Best Meal - No Jacket Required
My wife and I are traveling from NYC to Chicago for the weekend of August 20th, as surprise 40th B-Day getaway weekend.
I can certainly use a recommendation for an exemplary restaurant for Saturday night; with a few minor caveats:
1) No too dressy (ie. no jackets required) - Price is not the issue, getting dressed up on a short weekend vacation is.
2) No seafood as my wife does not enjoy it and she is highly allergic to shellfish.
Otherwise, I'm open to any and all suggestions. I'm looking for the best food Chicago has to offer for a guy in a shirt.
Also, it would be helpful if the restaurants still have reservations available at this late date.
Thanks in advance.
Your no-jacket restriction probably only crosses a few restaurants off the list - Charlie Trotter's, Alinea, Spiaggia, TRU, and maybe one or two more.
I've had excellent casual meals at Naha, Blackbird, Perennial, Frontera Grill (go to the bar as soon as they open the doors - I think 5:30pm), and Bonsoiree. I'd recommend each in a heartbeat!
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>> Frontera Grill (go to the bar as soon as they open the doors - I think 5:30pm
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are both excellent provincial Mexican restaurants from Rick Bayless, with very different reservation policies worth noting. Topolobampo is the more expensive of the two, and accepts reservations on Opentable, but books up about three months in advance (it's still worth checking, on Opentable as well as over the phone). Frontera accepts only a handful of reservations over the phone, and holds most of the place open for walk-in customers; if that's where you'd like to go, call them to see if you can get a reservation. Otherwise, you can get there 10-15 minutes before they open the doors (it's 5:00 pm on weekends) to avoid a long wait to be seated.
If the reservation policies don't work for your Saturday dinner, note that both are open for lunch on Fridays, and Frontera for brunch on Saturdays.
Similarly, North Pond, which I mention below, is open for lunch during the week, and brunch on Sundays, in case you don't get a chance to go there for your Saturday dinner.
First, the good news. The number of restaurants in Chicago that require jackets is fewer than a dozen. And the number of restaurants in Chicago that are entirely booked over a month ahead of time is also probably fewer than a dozen, even for a Saturday night. (I recommend making your reservation soon though. Most of our nicer restaurants use Opentable for reservations.)
You'll get different answers to the question of which restaurant is "best" - not only because of differences in opinion (which certainly exist), but also because of differences in types of food (for example, comparing a French bistro against an upscale contemporary American restaurant).
Among our restaurants that do not require jackets, there are three that are probably the most expensive and may be regarded as the most creative and upscale: Bonsoiree, Schwa, and Sixteen. I have not been to the first two. I have been to Sixteen (Frank Brunacci's restaurant in the Trump Hotel) and I thought it was good but didn't overwhelm me.
So what DID overwhelm me? The best meals I have had in the past five years, at Chicago-area restaurants that do not require jackets, have all been at restaurants in the suburbs: Michael in Winnetka, Tallgrass in Lockport, and Inovasi in Lake Bluff. Within the city, the two places that have impressed me the most are North Pond and Cafe des Architectes. In addition to its contemporary American cuisine from James Beard finalist Chef Bruce Sherman, North Pond also offers its exquisite location in the middle of Lincoln Park. I think it's a wonderful place for a special occasion. I have thoroughly enjoyed the food at Cafe des Architectes in my numerous dinners there - I have found it absolutely amazing - and the service has been fine; however, a couple of other people here have had service problems in single visits there, but I've never experienced any problems whatsoever. Blackbird may also deserve consideration as well; I've always considered the food outstanding, but the cramped seating and the noise level have kept me from recommending it often. We have many more excellent contemporary American restaurants, including MK, Naha, Perennial, and Atwood Cafe, to name a few more that are convenient to downtown.
Contemporary American restaurants often predominate on lists of "bests", here as they do in NYC at places like Craft and Eleven Madison Park (both of which I have enjoyed). But contemporary American is not the "only game in town". Depending on whether you would consider other kinds of food, I think some other types of restaurants are worthy of a special occasion, including French bistros (e.g. La Sardine), Mexican (Topolobampo), tapas (Mercat a la Planxa), Latin fusion (Carnivale), pan-Asian (Red Light), and Italian (Cafe Spiaggia).
But if I had to recommend only one place for your special occasion, it would be North Pond.
Had a most wonderful dinner at Michael in Winnetka on Saturday night. It was our first time there and everything about the dining experience was wonderful. It was one of the most delicious meals both from a taste and visual aspect that we have ever had and I think even more spectacular than at a One Star Michelin restaurant in France in March!I Service was excellent and not stiff and the Chef, Michael came over and introduced himself, and when my husband asked the waiter if he could get a small scoop of the roasted orange sorbet after he tasted mine....the Chef brought it out with small cookie and told us how he made it! This was a true dining experience and we certainly will be back. Don't miss the foix gras appetizer, salad nicoise & fallen chocolate souffle!!!
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If you're willing to go to the suburbs, IMHO Michael is the very best restaurant in the entire Chicago area where jackets are not needed. I ate there a couple of weeks ago and it was the best meal I had in at least a year, and the best in the past three years with the exception of a dinner at Alinea. I posted a detailed report on that dinner in the discussion at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/351457
Those who have not been there yet are missing something really special.
If you don't have a car, Michael is just a block from the Metra commuter train station called Indian Hill on the Union Pacific North line, with hourly trains well into the evening heading back to downtown Chicago (as well as up and down the North Shore). See www.metrarail.com for more information.
I have never, ever seen any gentleman without a jacket in the main dining room at either Avenues or TRU. (The lounge at TRU is a different story). According to its listing on Opentable, Avenues is "Jacket Preferred"; its listing on Metromix says "Jackets required, denim not allowed". TRU's Opentable listing says "Jacket Required" and Metromix says "Jackets required".
I'm surprised they seated you at either restaurant. I'm also surprised you would go to either place without a jacket, since one look around the dining room will tell you that it is clearly inappropriate.
If you are not sure about a restaurant, the best course of action is to ask them over the phone before going. They will tell you what's appropriate.
Many of Chicago's top restaurants are less pretentious than you make it out to be. I'm actually surprised that you've never seen people without jackets at those places.
I've been to the lounge and the dining room at TRU (once by myself and once with a date), both times without jacket or reservation. They seated me with no fuss or problem. For Avenues, we called ahead to inquire because one of my friends didn't want to wear a jacket as he had plans that day in the city and it would have been damn hot running around with a jacket - they said no problem. I actually got to chat with Duffy that day, and we did touch on the subject of jacket requirement - he was very relaxed about it and said he didn't want the place to be intimidating or pretentious.
Whether or not not having a jacket "surprises" you or seems "inappropriate" to you depends on your subject expectation; but objectively, there's no fashion police bouncing people at the door in many of these places.
Even at L2O, I've seen people with just polo and khaki shorts in the dining room (now I think that's a bit too casual, but to each its own). And with the fun and inventive atmosphere at Alinea, I wouldn't be surprised if they would still accommodate you without jacket (but I wouldn't know, as I did go with one).
That said, there are places I'd be uncomfortable not wearing jacket (either because I know they enforce it, or that the reputation/attitude of the place comes off as austere): Les Nomades, Everest, Trotter's, and Spiaggia.
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>> Even at L2O, I've seen people with just polo and khaki shorts in the dining room (now I think that's a bit too casual, but to each its own).
I've seen that at L2O also (and I agree with you). In fact, it was one of the things that struck me as odd, something that doesn't speak well for the atmosphere of a restaurant that aspires to haute cuisine and states its policy as "Jackets Preferred".
I'm not trying to tell anyone what to wear, and again, asking the restaurant in advance is the best way to find out their policy. However, I also wouldn't want to be with (or be) a gentleman who is the only person in a restaurant not wearing a jacket, even if they told me it's okay. (When I call a restaurant to inquire on behalf of myself and my dining companions, I usually ask not only what their policy is, but also what is "typical attire" among other patrons, so that our group doesn't include "that guy" whose attire is conspicuously different from everyone else.) And no, I have never seen any adult male diner without a jacket at either Avenues or TRU (or the other places you mentioned, with the exception of L2O). I do usually look around at other folks when I'm dining, and I would have noticed.
I don't have any strong feelings about attire, one way or the other; I enjoy being comfortable as much as anyone else. However, I feel that restaurants should decide their policy, then state it and enforce it. If they want to be a place where gentlemen where jackets, fine - just say so on your website and in Opentable. And if they want to be a place where at least some gentlemen don't, then again, just say so (with terms like "smart casual" or "business casual"). Don't say one thing and allow another. If Avenues doesn't want to be intimidating or pretentious, and sees attire as one way to communicate this, that's fine - just change what it says in your listing on Opentable.
Avenues is meant to be a special occasion place for most. I don't think they necessarily want to encourage people to dress down by listing "smart casual." So I understand if they have a higher attire standard on Opentable. But at the end of the day, it's about reasonable accommodation. I understand if restaurants want to enforce a strict dress code. But at the same time, I don't think there's anything wrong if other restaurants choose to allow attires different from the Opentable listing. Until the relaxed policy causes hordes of people wearing T-shirts and shorts to 3-star restaurants, I will be not let the extra customer accommodation bother my own experience.
Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions to all who responded. I already have a reservation at Frontera Grill for lunch the Friday afternoon we arrive.
I now have a reservation at North Pond for Saturday night. Thanks.
I also intend on dining at Lou Malnati's (deep dish pizza) and the Bongo Room (brunch).
Any other quintessential Chicago culinary experiences I shouldn't miss?
What a tremendously helpful group. Thanks again.
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>> 1) Is the commute on metrarail safe for me and more importantly, my wife?
Yes, absolutely! The commuter trains are very safe. (CTA trains within the city of Chicago are also generally quite safe as well.) And the stations at both ends are safe too. Michael is located in an upscale suburban neighborhood. The Ogilvie station on the west side of the Loop always has people going through, even at night. You'll probably want to take a cab from there back to your hotel; there are always cabs at the cab stand.
>> 2) How long would you allow for dinner (so I can coordinate the time of my reservation with the train schedule)?
Good question. I haven't really noticed; the service is attentive without being rushed. I would guess maybe 90-120 minutes, but I'm just guessing. You could call the restaurant to ask.
If you're going to Michael for dinner on Friday night, you should be aware that the Friday evening commuter rush hour is always the busiest and slowest of the week. Allow plenty of time to get to the Ogilvie train station, as streets may be clogged if you're doing that around 5:00 (it's less so around 6:00 or later).