people wearing them (just as jackets would be in a minority, but there will be a few people wearing them).

      Again, these are just my observations, and if anyone has a sharper eye than I do and wishes to agree or disagree, please chime in.

      As for your other criteria...

      All of these places are good choices for food that's creative, delicious, and amazing. Assuming, of course, that you like the associated type of food (e.g. don't go to Green Zebra if you think you would be disappointed in an all-vegetarian menu - but check the sample menu on their website before ruling it out). If I had to single out one of these as having food that most consistently impresses and amazes me, it would be Cafe des Architectes - although again, all are very good.

      I could be wrong, but I don't think any of these restaurants has a tasting menu. However, at some restaurants, it's not mentioned on their regular menu, but they can do one on request (preferably in advance). EDIT: I see chicgail says all but CdA offer a tasting menu, and I trust her guidance.

      Location-wise, all of these restaurants are in or close to the areas collectively known as downtown Chicago. Publican is in the West Loop (just west of the Loop), Green Zebra is in West Town (a couple miles west of River North and the Mag Mile of North Michigan Avenue), Mercat a la Planxa is in the South Loop (just south of the Loop), and Cafe des Architectes and Frontera Grill are in River North near the Mag Mile. Buddy Guy's is in the South Loop near Mercat a la Planxa. B.L.U.E.S. is in Lincoln Park, about three miles north of the Loop, and is not walking distance from any of these, although you can get to any of them by cab in 10-15 minutes. House of Blues is in River North, a 5-minute walk from Frontera Grill and a 10-minute walk from Cafe des Architectes.

      All of the four places where you do not already have reservations accept them on Note that the Publican features communal seating, so you will be seated at a table with others who are not part of your party. Reservations are always recommended at a place that takes them, especially on weekends.

      I hope this answers your questions, but either way, feel free to ask more - and enjoy your visit!

      10 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        Very cool, lots of good things to know here. Thanks, chicgail, for the link.

        As for dress code, I think you're right in that it's more important to know what people generally wear. Yes, I've also seen people wearing jeans at formal restaurant where most generally wear a jacket, and while they let them in, I personally would feel out of place if I were the guy in jeans.

        On trend that I'm definitely not a fan of is communal seating (with the exception of when I'm setting at the bar, which naturally is communal, I guess). Is Publican strictly communal, or possible to get a table for 2 if requested?

        1. re: SMOG

          Publican is probably 70% communal, but they do have booths and bar seating. That being said, like Chicgal, I really like the place. Have even just stopped in for a fine belgian beer and the most delicious house-made spicy pork rinds for a snack. Go for it, you will not be at all disappointed and us Chicagoans are usually super nice so you may meet someone interesting at the table.

          1. re: SMOG

            The last time Mr. CG and I were there we were seated at a communal table -- and I don't know how or why we got so lucky (maybe it was an off-time) -- but we were the only ones sitting there at least at our end of the table so it never felt like we had a lack of privacy or had to include other people in our conversation.

            1. re: chicgail

              I ate at Publican last night, so now I have a better feel for the place. Here's the layout. They have four-top booths along the west side of the room; I loved the way they have doors that close on the outside of the booth, because they reminded me of stalls in a stockyard. :) They have small tables on the north side of the room, which are primarily two-tops but they can push them together as they did for our group of six. And the rest of the room consists of communal seating, basically two loooong tables, with one in an L shape. Between that and the seatless high-tops in the middle, I'd say somewhere around half of the room is communal. I chatted with the hostess a bit and she told me that you can request either type of seating - a private table or communal - when you make your reservation (there's a comments field on Opentable) and they will try to honor your request, but there are no guarantees.

              Most of the food was very good, particularly the country ribs and the sweetbreads. Although they are known for meats, the seafood was quite good as well, notably the mussels, which were huge. The desserts (we tried all three) were uniformly dreadful and a real let-down for such an otherwise good place.

              Also, like Kahan's other restaurants, it was really *really* REALLY NOISY. With three of us on each side of our table, those on one end could not hear those on the other end.

              Casual attire (e.g. blue jeans, and not necessarily nicer ones) is perfectly acceptable.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                We had a business dinner meeting at the Publican at 7 pm on a Wednesday and had no problem hearing each other for the 2 plus hour we were there. FWIW we were at a corner of one of the communal tables. 3 on one side 2 on the other. Also the desserts we shared were quite good. I really enjoyed the waffle and I'm not a dessert person. The sweetbreads were out of this world and I wish I could of ordered another portion for my dessert!

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Nsxtasy, I have to agree! The Publican may be the loudest restaurant I've ever eaten in!

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    Aren't the mussels fabulous? I think they may be the best I've ever had! The organ meats have been great -- I've had duck heart, beef tongue, sweetbreads and more and they've all been tasty. If there's a non-adventurous eater, the Publican chix is so good, but I always feel silly "wasting" a meal on roast chicken, but man it's good.

                    I couldn't agree more about desserts. They've all be mediocre at best. Opt for another beer instead of dessert.

                    Another think that I applaud about Publican is the bread service. Really good breads paired well with the dishes and they're good about keepin' it comin'! After all, the best part (almost) of the mussels is sopping up the broth with the bread.

                    1. re: geg5150

                      >> Nsxtasy, I have to agree! The Publican may be the loudest restaurant I've ever eaten in!

                      Avec, another of Kahan's, is even louder!

                      >> Another think that I applaud about Publican is the bread service. Really good breads paired well with the dishes and they're good about keepin' it comin'! After all, the best part (almost) of the mussels is sopping up the broth with the bread.

                      The bread service was excellent - and interesting. The standard bread they brought to the table was a hearty type bread with a dark crust but a light middle; I'm not sure what to call it but I enjoyed it. Then the mussels came with a traditional French baguette that was even better (also it arrived hotter than the hearty bread which was only slightly warm). Good stuff, both.

                      The waffle was one of the desserts we had and it was just so bleh - just an ordinary waffle topped with butter and a little bit of honey and some golden raisins. It was not at all unusual in any way. I've seen waffles used by other restaurants as the starting point for some interesting dishes, both sweet and savory, but in this case it never developed into anything worthwhile.

                      Incidentally, sweetbreads is/are (?) one of my favorite dishes, and theirs is/are one of the best in town.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        I never had sweetbreads before but if they are always that good, I will eat them forever. The french bread for the mussels was a point of sadness for me. If I was with friends, I would have no qualms about sopping up the juices/broth with it. But I was with business associates and had to be polite. Dang it. The waffle we shared was not ordinary to me. I can't describe it but it certainly wasn't bleh. It also didn't have raisins on it. I wonder if it was new preparation. The one we shared almost tasted savory which was a nice counterpoint to the honey butter. I'm glad you tried it and liked it.

              2. re: nsxtasy

                I've always found if going to eat at somewhere new dress up you can always become more casual not the other way round. Ditch even "smart" jeans if you think that you might not be uncomfortable. Even the best food in the best place will be like dust in your mouth if you feel like a rube.