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May 14, 2012 11:17 PM

Chicago Food Trip Suggestions Please - Nxstasy you're my only hope, lol

Hey Chowhounds,

I'm looking for input from everyone here, but there are a few people in particular (Nxstasy, I bow to your Chicago food knowledge), Uhockey, and many others who know the Chicago food scene inside and out.
We will be staying in the Mag Mile area.

I will be visiting with my wife June 13-18th, for a 100% food trip. She was unable to join me on the trip last year, and is pissed that I have been to Alinea and she hasn't. Plus, I always rave about the Chicago trip, the 78' Gaja, etc.
From my research, the big developments over the past year are:

1)Avenues is closed - Bummer as I wanted to go there
2)Trotter's is closed - Not so bummer, went there last year and they served our flawed bottle of 1978 Gaja Sori San Lorenzo to another table!!!! (Worst wine service observation I have ever seen), though we did get a 2nd bottle which was excellent.
3)EL Ideas - I'm on the wait list
4)Goosefoot - I'm on the wait list
5)Next - Reviews look mixed, and though we love Chef Achatz, this seems more hype than anything, and underwhelms far too often from my reading.

Here is the current plan, I'm looking for suggestions:

1)We are on the wait list for Alinea from the Wed-Sat that we are there (Boo, but I booked in our flights in early May, and Alinea was booked til the end of June) I really hope we get in, for my wife's sake more than anything. We will just drop any reservation and pay a fee if we get an Alinea reso last minute.
2)Also on wait list for El Ideas and Goosefoot for Wed-Thurs

Wed 13th - Land at 5 PM, no current reservation - Need a suggestion that can be canceled last minute if Alinea/Goosefoot/EL Ideas come through
I'm thinking Purple Pig

Thurs 14th - Thinking lunch at Blackbird or Cafe Spiaggia, again need a dinner reso that I can cancel if one of the others comes through

Fri 15th - Lunch at Topolobampo, dinner at Tru

Sat 16th - Lunch suggestion, dinner at Schwa (booked already :)

Sun 17th - Brunch at Publican, dinner at L2O

Mon 18th - Need breakfast/lunch suggestions (Maybe Bongo Room) - Leaving Chicago at 1845 back to Canada

My lunch interest list includes: Publican, Frontera/Topolo, Purple Pig, Blackbird, Cafe Spiaggia
Dinner interest list also includes: Everest, Graham Elliott,
Breakfast/Brunch interest list: Fox + Obel, North Pond, Bongo Room, French Market,
Previous disappointments include: Les Nomades, Girl and the Goat

Any suggestions are appreciated.



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  1. Consider Acadia for dinner and Perennial Virant for Saturday brunch.

    1. If I took my wife to Chicago and didn't get her Italian Beef at least once, she'd likely divorce me. She's a big fan of Mr. Beef on Orleans. It looks like your trip is a bit more upscale and geared towards finer dining, but give a thought to that, or Hot Doug's for killer meat in tube form, so she gets some of the traditional Chicago too.

      BTW: My wife and I faked a medical emergency to get out of Graham Elliot the last time we were there. The menu was totally uninspiring (it had changed from what we saw online), they were a hour late seating us, and our server was beyond rude. I know others have enjoyed it, but be sure to review the menu before booking to make sure you have something you want to eat. I'd do Everest or Spaiggia before GE and not think twice about it.

      Have a great trip.

      10 Replies
      1. re: Db Cooper

        I haven't been to GE, but I know that Andrew Brochu, previously at Alinea, Kith and Kin, and El Ideas, is the new chef there and has completely revamped the menu.

        1. re: aburkavage

          Let me get this straight. Graham Elliot isn't even cooking anymore at the restaurant that bears his name?

          1. re: Db Cooper

            And Grant Achatz doesn't prepare every dish at Alinea & Next? (gasp) There are executive chefs at all the "name" restaurants, Trotter's included. It's a rare chef that continues to run the kitchen exclusively once they reach the scale these guys have.

            1. re: ferret

              I've been lucky enough to eat at Aliena three times and each time, Grant was in the kitchen. I realize that as their empires expand, guys like that get stretched thin and aren't always in the kitchen. But you mistook my post as cynical when I was actually trying to figure out if GE had moved into running a restaurant empire versus actually cooking on a nightly basis. If he did, great for him I guess. But I would think he still has quite a bit to accomplish to reach the status of guys you mention like Trotter and Achatz. On that scale you brought up, the only one GE can claim to be in a league with those guys is the one he steps on in the bathroom in the morning.

              1. re: Db Cooper

                Even Thomas Keller has an Executive Chef ("Chef de Cuisine") at The French Laundry. It's not about level of accomplishment or cooking on a nightly basis, you want to both maintain consistency and give your chefs appropriate levels of opportunity (nearly any famous chef you can name had to work their way up through executive chef positions elsewhere). It's simply not humanly possible to "cook nightly" once you reach a certain level (Michael Carlson excluded, but even that's not "nightly").

                And the examples I picked weren't meant to be a basis for comparison, just that it's the way restaurants operate once you've hit a certain scale.

                1. re: ferret

                  Here's the thing though since you still seem to not be getting what I'm asking. All these chefs you are naming can still be found regularly IN THEIR restaurants WORKING. Maybe they are just tasting. Maybe they are greeting guests. Maybe they are cooking one dish that requires a precision they have. Maybe it's a new dish they want to ensure is perfect. Maybe they are training/coaching. But they are there, in the restaurant, doing the work.

                  That's what I'm asking about GE. Is he still around on a regular basis or is he off doing the TV thing and the restaurants now just bear his name kind of like a lot of the Emeril chains around the country.

                  1. re: Db Cooper

                    And what I was saying is the presence of an executive chef does not imply that the owner chef is gone. aburkavage's post may have been what confused you in the first instance in that Brochu replaced previous exec chef Brian Runge. He didn't replace Graham Elliot.

                    1. re: ferret

                      Just a technical Executive Chef and Chef de Cuisine are two entirely different positions. They are not interchangeable as implied in a previous post.

                    2. re: Db Cooper

                      FYI, Graham has two restaurants, GE and Grahamwich, and is in the process of opening a third, GEB or Graham Elliot Bistro.

            2. Wow, quite a list! If you do manage to get Alinea and either El Ideas or Goosefoot, you will probably have had 5 of the best meals Chicago has to offer right now!

              For lunch/brunch, I'd consider adding 2 Sparrows, Do-Rite Dounuts, Southport Grocery, and Portillo's or Mr. Beef.

              For cancel-able dinner options, try Yusho, Gilt Bar, Bar Toma, and Naha.

              If you happen to be near the French Market and want to stroll through, then go for it. But I certainly wouldn't recommend going out of your way, as there isn't anything there destination-worthy.

              1. Your trip sounds great! You are covering a lot of good places - I'm sure you already know that - so I'll add various comments, including responses to your specific questions.

                You seem to be concentrating your itinerary on high-end (or higher-end) places offering lengthy tasting menus. Assuming you want to stick with that theme, several additional places might be worth considering. Charlie Trotter's is not closed until August, so it may still be a possibility. You briefly mentioned Everest, and it's still among our best, with great food, and mixed reports on service (excellent in my own experience). A few days ago I ate at Sprout, Dale Levitski's restaurant, and it is very good - not quite up there with Trotter's etc, but good enough to be worth considering. Oh, it's also very casual. One other place that has tasting menus is Bonsoiree, where I ate a couple of weeks ago, and which I thought was just okay - not awful, but not particularly impressive. You only mentioned North Pond for brunch, but they offer a tasting menu at dinner, and it's wonderful for its exquisite setting in the park as well as for the delicious food from newly-awarded James Beard winner Chef Bruce Sherman. One other upscale restaurant which doesn't normally have a tasting menu AFAIK but belongs in the conversation is Naha. Within the past couple of months I've also eaten at TRU (you've got that covered, great choice) and Goosefoot (very good, if you get in - remember too it's BYO). So to answer your question, aside from the waitlisted places, I'd look into reservations at Trotter's, Everest, Sprout, North Pond, and Naha.

                Responses to specific questions/comments:

                >> Wed 13th - Land at 5 PM, no current reservation - Need a suggestion that can be canceled last minute if Alinea/Goosefoot/EL Ideas come through
                >> I'm thinking Purple Pig

                The Purple Pig does not accept reservations, and waiting times to be seated for dinner are typically as much as two hours or more. You might want to consider Purple Pig for lunch instead, and make a reservation for dinner that evening at a place that accepts them. If you'd consider something a bit more casual than the tasting menu places mentioned above, I'd recommend one of our small plates places, specifically: GT Fish & Oyster (small plates with an emphasis on seafood, I ate there last night and it was again terrific); Sable (contemporary American small plates and artisanal cocktails); Mercat a la Planxa (tapas).

                >> Sat 16th - Lunch suggestion, dinner at Schwa (booked already :)

                I think the above suggestion of Perennial Virant for Saturday brunch is an excellent one.

                >> Mon 18th - Need breakfast/lunch suggestions (Maybe Bongo Room) - Leaving Chicago at 1845 back to Canada
                >> Breakfast/Brunch interest list: Fox + Obel, North Pond, Bongo Room, French Market

                Here, you could go with a breakfast-focused place for breakfast/brunch, or a dinner-focused place for lunch. If you want a dinner-like lunch, your previous mentions of Blackbird and Cafe Spiaggia are both worthy, and GT Fish & Oyster (see above) is definitely worth considering as well. If you want a place that's geared towards breakfast/brunch, Fox & Obel wouldn't be at the top of my list (I love their bakery department, but when I eat there for breakfast/brunch I do so out of convenience) and neither would the French Market (a great place for grazing, especially with Vanille Patisserie, but not so much for a sit-down breakfast/brunch). North Pond only does brunch on Sundays, so that's out. Bongo Room has very creative pancakes (as well as egg dishes etc) if that appeals to you. Based on your preferences, my top pick among our breakfast-specialty places would be Jam; imagine if the chefs at an upscale tasting menu type restaurant decided to open a breakfast/brunch place, and that's what Jam is. Great food, sweet and savory, very creative, with an emphasis on breakfast/brunch dishes. It's also just a couple of blocks from the Logan Square station on the CTA Blue Line that goes to O'Hare, so it might work as a stop on the way to the airport. Two other favorite breakfast/brunch places I love are Southport Grocery (mentioned above - bread pudding pancakes!) and M. Henry / M. Henrietta, although both of these places are up on the north side and may not be so convenient for you on your getaway day.

                HTH - and thanks for the kind words!

                24 Replies
                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Booy Ya!

                  I love all the suggestions, thanks everyone.

                  I like the look of both Naha and Sprout, it looks like Naha does lunch and Sprout does dinner only. I think I will put them down for Wed-Thurs, with the plan to cancel for Alinea/Goosefoot/El Ideas if I get a last minute reso. That said, if I don't do Naha for dinner, should is the lunch just as good, as I would go there for lunch instead.

                  Perennial Virant sounds good for one brunch, and I will look into all of everyone's other suggestions as well.

                  Not interested in Trotter's (He's a dick and hasn't kept up IMO, and the wine prices are egregious)

                  I think I'll hold off on Everest, as it's so traditional French, and I may hit up Guy Savoy in Vegas next week anyway. Plus, I already have multiple high end places.

                  So, now I'm at:

                  Wed - Dinner at Naha

                  Thurs - Lunch at Purple Pig, Dinner at Sprout

                  Fri - Lunch at Topolbampo, Dinner at Tru

                  Sat - Brunch at Perennial Virant, dinner at Schwa

                  Sun - Brunch at Publican, dinner at L2O

                  Mon - Still deciding

                  Comments, Questions, Ideas?

                  We may add breakfasts too, but my wife only likes 2 meals a day, maybe 3. Also keeps the weight down :) I will also add the odd sandwich/hot dog, so Mr. Beef and Portillo's are still on the radar.

                  Finally, I'm looking at staying at the Fairmont by Millenium Park, as its $140/night (cheapest downtown hotel I can find). The other option is the James on Mag Mile at $195/night.

                  We'll be walking, using transit, no car. Any recommendations from the forum?

                  Also, if anyone is around and wants to hook up for dinner (we are wine psychos, so beware), we'd love to meet up for a meal.



                  1. re: 97Sperss

                    The "2-meal-a-day" plan is great for home, but vacations are for breaking rules. Isn't the whole point of the visit trying new places?

                    The Fairmont and James are both nice hotels. The Fairmont is just a bit off the main drag (not necessarily a deterrent) but The James is in a slightly more active spot.

                    The Fairmont, being South of the River is nearer to Millenium Park and Loop destinations.

                    The James, being more of a Mag-Mile spot is closer to shopping and has better exploring opportunities.

                    The difference between them is no more than a 10-15 minute walk, so it's not a huge distinction.

                    1. re: 97Sperss

                      That's a d__n impressive itinerary, especially if one of your wait list places comes through.
                      As a fellow wine geek, I'm pretty sure EL and Schwa are BYO. Binny's on Grand is highly recommended for a broad selection and Howard's Wine as a more focused and small shop.

                      1. re: camusman

                        Perman Wines on Washington is also a very small focused wine shop, but the owner is familiar with every BYO in the city and is capable of matching wines on just about every budget. I find the shop to be a gem and am shocked it's not more popular.

                        1. re: camusman

                          Fingers crossed that I get the wait listed places.
                          I did go to the Binny's on Grand last time. Also checking out Flickinger, but will check the other places as well, thanks.
                          Last trip had some great wines, 78 Gaja, Bionic Frog, Dalla Valle Maya, corked 82 Canon (Boo!), 78 Guigal, Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice.
                          This trip I am looking at some 88 Gaja Sperss and a few others to try. I'll definitely hit up those wine shops, although that 11% sales tax in Illinois is crazy.

                          I also would do more than 2 meals a day, but my wife only likes 2 a day, which is kind of a bummer.


                        2. re: 97Sperss

                          Hey all,

                          Got in at Alinea on Sunday night (last night of the trip) thanks to a cancellation, and still want to do L20. That means I need to move it to Wed or Thurs, which were previously Naha and Sprout.
                          Reading the boards, I like the playful deconstructivism of Sprout, but Naha sounds excellent as well. If you had to choose, would you keep Naha or Sprout, or would you do Mercat a la Planxa instead? Also, these could all potentially be replaced by EL Ideas if something opens up there. Should we replace one of our lunches with Naha.
                          Finally, BYOW is huge for us, as we love to bring crazy wines to restaurants.


                          Here is the updated itinerary:

                          Wed - Dinner at L20, drinks at Aviary after

                          Thurs - Lunch at Purple Pig, Dinner at Sprout/Naha/Mercat a la Planxa

                          Fri - Lunch at Topolobampo, Dinner at Tru

                          Sat - Brunch at Perennial Virant, dinner at Schwa

                          Sun - Brunch at Publican, dinner at Alinea

                          Mon - Jam or Bongo Room for breakfast

                          How can I fit Naha into this line-up, or should I even bother?



                          1. re: 97Sperss

                            Wow! I've lived in Chicago since 1996 and haven't made it to all of these. It's really splitting hairs at this point, so you already won. In my opinion, I would choose Sprout, and ask to sit in the atrium. Naha is solid, but I don't think they offer much you can't find at the top restaurants in many cities. Sprout is the slugger that tries for the homerun and occasionally misses, whereas Naha consistently hits .300+ hitting bunches of singles and doubles and the occasional homer .

                            1. re: GourmetWednesday

                              Nice analogy. I love it. From your description, Sprout definitely sounds like the better choice for us.
                              Am now in process of adding late night mixology/cocktail bars to the schedule. So far have booked Aviary and am gonna do The Violet Hour and The Drawing Room for sure. Scofflaw sounds good too, maybe after Schwa.

                              1. re: 97Sperss

                                Cocktail bars:

                                I'd do Violet Hour earlier, on a non-weekend night, to avoid waiting in line.

                            2. re: 97Sperss

                              >> If you had to choose, would you keep Naha or Sprout, or would you do Mercat a la Planxa instead?

                              I've eaten at both Naha and Sprout in the past six months, and Mercat a couple of years ago. Of those three, I'd say Naha has the most delicious food, by far. I felt that Sprout was one of many places around town that are pretty good but really not exceptional in any way; by contrast, Naha was thoroughly outstanding. Although Mercat didn't wow me, it may be worth considering if you want something different from contemporary American (but I don't think I'd do it the same day as Purple Pig, since they both lean heavily towards Mediterranean). So yes, it's worth trying to fit Naha into your itinerary, more so than Sprout. I also think that North Pond, which seems to have disappeared from your itinerary, is every bit as worthy as Naha. HTH!

                          2. re: nsxtasy

                            nsxtasy, it's so nice to see a post from you. I know you said you were cutting back, but it seemed you quit cold turkey. I really value your posts, and clearly I'm not alone.
                            It happens I'll be back in Chi starting tomorrow for a short visit. I have a res for Nellecote - have you been? What did you think? It looks like they have a nice selection of both veg and non-veg options, which is always my first criterion.

                            1. re: mrsdebdav

                              I haven't been to Nellecote yet, sorry. But thanks to you too for the kind words!

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                Thanks and hope to see more posts from you soon!

                                1. re: mrsdebdav

                                  One more big question:

                                  My wife and I are very concerned about the frequent last minute cancellations at Schwa. Considering the distance traveled and that we won't be returning anytime soon, we are trying to figure out what to do to ensure we get a reso there.
                                  We are currently booked for Saturday night, but on the phone they told me that they are away on the Friday for a cooking competition and thus the restaurant is closed. Given the track record, I worry that they may end up being closed Saturday as well.
                                  Should I book a 2nd reservation for Wednesday or Thursday with the intent of canceling Saturday if we get in?
                                  What are you thoughts?
                                  Also, does anyone know the type of glassware they have at Schwa, as we may bring a few nice wines, and without decent stemware, it's kind of a waste.



                                  1. re: 97Sperss

                                    i would book a back up reservation for the night you are hoping for for glassware, they had basic stemless wine glasses when i was there in march of this year.

                                    1. re: streaksinthesky

                                      Thanks for the suggestion. I just made a back-up reso for Blackbird in case Schwa falls through.
                                      Stemless Riedel "O" glasses?

                                      1. re: 97Sperss

                                        I would opt for middle of the road, food-friendly wines at Schwa so that you can focus on the food. Say Austrian Riesling or higher end Cru Beaujolais or Loire Cab Franc. If the stemware isn't Riedel O, it's something very similar. High-end Piedmont wines might not pair well with some of the more complex dishes.

                                        1. re: 97Sperss

                                          They certainly aren't Riedel, but probably the same shape as the Pinot Noir "O" glasses.

                                          Agreed on the post above re: food-friendly wines. You can certainly bring whatever you want, but I've found bubbles and crisp whites to work with just about every course. I've always brought a red and have been glad I did, but found it didn't pair as well with as many courses as the lighter stuff. Most courses tend to have at least one sweet component, and so acidity in the wine allows the food to shine.

                                          If I were going tomorrow, I'd run to the wine store and get bubbles (Avinyo Reserva Cava maybe), a crisp white from Alsace (Albert Mann Riesling Cuvee Albert maybe), and some earthy medium bodied red staying away from fruit-forward Cali stuff (Sattler Sweigelt maybe).

                                          1. re: aburkavage

                                            There's also a decent chance that the kitchen may offer up pours from other bottles they have on hand. Other diners may leave half-finished bottles* from the previous night or even earlier that same evening. As with everything Schwa-related, it won't hurt to be flexible. It also helped, maybe, that I brought the kitchen a 6-pack.

                                            *Or an unfinished birthday cake -- the second time I was there, Sarah Levy (of Sarah's Candies/Levy Restaurants/etc) had celebrated her birthday earlier in the evening and left well over half of the birthday cake they had brought for the occasion. It was very good.

                                            1. re: danimalarkey

                                              It occurs to me that the best strategy might be to take one pour from your best Gaja and give the rest to Carlson. Should be good for about three extra courses.

                                              1. re: camusman

                                                I agree about middle of the road food friendly wines. With tasting menus, I like high quality German Kabinett or Spatlese, as it goes with almost every course.
                                                I'll probably bring one of those and a food friendly red, maybe an early 80s Rioja or something like that.
                                                Regarding giving booze to the kitchen, I agree, but from reading the food boards I think a 26 of Jameson's will get me more extra courses than a Gaja. Jameson's seems to be their whiskey of choice, no single malts, etc.


                                                1. re: 97Sperss

                                                  If you want to surprise them with something new, give Two Gingers Irish Whiskey a shot. Not the easiest to source (unless you live in MN), but it's got a much smoother finish than Jameson.

                                                  1. re: 97Sperss

                                                    I would definitely bring a bottle of champagne to start, which will probably go well with any number of courses. I haven't had the current menu at Schwa, but I'm not sure that the RS in a spatlese (or a modern kabinett) would be the best choice. I think a good Austrian gruner or riesling would be your best bet. For a red, I'd bring a red burgundy.

                                2. re: nsxtasy

                                  Part 1 of trip report with L2O is now up, all others to follow over coming weeks.




                                3. Publican serves brunch in both Saturday and Snday now. See which menu appeals to you more--they are different. I see they are on your lunch interest list but they don't serve lunch during the week.

                                  Here's a recent breakfast thread:

                                  I hope you get into one of your wait list choices! I seem to recall that Alinea has a wait list 100 people long typically.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: kathryn

                                    Thanks for this suggestion. I looked at both and decided on Sunday's menu.



                                    1. re: 97Sperss

                                      The James has a little more originality and pizzazz than the Fairmont, and I've heard good things about their breakfast/brunch. If it were any time other than summer the area around the James is much more conducive to wandering, shopping, snacking, and grabbing a train, but given how much I love hanging out in Millennium Park in June, both are good options. I would strongly recommend taking her for a cocktail at The Aviary (closed Sunday-Monday), as there's just nothing like it, although you are not otherwise planning to be in that neighborhood at night unless you go to Blackbird. Also, when you go to Publican, take a stroll through Publican Quality Meats. Even if you don't stay for a meal at PQM, it's fun for foodie window-shopping, you could get a snack for the room, and I've had the pleasure of Paul Kahan being there and chatting every time I've gone.

                                      1. re: 97Sperss

                                        So how did things go? Were you able to get into Alinea?

                                        1. re: camusman


                                          Nice to see you're on top of things Camusman. Full report will come in parts over the next few days, but the trip was awesome. I'll give a list of meals and wines here, then go into details over the next few days.
                                          Brief list:
                                          Wednesday: L2O tasting menu with 1990 La Grande Dame

                                          Thursday: lunch at Topolobampo, dinner at Sprout (tasting menu) with 2005 William Fevre Chablis Les Clos
                                          Drinks after dinner at The Violet Hour

                                          Friday: Lunch at Wrigley Field; bratwurst and beer
                                          Dinner at Tru, tasting menu with bottles of 1990 Dom Perignon and 1997 Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice Vin Santo. Also did a caviar course and had two extra courses added by the chef.
                                          Drinks after dinner at Aviary

                                          Saturday: Lunch at Purple Pig with 1988 Gaja Sperss
                                          Dinner at Schwa with 1998 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses
                                          Drinks after dinner at The Watershed and The Drawing Room

                                          Sunday: Lunch at Uno's pizza and Garret's popcorn
                                          Dinner at Alinea with wine pairings

                                          Monday: Lunch was 1 Mr. Beef sandwich and 1 Al's Beef sandwich

                                          You'll notice that Publican and Perennial Virant fell off the original list because we were staying up drinking way too late, and wanted to try some Chicago staples in the Beef Sandwiches and Pizza.

                                          Overall an awesome trip, full reports to come.


                                          1. re: 97Sperss

                                            Thanks. Glad your trip was a success. Hell of an itinerary.

                                            1. re: camusman

                                              Part 1 - L2O now up on below link. Others to follow.