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Special Event Dinner

My family is coming to Chicago next week to celebrate my wife's 50th birthday. We are all foodies, even my two girls have pretty sophisticated palates. I am looking for a real experience dinner.

I am looking for a combination of great food and a real wow experience. I plan to see if the Chef's table is available at Charlie Trotter's. I am not budget conscious. I would prefer something with a hip vibe over something that is traditional and stuffy.

We are staying at The James on Michigan Ave, but we are willing to cab it for a great experience.

Thanks for all of the advice on the board, it is a great community.

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

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  1. It sounds like you would enjoy one of Chicago's high-end restaurants, the places with the utmost in food creativity and service, which characteristically feature lengthy tasting menus, armies of serving staff, formal dining (jackets required for gentlemen), high prices, etc. That group of restaurants consists of Alinea, Everest, Avenues, Charlie Trotter's, TRU, Spiaggia, and Les Nomades. (Borderline entries in the group - based on food as well as general style - include L2O, Ria, and Sixteen, all of which have opened within the past few years and IMHO have not yet shown that they deserve consideration, based on my dinners there.)

    There's a near-consensus that Alinea is the very best of this group, but there's no way you'll get a reservation there; reservations fill up when the book is opened two months in advance, and there's a lengthy waiting list. (When you look for one of these places at the last minute like this, some of them just won't be available to you.)

    All of these are excellent places and you can have a wonderful dinner at any of them. There are differences among the others that may steer you towards one or another. While all feature exceedingly creative cuisine, Everest is unique for its French-Alsatian cuisine and its view from the top of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building, and Spiaggia is unique as the only one serving Italian cuisine. It's probably not a consideration for you, but Avenues, TRU, Spiaggia, and Les Nomades are within walking distance of your hotel.

    There is no consensus on which is "second best" after Alinea, as there are a few negative reports floating around about all of the rest. Beware, as some of those negative reports (particularly Spiaggia and Charlie Trotter's) are long in the tooth, based on dinners two or more years ago, which in my experience typically reflects someone with an "ax to grind" and rather than a recent, balanced opinion.

    My advice is to first, find out which ones have availability on the night in question. (You can check availability on Opentable.com for all except Alinea. If there's someplace else you have your heart set on and it doesn't show availability on Opentable, you can also call; sometimes they can squeeze you in over the phone. But Opentable will show you which ones are definitely available and is a good place to start.) Then, take a look at their websites and see if one appeals to you more than the others:

    www.alinearestaurant.com

    www.everestrestaurant.com

    http://chicago.peninsula.com (Avenues)

    www.charlietrotters.com/restaurant

    www.trurestaurant.com

    www.spiaggiarestaurant.com

    www.lesnomades.net

    Incidentally, David Burke's Primehouse is located in your hotel. I wouldn't put it in the same category as these other restaurants, but it's worth considering for a lunch or dinner while you're here; many of us (including myself) consider it the best of our steakhouses.

    Good luck with your choice, and congratulations!

    1. In addition to the other suggestions and since you mention wanting more of a hip vibe, I'd suggest Moto which does delicious future fun food. We did the Grand Tour Moto and had the most wonderful time - and laughed nonstop. It's a very different experience from the more white glove high end but you might find it just right fore the whole family.

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      Moto Restaurant
      945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL 60607

      4 Replies
      1. re: Siun

        Moto is interesting because of its creative use of molecular gastronomy techniques. But I would not describe it as "a combination of great food and a real wow experience", which is what the OP is looking for. Food can be interesting, but the challenge is making it exceedingly delicious as well, and that's what those other places do so much better than Moto. Moto is a fun place to try once with friends, but when you have only one shot to celebrate a very special occasion, I'd go elsewhere.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          Actually many of the dishes I had last time doing the GTM were definitely wow's in terms of taste. I expected Moto to be fun but was surprised at how truly lovely the flavors were.

          Given the OPs request for "hip vibe over something that is traditional and stuffy" and mention of two daughters who are apparently on the younger side, the fun of Moto seems a potentially good fit.

          What makes a spot the right "special experience" is so personal, it seems worthwhile to have a range of options rather than simply the usual list.

          I'd also suggest keeping a close eye on the Next restaurant facebook page and twitter feed on the chance a table opens up ... you never know!

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          Moto Restaurant
          945 W Fulton, Chicago, IL 60607

          1. re: Siun

            I just haven't been all that impressed with the food at Moto - interesting, yes, but exceedingly delicious, not so much. And the overall experience is okay, but I've never felt as though it were pampered and special the way the high-end places accomplish it, or even as well as some of our other casual places do it. (And FWIW while there is a certain tradition in fine dining, I don't consider any of the high-end places to be stuffy; in fact, at pretty much all of them, the staff goes out of their way to be friendly and approachable.)

            If you'd like to consider a place that has more of a hip vibe AND has food that is thoroughly and consistently outstanding, then I would consider one of our other somewhat more casual restaurants instead. In particular, for a special event dinner, I'd recommend Boka and Perennial Virant. Both have delicious contemporary American food served in an upscale bistro atmosphere. Boka is a place that unobtrusively does everything well, from the food to the service to the atmosphere, and it doesn't get as much notice for this as it should. I haven't been to Perennial Virant since Paul Virant took over as chef recently, but I've enjoyed my meals there under the previous chef; the atmosphere with the full-length windows with passersby on the sidewalk right outside is fun, and I've had Virant's wonderful food at Vie, his other restaurant. If you want to go in a different direction food-wise while staying in this more casual "bistro-ish" category, you could also consider contemporary Italian (Piccolo Sogno, the Florentine), Latin fusion (Nacional 27), tapas (Mercat a la Planxa), or contemporary Mexican (Mexique). All of these have a younger, hipper, more casual vibe than the high-end restaurants (not crazy busy/loud/frantic though), and the experience is different in other ways as well - the menus are a la carte, the attire is business casual (no jackets, although if you wanted to dress up, you could), there may or may not be a sommelier, and of course you'll spend half as much as you will one of the high-end places. So if you're looking for a range of other options, you can get it from these other places, with the best food in this category. However, if you're looking for all of the qualities you get from a high-end experience, as the OP has actually posted that they are looking for, you may prefer to go to one of the high-end places. You could go either way; these are the places I would be considering in either category for a special occasion for that "combination of great food and a real wow experience".

            I purposely didn't mention Next because it's even more unlikely that you'd be able to get a reservation there than at Alinea. The phrase "snowball's chance in hell" comes to mind. :)

            1. re: Siun

              Regarding Next - you can get tables for 2 or 4 from time to time offered by the management on that day (other than the offers of tables from others) but this is probably not practicable for the OP and you do have to watch their Facebook page incessantly (I certainly don't) and respond instantly. ::rolleyes::

              In any case, for myself, the food [and even service, initially] did not quite fully live up to the hype. For example, I felt the pièce de résistance of its current menu - the pressed duck - was undercut by the potatoes that accompanied it (too creamy, too cheesy - it interfered with the taste of the duck) and I simply abandoned the potatoes and ate the duck by itself (which WAS delicious). There were various issues with other courses, to me. The hors d'oeuvres and salad were perfect, however.

        2. You guys are awesome. This is very helpful.

          1. Personally, I'd recommend Tru. I've been there many times and actually think its better than when Tramonto was there-particularly near the end of his tenure. Its within walking distance of your hotel, too. Spiaggia is an option and if you do a search you'll see that pretty much the only complaint there is price. My problem, specifically is the wine pricing.

            I was at Trotter's in July of 10 and would not go back given the price and what it used to be. I've posted this in other places on this board. Nothing really negative just not what it was or, really, what it should be. I've done the kitchen table twice and both of those experiences were absolutely fantastic but my last visit at the chef's table was about 5 years ago.

            Regardless of my past experiences with Everest, I haven't been there in a long time so I'll reserve judgment. I haven't been to Avenues in quite some time, either. I've been to L2O three times (though not since L. Gras left) and I would say without hesitation that it deserves to be mentioned among the very top in Chicago.

            I would agree that Alinea is the best in the city but getting in will probably prove problematic. For the record, I like Les Nomades a lot more than others here.

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            Alinea
            1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

            L2O
            2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

            Les Nomades
            222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611

            Spiaggia
            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

            2 Replies
            1. re: HoosierFoodie

              >> For the record, I like Les Nomades a lot more than others here.

              With this last statement, do you mean you like it more than other *people* here do, or do you mean you like it more than other *restaurants* mentioned here?

              1. re: nsxtasy

                My wife and I really like Les Nomades. It doesn't get a lot of love on this board, which is fine. What i was saying is that we really like the place. I do not think it is as good as Tru, Alinea, L2O, etc..... But it is walkable from the Mag Mile area and in that context worth consideration.

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                Alinea
                1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614

                L2O
                2300 Lincoln Park West, Chicago, IL 60614

                Les Nomades
                222 E Ontario, Chicago, IL 60611

            2. Alinea or L2O would fit the bill - great food (fit for foodies) in a contemporary setting. Graham Elliot also has a hip vibe, but it is less of a fine-dining experience (great food though).