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Aug 6, 2012 03:24 PM

Chicago on a budget, please!

I'm planning far ahead - coming with my BF for a big medical conference in October. But as I am unemployed, I don't want to ask him to pay for an over-the-top tasting menu like Tru, Schwa or Alinea.

Also, living in San Francisco, I've had my share of high-end, haute cuisine tasting menus anyway so I would rather seek out what is specific and special to Chicago on the affordable side ($50 inclusive without drinks - or less).

For example, here in the Bay Area, I would send folks to Burmese food or a Mission burrito or the latest ubiquitous food truck offering duck confit Bao dumplings; all fresh, interesting and relatively inexpensive.

Open to anything interesting to learn what is special to Chicagoans - be it pizza, polish, or pickled!

Thanks so much...

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  1. I just got back from Chicago last week and because we were with two little ones, most of our dining was on the less expensive end of things, but we tried to hit places that were Chow-worthy and of note to Chicago. We loved Hot Doug's, which bills itself as the "sausage superstore" and has more types of sausage and encased meats than I ever knew existed. The more traditional dogs and sausages were in the $2-3.50 range, while the specialty sausages were more expensive and ran in the $8-10 range. However, between the five of us, we shared a total of 7 meats, two orders of fries, and five drinks, and the total was just over $30 and we were all stuffed.

    Deep dish pizza is another good value. I know which pizza is the best is an endless debate on
    this board, but we loved Lou Malnati's. One medium deep dish, a family size salad, a small thin pizza, a child's order of chicken nuggets, a couple of sodas, and one glass of wine came in around $50, before tip.

    We ate lunch at Rick Bayless' Xoco, which was excellent, and also not overly pricey. I had the seasonal torta, plus an order of churros with chocolate for dipping and it came to around $18. The churros were to share, otherwise, I could have ordered a single one and it would have been even cheaper.

    Those three seem more uniquely Chicago, but we also had a very nice dinner at Quartino, that was budget friendly (a small plate salad, two pastas, a meat, and a dessert, plus soda and a cocktail for around $60, before tip). Breakfast at Yolk one morning was also fresh, delicious and filling, as well as easy on the wallet. We also did a picnic in Millennium Park with sandwiches from Pastoral, which has excellent meats and cheeses. For $3 over the cost of the sandwich, you can add chip, a cookie, and a drink, making a meal for around $10.

    Hope this helps a little!

    4 Replies
    1. re: BetsyinKY

      Second Xoco, which does Mexican (not Tex-Mex) soups and sandwiches very well for ~$10-13 apiece. I'm not much of a churro person so I can't speak to that but their hot chocolate is very good and not common, since the chocolate is fresh-ground.

      1. re: BetsyinKY

        I would recommend Frontera Grill over Xoco, or one of our non-Bayless Mexican restaurants. Xoco is more along the lines of Mexican "street food", whereas Frontera Grill has more creative Mexican dishes than that (and very different from what you can get in SF). Compare their menus at to get a better understanding of what I'm referring to.

        Frontera only accepts a handful of reservations, so they make most of the dining room available for walk-in traffic. Unless you get there before they open the doors, waiting times for seating can be horrendous. Other non-Bayless places offering similarly creative Mexican cuisine include Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, and Mixteco Grill, all of which accept reservations so waiting times aren't an issue. All of these are moderately-priced, with average entrees in the upper teens.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          I like both Frontera Grill and Xoco!

          I might suggest Xoco for breakfast, and Frontera for weekday lunch. I was there during weekday lunch a few weeks ago and it didn't seem that crazy with crowds. Plus, you can dine at the bar and choose between the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo menus.

          Note to the OP: all the Bayless restaurants are closed Sundays and Mondays.

        2. re: BetsyinKY

          Some things to keep in mind: Hot Doug's is only open for lunch, and may be a trek dependent upon where you're staying. The lines are worst on Fridays and Saturdays, when they have duck fat fries. I'd get there around 10:45-11am to avoid a line. Closed Sundays, cash only, and they take a lot of random vacations, so definitely check the web site before you go.

        3. There is somewhat of a doughnut renaissance in Chicago right now with the opening of Doughnut Vault, Do Rite, and Glazed and Infused. That should be easy on the wallet, hmm?

          I would also steer you towards the weekday Boarding House lunch at Big Jones. $16pp for fried chicken, biscuits, cornbread, and sides.

          Mercat a la Planxa also has a similarly priced lunch special, and is conveniently located near the Art Institute.

          For dinner, you can stay under $50pp before drinks at Girl and the Goat (reserve ASAP) and Publican.

          Unfortunately, until very recently Chicago food trucks were prohibited from cooking "on board" so the food truck culture isn't as diverse/rich as other cities. That law has been relaxed but now they can't park within 200 ft of a restaurant and on many streets located in the Loop.

          3 Replies
          1. re: kathryn

            Oh, Kathryn.... You hit me with the doughnuts! I've got a doughnut blog (a little defunct right now), but you completely piqued my interest there!

            I've seen Girl & the Goat and Publican referenced before and both menus looks perfect - thanks for those too!

            On Bayless in general; he's got a fast-food restaurant here in San Francisco and it doesn't do much for me. That is probably because I lived on the San Diego/Mexican border and used to cut class to go to Ensenada for fish tacos and grilled Baja lobster.

            1. re: CarrieWas218

              Bayless's fast food restaurants are nothing like Frontera Grill. Not at all.

              Just check out the website menus, not just for Frontera Grill, but also for the others I mentioned:

              1. re: nsxtasy

                NSXtasy, read every menu...

                Also, I met Bayless and have eaten his non fast-food at some CIA-sponsored events in the Napa valley. It still does nothing for me (I'm a cilantro-hater, so the whole flavor profile is problematic for me).

          2. Since you mention Chicago specialties, someone needs to throw in the Italian Beef sandwich. Not that it means much, but Adam Richman just selected the version at Al's Beef on Taylor Street as the best sandwich in the Midwest.

            1 Reply
            1. re: camusman

              Always a good call and definitely an Illinois specialty ....

            2. This earlier topic has lots of tips for creative dining on a budget:

              Where are the best Chicago dinner *values* - the hidden gems? -

              It's not that recent but the advice in it is still totally relevant. Especially the part about how you can eat just about anyplace for lunch without spending a lot of money.

              7 Replies
              1. re: nsxtasy

                Carrie, where are you staying? Downtown Chicago is split by the Chicago River running east-west. South of the river is the older part of downtown, The Loop. North of the river is variously known as the Near North Side, the Magnificent Mile (the Michigan Avenue corridor), and River North (west of Michigan Avenue). Streeterville is between Michigan Avenue and the lake. Don't know where you'll be but here are some budget ideas. 1) Big Bowl, Ohio just west of Rush, is a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant (big deal here) with reliably good Asian stir-fries for $10-$12. The second Big Bowl is on Cedar just east of Rush in the Gold Coast neighborhood. 2) Oasis Cafe, at the back of a jewelry mall at 21 N Wabash, is a treasure with many daily specials of Middle Eastern food for about $7. Lunch only. 3) Maggiano's (Clark & Grand) has pasta entrees for about $12 or you can get up a group of 4 and have the Family Style meal which is A LOT OF FOOD for about $20 apiece. Let us know where you will be.

                1. re: Querencia

                  Querencia, the conference is at the Convention Center but we are staying at the Best Western Grant Park.

                  Does that help?

                  1. re: CarrieWas218

                    By "Convention Center", I assume you mean McCormick Place, and not the convention center in Rosemont. There's not much in the immediate vicinity of McCormick Place, but it's only about 3/4 mile from our Chinatown, with our best Chinese restaurants. I know you have great Chinese restaurants at home, but if you're looking for proximity to McCormick Place, it's an option.

                    Your hotel is at 11th and Michigan, in the neighborhood called the South Loop. It's a half mile south of the southern edge of the Loop, a mile south of the middle of the Loop, and 1.5-2.0 miles south of River North and the Magnificent Mile. It's easy to get to those and other neighborhoods by CTA, either by catching a CTA bus running along Michigan Avenue, or catching the el (subway) at Roosevelt (12th) and State, served by the Red Line that goes underneath State Street, and the Orange and Green Lines that circle the Loop on elevated tracks. More info on the CTA website at

                    Your hotel is only a couple of blocks from Bongo Room, one of our best and most creative breakfast/brunch restaurants. It's at Roosevelt (12th) and Wabash. They specialize in pancakes such as pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce. The standard portion consists of three gigantic pancakes, but you can also get one-third or two-thirds portions at reduced prices. I'm not as fond of Yolk, another breakfast restaurant, but there's one just a couple of doors south of your hotel.

                    For deep-dish pizza, there's a location of Lou Malnati's a few blocks away at 8th and State. You can phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake.

                    Your hotel is also right near Gioco, which has excellent Italian food at moderate prices. I had some wonderfully tender veal when I ate there not long ago. Two other good places within a few blocks are Mercat a la Planxa (mentioned above - ) and Custom House Tavern ( ). All of these are open for lunch and dinner, and again, lunch is often bargain-priced, as it is at all three of these.

                    To get to our non-Bayless creative Mexican restaurants, Mundial Cocina Mestiza is half a block from the 18th Street station on the CTA Orange Line. To get to Mexique, take the Red Line north to the Chicago station and transfer to the #66 CTA bus. For Mixteco Grill, take the Red Line north to Belmont, and from the same platform, take the northbound Brown Line to the Montrose stop.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      This is brilliant - thanks so much!

                      I have to add that my BF is a pretzel geek (with me being the doughnut geek) so I have a feeling that The Bongo Room will be added to the list!

                      He'll be at the conference while I get to tour the city and art museums so our dinners together will be the big ones, but I love the lunch suggestions as San Francisco is woefully lacking in a good Cuban sandwich!

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        If your BF loves pretzels, I would suggest the pretzels at Sable. I could eat my weight in those!

                    2. re: CarrieWas218

                      Then check into the Mercat a la Planxa suggestion above, close by with a very good $18 lunch special. They also have a smaller sibling downstairs that has breakfast and lunch items in the $5 range.

                      You're also very close to Cafecito which is a Cuban-style coffee/sandwich shop. Great breakfast/lunch/dinner options all under $10.

                      1. re: CarrieWas218

                        I haven't been (since it just opened) but for mid-range dinner you might want to give City Tavern a look:

                  2. Eleven City Diner is a block away


                    1 Reply
                    1. re: delk

                      Eleven CIty is okay but nothing you need to travel to Chicago to experience.