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Oct 21, 2012 10:55 AM

Last minute solo diner request...

Hi everyone,
NYC hound here. I just found out that I'm flying to Chicago tonight for a 2 day job. I have never been to Chicago and I'll try not to sound like the tourists who post things like "Where should we eat in NY, NY?" Obviously there are countless great options but here are some specifics:

--I'm very interested in places that source good ingredients either locally or from quality producers
--I'll be eating alone
--Not looking for stuffy or too upscale though I can go anywhere for food that's special and worth the cost
--I want to avoid places that only offer tasting menus. Too many of those here in NYC and I'm not sure I'll have more than a couple hours
--I'm also interested in local beers and breweries.

Thanks in advance for your help!


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  1. Where will you be staying and spending time (name of hotel or its location)? And how will you be getting around (car, cab/public transportation, etc)? We have places that would fit your request throughout the city and suburbs, and the Chicago area is quite large. And since you mention that you'll be short on time, places that are a long distance away probably won't fit your needs, while those close by will be helpful. (Unlike NYC, there's one Chowhound board for the entire area, including the city and suburbs, so knowing this information is crucial for any recommendations.)

    Also, anything else you can provide to narrow down your request would be helpful. The only specific thing you've really given us to go on is to avoid places that only serve tasting menus, which eliminates about half a dozen of the 20,000 restaurants in Chicagoland, LOL!

    >> I'm also interested in local beers and breweries.

    This topic provides a good guide to local brewpubs and taplists:

    1. Hi JeremyEG!

      Nsxtasy has an excellent point. The main "hotel" area of downtown Chicago is rather spread out in comparison to NYC. It's like a 1.5 mile stretch where the major hotels can be located -- it's not condensed like Times Square is. So where you stay can really matter.

      The blocks are also longer than NYC's so if you are used to walking around in Manhattan, walks can feel like they take much longer (you are near the water often and you are also less protected from the wind by buildings, at least that is how it feels to me).

      Google Maps, etc. tend to underestimate walking in times in Chicago.

      Also, restaurant sales tax in Chicago is up to 10.75% downtown dependent upon what "zone" the restaurant is in. This is quite a bit higher than NYC's 8.875%, so while menu prices may look gentler, keep this in mind!

      Assuming you're staying in River North, or near Magnificent Mile:
      - Purple Pig - wine, cheese, and swine, great housemade charcuterie plus vegetable antipasti, kind of a cross of maybe Casa Mono and Bar Boulud and Otto, communal tables and lots of bar seating. Open all day and open late.
      - GT Fish and Oyster - creative seafood small plates and raw bar, good cocktails, you can eat at the bar, very different take than, say Pearl / Luke's / Aquagrill in NYC, I can't think of anything it compares to. Lunch and dinner.
      - Frontera Grill / Topolobampo (Rick Bayless) - you can order from both the Frontera Grill & Topolobampo menus if you sit at the bar, they are closed Sun/Mon but will be open on Tuesday, and it's different Mexican than what you get in NY. Lunch and dinner.

      A ten minute cab ride away from River North / The Loop are the restaurants in the burgeoning West Loop neighborhood. If you are OK waiting for a seat at the bar/counter, I would try:
      - Publican - local produce, local meats, great oysters, raw bar, charcuterie, Paul Kahan's beer hall, bustling, usually very loud. Brunch and dinner only. It's weird but I think of it kind of like Momofuku-esque.
      - Avec - mediterranean small plates, also by Paul Kahan. Dinner only.
      - Girl & the Goat - creative small plates, reasonable prices, lots of local sourcing, wonderful wood burning ovens (don't miss the pig face, shishito peppers with sesame/miso, grilled broccoli, goat specials), Stephanie from Top Chef. Dinner only.

      2 Replies
      1. re: kathryn

        Since you have limited time, you're going to want to avoid the places which don't take reservations (or where reservations would already be full) and where waits to be seated are typically well over an hour, even on weekdays. So given your time constraints, you should really avoid Purple Pig, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Avec, and Girl and the Goat, unless you can eat at an off hour (e.g. 5:00) when long waits won't be an issue. No worries, because there are plenty of great places where you can make reservations, even as a solo diner. (Incidentally, I've run into a few that don't accept solo reservations on but who accept them over the phone.)

        Again, tell us where you're staying, and we'll recommend some good places that are close by AND where reservations are easy to come by. You might also let us know whether you're only interested in dinner, or also breakfast and/or lunch.

        1. re: nsxtasy

          Again, without knowing where you'll be, it's hard to come up with recommendations, because they may be some distance away. But here are a few quick picks if you're staying in the city, in the greater downtown area where the hotels are...

          If you're in River North or the south end of the Magnificent Mile (North Michigan Avenue just north of the river), Sable and Piccolo Sogno Due are both terrific. Sable specializes in contemporary American small plates and craft cocktails, and most of the food items are available in half portions so you can try a lot of things. I've enjoyed dining solo there, either in the bar or in the dining room (I generally prefer the latter, but that's up to you). They have an open kitchen where it's fun to watch Chef Heather Terhune chopping and prepping alongside her staff. Don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee, a savory riff on the classic French dessert. The food items are remarkably inexpensive, just an added bonus for great food. Piccolo Sogno Due is Italian with an emphasis on seafood, and it's top-notch. The food is outstanding, the servers are some of the best in the city, and so is the bread service. I generally don't recommend Italian to someone coming from NYC with its many great Italian places, but PSD is *that good*. GT Oyster & Fish, which Kathryn recommended above, is also excellent; it's a bit further west from the Mag Mile, towards the Merchandise Mart, easily walkable.

          If you're staying in the Loop, places worth considering include the Gage (gastropub - ), Henri (French bistro - ), and Atwood Cafe (contemporary American - ).

          If you're staying in the South Loop or the south end of the Loop, consider Mercat a la Planxa (tapas in a festive night club atmosphere - ).

          All of the above recs are open for both lunch and dinner, and all accept reservations on Opentable as well as over the phone, and I recommend making one before heading to any of them. (Again, there are a few who may not accept solo reservations on but do over the phone.)

          If you've never had our delicious local specialty of deep-dish pizza, you should really give it a try. (Personally, once I tried deep-dish, I fell in love with it, and quickly gave up the thin-crust I grew up with in the NYC area.) Some of our best are located in the downtown areas where the hotels are, including Lou Malnati's at State and Rush (near the north end of the Mag Mile), Pizano's on State near Chicago (near the Water Tower), the original Uno and Due in River North, Lou Malnati's on Wells (near the Merchandise Mart), Pizano's on Madison (in the Loop), and Lou Malnati's at 8th and State (in the South Loop). At Malnati's and Pizano's, you can phone ahead with your pizza order to avoid waiting 30-45 minutes while seated for your pizza to bake (yes, deep-dish takes that long).

          If you're staying elsewhere, let us know and we'll try to help with recommendations close by.

      2. Thank you all so much. Well, this is what I get for getting so excited about food options that I post on Chowhound before knowing where I'll be staying exactly. Well it turns out, I'm almost 45 minutes away from downtown and the schedule is still up in the air and I likely won't be able to enjoy any of your delicious sounding recs. I've spoken to a bunch of foodies here though and their recs match yours almost exactly. It's clear I need to come back for a good week and eat.

        Thanks again for your help.


        2 Replies
        1. re: JeremyEG

          Depending on where you are, there are plenty of great places that AREN'T downtown, too!

          Here are some of the best in the suburbs (again, just a stab in the dark, since you won't tell us where you're staying)...

          North: Michael, Winnetka -
          Far north: Inovasi, Lake Bluff -
          Northwest: Sergio's, Itasca -
          West: Vie, Western Springs -
          Southwest: Tallgrass, Lockport -

          And Lou Malnati's has many locations in the suburbs; some are carry-out/delivery only, while others are full-service.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            And adding to this list, Courtrights, Southwest of the city in Willow Springs: