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Sep 3, 2012 08:32 AM

50th Birthday - avoiding Alinea and Next

Hello Chicago chowhounds!

My partner is celebrating his 50th birthday and we wanted to have a special night with 10 - 12 friends flying to your great town from all over the country for hours (yes we want to make it last) of unforgettable food and company. I specifically want to avoid Alinea because of a bad experience with its management staff (though I know we will be missing the much-hyped experience) - giving me the shock and awe effect of the cost, then not returning my calls, I guess half-hoping that I would just go away. But I am sure that Chicago has much more to offer. Since we are splurging and may not be able to do this again, we are aiming for the best food that money can buy. Since our friends are already committed to traveling, anywhere in the city is fine. Since we are all about the food - decor and ambience are completely secondary, though privacy might be nice. Cuisine is also secondary as food itself for us is good if it's done well, no matter "terroir". On searching, Schwa seemed to stand out, in reviews and attitude. We want the locals to tell us what's what, though.

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  1. I would not recommend Schwa for a group traveling a long distance for a short stay and counting on a special dinner. Their habit of frequently cancelling reservations a few hours before the scheduled dinner could ruin the travel plans of your entire group.

    For the absolute best, high-end creative food in town, aside from Alinea, I think TRU is the best table in town, with Everest a close runner-up. There are a whole lot of other, excellent places as well, but these would be my top two picks (three, with Alinea).

    And, while it's clear that you don't wish to consider Alinea - you're entitled, of course - I also have to say that dinner at Alinea has been one of the top two or three meals in my entire life. It's not just "hype". What I found when dining there was not only that they used unusual presentation techniques and unusual combinations of ingredients, but that everything - course after course after course - was amazingly, incredibly delicious. It's really in a class by itself, way beyond what anyone else is doing, and you're missing something truly special by not considering it.

    9 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Thank you so much for your reply. We would never have known about the risks regarding Schwa - which is why we needed tips from locals (and I am never completely reliant on critics' reviews). I am certain that Alinea would have been a wonderful one-of-a-kind experience, but management gave me such a run-around (for 2 months, mind you), that the experience itself was already pre-emptively tainted.

      Heard about TRU and will look into it. Everest did not come up in our search, so many thanks for the recommendation. What about Moto, Blackbird and L2O?

        1. re: hoppy2468

          Just left them a message - thanks!

        2. re: avmnewyork

          >> What about Moto, Blackbird and L2O?

          I wouldn't recommend Moto. Not that it isn't creative; it is indeed. But it's a good COUNTERexample to what I described above regarding Alinea. At Moto, it's all about the gimmicks (food that looks like one thing when it's really another, etc). For top-notch deliciousness, not so much.

          I agree with Fowler that Blackbird is not in the same league as Everest or TRU. Blackbird has excellent food, to be sure, but it's not at the level of creativity as Everest or TRU. It's also not at the level of formality either. But it could be a good choice for lunch while you're in town.

          L2O, I was there under the previous chef (Gras) and I was underwhelmed. Reviews seem a bit more consistent under Kirkley, but still not uniform raves the way they are for TRU.

          If I wanted to add a couple more choices to the mix, they would be for Naha and North Pond. Both are a bit of a step down in price and style/formality from TRU and Everest. Both show off excellent and delicious cuisine from winners of this region's best chef James Beard Award - Carrie Nahabedian in 2008 and Bruce Sherman in 2012.

          I know you don't care about decor, but the setting of North Pond in the middle of the park is absolutely exquisite, as is the view from the front room looking out at the pond and the skyline. Everest also has a terrific view, from the 40th floor of the Midwest Stock Exchange Building looking out over the city. The decor at Everest is very traditional; North Pond is in a renovated Art Deco building that formerly served as a warming shelter for ice skaters on the pond; and Naha and TRU both offer ultra-contemporary decor in ground floor settings downtown.

          I think you are most likely to impress your friends at TRU, Everest, North Pond, and Naha.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            "I agree with Fowler"

            Thanks, nsxtasy. I think your comment should go into some sort of CH book of oddities because I do not recall anyone saying that before. :-)

            1. re: Fowler

              I've agreed with you before, particularly some of your thoughts about Milwaukee restaurants (where your extensive experience is appreciated), but I may not have stated it quite as explicitly.

              1. re: Fowler

                Hmm..Naha and North Pond - will certainly check those out as well. We are really not into too much formality, so they may be good choices for us, as opposed to jacket-requiring Everest.

                1. re: avmnewyork

                  One more thing to consider - at some restaurants, even if they have a dress code (like the jacket-requiring Everest and TRU), they *may* not require that for a party in one of their private dining rooms. You would need to check with the restaurant to be sure.

                  1. re: avmnewyork

                    Naha is always near the top of my list. I have found that it has better and more consistent food, but North Pond is the more romantic location by far.

          2. Unfortunately, you just missed the closing of Charlie Trotter and that would have been one of my recommendations considering your criteria.

            We have had wonderful food, wine, service and experiences at Everest.

            You mentioned Blackbird in your reply. I love it but it is not in the same league as Everest. Not even close in my opinion.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Fowler

              Yes - really regret missing out on Charlie Trotter. Thanks for the tip on Blackbird.

              1. re: avmnewyork

                Also, how important is the wine list? This is obviously a very special event that you said should be "unforgettable" and your guests may wish to indulge in the finest wine.

                Nsxtasy mentioned TRU and I do not think anyone would be disappointed with their food or wine list.

                1. re: Fowler

                  As good as the wine list is at TRU, it's easily topped by Everest's. Everest has some 1700 different bottles on their list, including the best selection of Alsatian wines in the country.

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    Thanks again, fowler and nsxtasy!

                  2. re: Fowler

                    Tru's wine list is outstanding. Everest's wine list is outstanding and has more bottles.
                    But only Tru's wine list is available online. It is not completely up to date, but being able to pick out some decent values ahead of time is a real plus in my book.

              2. Another Tru recommendation here. I wouldn't hesitate to go to L2O, either. I"ve been there twice since Gras left and was very happy both times. I would not depend on Schwa for the same reasons. You mentioned Blackbird which is great but maybe not up to the level of some of the other places mentioned. Though they do have a private room.

                6 Replies
                1. re: HoosierFoodie

                  Strong recommendation for L20 and a thumbs down from me for Tru.

                  1. re: Chicago Wine Geek

                    May I ask, is that thumbs down for TRU based on your dinner way back in 2006 ( ), or have you been there more recently? They've gone through several chef changes since then. Anthony Martin is now in charge, and took over the kitchen as executive chef and partner two years ago. I ate dinner there a few months ago, and I gotta tell you, I thought it was thoroughly outstanding in every way - food, service, decor, etc. Martin has put his stamp on the place and it's a totally different experience from what it was under Tramonto and others. If you haven't been there in a while, I'd encourage you to consider giving it another shot.

                    (L2O has gone through similar changes since opening four years ago. I haven't been there under their current chef, Matthew Kirkley.)

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      I would like to know as well, since I am now leaning towards TRU. So far, they are being very accommodating and are even waiving the jacket requirement since we will be in a semi-private room. Good signs that good service will be expected!

                      1. re: avmnewyork

                        Terrific - I'm glad I remembered to mention it above!

                      2. re: nsxtasy

                        Yes it was. Sorry I didn't make that clear. Things have clearly changed since then. And at L2O as well.