Casual, fun dinner recs
I'll be visiting Chicago with my business partner. We're starting a new venture and will be in town for a conference staying at the Hotel Allegro.
We have some clients who are looking for a casual evening after a long day at the conference. By casual, we mean change into jeans and sneakers after a long day being "on." These are people we've known from past employers, so we'll enjoy some relaxed time.
I don't know where the clients are staying, but the conference hotels are pretty much downtown. We're hoping for something fun or different, something that makes for a fun experience hanging out together -- could be music, or creative atmosphere, or interactive food (tapas, Korean BBQ), etc. Or anything else to make the evening different from a standard business dinner.
Any other inexpensive recs in the general area for our non-client nights would be appreciated too.
Depending just how casual an experience you're up for, you might check out "Mariscos El Veneno" on Ashland (~3 miles from most downtown locations; not sure how close you're looking to stay.) It's a BYOB Mexican Seafood restaurant - delicious food; a, lively, fun atmosphere; very laid back. They specialize in Nayarat style seafood, with is a spicy mexican preparation.
It will be relatively full no matter when you go -- no reservations taken, but typically no more than 20-40 min wait on a weeknight.
Every group experience I've had there has been a blast; you'll feel like part of a big mexican family (most of the employees, I believe, actually are family). A terrific experience all around, and certainly different than you'll find most other places.
First, a few general comments.
"Downtown" - the collection of neighborhoods full of hotels and restaurants - covers a large area, up to three miles north to south. If you're all staying close to each other, there would be some convenience in choosing a place that's within walking distance for all of you. If you want to go somewhere a little further, like the West Loop or outlying neighborhoods, it's easy to grab a cab or public transit, too, but there are inconveniences (especially if the weather isn't good that day). Note that the Allegro is in the middle of the Loop (the commercial district in the center of the downtown neighborhoods) so that it will be a short walk to restaurants in the Loop itself, or in the part of River North that's just across the river.
Also, you should consider making reservations where you decide to go. Most of our nicer restaurants accept reservations on Opentable.com which is an easy way to find availability. Your clients might not appreciate going to a place like Purple Pig, which doesn't take reservations and where waits to be seated are typically 90-120 minutes, even during the week - or maybe they wouldn't mind, but it's something you should be aware of.
The suggestions mentioned so far are all good choices. I'd add a few more. Sable has contemporary American food available as half portions (small plates), and craft cocktails, in a casual lively atmosphere. Quartino serves Italian small plates. Bin 36 is a wine bar that also serves food. So is Pops for Champagne. All of these are in River North, a 5-10 minute walk from the Hotel Allegro. All are lively, casual, and relatively inexpensive. All but Pops accept reservations.
Piccolo Sogno is in River West (just north of Greek Town, just west of River North) and has terrific contemporary Italian food in a lively bistro atmosphere; reservations for desirable times have been filling up a month in advance, even on weekdays. Coco Pazzo, in River North, is another good Italian place but it's not quite as casual or inexpensive. La Sardine is a lively, casual, moderately-priced French bistro in the West Loop; they accept reservations including on their own website, not on Opentable though.
Our provincial Mexican restaurants are worth considering too, but with caveats. Frontera Grill is excellent and casual, but they only accept a handful of reservations by phone, holding most of the dining room for walk-in traffic; without a reservation, unless you can get there before they open (around 5:20), you are likely to encounter long waits to be seated (90+ minutes). Mexique is a great alternative, but it's in West Town, a short cab ride (about 3 miles) from the Allegro. Mexique accepts reservations and it's casual and inexpensive. I think it's a great choice if you want to impress friends or clients with great food unlike what they have back home.
I think deep-dish pizza, mentioned by chicgail, is a great option; it's a local specialty you don't find elsewhere, it's inexpensive, etc. Lou Malnati's and Pizano's both have several locations downtown, and at either one, you can phone ahead with your pizza order so you don't have to wait 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake. The original locations of Uno and Due also have good pizza but I don't think you can phone ahead.
As usual, Chicago offers many, many outstanding restaurants in just about any category, and the challenge is to narrow them down to a handful for your visit. Don't agonize over this, as these are all worth going to.
619 N Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
29 E Ohio St, Chicago, IL 60611
111 N Carpenter St, Chicago, IL 60607
445 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654
626 N. State Street, Chicago, IL 60654
339 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60610
1529 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
300 West Hubbard, Chicago, IL 60610
464 N Halsted, Chicago, IL 60622
Sable Kitchen & Bar
505 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60654
500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
Pops for Champagne
601 N State St, Chicago, IL 60654
There's a just-opened wine bar in the West Loop that I'm very excited about called Vera. The chef had many, many fans while running the kitchen at a large, pan-Latin restaurant called Carnivale and is aiming for simpler, more traditional Spanish cuisine in this smaller space. Very affordable wine (including several options that are "on tap". An early, "first look" piece can be found here: http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/...
1023 W. Lake St.
(no website yet, as far as I can find
702 West Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60661
For Tapas there is Mercat a la Plancha in the Blackstone Hotel or, more casual and inexpensive is Cafe Iberico on north LaSalle St.
There are also our terrific gastropubs, my favorite - centrally located - being The Publican, but also The Purple Pig and the Gage (the most "formal" and my least favorite).
There is Greektown in the West Loop. I like The Parthenon or Greek Islands. Here's a good discussion of that: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/119233.
National 27 is a fun place for pan-Latin food in a vibrant atmosphere.
You may want to try deep dish or stuffed pizza which was invented and perfected here (Unos, Due, Pizzanos or Lou Maltoti for deep dish). As were Italian beef and Chicago-style hot dogs.
Most of the other ethnic gems are out of the main tourist area in the neighborhoods: authentic regional Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian/Pakistani and Thai, but you could use public transportation. If that sounds good to you, I know we could make many more recs.
737 N Lasalle Drive, Chicago, IL 60654
500 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611
Buddy Guy's Legends serves up some great cajun cuisine and live blues every night. They normally don't charge a cover until about 8:30. It's a fun, relaxed place with a lot of blues history. If Buddy is not on tour, there's a very good chance he'll be at the club :)