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Jun 18, 2012 08:52 PM

Chicago Birthday Trip

I'm getting ready for the big 3-0 this fall, and am going to be visiting Chicago in celebration. To clarify exactly the situation, we're going to be attending for about 7 days in the middle of November (I know, cold right?) We're looking for a few things:

1. One or two "mind-blowing" meals. I'm not necessarily asking for the most expensive, but the meals that are going to be truly special. As a chef in Los Angeles, food is one of the main reasons I'm excited to visit Chicago.
2. Several ideas for mid-level restaurants to fill out the week. Still loving tasty food, but I'd love to see what some of the local chefs are doing at places that we can do on a relative budget ($100-150 for two people including perhaps a glass or wine or cocktail)
3. Inexpensive places to eat. This is especially good for lunches, but I'm open to going somewhere more "expensive" for lunch and using a "cheap eats" place for dinner.
4. Bars. I love a good bar, especially the ones with great cocktails, both classic and modern. My preference is dark spirits (bourbon and whiskey primarily) but I'm not opposed to the lighter spirits!
5. Locations. We're still looking for a place to stay, and while specific places are welcome (our budget is tight, preferably below $200/night) I'm mostly looking for locations or neighborhoods that would be good for us.

To give you some more general background, I am chef at an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles and we are both very interested in visiting a city with a great restaurant scene. In addition, we are also very enthusiastic about the classic cocktail scene. We're very into classic (and twists on classic) cocktails, especially cocktails using dark spirits. Trying to put some perspective, we've got 8 different bourbons, 4 sweet vermouths and 6 rye whiskey options in my home bar, and many other specialty liquors. We don't tend to prefer loud spaces, though we're not necessarily opposed.

Looking forward to hearing anything you all have to say about your great city. And before you go crazy, I've checked through past posts, and will continue to comb through them. Just hoping to get some directed, current advice from those in the know!

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  1. For your high-end meals: Alinea would generally be considered our brightest star, currently ranked #6 in the world by San Pellegrino, and perhaps our most expensive. I'd also recommend shooting an e-mail and trying to get an invitation to the Office, the speakeasy downstairs from The Aviary, a modernist cocktail spot by Chef Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, the team behind Alinea.

    For another special dinner, I think you would love El Ideas (take a cab there and they can arrange a Town Car home; it's on a dead-end street in the middle of nowhere). I had a mind-blowing meal there last week. It's BYOB and they (Bill on my visit) do an amazing job of pairing your selections with the courses.

    Check out one or more of the spots run by Paul Kahan and team, such as Blackbird (high end), Avec (wine bar and small plates), or Publican (pork, oysters, beer hall and more, including weekend brunch). My name is Gourmet Wednesday and I am becoming addicted to Publican Quality meats, essentially a butcher/salumeria/deli offering carryout, or sitdown service for sandwiches, lunch or weekend brunch.

    For a place to stay in your budget, check out the rooms at Longman and Eagle. This would put you in the Logan Square neighborhood, which is much more culinarily-interesting than around the more expensive hotels along the Magnificent Mile. You will likely also enjoy their food and booze selections, although the place does get loud.

    1. >>4. Bars. I love a good bar, especially the ones with great cocktails, both classic and modern. My preference is dark spirits (bourbon and whiskey primarily) but I'm not opposed to the lighter spirits

      For something unusual that you won't find in any other city- there's Aviary.
      Other cocktail bars that are well known and are favorites- Violet Hour and Drawing Room
      There is also Sable, which has some a looong cocktail menu and you can get some bites to eat.
      Lastly- this place is new and I haven't been there yet- but thought this rooftop bar- Drumbar might be of interest to you- supposedly they focus on whiskeys and bourbons-

      >>2. Several ideas for mid-level restaurants to fill out the week. Still loving tasty food, but I'd love to see what some of the local chefs are doing at places that we can do on a relative budget ($100-150 for two people including perhaps a glass or wine or cocktail


      Might be helpful to hear more about what you're looking for once you do some research but a couple thoughts would be to hit up some places like Frontera Grill, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster and as mentioned- Publican. Once you look into some of the other threads you'll prob find some spots that interest you and can follow up with more questions.

      1 Reply
      1. re: ms. mika

        Just wanted to add- I was just reading something about a new bar that just opened - Untitled- in a write up it mentions the following, which I thought might interest you-

        American whiskeys available: 279 (making it the largest American whiskey selection in the world)
        111 W Kinzie St
        (between LaSalle and Clark)

      2. Re 1 -- El Ideas would be a 'must', if you ask me. Alinea, too, as noted. You should try Schwa, but trying to reach someone on the phone is often something of a sisyphean task.

        Re 2 -- Some places that come to mind would include
        Nightwood - in the Pilsen neighborhood -- the chef just took home top honors at this year's Grand Cochon; they also serve a killer brunch.
        Lula Cafe - Nightwood's "older sister" type restaurant, in Logan Square, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement here in Chicago.
        Yusho - Japanese meets whatever the chef wants from Charlie Trotters' 20-year executive chef also in Logan Square (or just north in Avondale depending on who you ask).
        Au Cheval and Maude's Liquor Bar - I suspect they may skew a little young and sceney, but the former has upscale (relatively speaking), very decadent diner-type food and the former a very solid drinks program in addition to good food; both are in the West Loop.
        The Trenchermen - Not open yet, but should be by the time you make it out here, it's looking to be a gastropub. The chefs involved, Mike and Patrick Sheerin, have solid reputations and this place is in the heart of Wicker Park, so it's easy to get to -- but until they open, it's impossible to say if it will actually be any good (obviously!).
        Publican - also in the West Loop, this is my favorite of Paul Kahan's current restaurants and would be great for dinner or brunch (though dinner might push the budget boundary). avec is another solid choice and lunch at Blackbird (M-F) is a particularly great deal ($22/3 courses).
        Longman & Eagle - as mentioned, they have some hotel rooms (but check out pictures of the rooms on your website - you will notice that the toilets are not for the relatively modest, and that may be a deal-breaker), but they also have a great restaurant. Lots of salty, meat-centric dishes with assorted offcuts/offal, it's often very busy (reservations not accepted, though if you stay in the hotel rooms upstairs, you may get some sort of priority over other walk-ins).
        Purple Pig - in the River North area, lots of Mediterranean- inspired small plates that are also heavy on the meat (though the vegetable dishes are done really well, too). No reservations in addition to a small room means potentially long waits, as well.
        "lightning round" of other options that are very chef-driven, or otherwise impressive (to me, at least) - Hopleaf (Belgian-ish with an amazing beer list; Andersonville); Big Jones (Southern, home-style -- aim for the boardinghouse lunch if you can; Andersonvile); Hot Chocolate (home to the recent James Beard winner for pastry, they do savory courses really well, too; Bucktown); Bristol (gastropub that delivers great local food; no reservations; Bucktown); Mexique (Mexican/French, though not in a gimmicky way; West Town); Ruxbin (no reservations and another tiny restaurant, there can be long, long waits but they are BYO and very good, too); Leopold (also Belgian-ish and all together satisfying, I do think the cocktails run too sweet but the beer/wine is decent; West Town); Pleasant House Bakery (the best savory pies I have ever had, they really nail British comfort food and while I wouldn't normally recommend them, you'll be in town for a while and I think they serve up something really, really special -- I like to order my food to go and eat it at the neighboring bar, Maria's (the staff will gladly walk your food over when it's ready - or you can buy something to go at Maria's and eat at PHB); Bridgeport).

        Re 4 -- Chicago is awash (zing?) in bars that celebrate whiskies, so it should be easy for you drink well. Options include...
        Big Star - This is another Kahan spot (and serves very good tacos) but I think it's more of a bar with good food (rather than a restaurant with a great bar, if that makes sense). November will mean a closed patio, so it might be a little tight inside, but you will find one of the best lists of bourbons in the city (including may single-barrel selections -- see to get an idea). Their spirits list only includes tequila/mezcal and American whiskies and cocktails are a steal at $7/each (or maybe $8 -- still a good deal).
        The Violet Hour - across the street from Big Star is one of the city's first upscale cocktail bars. Expect a line at peak times (you can always hang out at Big Star and wait for a phone call), it's well worth it. Quiet and cozy inside (unless there's a physical seat/stool for you and your party, you don't get in -- it never gets crowded inside), aim for a seat at the bar, if possible, to get a great look at the bartenders in action. In addition to the cocktail list, they have an extensive collection of whiskies if you want something more straightforward.
        The Whistler - located in Logan Square, this was home to Paul McGee for a long time (another cocktail pioneer in Chicago). Drinks are very reasonable, though the space is pretty small. There's often live music, cutting across diverse styles -- be sure to check the calendar online before going in case it's a style you won't enjoy.
        Paul McGee's unnamed tiki concept -- Paul McGee (see above) left the Whistler to open a tiki bar. Not open yet, but it should be by the time you're here in November, it should be well worth visiting. Another option to pencil in until it's actually open.
        Bar Deville - in the Ukrainian Village just south of Wicker Park, this is one of the least pretentious/still cocktail focused bars in the city. Meaning, it looks like any other corner bar but juices are all fresh-squeezed and the bartenders know what they're doing.
        Scofflaw - Just west of Logan Square, it might be a little off the beaten path (or train line, at least), they got a lot of buzz early on for going with a cocktail program heavy on gin but they no doubt have great whiskey/bourbon options, as well. Solid food, too.
        Yusho & Longman & Eagle - while certainly worthy destinations for food, they both run excellent cocktail programs, too. I have often gone to either place later in the evening and order a few small plates and drink some great, unique cocktails.
        Barrelhouse Flat - an oasis in the middle of many forgettable/generic sports bars, they are very serious about their cocktails.

        Re 5 -- Aside from a few random B&B's here and there (ie. Longman & Eagle), most/all hotels are located in the city's center, so it's likely that you will wind up in the Loop or River North/Streeterville. Particularly if you stay in the Loop, you'll be close to the different train lines so you can get to most/all of these dining spots easily. But even then, something in River North/Streeterville shouldn't be too inconvenient, either.

        1. I've eaten lunch at The Purple Pig three times in the last three weeks. I'll be going back. I avoided going there because of the no reservations policy and alleged long wait times but my experiences were not like that. I sat at the bar all three times and had no wait, I loved the Manilla clams and Merguez sausage with an incredible spicy broth that begged for more grilled bread for dunking. The foie gras mousse "shmear" with membrillo jam is the best savory dessert I have had in a long time. It isn't offered as a dessert but it should be. Time it right (about 1:30 to 2:00) and there should be no wait.

          Frontera Grill and Topolobambo also do great lunches. I love the three mole trio at Frontera. Last time it was a fabulous Mole Negro with lamb, a chicken enchilada with Mole Poblano and a Green Mole with squash blossoms and potatoes. Really Terrific! The ceviches are also excellent. Despite the popularity of these restaurants if you time it right (again 1:30 to 2:00 as they stop serving at 2:30) you can easily walk in with no wait.