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Mar 28, 2010 03:31 PM

Where are the best Chicago dinner *values* - the hidden gems?

Anyone can pay $600 for a great meal - where is a fabulous meal for $200? We're coming in May and staying the loop, but don't let that restrict you, Chicago foodies. Thanks in advance.

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  1. You are actually asking two different questions: (1) Where are the best values? and (2) Where is a fabulous meal for $200?

    Let's take the second question first. The number of places in Chicago where you will typically pay significantly more than $200 for a dinner for two including moderate wine and tax/tip is small, no more than a dozen, and consists of our "haute cuisine" restaurants. Heck, they're easy to name: Alinea, Everest, Charlie Trotter's, Avenues, TRU, NoMI, Spiaggia, Les Nomades, Schwa, L2O, Bon Soiree, and maybe Sixteen. That's it. Anywhere else, you're probably not going to pay over $200, unless you order a high quality and/or quantity of alcohol. So go ahead and book any of our best places for whatever kind of food you like, other than those superfancy places. For example:

    Contemporary American - North Pond, Cafe des Architectes
    Steaks - David Burke's Primehouse, Gibson's
    Seafood - Shaw's Crab House, Hugo's Frog Bar
    Italian - Cafe Spiaggia, Coco Pazzo, Vivere
    Pizza - Uno/Due, Lou Malnati's
    French bistros - La Sardine, Brasserie Jo
    Pan-Asian - Red Light, Sunda
    Latin Fusion - Carnivale, Nacional 27
    Greek - Santorini, Greek Islands
    Tapas - Mercat a la Planxa, Cafe Baba-reeba
    Mexican - Topolobampo/Frontera Grill, Salpicon, Mundial Cocina Mestiza
    Chinese - Double Li, Lao Sze Chuan
    Thai - TAC Quick, Spoon Thai
    Jewish Deli - Steve's, Manny's
    Barbecue - Smoque
    Chicago hot dogs and Italian Beef - Al's, Portillo's
    Encased meats - Hot Doug's, Franks n Dawgs
    Brunch and Breakfast - Bongo Room, M. Henry, Jam

    That's not a comprehensive list, but it shows many food categories with a few of our best in each category.

    Now, where are the best values? That's a very different question. You can find better value by choosing a less expensive type of food - local specialties like Chicago hot dogs or deep-dish pizza or ethnic foods like Chinese or Thai instead of a contemporary American restaurant or a nice Italian place. But I'm sure you mean, where can you find real deals within each of these categories? So here's the answer to that question.

    One way is to eat out for lunch rather than dinner. No place is expensive for lunch. Most of our high-end superfancy places aren't open at lunch, but one that is, is NoMI. Beyond that, though, a $100/pp dinner at a nice place like Topolobampo or Blackbird becomes a $35-40/pp lunch. You may not get quite as much food or the exact same items, but you'll get food and an experience that is genuinely representative of the restaurant.

    A lot of restaurants have special deals. The sweet spot in the market seems to be 3-course dinners for around $30. Chicago Magazine did an article recently called "30 Under 30", highlighting 30 such places. You can read it at You can also find restaurant deals on Metromix by going to the Restaurants page on Metromix at and then looking at the calendar on the right side of the page to find deals for any particular date(s) you're interested in.

    Here are a few recommendations of my favorite places for a great deal as well as great food.

    Cafe des Architectes is the first-floor restaurant in the curving glass facade of the Sofitel near North Michigan Avenue. The cuisine from Chef Martial Noguier is contemporary American with a French flair, and everything I've had there has been consistently divine. They were featured on the cover of that Chicago Magazine for their $29 "neighborhood friends menu" served Sundays through Tuesdays. But even the other nights of the week, their normal prix fixe menu is $42 for three courses, which is still an excellent deal.

    Another place I like for a deal is La Sardine, the French bistro in the West Loop. On Tuesdays, you can choose any three courses on the menu for $25, and the food is excellent.

    There are several places in the suburbs where you can get a high-end dining experience at a very moderate price: Michael in Winnetka, Tallgrass in Lockport, Inovasi in Lake Bluff, and Carlos in Highland Park. I've had some of the very best meals in recent years at all four of these places. If you don't have a car, all but Tallgrass are located within a block or two of a Metra stop with commuter trains to and from downtown Chicago including evening hours.

    HTH - feel free to ask more questions!

    14 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I'm also visiting in May and this helps me, so thanks. Wife and I are doing the tour w/drink pairings at Alinea on one of our three days in town, so we're looking to spend a little less on the other two days.

      1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

      1. re: nsxtasy

        nsxtasy - what a fantastic reply! So helpful, i've printed it out.

        We (2 adults, 1 6 month old, 1 3 year old) are heading to Chicago for 5 days in May. Our 3 year old will eat anything. We are looking for hidden gems and values too. We are staying at the Embassy Suites downtown and will need to avoid long treks/cab rides... definitely doing Chicago pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef. Also Frontera Grill as we are big fans of authentic regional Mexican. What else would you say is a must? We love ethnic food and again, intimate, good-value, friendly, unpretentious places are preferred.

        We could afford to splurge once but the 3 year old may be more limiting than the budget.

        Frontera Grill
        445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

        1. re: thesnowyday

          Well, between doing Chicago pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beef, you're hitting the most obvious "musts" in the "cheap eats" category... with one exception. You need to go to Garrett's Popcorn. There are several locations in the Loop and one on Michigan Avenue. They have caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, or a mix of caramel/cheese. Yum!

          For ethnic food, I think Frontera Grill is a great choice; note that they're open not only for dinner, but also for lunch during the week and brunch on Saturdays. I love Double Li in Chinatown for Szechuan food. And it's great for kids, too. Ben Li, the owner, is usually in the dining room and can help with suggestions for ordering, based on everyone's preferences and tolerance (or lack thereof) for spicy dishes. Double Li also has the benefit that it's close to the el (subway - Cermak/Chinatown stop on the Red Line), and the 3-year-old might enjoy the train ride. Also close to el stops are two of our Thai restaurants, TAC Quick at the Sheridan stop on the Red Line, and Spoon Thai at the Western stop on the Brown Line. Our best Vietnamese restaurants, including Tank Noodle, are clustered around the Argyle stop on the Red Line. There are some Indian restaurants in the downtown neighborhoods and they're good. Alternatively, you could travel to Devon Avenue, which has a huge concentration of them, but it's not transit-friendly; you would need to take the Red Line to Loyola and transfer to the #155 CTA bus to head west on Devon.

          Some of our more mainstream foods are not what come to mind when people think of ethnic cuisine, but the food is often excellent and the prices moderate (even at dinner, although lunch is an even better deal), and kids are fine there. I'm referring to places like Cafe Spiaggia or Coco Pazzo Cafe for Italian, or La Sardine or Brasserie Jo for French bistro food.

          Another place that's a treat for kids and adults alike is Bongo Room, for breakfast. There are two locations, one in the South Loop and one in Wicker Park. They have creative pancakes, things like pretzel pancakes with white chocolate sauce; they also have egg dishes, sandwiches, salads. A normal order is three HUGE pancakes but they can also give you a one-third or two-thirds portion size at a reduced price, if you want to try other dishes (or for small eaters). Kids may get by with sharing yours. Beware long waits to be seated on Sundays.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            We also read the '30 for $30' article and got some great ideas. India House is practically across from our hotel, so we'll try that I think. Don't know if that was one of the Indians you were thinking of?

            Since we are a Vietnamese/Chinese couple we are always up for good Chinese and Vietnamese. Thai is a favorite.

            We don't have great Italian where we live - would Spiaggia or Coco Pazzo qualify as a bit of a 'nice occasion' meal? We'd like to do one while in town. As long as they seat early, so we can be done before 7:30 when our 6 month old turns into a pumpkin.

            Cannot thank you enough - we've printed your second reply as well.

            Coco Pazzo
            300 West Hubbard, Chicago, IL 60610

            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

            1. re: thesnowyday

              >> We don't have great Italian where we live - would Spiaggia or Coco Pazzo qualify as a bit of a 'nice occasion' meal? We'd like to do one while in town. As long as they seat early, so we can be done before 7:30 when our 6 month old turns into a pumpkin.

              I'm not sure whether you are asking about Spiaggia or Cafe Spiaggia. These are sister restaurants right next door to each other and sharing the same website (either or will take you to the same place). Spiaggia is a high-end restaurant where jackets are required for gentlemen and you'll typically pay $150-250 per adult including moderate alcohol and tax/tip. Cafe Spiaggia is a moderately-priced restaurant where the attire is pretty casual and you'll pay less than half that amount. Spiaggia's first seating is at 6:00 during the week and 5:30 on weekends; Cafe Spiaggia starts serving dinner at 5:30. You can easily be done by 7:30 at the Cafe, but wherever you go, you should probably let the restaurant know of your time constraint when making your reservation (use the comments field if you make it on Both places are nice and can serve as a "nice occasion" type restaurant.

              Coco Pazzo is a little bit more expensive and a little bit less casual than Cafe Spiaggia, but is closer in both ways to Cafe Spiaggia than to the fancy Spiaggia. Coco Pazzo also has a sister restaurant, called Coco Pazzo Cafe, about 3/4 mile east that is a bit less expensive and more casual.

              Geographically, Coco Pazzo Cafe is very close to the Embassy Suites on North Columbus Drive. If you're at the Embassy Suites on North State Street, all of these restaurants are about half a mile away.

              Additionally, there are two upscale ethnic restaurants in the downtown area that you might want to consider for your "nice occasion" restaurant, if you don't want to travel to Chinatown or Argyle Street. Shanghai Terrace is in the Peninsula Hotel, and it has very good Chinese food from multiple regions. Le Colonial is a nice Vietnamese restaurant in an old mansion downtown. Both these places are going to be more expensive (and less casual) than going to the restaurants in their respective neighborhoods, but in case you are interested in one of these as your "nice occasion" restaurant, either would be suitable.

              Feel free to ask more questions!

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Again, many thanks. we're off tomorrow and plan on the following for dinner:

                Frontera Grill
                Uno or Lou Malnati's
                Cafe Spiaggia (thanks for the clarification, the Cafe definitely sounds more our speed)

                We have 5 nights so we're missing 2 dinners and several lunches. The lunches will mostly need to be pretty quick and perhaps we'll be best just shopping local, wherever we happen to be. Some thoughts if nearby include:

                India House
                one of the Jewish delis
                one of the hot dog places
                one of the Italian beef places

                And one or two of the places off the Chicago Magazine 30 under 30 list (possibly Cafe des Architectes as you described on Sunday night).

                regarding lunch, we'll be doing a lot of the kid-friendly touristy activities, so quality food nearby might be handy to know about: Field museum, Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, Chicago Children's Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the big zoo.

                Thanks so much and we will check back from Chicago!

                Frontera Grill
                445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

                Cafe Spiaggia
                980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                Cafe des Architectes
                20 East Chestnut Street, Chicago, IL 60611

                1. re: thesnowyday

                  Sounds like a good plan.

                  >> regarding lunch, we'll be doing a lot of the kid-friendly touristy activities, so quality food nearby might be handy to know about: Field museum, Navy Pier, Adler Planetarium, Chicago Children's Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the big zoo.

                  The Field Museum and the Planetarium are both a short walk from Bongo Room, which is great for kids and adults. Bongo Room is open for breakfast and lunch, and their specialty is creative pancakes topped with sauce, such as their pretzel pancakes with white chocolate sauce. A standard portion size is three HUGE pancakes, which is an awful lot even for an adult, but they also offer one-third and two-thirds portion sizes at reduced prices, which works for kids (as well as for adults who want to try more than one dish).

                  Which big zoo? We have two: Lincoln Park Zoo on the north side, which is free, and Brookfield Zoo in west suburban Brookfield, which is not. If you're in Brookfield, consider Xni-Pec, our Yucatecan restaurant, for dinner or a late lunch on Fridays/Saturdays.

                  Bongo Room
                  1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    In addition to the two big zoos, don't forget about Shedd Aquarium. It's right downtown, between the Field Museum and the planetarium, which means it too is walking distance from Bongo Room. In addition to fish, they have a huge exhibit simulating the Pacific Northwest which they call the Oceanarium and which features marine mammals (e.g. dolphins and beluga whales). If you're interested in show times, check their website at

                    One other dining recommendation in the vicinity of the aquarium, Field Museum, and planetarium: one of our very best examples of our delicious deep-dish pizza is nearby! Go to the Lou Malnati's location in the South Loop at State and 8th Streets. Phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake.

                    Bongo Room
                    1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      nsxtasy, thanks for the great list! I come to Chicago once a month on business and this will greatly expand my "to-eat" list.

          2. re: thesnowyday

            Snowday---From Embassy Suites you can take a very quick taxi out Ontario to Reza's (walkable for grownups but too far for a 3 year-old). See their menu on "chicago restaurant menus". It's Persian, ie charcoal-grilled everything accompanied by huge portions of excellent rice. Decent prices. A very neutral cuisine, although they have some more exotic offerings (Fessenjan, Gaymeh---a wonderful beef and eggplant stew--- many vegetarian plates) but the main deal is grilled lamb, beef, chicken, scallops, shrimp, etc). Reza's also has an all-you-can-eat buffet at lunch for $10.

          3. re: nsxtasy

            do you know anything in st charles

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Back, great time, great food!

                First night: Pizzeria Uno. Exactly as expected - delectable buttery flaky crust piled high with cheese and sausage. We ordered a medium and each ate exactly one slice and were full. One spinach salad, one beer, and a piece of cheesecake completely filled us up. We ate the other 2/3 of the pizza for lunch over the next 3 days!

                Second Night: Moon Palace, on Cermak. we ordered everything the Chicago 30 under $30 article suggested - stir fried chives/tofu, xiao long bao (soup dumplings), hot and sour soup, and our favorite salt and pepper squid. All wonderful food and again we had leftovers.

                Third night: Frontera Grill. Put our name in at 5 pm, were sitting down by 6:15 pm. 3 margaritas, 2 apps, 2 entrees, 2 desserts, coffee, tip, tax = $145. Food was excellent, but I have to say the serving sizes were a little small. The agave margarita was second best I've ever had, behind only the perfect creations at Fonda el Refugio in Mexico City. Desserts were sublime - 2 flans, and a rhubarb crisp with olive oil ice cream.

                Fourth night: Billy Goat Tavern. Cuz I had the two kiddos on my own and we needed fast and dirty. Very unmemorable, whatever they hype, the food was not good.

                Fifth night: Blue 13. We originally went here because we had read about a Sunday night family style dinner for $20. We missed it somehow, so we ate off the regular menu. Terrific. Great, friendly service and Lamar really knew the menu. Truffled mac and cheese, rabbit wrapped in phyllo and grape leaves with a wasabi/horseradish potato foam, salad for apps; seared scallops with celery puree and roasted/smoked fennel and duck 3 ways were great. Dessert was a chocolate cake, well-done. $120 all in. Terrific experience, not exactly a 'value' but fairly priced for the experience. Only quibble was the scallops were just a little oversalted for my taste, but that was very minor.

                Thanks for the tips, we looked at Cafe Spiaggia and Cafe des Architectes but went with Blue 13 in the end.

                Next stop is New Orleans! Thanks again.

                Pizzeria Uno
                29 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL 60611

                Frontera Grill
                445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

                Cafe Spiaggia
                980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

                Cafe des Architectes
                20 East Chestnut Street, Chicago, IL 60611

                Moon Palace Restaurant
                216 W Cermak Rd, Chicago, IL 60616

                Blue 13
                416 W. Ontario Street, Chicago, IL 60610

                Billy Goat
                600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

            1. re: nsxtasy

              I'd like to add one more recommendation for value to the ones mentioned above, and that's Sable. Sable offers terrific contemporary American cuisine from Chef Heather Terhune. Many of the dishes are available in half-portions so you can try more items. I had dinner there and ordered four items for $30 and had too much food! I reported on that dinner in the Sable discussion at Sable also offers artisanal cocktails. Their website is at If you go there, don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee!

            2. Since I sometimes post a link to this topic as a good overview of Chicago dining, here are a few updates to the places I listed in my first post above:

              >> Contemporary American - North Pond, Cafe des Architectes

              Cafe des Architectes has changed chefs since I posted the above, and I have not yet been there for dinner. I have had weekend brunch there, though, and it was excellent.

              I posted above about my fondness for Sable for contemporary American cuisine in a small plates format. Another very good new restaurant in this category is the Girl and the Goat, although reservations there have been filling rapidly when they first open three months in advance.

              >> Italian - Cafe Spiaggia, Coco Pazzo, Vivere

              Several new Italian places have opened in the past year or two. I love Cibo Matto and the Florentine, which both feature a contemporary spin on Italian cuisine. I have not yet been to Piccolo Sogno but have heard good things.

              >> French bistros - La Sardine, Brasserie Jo

              Brasserie Jo has closed, and I have heard mixed reviews of its replacement, Paris Club. Other good French bistros to consider include Kiki's Bistro and Bistro 110.

              >> Pan-Asian - Red Light, Sunda

              Red Light has closed.

              >> Mexican - Topolobampo/Frontera Grill, Salpicon, Mundial Cocina Mestiza

              These are still excellent; so is Mexique, which is in West Town, two miles west of the hotels on the Mag Mile.