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Advice - Frontera or Topolobampo?

I have one night free in Chicago and would like to check out either venue. Any advice on which I should go for?

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Topolobampo
445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

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  1. The first thing to realize is that Topolobampo books up well in advance. Right now the first opening on Opentable for a party of two is on Tuesday September 14 for an early seating (5:30/6:00). If you want a weekend dinner or a more desirable time, you'll have to book even further in advance. Sometimes you can get a reservation over the phone when Opentable says they're full, but the bottom line is, Topolobampo may not even be an available option if you're planning to go before September.

    Frontera Grill is a different story, because they hold most of the dining room open for walk-in customers, and only accept a handful of reservations over the phone. The good news about this is, you don't need much advance planning to be able to go, and also, if you get there about 15 minutes before they open the doors, you'll be able to walk right in. The bad news is, waits can be lengthy, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when they can range up to two hours. One other strategy to avoid waiting is to eat at the bar, where you may not have to wait as long, and you can order off either menu (Frontera Grill or Topolobampo).

    The menus are somewhat different, and so are the prices at dinner, which are considerably higher at Topolobampo. You can see the current menus on their website at www.rickbayless.com/menu

    One other option to consider is lunch/brunch. Both are open for lunch Tuesdays through Fridays; my recommendation would be Topolobampo, because you can make reservations, and the lunch prices for both are similar. At lunch Topo doesn't book up all that far in advance (although a bit further in advance for Fridays than the other weekdays). Frontera Grill serves brunch on Saturdays if that works for you.

    So those are the pluses and minuses of the two places.

    Which would I go to? I hate to wait a long time for a table, so if I'm planning far enough in advance, I'd see which one I can get a reservation at, and take either one. If I couldn't get a reservation, then Topo isn't even an option, and I'd arrive early at Frontera Grill.

    Both restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays.

    HTH

    1 Reply
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Sorry to reply late to this with your res already made, but in my opinion the menu at topo is substantially better than frontera. I've only dined at each once, though, and it was about a year apart. There was menu overlap but where there wasn't, topo had some killer stuff.

      I don't think you'll be disappointed in either, though.

    2. The food at both is excellent and I'm not sure you can go wrong at either, so it's a tough to steer you one way or another.

      The question, as nsxtasy said, can you even get a reservation at Topo?

      If so, is budget a concern? Topo has tasting menus that are around $90 or if you do app/entree you'll likely hit about $60 a person. Frontera is more like $35 a person. (Obviously, this can be very different based on how you order - and if you drink you'll probably double those prices - you should get a cocktail for certain - I'm going 'food only' averages so you also gotta add on tax/tip).

      Topo is fairly formal and the food is a bit more subtle and complex. One night only in Chicago? I'd go all out and splurge....but as a local who has dined at both several times, I personally prefer Frontera (more relaxed and the food I have had always struck me as bolder and brighter).

      11 Replies
      1. re: chris

        thanks to you both for the feedback.

        When I called to make the advanced ressie and to see if Topo was available, I lucked out. The receptionist said they had availability for Frontera and Topo.

        Based on time availability, we went with Frontera. Plus, we'll be in suits all day and would definitely looking forward to being more casual for dinner. Can't wait!

        1. re: chris

          >> Topo is fairly formal

          Topolobampo is not all that formal; very few men wear jackets, and "business casual" attire predominates. The service is not particularly formal either; you don't find the armies of servers you see at the haute cuisine places. Frontera is even more casual.

          Frontera is fine too. Enjoy your dinner!

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Last time I was there, I was the only guy not in a jacket....though it was lunch, so I suppose I was around business people. (And our waiter was so snooty I couldn't tell if he was being ironic....but that's another story I'll leave at "how are the flavors mingling in this dining experience?")

            1. re: chris

              I think lunch is different. Lots of places have guys in suits/jackets when they're coming from work at lunchtime, even though it's not needed at lunch or at dinner. Blackbird is another perfect example.

              I ate dinner at Topolobampo six months ago and I didn't see a whole lot of guys in jackets.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                My experience and observations ... garnered from being in front of the restaurants on a 5-day a week basis ... has been that the restaurants now draw the 'tour bus' crowds who show up inappropriately dressed ... very sloppy and not the type of folks I want to be sitting next to when having a good dinner ... especially so during the Summer months. I avoid the restaurants during the Summer unless I'm having a late dinner (the bus crowd moves on by then). Xoco is a good choice for a caual meal from Bayless ... especially so now that the sidewalk seating has been added ... though, most of what Xoco serves isn't recognizable as traditionally-prepared Mexican food. Both Topolo and Frontera are expensive places when you factor in one or two drinks. There are monthly changes to menu's ... which keeps things rotating and somewhat interesting. Bayless doesn't cook in his restaurants, so don't expect something from him ... but when he's not marketing one thing or another and he's in Chicago, he's frequently in the dining room greeting diners.

                1. re: gomexico

                  Sounds like you've only been watching the lunch crowd, which tends to be more casual than dinner, especially during the daytime this summer with its unusually oppressive heat and humidity. Based on my recent visits in the past few months, the truly casually dressed folks - whether tourists or locals, no one can tell them apart without asking them - are all at XOCO, where it's appropriate to their coffeehouse atmosphere. Go to Frontera Grill on a Saturday night and it's like any lively casual restaurant in Chicago, folks generally casual but nicely attired (e.g. no athletic attire). And people dress nicely for Topolobampo, where business casual predominates.

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I walk past the pre-opening line-up of diners at the restaurants M-F week in and week out. Frequently for lunch as well. Neither is the collection of fellow diners I'd feel comfortable sitting amongst. The group at Xoco is better behaved, and dressed given the comfort-ness of the operation. Yes, there are exceptions at Frontera and Topolo ... particularly after 8 p.m., but not often before then. I haven't been to the restaurants on the weekend so can't offer an opinion. The decline in the quality of diners corresponds with Bayless' appearance on Iron Chef (or whichever chef competition he won) ... and the huge increase in his business started at the same time.

                    1. re: gomexico

                      >> I walk past the pre-opening line-up of diners at the restaurants M-F week in and week out.

                      Most of the people who line up before they open are locals. (Locals know they can do that to avoid the waits.) If you eat there and talk to folks around you in line, you'll realize that. Furthermore, people line up ONLY for Frontera; those eating at Topolobampo don't need to line up to wait outside, because they all have reservations.

                      >> Neither is the collection of fellow diners I'd feel comfortable sitting amongst.

                      You're entitled to go wherever you feel most comfortable, and you can choose a place based on how you want other people to dress. If you feel more comfortable in business attire (i.e. gentlemen in jackets), there are places where you can go for that. If you feel comfortable in "business casual" (slacks, shirts with collars), you can dine at Topolobampo. And if you feel comfortable in casual attire, you can dine at Frontera Grill or XOCO.

                      >> the huge increase in his business started at the same time.

                      No, it didn't. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have been doing a huge business (with people lining up outside before they open) for many years.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        I can remember the huge business they did as far back as 20 years ago, when I worked in the Loop and took two co-workers to Topolobampo for lunch on the last Friday of each month.

          2. re: chris

            I will through my two cents - I agree with all both are excellent and well worth the trip - the one thing I will add is the times I have tried to get into Frontera but they were booked I have always been bale to egt a table at Topo - and in terms of attire I have gone to Topo in the past in jeans without a problem -

            1. re: weinstein5

              >> the times I have tried to get into Frontera but they were booked I have always been bale to egt a table at Topo

              For lunch, for sure. For dinner, it's not easy; they have been fully booked for a long time (even in the middle of winter). Maybe you've gotten lucky and they've had cancellations at times you've gone.

              >> - and in terms of attire I have gone to Topo in the past in jeans without a problem -

              Restaurants make decisions on what kind of attire to publicize (such as in Opentable and Metromix) and whether or not to enforce it. Given the layout of Topolobampo - it's fairly cramped in that back room, and between that and the lighting, jeans wouldn't be conspicuous (and besides, nice jeans are often virtually indistinguishable from nice slacks) - their decision to seat you doesn't surprise me at all. But most of the diners there do not wear jeans. Not at dinner, anyway (based on my observations the last time I ate there, a few months ago).

          3. FWIW - Topo now has open resevations for tomorrow (9/23) for 4 people at either 5:45 or 6 PM on www.opentable.com . I'm not sure how long they will be open for but it is a great chance for anyone willing to eat early. Thought I mention it.

            Time is now 3:43 on 9/22.