I'll be in Chicago April 16-19th from San Francisco. I have only been to Chicago twice before, both times consisted of being stuck in a conference room on Wacker for days... Pretty views, but I know nothing about the restaurants there. With that said, if I only have three nights to explore the food in Chicago where should I go?
Where will you be staying (which hotel or city neighborhood or suburban town)? That may affect the recommendations, as some of our best types of food can be found in more than one location.
Last week someone staying in River North asked for recommendations of great food that is unique to Chicago. Below is my response. (However, keep in mind that there are many foods that are not unique to Chicago, but for which we have excellent places, such as contemporary American, steaks, seafood, Italian food, French bistros, ethnic food from nationalities all over the world, etc - so feel free to ask about any other kind of food in addition to those I have mentioned below!)
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. www.unos.com
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 ( www.portillos.com ), and Al's Beef ( www.alsbeef.com ).
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 http://lucylou.livejournal.com/555828.html 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. www.alinearestaurant.com
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. www.rickbayless.com/restaurants
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. www.northpondrestaurant.com
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. www.frenchmarketchicago.com
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! www.garrettpopcorn.com
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. www.fox-obel.com
Most of our better restaurants, including North Pond and Topolobampo (but not Alinea), accept reservations for free at Opentable.com
Enjoy your visit, and feel free to ask more questions!
Thank you for the advice and re-posting for me! We are staying at the Intercontinental.
It is good to know Bayless' places are worth a trip. I'm a Top Chef fan, but after a bad experience at Craft, pre-Colicchio starting the show, I try to be cautious until I hear a positive first-hand account (because I don't think me trying tacos at Bayless' SF outpost in the basement of our Macy's counts!) :)
My plan is to keep it relatively simple/non-fussy, but fun. Based on your advice and scoping out the board, I think I figured out dinners (hopefully I didn't totally screw up the geography) and will get the deep dish at Pizzeria Due in there for lunch at some point.
I'm thinking Frontera with the alternative being Topo on Friday. I'm going to try to see if I can call in a reservation. Maybe too early? Oh well, I'll try... I Opentabled Perennial (Saturday) and the Publican (Sunday). I think North Pond's location sounds perfect, but I wasn't really feeling the menu they posted online for some reason. Maybe I'll try it for brunch on Sunday.
The Intercontinental is right in River North near the south end of the "Mag Mile", so the geographic references work for you as well.
>> It is good to know Bayless' places are worth a trip. I'm a Top Chef fan, but after a bad experience at Craft, pre-Colicchio starting the show, I try to be cautious until I hear a positive first-hand account (because I don't think me trying tacos at Bayless' SF outpost in the basement of our Macy's counts!) :)
Yes, so much about food depends on personal taste! I don't pay a lot of attention to celebrity chefs and their restaurants until I have a chance to try them and decide for myself. That being said, I ate at Craft last year and loved it, so go figure!
>> I'm thinking Frontera with the alternative being Topo on Friday. I'm going to try to see if I can call in a reservation. Maybe too early? Oh well, I'll try...
I suggest calling NOW for Frontera, or using Opentable NOW for Topolobampo. It may be too late to get a weekend reservation for Topolobampo (and that's when you'll be here, on a weekend; both places are closed Sundays/Mondays) but check anyway. You can probably still get a Topo reservation for Friday lunch, if you're in town in time for that. Otherwise, it's Frontera. Without a reservation, you may have to wait a while to be seated on weekends, especially at peak times. Locals often arrive shortly before they open the doors to avoid long waits. Frontera is open for brunch on Saturdays, too, so that may work well with your plans.
>> I Opentabled Perennial (Saturday) and the Publican (Sunday). I think North Pond's location sounds perfect, but I wasn't really feeling the menu they posted online for some reason. Maybe I'll try it for brunch on Sunday.
I know what you mean about the North Pond menu. I think restaurants do a disservice when they don't really describe how a dish is prepared, and they only mention a few ingredients for each dish, like North Pond does. I probably avoided North Pond for a while because its menu didn't excite me, either. But it turned out that the food is great. One of the things that's different about North Pond is that a lot of the dishes consist of multiple items on a plate, rather than one composition - so that something described on the menu as "A - b, c, d" would consist of an interesting preparation of "A" surrounded on the plate by smaller interesting preparations of separate side dishes containing "b", "c", and "d". As a result, you get to try a lot of "items" on a plate; I found that not everything "wowed" but there were usually at least one or two items that did. Hope that description makes sense. Sunday brunch would be a nice way to try their food and enjoy the setting.
Anyway, Perennial (in Lincoln Park, two miles north of your hotel) and the Publican (in the West Loop, about a mile west of the hotel) are both very good places. I just ate at the Publican last night. About half the restaurant is communal seating, with the other half two-tops and four-tops (they can move two-tops together for parties of six). If you have a preference for either your own table or a communal table, you can note it in the comments on your reservation and they will try to honor it. The best dishes we had were the sweetbreads, the mussels, and the country ribs. Skip the desserts (and I say that as a dessert lover who almost never skips desserts).
Enjoy your visit, and feel free to ask more questions!