Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >
Apr 10, 2010 01:07 PM

Visiting downtown Chicago

My wife and I are meeting a friend and his wife who are flying in from Sao Paulo, Brazil. I consider myself to be a real "chow-hound" but Dave puts me to shame. We will be there in 2 weeks.

Hopefully you fellow hounds out there can make some recommendations. Just a few parameters, though. No steaks. I've been down there, and ours can't hold a candle to the Brazilian and Argentinian grilled foods. Also, he is not into Polish food, although I am.

I'm hoping for something ethnic; perhaps Indian. Or Thai. Mexican, good Mexican would be excellent. Spanish and Italian, too. But mostly interesting and high quality.

Thanks for any suggestions.

Regards, Dave

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Let's start with Mexican, since Chicago has some of the very best creative provincial Mexican cuisine this side of the border. Rick Bayless's restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill ( ), were influential in bringing such cuisine to the United States, and they are in the downtown area in River North. The only catch is that Topolobampo has been booking up to three months in advance for weekend dinners, and Frontera Grill keeps most of the dining room available for walk-in customers. If a weekday lunch works in well with your plans, you can usually get a reservation at Topolobampo without much advance notice. Alternatively, you could arrive just before Frontera Grill opens its doors for dinner to avoid a lengthy wait for a table (especially on weekends). Otherwise, you might consider one of our other provincial Mexican restaurants; of those, Salpicon ( ) is very good and is the closest to downtown.

    For Spanish food, go to Mercat a la Planxa ( ), our newest and possibly best restaurant for creative tapas, located in the southeast corner of the Loop. It was opened last year by Jose Garces, a native Chicagoan who made his name with his restaurants in Philadelphia.

    For Italian, Spiaggia is the only one of Chicago's high-end haute cuisine restaurants which serves Italian cuisine; although it's excellent, it is formal (jackets required) and very expensive. Possibly our best moderately-priced Italian restaurant is its sister restaurant next door, called Cafe Spiaggia. They are at the north end of the "Mag Mile" downtown. The two restaurants share their website so make sure you click on CAFE. Two other excellent mid-priced Italian restaurants are Coco Pazzo ( ), in River North, and Vivere ( ), in the Italian Village complex in the Loop.

    Other options for excellent ethnic food downtown include Latin fusion (Nacional 27 in River North, and Carnivale in the West Loop, ), pan-Asian (Sunda in River North, and Red Light in the West Loop, ), French bistros (Brasserie Jo in River North, and La Sardine in the West Loop, ), and, for something unusual, Latin-Indian (Vermilion in River North, ). We have some excellent Indian and Thai restaurants, but the best ones are located on the north side, some distance from downtown.

    Just to mention one other possibility, you don't say anything about contemporary American food, but we have numerous such restaurants, and one of them combines excellent cuisine with a unique and exquisite setting. North Pond is 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 features local and seasonal ingredients from James Beard Award finalist Chef Bruce Sherman. It's about three miles north of River North. I know this isn't a kind of food you mention and it's not right downtown, but it's a very special place that you should at least be aware of, no harm in mentioning it I hope!

    All of the above accept reservations for free on with the exception of La Sardine (they accept reservations over the phone and via their website, but not on Opentable) and Frontera Grill (which, as previously mentioned, accepts only a handful of reservations and holds most of the dining room for walk-in traffic). Opentable is an easy and quick way to see which places have availability at peak times (e.g. Saturday nights).

    6 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thank you so much for the speedy and comprehensive response. Just talked to my friend in Sao Paulo...the first words out of his mouth were "Do you know any good Indian restaurants?"

      Any information would be helpful. I would hate to have to depend on CitySearch...


      1. re: dsunderl

        Chicago has some good Indian restaurants, but there's no consensus on any particular one being "best".

        The biggest concentration of Indian restaurants is about ten miles from downtown, along Devon Avenue (6400N) between Western (2400W) and Sacramento (3000W). I haven't found any of them to be clearly superior; Tiffin ( ) had been my "go to" place on Devon, but lately it's been just okay. I did not like Mysore Woodlands ( ) much at all.

        There are two Indian places in the northern suburbs that I find consistently good: Mount Everest in Evanston ( ), and the Curry Hut in Highwood ( ).

        In downtown Chicago, India House is on Grand in River North ( ). Highwood's the Curry Hut has a second location in the South Loop called Chicago Curry House ( ) and it's very good also. Two other Indian restaurants in the South Loop are the India Grill ( ) and Chutney Joe's ( )..

        Mount Everest, the Curry Hut, and Chicago Curry House also feature Nepalese specialties in addition to Indian cuisine.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          So far, my favorite downtown Indian restaurant is Chicago Curry House in the South Loop as mentioned above. It can be uneven, but I've rarely gone wrong when I have focused on vegetable and Nepalese specialties (and I've learned to avoid the sampler plates). It has a pleasant midlevel ambience, too, and a liquor license. I haven't spent much time at the other downtown Indian restaurants, but based on comments from others I would avoid Chutney Joe's (more of a fast-food type place, anyway).

          If you're really really serious about Indian, however, a trek to Devon -- and it is a trek from downtown -- would be in order. Search "Devon" and you'll get lots of recs.

          Chutney Joe's
          511 S State St, Chicago, IL 60605

          Chicago Curry House
          899 South Plymouth Ct, Chicago, IL 60605

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Well we are off to Chitown tomorrow. Reservations at India House...I would have preferred Mt. Everest as I have never had Nepalese, but got outvoted.

            Just got an email from Dave (Sao Paulo) asking about Bubba Gump Shrimp (they loved the movie) first reaction was very negative due to the heavy duty commercial nature...not to mention the somewhat negative reviews (interspersed wit 5Stars) Still, when someone says "cooked in old oil" I take note.
            I would be interested in your comments, and other seafood recommendations (yes, I know its the Midwest) if Bubba is what I think.

            Thanks, Dave (dsunderl)

            1. re: dsunderl

              No to Bubba Gump. Go to Navy Pier, take a picture with some of the tchotkes of the movie they have, and then move on. If you want seafood at the Pier, try Riva's. Better seafood places are Shaws, Joe's Seafood, and Catch 35. L20 if you are feeling expensive.

              1. re: lbs

                Thanks. Confirms my original thoughts.