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Alinea, L20, what else?

I'm going on a trip to Chicago in a couple weeks and so far we have reservations at Alinea and L2O. There's two more nights free, any suggestions for other restaurants to go to?

Tru, Blackbird, Schwa, Charlie Trotter's are all places I've been looking into, but I can't decide what to go with, or if there's another place that might even be more interesting (I've wanted to go to Moto as well). Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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Alinea
1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

Charlie Trotter's
816 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60614

Moto Restaurant
945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL 60607

L2O
2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

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  1. If you have reservations at Alinea, Moto will be not only redundant, but a kind of silly second choice. I would try something very different.

    My last visit to Trotters (last fall) was perfectly acceptable. Not was "wrong" with the food or service; I just wasn't all that impressed, especially for the big bucks.

    Schwa is a tough reservation to get. The kitchen staff manages the phones, reservations and FOH service. It's a very interesting - some would say great - meal, but they can be very erratic and have simply canceled service on the day before or day of.

    I haven't been to Tru in a number of years so my first-hand experience is not reliable (I loved it). Reports are that some think it's great and others less so.

    Blackbird is excellent, but know that it is very small and tables are quite close together.

    You didn't mention Rick Bayless' Topolobambo. I don't know if you can get a reservation in just a couple of weeks, but if you can, it - or sister restaurant Frontera Grill (which takes very few reservations) - would be well worth it.

    Another very difficult reservation to get is Girl and the Goat, Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard's new restaurant. If you can't get reservations, people have said that arriving early (at G & the G and Fontera) - maybe 5:30 when they open) has bagged tables for them.

    Other top notch restaurants in town include Spiaggia (Tony Mantuano's italian restaurant) and Everest. My recent experience at Everest was that the food and view were extraordinary, but the service was poor. Others have had other experiences. Ask for a table by the window. Similarly some people have had bad service experiences at Spiaggia. You might also like Cafe Spiaggia - same kitchen, same location, same website, but less expensive and I've not heard anything less than favorable experiences (including mine).

    Chicago is a real restaurant mecca. There are many fabulous choices both in the city center and the neighborhoods. Are there any other types of food that interest you or any other restrictions you have.

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    Cafe Spiaggia
    980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

    Everest
    440 S La Salle St Ste 4000, Chicago, IL 60605

    Topolobampo
    445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

    Spiaggia
    980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

    Girl and the Goat
    809 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60661

    1. It is not on your list but Avenues for me was the best restaurant I ate at during my visit last December. Better than Alinea and in the US bested only by Robuchon in LV and Per Se in NYC.

      10 Replies
      1. re: nextguy

        What is the pricing like at Avenues? I looked at the website and nothing is listed.

        1. re: Philly Ray

          >> What is the pricing like at Avenues?

          If I recall correctly, it's $115/$145/$195 for 5/10/15 courses. I could be slightly off or they could have changed it a bit, but I'm sure it's still in that vicinity.

          1. re: Philly Ray

            When I was there in December there were just two options available. A vegetarian tasting for 115 and a regular tasting for 135. Both were 8 courses.

            1. re: nextguy

              That's more recently than my info above.

              Do they still offer an a la carte pricing option as well? I know they did at one point...

              1. re: nsxtasy

                When I was there they did not. But I think I read a blog review from sometime in February. They were changing their menu so maybe the options have changed.

                1. re: nextguy

                  In anticipation for my upcoming visit, I've been communcating with several restaurants. Avenues said they no longer offer a 15 course menu, only the 8 course, unsure whether they still offer a la carte options. Looking forward to sitting at the chef's bar seating for this meal.

                  1. re: TheDegustationAsian

                    The chef's counter was great but can be a little warm as the hot plate is right there. When I went my wife and I both had the regular tasting menu but she is gluten intolerant so they replaced the grains dish with a risotto dish. The grains dish was surprisingly awesome but so was her risotto. If I did it again I would have asked for the risotto as a supplement.

                    1. re: nextguy

                      nextguy, thanks for the info. I was really hoping to sample the 15 course menu, but this may have gone out the door with Chef Bowles. Regardless, if there are any dishes people consider "must haves," I'd gladly ask to supplement them. The GM informed me that the menu is changing by the time of my visit (May), so perhaps there will be additional menu options.

                      1. re: TheDegustationAsian

                        Even if it's not part of their standard offerings, they may still be able to do a more lengthy and elaborate menu on request (especially if you mention it in advance).

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          nsxtasy, thanks again for the advice, its definately worth inquiring about. Worst they could say is "no." We were able to partake in an extended tasting menu at the French Laundry and thought it was amazing. In case anyone else was wondering, I'll be sure to report back to everyone whether they would be able to accomodate the request or not.

        2. Well, I think the first question I would ask myself is, how much high-end fine dining are you interested in doing? You can set up your itinerary for all high-end restaurants and you'll have excellent meals, but you will be missing out on the great diversity of Chicago's restaurant scene. Even among the nicer, more casual finer dining places, there are so many different kinds of food, that having one contemporary American meal after another after another can be a bit much. OTOH some people enjoy trying the finest restaurants they can and aren't looking for diversity, so this is entirely up to you.

          For the high-end meals, Alinea is a great choice; it's among the best dinners in my entire life, and the best in Chicago since Jean Banchet was running Le Francais in the 1970s/80s. Once you get past that, the other high-end places are all very good, but at least somewhat flawed, insofar as someone here has had so-so experiences at each of them. I was disappointed at L2O when Laurent Gras was there, and now that he's gone, it still wouldn't be one I would choose, but others like it. It's the same story with our other high-end places: Everest (where I've had my own best high-end experience after Alinea), Charlie Trotter's, TRU, Spiaggia (the only Italian place in the group), Avenues, Ria, etc. (NoMI is closed at the moment.) You'll probably have a fine meal at any of them. So if you want yet another high-end meal, these are the places to choose from. I love trying fine dining restaurants, but personally, if I had four dinners in Chicago, I would not go high-end for more than two of them.

          As for the rest of your itinerary, I would probably NOT choose a contemporary American restaurant if I were already doing two high-end contemporary type places (unless one of the two were Spiaggia, because it's Italian and therefore a bit different). So I would not choose Blackbird or Girl and the Goat, or my own favorite from the more casual contemporary places, Sable. However, you might want to consider one of these for lunch; Blackbird and Sable are both open for lunch. I really do love Sable, for Chef Heather Terhune's cooking (don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee!), and they have amazing artisanal cocktails. And another place worth considering is North Pond, not only for the food from James Beard Award finalist Chef Bruce Sherman, but for its exquisite location in the middle of the park, facing its namesake pond. North Pond is also open for Sunday brunch, if that works for you.

          I agree with chicgail that Chicago's provincial Mexican restaurants are a great way to throw something different into your itinerary; it's a cuisine you can find in Chicago but is difficult to impossible to find in most cities in the States. Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, which she mentioned, are top choices, and there are other good ones too. You almost certainly won't get a dinner reservation at Topo - they fill up shortly after they open the book three months in advance - and don't go without one. But you may still be able to book a table for lunch; check on Opentable.com Frontera Grill accepts only a handful of reservations by phone, and keeps most of the place for walk-in traffic. My understanding is that you actually have to get there 20-30 minutes BEFORE they open the doors (5:00 most nights) if you want to be seated immediately.

          But don't worry, there are other great restaurants serving provincial Mexican cuisine not far from the downtown area where I assume you're staying. Salpicon is very good and is in Old Town very close to the hotels off Michigan Avenue. Mexique is about two miles west of North Michigan Avenue and serves Mexican cuisine with a French influence. My personal favorite is Mundial Cocina Mestiza, which is in Pilsen about four miles southwest of North Michigan Avenue (and is right near the 18th Street station on the CTA Pink Line). Any of these would be a great choice for your itinerary.

          There are lots of other kinds of places that would fit right in with your itinerary. We have some great creative but somewhat casual Italian restaurants, the best of which include the Florentine, Cibo Matto, Cafe Spiaggia, and Coco Pazzo. We have some more unusual upscale ethnic restaurants, including pan-Asian (Red Light, Sunda), Latin fusion (Carnivale, Nacional 27), tapas (Mercat a la Planxa), Latin-Indian (Vermilion), Vietnamese (Le Colonial), and others. Any of these would give you a fine meal as well as some variation from the contemporary American portion of your itinerary.

          HTH

          1. I enjoyed my dinner at Sprout two weeks ago. Great atmosphere, perfect service, awesome food.

            1. I would consider Schwa and Spiaggia. They are both great and offer a change from your other two meals. Avenues is another great choice. Sixteen is actually surprisingly good also (plus it has the most impressive dining room in the city).

              Blackbird is good, but not in the same league (but its lunch offers great value). I'd skip Charlie Trotter's and Tru.

              5 Replies
              1. re: mountsac

                >> Sixteen is actually surprisingly good also (plus it has the most impressive dining room in the city).

                Huh? I was really disappointed in Sixteen. Oh, it wasn't BAD, but none of the food wowed me at all. And it's NOT AT ALL the most impressive dining room in the city! What you could see of the view is nice, with its tall glass windows and a little sliver of lake between the windows, but I thought it was surprisingly noisy, given that the tables were spaced rather far apart from each other. No, it wasn't Avec-loud or Publican-loud, but it was pretty darn loud considering the spacious layout.

                What's impressive? The Signature Room is probably the most impressive dining room in the city; you can't beat that view from the 95th floor! Too bad the food is just okay, not really commensurate with the view. If you want a dining room with a great view and you don't want to compromise on food, I'd say that the next most impressive dining rooms in the city are Everest and North Pond. I'd throw in NoMI too except that they're closed at the moment for renovations, revamping the menu, etc.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Hmm, I guess we have very different ideas of what makes an impressive dining room. Even though it has very average food (for the price), Signature room indeed has great views (as does Cite), but its decor of the dining room itself is rather dated (kind of like Spiaggia) - but at least it's better than Everest, who has a good view but even worse decor and crammed seating. When you sit by the window right outside of the elevator, it's better. But if you sit on the other side of the dining room, it is very crammed! The noise level is definitely higher than that of Sixteen. I think you might have gone to Sixteen on a night with unfortunately loud people. I went twice, both times packed, and the noise level was not very high at all. And, as you pointed out, the seats were far apart, which helped to produce a more elegant atmosphere.

                  In terms of food, I didn't expect much going in. But I was pleasantly surprised. The desserts needed work (too complicated), but the savories were very well executed. The meat and fish courses, as well as the risotto, were cooked perfectly. I guess flavor-wise it was creative/revelatory like Schwa or Alinea, but it is delicious foood in a great atmosphere, and that is more than I can say about places like Charlie Trotter's.

                  1. re: mountsac

                    Huh? Wow, I don't even recognize the restaurants you're talking about. Crammed seating at Everest? Sounds like you're talking about a restaurant in another city, because it's not at all cramped; in fact, it's quite spacious. And it's much, MUCH quieter than Sixteen.

                    As for the food at Sixteen, there wasn't a single dish I had there which wowed me in any way. Not that it was bad, but it was ordinary and uninspired, especially coming from a big-name chef like Brunacci. Your word for another restaurant - "boring" - describes the food at Sixteen perfectly!

                    Seriously, I think you must have been dining in different restaurants, because I don't recognize your descriptions AT ALL from my dinners there. My experience was exactly the opposite of what you describe!!!

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      In the previous post, I meant the flavor was not creative, but it tasted good (typo sorry. Hope that explains it.). Food can be delicious without being new. That's how I felt about sixteen. But food can be interesting but bad, and that's how I feel about Charlie trotters.

                      I went to Everst on Valentine weekend a couple years ago. Maybe that made a difference. Either way I can assure you it was very tight seating (second row from the window, next to another young couple who also complained about their seats.). People can have different experience, for many reasons. You can say that it feels like we are talking about two different places, which u did. But to go on yet again to say that u "think I must have" been at another restaurant is quite a condescending way of expressing disagreement. I can see that ur passionate about sharing ur experience and opinions. But please be respectful when encountering other voices.

                      1. re: mountsac

                        <<food can be interesting but bad, and that's how I feel about Charlie trotters. >>

                        Interesting how we perceive things differently. At my most recent visit to Trotters, I would say that it was just the opposite. I thought the food was good (certainly not bad) but also not very interesting.

                        Also I did not find Everest to be crowded (and yes, V-D may have been different) when I was there a few months ago, but while the food was outstanding, the service was atrocious.

              2. Thank you everyone for your excellent suggestions!

                I'm going to try to get into Topo or Frontera while we're there. It seems like there's a tough decision to be made about the other restaurant to choose. Everest, Schwa, and Avenues all look interesting (it seems like everyone has been underwhelmed by Charlie Trotter's and Tru, both passed their prime?)

                I have another question though, should we cancel our L2O reservation? Has anyone had a great or even good experience there since Laurent Gras left?

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                Charlie Trotter's
                816 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, IL 60614

                L2O
                2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

                5 Replies
                1. re: milesfoxwood

                  >> I'm going to try to get into Topo or Frontera while we're there.

                  I think we've covered the reservation process, but here's some additional advice on that. If you want to go to Topolobampo, try reserving a table NOW, either on Opentable.com or by calling them. Your chances of finding one at dinnertime are slim to none, but you may be able to still find a lunch opening. Topolobampo is open for lunch Tues-Fri and dinner Tues-Sat.

                  Frontera Grill accepts only a handful of reservations, only over the phone. You can try; you've got nothing to lose by calling. If you don't get one, you can either get in line 20-30 minutes before they open, or take your chances. Waits of 1-2 hours are common, especially on weekends. They are open for lunch Tue-Fri, brunch Sat, and dinner Tue-Sat. I recently called them mid-morning on a Saturday and the wait at that time was 90 minutes.

                  Frontera Grill also has a bar (I think it seats 30) where you can sit and order from either menu, Frontera's or Topolobampo's. So if you want the ability to order off Topolobampo's menu without having a reservation there, that's how you can do it. But unless you're dining solo, you'll still probably have to wait as long to be seated at the bar as you would for a table.

                  Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are in the same location. They actually are physically one restaurant; the dining room in the rear is Topolobampo, and you have the same check-in hoststand, the same coat check, etc. So if you arrive with no reservations, you can ask if there have been any cancellations for Topo. But don't count on it.

                  I would never wait 90 minutes for a restaurant when there are other great places nearby that don't have anywhere near the wait. As I mentioned above, we have some other excellent Mexican restaurants. If I couldn't get an advance reservation at either one, I'd make one at Salpicon or one of the others I mentioned. But if you want to wait, you know the situation you're likely to encounter.

                  >> It seems like there's a tough decision to be made about the other restaurant to choose. Everest, Schwa, and Avenues all look interesting (it seems like everyone has been underwhelmed by Charlie Trotter's and Tru, both passed their prime?)

                  It's been a while since I've been to either, but I have some friends who don't post here on Chowhound and have been to both places recently, and they report that both are still very very good indeed, as good as ever, according to their reports. Charlie is as innovative as ever, and the changes since Anthony Martin took over at TRU a couple of years ago have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I think you're likely to have a great meal at any of these places. (And don't overlook Everest!)

                  No matter what kind of food you're looking for in Chicago - high-end fine dining, casual finer dining, cheap eats, or ethnic cuisine - more often than not, the problem is too many great places from which to choose, rather than too few. Welcome to our world. :)

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    >> Frontera Grill accepts only a handful of reservations, only over the phone. You can try; you've got nothing to lose by calling. If you don't get one, you can either get in line 20-30 minutes before they open, or take your chances.

                    I second this. When I was there in December I called Frontera about 2 weeks before my visit and was lucky to get a reservation. The visit was on the 30th though so perhaps it was less busy during the holidays and a reservation was easier to come by. When I got there at 11:30 there was already a lineup of at least 15 people. That line exploded soon after and I heard the Maitre D say that the wait was 2 hours! I also would not recommend eating in the bar area. That section was packed and did not look very comfortable.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      I've been to both Trotter's and Tru in the last year. Trotter's pretty much lacked luster. It is certainly not what it has been. There was about a 5 year lag between my dinner last summer last year and our previous visit. At the visit 5 years ago we thought that both the service and food was not what it was or should have been so we quit going. Our most recent visit confirmed that and nothing had really changed. There are better choices in high end dining in Chicago.

                      When Tramonto was a partner and was opening up new restaurants, Tru declined. Our most recent visits (2 in the last year) were a vast improvement and I would consider Tru well before Trotter's if making a choice.

                    2. re: milesfoxwood

                      Haven't gone to L2O post Gras.

                      But Charlie Trotter's is definitely passed its prime. You can tell from the plating that it is trying to keep up with the Contemporary American genre, but the flavor profile was just not good. I don't think he understands how to work Asian ingredients like yusu and shiso or how foam on almost every single dish (including desserts) is not only unnecessary but can be distracting if not done right. My experience there was not only underwhelming given its reputation, it was bad on an objective level.

                      Tru is better than Charlie Trotter's in terms of food. Other than one dessert course, nothing tasted bad. It was just boring. What really got to me was the rigid and robotic service, which I found laughable. The rest of Chicago fine dining has moved onto more friendly service. But it does have a sleek dining room, if that plays into your consideration at all.

                      1. re: mountsac

                        Once again, it's very interesting how people can have different experiences. I found the food at TRU to be delicious and composed with an array of interesting flavors and beautiful presentation. (They also gave me a free gnocchi dish and half-glass of wine.) The service was some of the best I have ever had--very warm, but professional.