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Back in Chicago after 30 years - where should we go?

I lived in Chicago for a little under 2 years in the early 1980s (working for Marshall Field's - gone, but not forgotten). I have fond memories of going hors d'oeuvring on Fridays with my friends, as we all had no money to spend on food. Now I'll be back for 5 days with my husband (who really hasn't been to Chicago although born in Evanston) for 5 days at the beginning of July to celebrate his 56th birthday. We are staying at the Hotel Monaco (having had a great Kimpton experience in DC), and I'm looking forward to the tail end of Chicagofest (which started, I think, when I lived there). As everything has changed (and we won't have a car, but a taxi or the el is fine), where should we go??? I loved Ambria for a special dinner (long gone, I understand) Walker Brothers for the apple pancake and coffee served with heavy cream (I am salivating right now), and Dues and Bacinos for pizza at the time; now I see that Lou Malnaniti's is the place to go. We definitely need a pizza fix, so recommendations are welcome. Have been cruising the boards, and have the following marked as potentials: Sable, Sprout, Frontera Grill, Bongo Room, North Pond. Eliminating Girl and the Goat because I doubt we can get in. I want our trip to be memorable - all suggestions are welcome! We will be going to Oak Park one day to see Frank Lloyd Wright's house (something I never got to do when I lived there), so if there's a great place for lunch, please weigh in on that as well. We love all cuisines - and food quality trumps atmosphere. I love Chowhounder's opinions, and look forward to hearing yours!

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Bacino's
75 E Wacker Dr, Chicago, IL 60601

Bongo Room
1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

Frontera Grill
445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

North Pond
2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

Ambria
2300 N Lincoln Park W, Chicago, IL 60614

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

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  1. Regarding GATG: Be there waiting at the doors when they open at 4.30 pm if you cannot get a reservation. You have a decent chance of getting a table then (or sit at the bar) without waiting too long.

    1. Welcome back home. You're looking at some interesting choices.

      I would add one of our gastropubs to your list. My favorite is The Publican, but the Gage may be closer to you, as is the Purple Pig. Just had brunch at Longman and Eagle which earned a Michelin star and remains very rock and roll. It was outstanding. I also really like The Bristol. Both Bristol and L&E are in neighborhoods, not the central tourist/downtown area.

      Unos and Dues remain the original with no compromise on quality at the Chicago locations (the chain with the Uno's nameis a disaster and an entirely different story). Malnoti's is very close and has many more locations so it can be easier to get to.

      Taste of Chicago (which I think is what you are referring to as "Chicagofest" - I remember that!) IMO is hot, messy, often crowded with lots of mediocre pizza, fried stuff, and ribs eaten on run. I know that there are people who plot it out and love going, but I would avoid it like the plague, unless it's a nostalgia thing for you.

      -----
      The Publican
      837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607

      The Gage
      Chicago, Chicago, IL

      Purple Pig
      500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

      4 Replies
      1. re: chicgail

        Thanks - I did mean Taste of Chicago - chalk it up to a senior moment! And noticed that you liked Bonsoiree - I was thinking of it for Sunday night. Noticed that it's chef's choice, but it doesn't seem that we could go wrong.

        -----
        Bonsoiree
        2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

        1. re: Retrokitch

          I do love Bonsoiree and I almost hate to recommend it. [Everyone but Retrokitch, please stop reading here] The food is superb and while it's quite small, it's not all that hard to get a reservation. I don't think you can go wrong.

          You might also want to consider Cafe Spiaggia. It's a slow food destination; very authentically Italian, a great value, and not that far from you. It's also Spiggia's little sister. They share a location, a kitchen and a website.

          -----
          Bonsoiree
          2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

        2. re: chicgail

          >> I would add one of our gastropubs to your list. My favorite is The Publican, but the Gage may be closer to you, as is the Purple Pig. Just had brunch at Longman and Eagle which earned a Michelin star and remains very rock and roll.

          Maybe we should stop and argue over whether the Publican or the Gage or Longman & Eagle is a BAR rather than a restaurant.

          Or maybe not. ;)

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Nothing to argue about.

            The Publican, The Gage, The Bristol and L&E are clearly marked and known to be "gastropubs." The term gastropub, is a “portmanteau” that describes a pub that serves gourmet cuisine along with great beers and other drink (Gastro + Pub = Gastropub).

            Sable has very interesting food and exceptional drink. If Sable called itself as gastropub, I would buy it. It fits.

        3. Retrokitch - We moved to Chicago about 30 years ago, so we remember well Ambria and a lot of its competitors -- i.e., restaurants that were on the cutting edge for their time: le Peroquet, Printer's Row, le Francais, La Tour. With the exception of Les Nomades and Everest, they are all gone. While Chicago is probably a more interesting food city now, the luxorious style of dining of those restaurants is gone, with a few exceptions (Tru, Alinea, Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel). That has more to do with evolutions in dining habits in general, than anything specific to Chicago.

          One restaurant that we have enjoyed is Le Perrenial, although we've not been there in recent months, since Paul Virant tookover as chef (and it was renamed Perrenial-Virant).

          In Oak Park, not sure that there is anything "great" for lunch, but many acceptable choices within 1/2 mile of the FLW Home & Studio, and even closer to Unity Temple, if you go there too. There is an outpost of the Red Hen Bakery on the corner of Oak Park Ave & Lake St. that features a variety of sanwiches on their home-made bread, for example; that's about 2 blocks from Unity Temple. Also in that block are Klay Oven (Indian) and Pappaspiros (Greek). You'd better 2x check if they are open for lunch on the day you plan to be in Oak Park.

          I'm with Chicgal on recommending that you skip Taste of Chicago. It really is not a very pleasant way to experience Chicago's food.

          -----
          Alinea
          1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

          Les Nomades
          222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611

          1 Reply
          1. re: masha

            Thanks - it was probably a lot smaller back then, and a fun thing to do with other 20 somethings on a budget. And thanks for the memories - I remember having dinner with my father at Le Peroquet when he'd be in town on business (as well as Morton's), and Printer's Row as well........

          2. Lots of good advice has already been posted here. Here are some additional thoughts.

            >> I loved Ambria for a special dinner (long gone, I understand)

            Not exactly long gone; it closed in 2007. If you're looking for a special dinner, as noted above, we still have places where you can do that; they're still dressy and expensive, and most feature lengthy tasting menus. Alinea is the best, and other good ones include Everest, Spiaggia, Avenues, and Charlie Trotter's.

            >> Walker Brothers for the apple pancake and coffee served with heavy cream (I am salivating right now)

            Walker Brothers is still in the northern suburbs, and now has six locations. They still serve their wonderful apple pancake, which is as good as ever. It's still my absolute favorite place for breakfast/brunch! Differences from 30 years ago are that the apple pancake is slightly smaller than it used to be, and you used to have to wait 45 minutes for it to bake, and now they bring it out in about 15 or so.

            Other places specializing in creative breakfast have sprung up around the city. Bongo Room, in the South Loop and Wicker Park, serves unusual pancakes with sauces, such as their pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce. The standard portion size is three GIGANTIC pancakes, but you can get one-third and two-thirds portion sizes at a reduced price, so you can try more items. Other creative breakfast favorites include M. Henry in Andersonville and its clone M. Henrietta in Edgewater, both on the far north side; Southport Grocery in Lakeview on the north side; and Jam in West Town, on the near west side.

            >> Dues and Bacinos for pizza at the time; now I see that Lou Malnaniti's is the place to go. We definitely need a pizza fix, so recommendations are welcome.

            Actually, Lou Malnati's was "the place to go" when you were here, too, but at that time it was the place to go in the northern suburbs; since then they have opened numerous locations in the city, including on LaSalle in River North and at 8th and State in the South Loop. The original locations of Uno and Due in River North are still excellent; when they were acquired and franchised, it was accompanied by an agreement to keep the original recipes at the two original locations, which is why they're still good and the other franchised locations are not. Also since you were here, Pizano's opened and is also good. Pizano's and Lou Malnati's were both started by sons of Rudy Malnati Sr. who was one of the original characters in the early decades of Uno and Due, so the sons grew up working at Uno and Due. So any similarities among the pizza at these places is NOT coincidental! All are still good and really, you can go to any of these.

            As I'm sure you recall, Uno and Due specialize in a single-crust "pizza in the pan", and Bacino's specializes in a double-crust "stuffed pizza". Bacino's is still around (in Lincoln Park and the Loop). So is Giordano's, the leading (and IMHO still the best) place for stuffed pizza, with numerous locations in the city and suburbs.

            >> Have been cruising the boards, and have the following marked as potentials: Sable, Sprout, Frontera Grill, Bongo Room, North Pond. Eliminating Girl and the Goat because I doubt we can get in. I want our trip to be memorable - all suggestions are welcome!

            These are among our best places, in different ways. North Pond is memorable and unique for its location in the middle of Lincoln Park (the park itself, rather than the adjacent neighborhood which took its name), facing its namesake pond with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. The renovated building formerly served as a warming shelter for ice skaters on the pond. The cuisine is excellent contemporary American fare from James Beard Award finalist Chef Bruce Sherman.

            Sable is another contemporary American restaurant, IMHO perhaps the best in the city right now. The food is wonderful, from Chef Heather Terhune (and remarkably inexpensive). Most of the items are available in half portions, which lets you try out more of them than you otherwise could. I loved the sweet corn creme brulee, which is a savory dish with the usual caramelized sugar on top, topped with cracked sea salt creating a great sweet-savory balance. Sable also offers amazing artisanal cocktails from one of the best barkeeping staffs in the city. It's a wonderful choice.

            Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are still there like they were when you lived here, and are still excellent. However, their popularity has created some problems if you don't have a reservation. Topolobampo is a great choice for lunch, when it is moderately priced and for which reservations are fairly easy to get (a few weeks in advance). For dinner, it's expensive and they book up three months in advance. Frontera is very good and less expensive at dinner; they only take a handful of reservations, though. If you don't have a reservation, you can arrive 15-20 minutes before they open the doors and walk right in; otherwise, expect to wait 90+ minutes.

            We have many other excellent creative provincial Mexican restaurants now. IMHO the very best are Mexique, in West Town a couple miles west of the Mag Mile; Mundial Cocina Mestiza in Pilsen a few miles southwest of the Loop; and Mixteco Grill in Lakeview on the north side. Salpicon is also very good and convenient to the Mag Mile.

            One type of food that has really advanced in recent years here is contemporary Italian. Great places that have opened in the past year or two include Piccolo Sogno, the Florentine, and Cibo Matto, joining longtime favorites Café Spiaggia, Vivere, and Coco Pazzo. I ate at Piccolo Sogno earlier this month and LOVED it.

            I went to Girl and the Goat recently. Some of the food was outstanding, and most of it very good. The desserts were dreadful. I'm glad I went once, but now that I've been, I'd much rather go back to Sable.

            See my comments above regarding Bongo Room and other places for breakfast.

            And I'll also echo the above recommendations to skip the Taste of Chicago entirely.

            One final bit of advice regards reservations. I strongly recommend making reservations in advance for any place you plan to go. Make them now if you can; you can always change or cancel them as needed. You can make reservations at most of our nicer restaurants for free on the Opentable.com website. Places mentioned above which you can reserve on Opentable include Everest, Spiaggia, Avenues, Charlie Trotter's, North Pond, Sable, Topolobampo, Mexique, Salpicon, Girl and the Goat, Piccolo Sogno, the Florentine, Cibo Matto, Café Spiaggia, Vivere, and Coco Pazzo. Others which accept reservations but only over the phone include Alinea, Frontera Grill, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, and Mixteco Grill. And you can't make reservations at the breakfast places (Walker Brothers, Bongo Room, M. Henry/Henrietta, Jam); you can generally walk right in on weekdays, but expect waits on weekends, especially between 9:30 am and 12:30 pm. Also you can't make reservations at the pizza places, but you can phone ahead in advance with your pizza order and they'll seat you when it's ready, so you don't have to wait for a table or wait 30-45 minutes for your pizza to bake.

            I generally avoid places where you can't make a reservation in advance (like the Purple Pig, Longman and Eagle, and the Bristol), as I just don't enjoy standing around for upwards of 90-120 minutes while waiting to be seated. But at some of these places there are strategies you can use to avoid a long wait; you can often walk in if you don't mind eating very early or very late. The Purple Pig is open for lunch when waits aren't as long, and serves the same menu all day so you're not missing anything from dinner. The Tribune did a recent photo-essay on our most crowded restaurants, describing the typical waits and when to go to avoid them: http://chicago.metromix.com/restauran... Some people don't mind waiting a long time at the bar for a table to open up, but if you do, now you know how to avoid doing so.

            Feel free to ask more questions. Welcome back, and enjoy your visit!

            14 Replies
            1. re: nsxtasy

              Thank you - I love your thoughtful and deliberate manner. And I can tell by others responses that your recommendations are dead on. Too many wonderful choices - or too few days! Perhaps we can eat 5 or 6 meals a day to make a dent in the list! :-) Glad to hear that Walker Brothers has expanded - I'll check it out - it would be a shame to come all that way and not have the fabulous apple pancake. And I didn't even realize that Frontera Grill was there when I was - and only 10 blocks from where I lived - but that will probably be near the top of the list as well. Sable is way up there as well. And Opentable is fabulous! I'm sure I'll have more questions before I return - many thanks for all your help!

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              Frontera Grill
              445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654

              1. re: Retrokitch

                In contrast to nsxtasy I like GATG and their food and look forwards to going back. In general I don't care about desserts and rarely have one with my meals. If you need to have excellent desserts to conclude a meal, as nsxtasy usually does, then that would be something to keep in mind, not only for GATG but for other places.

                1. re: huiray

                  Even if I were skipping dessert (which was truly awful there), I would still choose Sable (or other places) over Girl and the Goat. The style of cooking at Girl and the Goat, as I described in the detailed report on my recent dinner there at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/742267 , is to mix a lot of ingredients into one dish, thereby reducing the prominence of the featured item/ingredient. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm not saying G&TG is bad - it's not, some of the items were very good indeed - but I've found the food at some other places to be more consistently impressive than G&TG, places where just about *every* dish is amazing, consistently enough to make me want to return. What other places? In addition to Sable and North Pond, I'd echo masha's recommendation of Perennial Virant (which is just opening under Paul Virant, but I've enjoyed his cuisine at Vie) and add recommendations for Deleece in Lakeview, Michael in north suburban Winnetka, and Inovasi in far north suburban Lake Bluff.

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I think you meant this thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/742267

                    You seem more positive in your review there than you do now and in other subsequent related threads, with your saying that you would go back if given the chance.

                    1. re: huiray

                      Oops - you're right; I posted the wrong link in my previous post. I've gotten it fixed (thanks, Chowhound Team!), so it's correct now. Thanks for letting me know!

                      Make no mistake, I LIKED my dinner at G&TG. Many of the things there were very good, and some (e.g. pig face) even great. But I like some other places (including Sable and Inovasi) better, that's all. G&TG is a very good place, and it's worth trying to see for yourself.

                2. re: Retrokitch

                  I really enjoyed GATG, as have many others - and if you'll see my post here on Chowhound or in the blog I very much enjoyed the desserts as well. It is a unique spot and a lot of fun, plus the staff is superb.

                  I'd recommend skipping North Pond unless you are truly in it for the "atmosphere" as the food is truly mediocre.

                  Definitely head to one of the Bayless spots - he is deserving of all his accolades and if you are looking for "fine dining" in the grand style it is tough to beat Everest for the Classics (and talk about atmosphere!)

                  For contemporary American I'd check out one of the Paul Kahan spots - Blackbird was a very memorable lunch.

                  For breakfasts - Southport, M. Henry, Bongo Room in that order. :-)

                  http://uhockey.blogspot.com

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                  Bongo Room
                  1152 S Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60605

                  North Pond
                  2610 North Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL 60614

                  1. re: uhockey

                    I agree- I have been to G&TG 4 times and have really enjoyed it- with my last visit probably the best food yet. Sable on the other hand, where I've been at least 4 times as well, has some good food, but has a lot of misses too. We've found enough dishes at Sable, that we still obviously like to go back, but in terms of creativity, overall delicious food and where I'd go if I was in town visiting- G&TG wins hands down.

                    1. re: ms. mika

                      You're welcome to your opinion, but we'll just have to agree to disagree on that, because my opinion is the exact opposite - many more misses at G&TG, even aside from the dreadful desserts (I can't remember ever hating four out of four desserts elsewhere). Plus, Sable also offers amazing artisanal cocktails from one of the best barkeeping staffs in the city. But even aside from the cocktails at Sable and the awful desserts at G&TG... In terms of creativity, overall delicious food, and where I'd go if I were in town visiting - Sable wins hands down. By far!

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        It's great that we have different points of view. Sable is a wonderful bar. It has great drinks - outstanding even - and really, really good food. But from my vantage point it is a bar first and a restaurant second. G&TG is a restaurant first and the food reflects that. Sorry, nsxtasy, I come down on the other side.

                        1. re: nsxtasy

                          I didn't have desserts at G&TG, but the savories were great (I got lamb tartar, green bean with fish sauce vinaigrette, and the pig face). I also like the food at Sable (I've had the corn brulee, duck confit flatbread, skirt steak, and some others I don't remember - all were good), but I prefer G&TG for its more unique and memorable flavor profile.

                          In terms of reservation at G&TG, if OP doesn't mind eating at the bar or at the lounge, those two areas don't require much wait in my experience.

                          1. re: uhockey

                            Definitely on the list - and if we don't make it in this time, then definitely the next - as well as Alinea. But with only 4 nights and almost 5 days, it's hard to fit everything in - and I won't be waiting another 30 years! I'm hoping that if we are there when the doors open that we'll have a shot at it!

                            -----
                            Alinea
                            1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                      2. re: uhockey

                        My thoughts on GATG here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7485...

                        Well deserving of all the praise and awards.

                        http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                    2. re: nsxtasy

                      nsxtasy: re your breakfast recs, did you intentionally omit Ina's? I really love her breakfasts. Or I did last time I was there...

                      1. re: ChefJune

                        Ina's is indeed a destination breakfast in Chicago!

                    3. If you can't get a Bayless reservation at Frontera/Topo, for the love of all that's holy, go to XOCO, Rick's sandwich place on the northeast corner of his empire. the food is absolutely jaw-droppingly good, and the fresh churros and hot chocolate made-to-order will bring you to your knees. Even for breakfast.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: kebyar

                        XOCO is worth checking out, but I don't think it's a substitute for Topolobampo or Frontera Grill, which turn out complete meals with elaborate preparations. The food at XOCO is good for what it is - indeed, the Mexican equivalent of sandwiches (tortas) and other light fare. If you can't get a reservation at Frontera/Topo and you can't go early to Frontera, I recommend going to one of the other Mexican places I mentioned above - regardless of whether or not you also go to XOCO!

                      2. First of all, I want to thank all of you Chowhounders for your recommendations - I can't wait to be back in Chicago (too bad the Pretenders had the same idea for Ohio)! So far, I've lined up Sable and Bonsoiree for dinners. I'm thinking that I may leave the 4th of July open and go for a late lunch/early dinner so we can enjoy the fireworks (which we no longer have back home in Westchester). But, now, for the birthday dinner, the killer question........ great food, above all, but definitely on the casual side - my DH does not travel with a sports jacket on vacation. What tops the list of recommendations (off the beaten path - and Zagat's is welcome)? And do I need to make reservations for lunch? I was hoping to keep things flexible based upon museums, etc, but don't wan't to miss out on something!

                        -----
                        Bonsoiree
                        2728 W Armitage, Chicago, IL 60647

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Retrokitch

                          Blackbird - it is upscale but you'd not be out of place w/o a jacket or tie. A Kahan spot should be a must on anyone's Chicago list in my opinion.

                          Lunch reservations probably aren't necessary anywhere except perhaps the Bayless spots, which should also be on the list.

                          http://uhockey.blogspot.com

                        2. Decided to call Schwa a couple of days ago - and someone actually answered the phone, but said that they would be booking July the first week of June, so although I'll call and see if we can get a reservation, I am still leary since I've noticed that they have a history of last hour cancellations. Made a reservation at Sprout, since that has had some good CH reviews. And may try to go to G&TG when they open and see if we can get in for an early dinner. If not, that may be one of our pizza outings. Thank you everyone for all of your recommendations - I'll let you know how it all turns out! Still mapping out breakfast and lunch destinations once I get our itinerary settled.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Retrokitch

                            I really think Schwa is great and the fact that they're BYO is really nice, too (don't be surprised if the chefs make their own suggestions for wine pairings since many guests from earlier in the night or night before tend to leave bottles - a sort of 'pay it forward' approach). But yeah, they might cancel last minute - have a back-up plan for somewhere else just in case.