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Toronto 'hound needs help narrowing down choices for 2 days in Chicago

My husband and I will be visiting Chicago at the end of April. We arrive relatively late on Thursday night, and leave on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, we've left our food research and reservations until quite late in the game...

At the risk of sounding overly vague, we love most kinds of food, and aren't super-limited by budget (though don't want to spend all of our retirement savings either). We'll be staying in River North, though are willing to travel within reason (we won't have a car but are open to taking the subway or a cab). We'd like to have one or two "fancy"/high-end meals (preferably dinner) but would also like to check out some more laid-back/casual places.

I think that on our first night (if we even have time to make it out for dinner after our flight and checking into our hotel) we'll try to hit one of Chicago's deep dish pizza places (eg. Uno, Due) as we won't have a lot of time, and we'll be tired.

At some point, we'd like to visit one of Rick Bayless's restaurants, but aren't sure whether to go with Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, and whether to head there for dinner or lunch or brunch. Right now there's only one table availalable at Topolobampo (Sat. at 9:15). Am I correct to assume that if we go to Frontera, we'll be waiting ages unless we show up right when they open? Is lunch a better option than dinner?

We're thinking of having dinner one night at Tru. Will it be worth the hefty price tag? If we opt for the 3-course prix-fixe menu, how filling will it be (ie. will we be safe to have a substantial lunch on the same day prior to going to dinner...we have pretty healthy appetites)?

Another spot that appeals to us (and seems to get a lot of praise on this board) is the Publican. I wish they were open for lunch... The only available table showing on Open Table is at 5:30 on Friday, which is not our ideal dinnertime. Can anyone tell me if they set aside tables for walk-ins? If so, will it be a crazy-long wait? Will it be worth it?

We're also interested in going to the Purple Pig. Will it be a long wait for a table at lunchtime?

Am I off base with these restaurant ideas? Is there anywhere that we shouldn't miss that I haven't mentioned? I know that Alinea is supposed to be amazing, but I've left it off the list because, to be honest, the menu doesn't appeal to me that much (especially considering the price). It's a bit too precious for my liking (not sure I'm choosing the right word, but it's just not my cup of tea).

I've done some general Chicago restaurant research on CH, but given time constraints haven't been able to do an exhaustive search. My apologies if I've asked questions that have been covered well in other threads. Thanks in advance for any assistance you Chicago 'hounders can provide.

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  1. Couple quick thoughts-
    -I would hit Publican up for brunch if you can't get in for dinner. I believe they are starting to do a brunch on Saturdays and they have a fabulous brunch
    -On Frontera- you can call for reservations- they do a limited amount, but it's worth a try. Otherwise, people tend to line up before they open (for lunch and dinner).
    -Purple Pig- we went for lunch last wknd and got there shortly after they opened and were seated without a wait, but the place was full within minutes. So I think it depends on when you show up, but definitely the wait at lunch should be less than dinner.

    1. The three course Prix Fixe at Tru is a decent amount of food as you also receive bread service (the bread is quite good, so you likely will want at least a couple of pieces), amuse bouche, an extra small course before the entree, and lots of extra sweets after dessert. You can also add on a cheese course for about $15 more if you'd like.

      With Frontera you should either call to try and make a reservation or arrive just before opening to avoid a really long wait.

      For Friday, you may want to consider having lunch at Blackbird. They have an excellent value for a lunch prix fixe, but are not open on weekends for lunch.

      Publican does now have brunch on Saturday and Sunday and many people rave about it (I am going for my first time next month). You can use Open Table to see if they have openings.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Gonzo70

        For the Publican, I would suggest giving them a call -- they may not make all of their tables available via OpenTable at peak times.

        1. re: danimalarkey

          Publican holds tables back from Opentable. I have, on more than one occasion, succeeded in getting a table by calling when opentable said they had none.

          1. re: chicgail

            Thanksdanimalarkey and chicgail! I just called and made a Friday dinner reservation at Publican, no problem. Funny, BTW that their Saturday and Sunday brunch menus are different...I like the Sunday one better, but we'll be gone by then.

            Unfortunately, I called Bayless's restaurants and they're both full -- even Topolobampo (I think that 5:30 spot must have been a cancellation). Think we'll try to hit Frontera at lunch on Friday for a walk-in, then perhaps Purple Pig on Saturday for lunch and Tru for dinner.

      2. New questions...

        My Fordors Chicago book says a jacket is required at Tru. Is this accurate? While we wouldn't go in ripped jeans, we had planned to wear something "smart casual" (for lack of a better term).

        Also, we're now considering North Pond instead of Tru. Am torn... Like the sound of the atmosphere at NP, but sounds like food is less exceptional than at Tru. Thoughts?

        8 Replies
        1. re: torontofoodiegirl

          Tru's OpenTable page suggests yes.

          Dress Code: Jacket Required

          1. re: kathryn

            Thanks. I'm an idiot for not having noticed that (given that I've been on its Open Table page).

            1. re: torontofoodiegirl

              Not your fault -- it's the new OpenTable restaurant profile page. You have to click on More Details to even get that info.

              1. re: kathryn

                We didn't want to wait too long to decide and risk not getting a reservation at either place, so we've decided to go with North Pond. We just aren't in the mood to get super-dressed up (maybe it's because here in Toronto, you can dress somewhat casually at even the best restaurants). I know that the food won't be as stellar as Tru would be, but I'm hoping that it will still be excellent. If anyone thinks we're making a big mistake, please let me know.

                1. re: torontofoodiegirl

                  You have a good itinerary. Don't worry about North Pond, it's good.
                  Consider calling ahead for the deep dish pizza when you are en route, if you're hungry. They take awhile to bake.

          2. re: torontofoodiegirl

            If wearing a jacket at Tru is that much of a problem for you, North Pond is a lovely location with good (not all great!) food. It's not as good as Tru. You might also want to consider Naha, which is lovely, and consistently very good.

            1. re: chicgail

              Wearing a jacket isn't a massive problem, but it's just a bit annoying as a) we really need to relax on this trip and we (particularly my husband, who hates dressing up) won't feel as relaxed in that kind of atmosphere and b) it's just one more thing to pack. Naha does look good....another thing to decide!

              On another note (and at rather the last minute), I'm trying to figure out pizza for tonight (if we can even make it in time for a very, very late dinner). Seems that people have incredibly varied views as to which deep dish is the best in Chicago. We're considering Gino's East, as a lot of people seem to like it and it's close to our hotel. First of all, please let me know if you think we're making a mistake trying to go there -- although Gino's is the closest to us (which is nice, as it'll be late and we'll be tired), Uno, Due and Lou Malnati's aren't too far. Secondly, if we call ahead to order, how far in advance should we call? Are we likely to get stuck waiting for a table at about 10:00?

              Thanks!

              1. re: torontofoodiegirl

                Uno, Due and Malnati is much better than Gino's, although Ginos does have its fans. it's all opinion, of course. You shouldn't have much of a problem getting a table at around 10, although I would call to order just before you leave the hotel.

                Have fun.

          3. It's been almost two weeks since our trip, and I still haven't posted to report back... Don't have time for a lengthy/detailed commentary now, but thought a short post would be better than nothing.

            Thursday night had a very late pizza dinner. We decided to go to Gino's because it was so close to our hotel and the hour was late, but alas they closed at 10 so we just missed the boat. Instead, we went to Lou Malnati's. Had no problem getting a table, given the hour (almost 10:30). Service was excellent for a pizza joint. We didn't hate the pizza (one with sausage, and one with spinach and mushrooms), but were somewhat underwhelmed. Not sure if we would have felt the same about deep dish at another restaurant (it's not something we get at home...we're more accustomed to Neapolitan style). Also had a salad, which was okay (especially the little crispy salami bits, which were really yummy in a gross kind of way) but the dressing was way too sweet. I'm not really complaining though, because I don't think I'd expect much better in a pizza joint.

            Friday lunch was the Purple Pig after doing an architectural river cruise (note to other tourists: PP is very close to where the boat docks). It was my favourite meal of the trip. I wrote down all the dishes we had (and there were many!!) but I'm not sure what I did with the paper. One of our faves was the crispy pig ear with kale and egg. SO delicious. Texture was lovely, as was the level of acid in whatever it was dressed in. We also loved a salad we had - asparagus, arugula, and hazelnuts. Again, beautifully dressed. We had a slightly spicy house cured pork loin, which was delicious. The worst thing we had was the meatball slider sandwich, which was by no means bad, just a bit too ordinary. Pretty good service, considering how busy they were (perhaps not quite as attentive as they could have been, but not bad, and very friendly/helpful).

            Friday night was the Publican (not the best choice, given that it's a bit similar to PP, but it just worked out that way). I hesitate to say this because it gets so much love, but I felt a bit like the emperor had no clothes. The only things that we really thought were great were the ham, and the cheese we had at the end of the meal, neither of which were actually made in-house. Practically everything we ordered was oversalted (and believe me, I love salt, so if I think there's too much, there's really too much). Again, I'm blanking on most of what we tried (and can't find my list) but I do recall thinking that the best dish we had would have been the squid, if it weren't for the excess salt. Oh, actually, I just remembered another one -- the boudin blanc, which was actually quite nice, and salted appropriately, so I guess I'd say it was my fave after the ham and the cheese. Service was competent, but less than enthusiastic.

            We hit Frontera Grill for Saturday brunch. Got there about 20 minutes before it opened, and had no trouble getting a table. The service was fantastic, and so was the food (it was my husband's favourite meal, and my second-favourite). We started with the sopes rancheros (little crispy corn boats filled with slightly spicy beef, tomato, avocado and cheese), which were really delicious. We then shared the enchilada with steak and eggs, and a "Sapitos" trio. The enchilada was really good, but very spicy. Our waiter had warned us about the level of heat (quite emphatically) and I sort of wish that I'd listened and ordered something else. I enjoy hot/spicy food, and while this didn't totally blow my head off, it was a bit hotter than would be my preference. The flavour was great though. The sapitos were little corn cakes - one topped with egg, the other with chorizo, and the third with chicken. They were fantastic. Really, really nice flavour. Overall, a great meal.

            Saturday night was dinner at North Pond. Chicgail, we thought long and hard about whether to change our reso to Tru and I really wish we had. North Pond has a lovely atmosphere, but neither the food nor the service were consistent with the fairly high price. Both of our mains came out lukewarm, in fact. We shared an artichoke soup, which was kind of ho hum, and a crab/avocado salad, which was quite nice, to start. Both of our mains came out lukewarm (which I find unacceptable anywhere, let alone a restaurant of that calibre). We shared a beef dish and a halibut dish. Both were good, but by no means great or memorable. Our waiter seemed a bit too self-important and preoccupied, in spite of the fact that the restaurant wasn't very busy. Oh well, live and learn...

            I guess this turned out a bit longer than I planned....

            Thanks again to all of you for your input/suggestions. I'm really looking forward to another trip to your great city at some point.