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Dec 2, 2012 03:11 AM

Visit Chicago in December from Sydney

Hello from Sydney. I've been lurking for a while in preparation for our visit to Chicago. I have a few questions that I hope you can help with.

My wife and I (both in 50's) are staying at the James Chicago for 3 nights in mid December.

Then we will be joined by our daughter and her partner, and our son. We are all staying in an apartment in the south loop for a week over the Xmas period. We are looking forward to a white Xmas.

I've booked the 2 of us for dinner at David Burke Primehouse and Sable. Any other suggestions for Interesting local dining experiences in close proximity to the James? We've been to Uno 15 years ago when last in Chicago, but would welcome further suggestions for restaurants, bars etc. We aren't keen on degustation style restaurants, and don't queue ... preferring more casual dining, small plates, unique Chicago offerings. Happy to pay for this, good thing the Aussie dollar is strong now. Places of interest include Piccolo Sono, G&T oyster bar, Black Dog Gelato but happy to hear other suggestions.

We have a family meal booked at Chicago Firehouse which is around the corner from the apartment. We also plan to go to Lou Malnati's, Mercat ala Planxa and the Christkindl market. Any other must-visit restaurants and bars nearby?

Finally, we are eating in for the Xmas meal. Where would you suggest we go to buy good quality foods and wines for the day?

Any ideas & suggestions for our visit are appreciated. Merry Xmas to you all.

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  1. David Burke's Primehouse is an excellent choice if you enjoy steaks, and of course it's right in the James. Sable is excellent also, and also very close by. Additional excellent choices nearby in the small plates category include GT Fish & Oyster (which you already mentioned, for seafood small plates) and Quartino (for Italian small plates). Mercat a la Planxa is excellent for tapas, but it's a bit further, about a mile from the hotel. All of these accept reservations, including on (Oops, I just noticed that you already mentioned Mercat!)

    Two other very good small plates places in the vicinity do not accept reservations; since you don't like to wait to be seated, you may want to consider going at off hours - perhaps lunch, or for a mid-afternoon snack. The Purple Pig serves small plates of Mediterranean-influenced cuisine, and Cafe Iberico serves tapas (but it sounds like you already have tapas covered, with your visit to Mercat).

    For unique Chicago offerings, you have already mentioned Lou Malnati's, which is an excellent choice for deep-dish pizza. (Their location at 8th and State is close to your apartment; the location on Wells is close to your hotel, although not as close as Uno and Due.) You might want to also have lunch at Portillo's, which is a couple of blocks from the hotel and serves local specialties of Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs.

    Another specialty in Chicago is contemporary Mexican cuisine. Topolobampo and Frontera Grill are a couple of blocks from the hotel. Topolobampo is the more upscale of the two and accepts reservations on You will probably find that dinner is fully booked during your stay, but they might still have availability for lunch, which is more affordable anyway. Frontera Grill only accepts a handful of reservations, and without them, the easiest way to avoid long waits to be seated is to wait outside 15-20 minutes before they open the doors. Xoco is also there but it's really more for snacks than for for meals, for which the cuisine is not as unusual and creative as at Topolo and Frontera. Other excellent places offering contemporary Mexican cuisine are not as close to your hotel; Salpicon is about a mile away, and Mexique is about two miles. Both accept reservations including on Opentable. (Rick Bayless, the chef-owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, also has carry-out locations called Tortas Frontera at O'Hare Terminals 1 and 3, which would enable you to get food for the plane if you're leaving on a domestic flight. Unfortunately, if you're on a non-stop back to Australia, it probably leaves from Terminal 5, where Tortas Frontera won't be open until late next year.)

    You mention Piccolo Sogno, which is an excellent Italian restaurant about a mile west of your hotel. They recently opened a second restaurant, Piccolo Sogno Due, a few blocks from your hotel. There is also an excellent Italian restaurant called Gioco that is near your apartment in the South Loop and would be suitable for a family meal. All three accept reservations including on Opentable.

    If you're interested in having breakfast at one of our restaurants which specialize in that meal, Meli Cafe is on Wells a few blocks west of the James, and the Bongo Room at Wabash and Roosevelt (12th) is a couple blocks north of your apartment in the South Loop. Both have various egg dishes. The specialty at Meli Cafe is French toast, with a dozen kinds on the menu. The specialty at Bongo Room is pancakes, such as their pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce. Note, one portion consists of three gigantic pancakes, but you can also order a one-third or two-thirds portion size at a reduced price, which lets you try more than one dish.

    >> Finally, we are eating in for the Xmas meal. Where would you suggest we go to buy good quality foods and wines for the day?

    I assume you will be in the South Loop apartment by that point. Trader Joe's is an upscale (but fairly-priced) supermarket chain which also has a nice variety of nicely-priced wines; they have a location on Wabash just north of Roosevelt (12th), across the street from Bongo Room. Another supermarket very close to the apartment is Jewel-Osco, on Wabash between Roosevelt (12th) and 13th. And there is a small Italian market/deli called Panozzo's on Michigan at 13th. (There's also a Binny's liquor store and a Dominick's supermarket about a mile west, around Roosevelt and Jefferson, but you'll probably find everything you need at Trader Joe's and Jewel without needing to go that far.) Note that these places may have limited hours during the holidays, so make sure you plan to go where you want at times when they will be open.

    Have a great visit, and feel free to ask more questions!

    Website links: (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco, Tortas Frontera) (right now it looks like the Bongo Room website may have been hacked; you can view their menu and other info at )

    1 Reply
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Here's a little more info about our supermarket chains, with which you may not be familiar.

      Jewel and Dominick's are the biggest supermarket chains in the Chicago area. The stores are full-service, with packaged goods as well as a large produce department and an on-site butcher. Most of the stores also feature an on-site deli, a florist, fresh fish, and a liquor department (including wines). They are not particularly upscale or downscale; they are the everyday supermarkets that most folks use.

      Trader Joe's stores are smaller and specialize in packaged goods, many of them under their own private label. They have some fresh produce, but do not have a butcher or fresh meats or fresh fish or a deli. They have a nice wine selection.

      There is a Whole Foods on Canal (a mile west of your apartment, in the same vicinity as Dominick's and Binny's). Whole Foods is a somewhat large supermarket specializing in natural and organic foods. They have a large produce department and an on-site butcher and a fresh fish department, and a smallish wine department.

      Probably not relevant to you, but market share in the grocery business in the States is increasing among discount department stores (Walmart, Target) and warehouse clubs (Sam's Club, Costco).

      Oh, and for wine, there are also a couple of independent wine/liquor stores in the South Loop, but a bit further from the apartment than Trader Joe's (but closer than Binny's): Printer's Row Wine Shop ( ) and Warehouse Liquors ( ).

      It sounds like you're primarily looking for markets near the apartment in the South Loop, but in case you need some near the James Hotel, here are a couple of additional options. Fox & Obel ( ) is an independent (one-location) very upscale gourmet food market, with some of the finest meats, fresh fish, and prepared foods anywhere in Chicago. Also somewhat nearby is Mariano's, a full-service supermarket that caters to local workers with easy-to-carry-out convenience packages for lunch.

      Again, Jewel and Trader Joe's are both very close to your apartment, and you'll probably find anything you need at one or the other.

    2. It seems like you're off to a great start and nsxtasy has already chimed in with a lot of great additional ideas. So here are a few more!

      Vera - Spanish/Mediterranean, but not necessarily tapas. Great ingredients, simple preparations and so much flavor. Great wine and cheese options, too. Having said that, if you're set on Mercat, you may not want to repeat Spanish flavors in one trip. Vera is in the West Loop area.

      Publican - European beer hall meets Midwestern brasserie is how I like to describe the Publican. Lots of hearty, meat-y dishes, though the seafood selections are very good, too. They have a killer beer program with lots of hard-to-find options that pair really well with food. Especially at night, you can expect a loud, raucous crowd; I would consider going for brunch, where it's generally a little more relaxed and, potentially, easier to enjoy yourself. They have different menus on Saturdays and Sundays. They also have communal seating for the most part -- if you decide to check it out, you can request a separate table for your party if that's a concern for you. The Publican is also in the West Loop.

      Nightwood - One of my absolute favorites in Chicago, this place is in the Pilsen neighborhood and is a pretty short cab ride from the South Loop. Another restaurant that nails the farm-to-table aesthetic. Great cocktails, too.

      That you're in town for so long, it might be worthwhile to head out into some of the city's neighborhoods. Andersonville, far to the north, is full of fun antique stores and little shops. Dining options include Big Jones (contemporary Southern/Coastal cooking; they have an amazing weekday special called the Boarding House Lunch which is a great way to enjoy a wide variety of Southern options); Hopleaf (Belgian-ish brasserie with one of the best craft beer lists in the city; limited lunch menu until 5 or so before they offer a wider variety of Belgian-inspiried dishes for dinner); and Simon's (classic Chicago bar (no food) with loads of atmosphere and is a nice place to pop in for a drink or two while in the neighborhood).

      There's also Logan Square, where you can find lots of vintage shops, some galleries and lots of cafes. Two great dining options in that neighborhood are Lula Cafe (sister restaurant to Nightwood, Lula's is a little more casual but still great for local/sustainable ingredients cooked really, really well) and Yusho (Japanese-inspired 'yakitori' dishes from a 14yr veteran of Charlie Trotters; lots of fun, creative small plates along with a really good cocktail program).

      One note about Black Dog, I think they're great but they will have limited hours in the winter. They have two locations and I have only been to their West Town location -- another word of warning is that they don't necessarily have lots of seating and you may not want to be walking around eating gelato in late December (then again, today it's well into the 60's so who knows what the weather will be like in a few weeks). Their other location, in Roscoe Village, might have more seating but is also farther from where you'll be staying.

      1 Reply
      1. re: danimalarkey

        There is not a lot of seating in Roscoe Village, but there are a few tables. Since gelato is not a real popular winter destination, most likely seating will be available. Definitely check the hours though as they do close much earlier in the winter than warmer months; excellent gelato though - had some twice this past weekend. Definitely try the white chocolate peppermint if it is on the menu (they let you try samples before placing your order).