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Apr 5, 2011 12:27 PM

One night in Chicago and Alinea is booked

I will be in Chicago in the middle of May for work and will have one night free for dinner with my wife. Based on my search of the boards and research Alinea would seem to be the consensus choice. Unfortunately, it appears I am too late to get a reservation.

So what's second best? Or perhaps more precisely, what's second best that I can't get in NY or Boston. My research turns up Trotter, Naha, Graham Elliot, Sable, Boka, L2O and Avenues. Anyone have a recommendation? I will probably have a car so location is not an issue. Open to any type of cuisine except Italian.

Also I will be having a business lunch in Schaumburg same as the dinner. Any suggestions in that neck of the woods?

1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

1729 North Halsted, Chicago, IL 60614

2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

500 North Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610

Graham Elliot
217 W. Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60654

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  1. Most of your questions have been coming up in other discussions the past few days.

    >> So what's second best?

    The same question was asked in this discussion:


    Here's what I posted there:

    Bottom line is this - If you discuss this with those who have dined at most of Chicago's high-end restaurants, you'll get something close to a consensus on Alinea as best, but you will get a total lack of agreement regarding what is second best. You can generally get agreement on which restaurants belong in the discussion: Charlie Trotter's, Everest, Avenues, TRU, Spiaggia, Les Nomades, Carlos, and L2O (some would also add Ria and Sixteen; maybe NoMI but it's currently closed for remodeling and they are changing chefs too). However, at every one of these, there have been one or more significantly negative reports along with the positive ones. Frankly, I think your best bet is to look at the website menus for all of them and go to whichever one sounds most appealing to you.

    The reason I didn't mention Topolobampo (or any other restaurants) is that, based on the opening post, it seems that willyum is interested solely in high-end restaurants. Now, I don't mean to spark a debate over what constitutes high-end eating, as it can be one of those "eye of the beholder" concepts. But to me, the places I've mentioned above are the ones that, in general terms, fit that term in Chicago. Just as do the ones that willyum mentions from other cities (based on my own meals at four of the five mentioned).

    Now, if willyum is interested in expanding his/her consideration to restaurants that are in what might be called the next tier, in terms of price, formality, etc., then there are plenty of excellent restaurants that could also be considered, including Topolobampo and Mexique for provincial Mexican, North Pond and Naha for contemporary American, the Florentine and Cibo Matto for contemporary Italian, just to name a few, and many more. (I'm not sure where willyum is from, but if it's New York, the analogy would be to expand the discussion from Le Bernardin and Jean Georges to consider places like Craft.) But based on the post, it sounds like he/she is looking for the top-tier places, in which case I'd stick to my original list. Perhaps willyum can let us know!

    The prices, service, and dining experience at Topolobampo don't put it in the same group as Trotter's et al. At the highest-end restaurants, you won't usually see entrees in the $30 range - you may not see a la carte pricing at all - and tasting menus start above $100. You'll typically pay $200-300 or more, including wine/alcohol/tax/tip, at the high-end restaurants. I paid $100 at Topolobampo last year - impossible at a high-end place. At the high-end restaurants, there's a veritable army of servers at your beck and call, sweeping dishes away, with the utmost of politeness and efficiency. The service at Topolobampo is typical of the more casual finer dining restaurants, where almost all interaction is with a single server, you don't have a sommelier automatically stopping by, etc. The seating at Topolobampo is cramped and the room is rather loud - again, typical of the more casual finer dining restaurants, not the high-end places. You rarely see diners dressing up at Topolobampo, e.g. most gentlemen are not wearing jackets, which predominate at the high-end places (even at the few that don't require them). Don't get me wrong; I like Topolobampo a lot, and I often recommend it. I just don't consider it in that high-end category of haute cuisine. (I've also enjoyed some dinners at some of our next-tier casual finer dining restaurants every bit as much as ones at the high-end places.)

    I don't think someone's brother who has no association with a restaurant is a reason for deciding whether or not to go there, but everyone can make his/her own decisions. I also don't think the Mexican cuisine at Chicago's places like Topolobampo, Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, etc., is anything like what I've found in the U.S. southwest. However, if willyum is looking for a second high-end restaurant in Chicago, that's his decision, and I think we should try to help him make that decision.

    Given the preference for French cuisine, my first choice for a second dinner is Everest. The cuisine is French-Alsatian and simply wonderful, the wine list is phenomenal, and the view from the top of the Midwest Stock Exchange building is breathtaking. Personally, I had the best service experience EVER at Everest, which is all the more remarkable considering that I've been to many of the finest restaurants around the country. I realize that chicgail had a bad service experience there recently, but she has also remarked on their food in the same dinner as great. If I had to choose my personal vote for second best restaurant in Chicagoland, it would come down to Everest or Trotter's.

    >> Or perhaps more precisely, what's second best that I can't get in NY or Boston. My research turns up Trotter, Naha, Graham Elliot, Sable, Boka, L2O and Avenues. Anyone have a recommendation? I will probably have a car so location is not an issue. Open to any type of cuisine except Italian.

    Okay, now the question becomes much broader, because you are considering our "casual finer dining" restaurants, places where you'll spend a lot less than the fine dining restaurants ($75-100/pp including moderate alcohol/tax/tip vs $200-300/pp or more), where you don't have an army of servers, where attire is less formal (jackets NOT required for gentlemen), etc.

    As for what's second best that you can't get in New York or Boston, I would not have named the contemporary American restaurants you've mentioned. There's plenty of great contemporary American food in both cities (e.g. Craft in NYC). If you want what you can't get in New York or Boston, go to one of our creative provincial Mexican restaurants. I posted about them, among other casual finer dining options, in this relevant discussion from the past few hours:

    suggestions for anniversary dinner for ny chowhounds -

    Here's what I posted there:

    Regarding Mexican - Chicago has superb creative provincial Mexican restaurants, so if you're looking for something you can't get back home, that's a great choice. Chem mentioned Mexique, which I like a lot; it's creative Mexican with just a hint of the French restaurant background of Chef Carlos, in a bistro setting. It's in the West Town neighborhood, two miles west of the Mag Mile hotel area; you can get their via cab or the #66 CTA bus. Prices are moderate, with entrees around twenty. Rick Bayless was instrumental in popularizing Mexican food in the United States, and his two restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in River North near the hotels, are still very good. Since it's three months out, you should still be able to get a reservation at Topolobampo for dinner (reservations open three months in advance, and fill quickly - you can make them on However, it's pricey, with entrees typically in the upper thirties. Frontera Grill is less expensive, but they only accept a handful of reservations, and only over the phone; I would not recommend going without a reservation unless you can arrive before they open. I think Topolobampo is a great place for lunch, when its prices are more moderate. Salpicon is also moderately-priced, dinner and Sunday brunch only, and it's in Old Town, not far from the hotels. And Mundial Cocina Mestiza is excellent and moderately priced, in the Pilsen neighborhood 3-4 miles southwest of downtown, open for lunch, dinner, and Saturday/Sunday brunch. Even if you don't make one of these your anniversary dinner, it would be worth going to one for another meal during your visit.

    For contemporary American food, did you try calling Girl and the Goat, or did you only look on Opentable? If the latter, give them a call, as they may hold most of their prime-time openings for telephone reservations. And do it now, while you have three months lead time. Otherwise, I really love Sable (recommended by Chem above), and Chef Heather Terhune's cuisine there. Don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee! It's a very lively contemporary atmosphere, and they also have those great artisanal cocktails. One other choice worth mentioning is North Pond - not only for Chef Bruce Sherman's contemporary American cuisine, but also for its exquisite, unique setting in the middle of the park. It faces its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore, and the renovated building was formerly a warming shelter for ice skaters on the pond. North Pond is considerably more expensive than the other two, with entrees in the mid to upper thirties, versus twenty-ish for G&TG and Sable. Again, you could also consider one of these for another meal during your trip (North Pond and Sable are both open for lunch - only in summer for North Pond - and Sunday brunch).

    I'm not all that fond of the Publican - it's decent, but hasn't really blown me away. If you're looking for its combination of pork, cheese, charcuterie, and organ meats, you might want to consider the Purple Pig - and if so, I recommend going for lunch, since they don't take reservations and their waiting times for dinner are obscene, and they serve the same menu all day.

    I'm not sure I would go Italian, since you have so much of it back home, but if you want to go there anyway, Cibo Matto is a great choice. So is the Florentine, which has Chef Todd Stein who opened Cibo Matto. And so is Vivere, in the Italian Village complex. All of these places are in the Loop and all serve a very contemporary version of Italian cuisine. A bit more traditional choices include Cafe Spiaggia, at the north end of the Mag Mile , Coco Pazzo in River North , and Piccolo Sogno in the West Loop.

    Green Zebra is all vegetarian (they sometimes have a single meat dish, but often not) and you really have to be fond of vegetarian cuisine to go there.

    These are all excellent choices among our "casual finer dining" restaurants, places where you can get great food without spending a fortune. I recommend checking out the menus on the restaurant websites to give you a better idea of what they have to offer and to see what appeals to you most.

    >> Also I will be having a business lunch in Schaumburg same as the dinner. Any suggestions in that neck of the woods?

    I'd go to Shaw's Crab House. It's one of our best seafood restaurants. Casual and elegant at the same time, very much like a nice East Coast seafood restaurant you'd find at the shore.

    If you prefer something a little more exotic, there's a small storefront Thai restaurant in Hoffman Estates (just down Golf Road from Schaumburg and Woodfield Mall) that's been around for a long time. It's quite good and I've done business lunches there. It's called Taste of Thai.

    I'd also suggest asking Alinea to put you on their waiting list.

    Hope this gives you plenty of ideas. Feel free to ask more questions!

    8 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thanks for the lengthy and very informative reply. After having done some research made reservations at Avenues and got on the waiting list at Alinea.

      1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

      1. re: Frobisher

        Great! Let us know how it turns out.

        1. re: Frobisher


          I think you have made a good back-up choice in Avenues. I dined there recently and had an outstanding meal. Many of the dishes were as tasty as those at Alinea. The view is also better. Of course, Avenues lacks some of the inventiveness of Alinea, although it is cheaper. I thought the service was comparable.

          1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

          1. re: ChemWork

            >> The view is also better.

            Avenues is an excellent restaurant, but there's virtually no view to be had from the main dining room, with the exception of a single seat. (Unless perhaps you're referring to the view from the small bar seating, with its five or so stools facing the kitchen.)

            Avenues is on the north side of the fifth floor of the Peninsula Hotel, facing Chicago Avenue, and only has small windows in alcoves on the north side of the main dining room. Directly across the street is the uninteresting slab facade of the Park Hyatt, which is the view for anyone facing northwest. Those facing northeast (and those turning to that direction) can see the top of the Water Tower, and behind it, the slab of upper floors of Water Tower Place, but not the park or street below.

            Because the restaurant is on the fifth floor, you cannot see down to the street unless you are seated directly next to the windows. All the window alcoves, except one, contain two-tops, and the only person who is up against the window and able to look down is facing away from the window - no view unless they're turning around. And even if you turn around, it is impossible to see Michigan Avenue from any of the two-tops; it's obscured by trees and rather far away.

            There is a four-top in the window alcove in the northeast corner of the restaurant. From that one table, the person facing southeast has a nice view of the park below to his left, and can see Michigan Avenue behind it. The person facing southwest must turn around for a view. Everyone else has no view of the street below.

            If you want a great view, go to Everest (or North Pond or the Signature Room or Sixteen, or NoMI when it reopens as NoMI Kitchen on June 3). Don't expect a great view of the park and street below from Avenues unless they're willing to reserve you the four-top in the northeast corner of the room.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              North Pond has a fair number of tables with no real view. It depends on the room/section in which you are seated. Clearly your odds are better than Avenues based on nsxtasy's statements but still maybe worth a special request if you make reservations.

              North Pond
              2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

              1. re: TAsunder

                North Pond has two main dining rooms. The outer room has full-length windows looking out at the pond, and the view is nice from anywhere in the room. The inner room has no view to the outdoors, but has the open kitchen along the rear wall, in full view from anywhere in the room. Obviously the outer room is the place to be if you're there for the view, but I've eaten in the inner room too and I enjoyed the view of the kitchen, as well as the feel of the renovated space, and the walk through the park to and from the restaurant.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Right; there is stuff to look at, including the beautiful building, just not an outdoor view at some of the tables.

              2. re: nsxtasy

                I was just making the observation that Avenues had a better view than Alinea. At Alinea (I was on the first floor) I just saw other tables and a little of the kitchen. At Avenues I could see some of the lights of the city and a little of the Water Tower as you describe. The view of the outside made Avenues feel a little more spacious than Alinea.

                1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

        2. I'd suggest you try Ria--top restaurant with outstanding service and food. Michelin ** and just got 4 stars in a review by the Tribune. I think you'll be quite satisfied.

          1 Reply
          1. re: DutchOenophile

            Ria was deeply flawed when I went there, with amateurish service and so-so food. Absolutely mediocre in every way. (The Tribune reviewer notes that he was recognized within the first ten minutes of his meal, which may have something to do with the difference between the service he received and the series of basic gaffes I experienced.)