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.
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.
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?
>> 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.
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.
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.
re: Chicago Wine Geek
May I ask, is that thumbs down for TRU based on your dinner way back in 2006 ( www.chow.com/topics/316539#1966370 ), 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.)