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Jan 15, 2013 12:30 PM

Chi-town suggestions?

Heading to Chicago for a weekend in April and would love to squeeze in a few great dining experiences while there. We will be staying around the Gold Coast but as always are willing to travel a bit to get to the goods.

I'm interested in everything; breakfast, lunch, dinner, any type of cuisine, just has to be vegetarian friendly.

Looking forward to your responses :)

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  1. What's your budget?

    BTW, some upscale restaurants you might be interested are closed on Sundays, Mondays, and/or Tuesdays. Are you here only Fri night through Sunday morning/afternoon? Saturday morning through Sunday night?

    Also at least two very popular restaurants (Girl and the Goat, Frontera Grill) book up many months in advance. Other restaurants only sell prepaid tickets for even numbered parties (Next, Alinea, Elizabeth, for example).

    How long would you be willing to wait for a table? A lot of the popular "foodie" destinations in Chicago don't take reservations.

    I've also noticed that Chicago tends to dine a lot earlier than NYC (some places open at 3:30 or 4pm for dinner). You might be surprised to see, say, all the bar/counter seating taken when you arrive at an "early" 6pm dinner time.

    And you don't see the same sort of upscale prix fixe weekday lunch options that you do in NYC.

    Lots of interesting Chicago restaurants only do dinner so it can make it tough to plan an itinerary if you are only here 2 nights.

    Have you done any research already? What interests you? Pizza? Italian beef? Chicago style hot dogs? Mexican? Modern/molecular cooking?

    Are you going to be doing any sightseeing while you are in Chicago? Art Institute? Shedd? Field Museum?

    See also:

    As a NYer who has been to Chicago several times in the last 2 years, I would recommend making reservations for Girl & the Goat and Frontera Grill or Topolobampo immediately. There's not a lot like either in NYC.

    Frontera is the more casual Bayless restaurant, takes a few reservations via phone, leaving most tables for walk ins. Topolobampo is the more formal Bayless restaurant, on OpenTable. Both are in the same building (as is Xoco, the quick service restaurant) and not too far from the Gold Coast.

    Girl and the Goat in the West Loop takes reservations 6 months out via phone, and 3 months out via OpenTable. They do book up pretty far in advance. I think the small plates there are delicious and creative, as well as a great value. Some of their best dishes are vegetarian and some of them can be made vegetarian upon request. Don't miss the pan-fried shisito peppers with parmesan, sesame, and miso. I'm also a big fan of the wood grilled broccoli with smoky blue cheese.

    1. Best lunch/dinner near the Gold Coast: TRU (contemporary American, expensive/formal, dinner only), Spiaggia (Italian, expensive/formal, dinner only), Naha (contemporary American, mid-priced), Topolobampo/Frontera Grill (contemporary Mexican, mid-priced), Piccolo Sogno Due (Italian, mid-priced), Sable (contemporary American small plates, moderately-priced), GT Fish & Oyster (seafood small plates but only fishetarian-friendly not vegetarian-friendly, moderately-priced).

      Best dinner away from the Gold Coast and worth traveling for: Alinea (molecular gastronomy, expensive/formal), Acadia (contemporary American, mid-priced), North Pond (contemporary American, mid-priced). NOT worth traveling for IMHO: Girl & the Goat (some good dishes, some not so good, dreadful desserts).

      Best deep-dish near the Gold Coast: Lou Malnati's at State and Rush.

      Best breakfast near the Gold Coast: Original Pancake House.

      Best breakfast elsewhere around the city: Jam, M. Henry / M. Henrietta, Southport Grocery, Bongo Room.

      And you won't hear very many people here call it "Chi-Town"...

      1. I am coming in for a wedding, Friday afternoon - Monday morning and won't be doing much sight-seeing this time around. I'll have Friday night and Sunday night open for dinners. My friends from Chicago call it Chi-town so I was just going with the flow :)

        Budget is flexible and I'm just starting my research. I have heard great things about Girl and the Goat but I didn't think it was vegetarian friendly, thanks for letting me know.

        Modern and Mexican sounds the most appealing off your list.

        Thanks for the help!

        7 Replies
        1. re: lavendula

          >> Modern and Mexican sounds the most appealing off your list.

          Then here's additional information that will be useful to you, starting with the situation at Frontera Grill. There are three Rick Bayless restaurants at that location. Topolobampo is more upscale (more expensive for dinner, about the same for lunch) and occupies a dining room inside Frontera Grill. If you eat at the bar at Frontera Grill, you can order from either menu, Frontera's or Topolobampo's. XOCO is around the corner and a good place for a snack, but the food is more along the lines of street food, not as creative or unusual as Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, so I would recommend one of those rather than XOCO.

          Topolobampo takes reservations including on Opentable; dinner reservations book up shortly after they become available three months out, whereas lunch reservations continue to be available until 2-3 weeks beforehand. Frontera Grill takes only a limited number of reservations, only over the phone, and keeps most of the room available for walk-in traffic. Waiting times to be seated can be horrific, but you can avoid the worst by arriving 15-20 minutes before they open the doors. My advice: for lunch, make a reservation at Topolobampo; for dinner, if you can eat early, go to Frontera Grill before they open the doors, and otherwise, make a reservation at Mexique. (Mexique is another contemporary Mexican restaurant about two miles west of the Mag Mile.) Note, Frontera/Topo are closed Sundays and Mondays; Mexique is closed Mondays. You can walk to Frontera/Topo from most of the Gold Coast. The easiest way to get to Mexique is to take the #66 CTA bus which runs along Chicago Avenue.

          1. re: lavendula

            > Modern and Mexican sounds the most appealing off your list.

            Call and ask about availability at Frontera/Topolobampo now, since they book 8-10 weeks in advance and you're planning fairly early. I'm assuming you can't do Saturday dinner due to the wedding. And they are closed Sundays, so Fri dinner or Sat lunch might be your only chance to try a Bayless restaurant. Depends if you want Topolo or Frontera. If you can do Saturday for lunch, instead of dinner, you might be able to squeeze in Frontera (Topolobampo doesn't do Sat lunch).

            For Modern, you could try for Alinea tickets Fri or Sunday night. They will go on sale sometime in early March. If you are interested, sign up for Twitter, follow them on Twitter, and sign up for SMS alerts. The tickets don't sell out instantaneously (may take a day or two) the 2 tops and weekend night usually go first. They sell one month at a time, and only sell 2, 4, and 6 tops. Price varies dependent upon the time and day of the table.

            Alinea is an extraordinary restaurant and one of those "once in a lifetime" type meals. Chef Grant Achatz is amazing, especially if you take into account his survival of tongue cancer. I think it's worth the effort, but many people are put off by the prepaid ticketing. It's also very expensive.

            Note: if you want to do Modern on Sunday and you don't get Alinea tickets, your options are limited. Moto and iNG are closed on Sundays, as is Chef Achatz's molecular cocktail lounge, the Aviary.

            Luckily Girl and the Goat is open daily, so I would put that down for Sunday dinner (and call and book ASAP).

            I would recommend:
            Fri dinner - try for Alinea tickets, book iNG as your backup
            Sat lunch - Frontera Grill
            Sat dinner - wedding
            Sun brunch - one of nsxtasy's excellent suggestions above, I'm partial to Jam
            Sun dinner - Girl and the Goat

            1. re: kathryn

              A few more notes to add to kathryn's excellent advice...

              On Saturday, Frontera Grill serves from a brunch menu. You may want to take a look at it and compare with their other menus to see if that gives you what you're looking for. If so, call NOW for a reservation. And if you go to their Saturday brunch without reservations and you don't arrive before they open the doors, typical waiting times to be seated are 90+ minutes. Another contemporary Mexican alternative for Saturday/Sunday brunch is Mexique, for which reservations are easier to obtain (including on Opentable).

              Topolobampo opens their reservations book three months to the day in advance, and dinner slots fill up quickly thereafter. So you may still be able to get dinner reservations in April for now, but not for long.

              Regarding the breakfast-focused Sunday brunch places mentioned above (Jam, M. Henry/Henrietta, Southport Grocery, Bongo Room), they don't take reservations and you can generally expect a wait of 30-60 minutes if you arrive between 9:30 and 1:00. Depending on when you depart Monday morning, that might also be a good time to try one; there are never waits on weekdays. Also note that Jam is located on the way to O'Hare. Some of our other restaurants take reservations for Sunday brunch; one of the best is North Pond, which has not only great food, but an exquisite setting in the middle of the park.

              Here's what I would recommend:
              Fri dinner - Topolobampo or Frontera Grill (if you can't snag a res at either, then Mexique)
              Sat lunch - Purple Pig or Sable
              Sat dinner - wedding
              Sun brunch - North Pond
              Sun dinner - Alinea
              Mon breakfast - Jam

              1. re: nsxtasy

                You guys are great, thanks so much for your input :)

                Here is what I have going on as of now:

                Fri dinner - Girl and the Goat
                Saturday Brunch - Frontera Grill

                Sunday Brunch - Jam
                Sunday Dinner - Considering Lula Cafe or trying to get a
                table at to ideas
                Mon breakfast - Somewhere close to the hotel (Waldorf)

                North Pond looks beautiful but not vegetarian friendly enough...up for other brunch ideas that take reservations.

                I think we are going to skip Alinea or any other high commitment restaurant on this trip as we are going to be eating with a bunch of other people...definitely next time though!

                1. re: lavendula

                  >> Fri dinner - Girl and the Goat
                  >> Saturday Brunch - Frontera Grill
                  >> Sunday Brunch - Jam

                  I don't know whether you have reservations for these meals (except Jam, which doesn't accept them at all). You should be aware that without reservations, waits to be seated can be lengthy - typically 120 minutes at G&TG for weekend dinner, 90+ minutes at Frontera for Saturday brunch, and 30-60 minutes at Jam for Sunday brunch. You can avoid them at all three places by going early and getting there when they open the doors. Also note that Jam has very little space for people waiting - only enough for about six people - so you'll probably be waiting outside. If it's raining, you may be waiting in the rain - although OTOH, waits will be much shorter in the rain (as I observed on a recent Sunday).

                  You might want to do Sunday brunch at a place that takes reservations (see below), and then do Jam on Monday morning. I know you mentioned wanting to stay close to the hotel on Monday (and I have a couple of suggestions for that below), but if you're leaving from O'Hare, Jam is right on the way there. And there won't be any waits at Jam on a Monday. Jam is one of our very best and most unique places for breakfast/brunch, so it's worth trying to work it into your itinerary.

                  >> Sunday Dinner - Considering Lula Cafe or trying to get a
                  table at to ideas

                  Lula is very good, and they recently began accepting reservations for dinner, on Opentable as well as over the phone. They don't accept reservations for breakfast, lunch, or brunch.

                  I'm not fond of Avec, although it has its fans; I've found better food at our other small plates restaurants, such as Sable, GT Fish & Oyster, Mercat a la Planxa, and Province, all of which accept reservations, and the Purple Pig, which doesn't. I'm not sure what you mean by "trying to get a table", since they don't accept reservations. Also note that *all* of the seating at Avec is communal; it consists of seating at the bar for about 15, and six tables that each seat eight. The seating is also very uncomfortable (mostly hard, backless benches/boxes/barseats), and the room is VERY LOUD. They get busy, with lengthy waits to be seated, during dinner hours, especially on nights when the opera is in town nearby. But they open at 3:30, and you'll probably get immediate seating if you get there by 4:30-5:00 or so.

                  Just to throw another option out there... have you looked at Green Zebra? It's an excellent restaurant in West Town, whose menu is almost entirely vegetarian. They're open for dinner seven days a week.

                  >> Mon breakfast - Somewhere close to the hotel (Waldorf)

                  Two good options are nearby. The Original Pancake House has a nearby location on East Bellevue, and it's excellent, especially the omelets and their huge puffed-up cinnamon apple pancake. Café des Architectes is also nearby in the Sofitel, and at breakfast they give you a complimentary basket of nice French breads and pastries.

                  >> North Pond looks beautiful but not vegetarian friendly enough...

                  They're actually one of the more vegetarian-friendly places, among restaurants that are not exclusively vegetarian. I've dined there with vegetarian members of my family from out of town, so I know that for sure! I sent them an e-mail to ask about this, because the sample menus on their website don't show any vegetarian dishes. This is their reply: "Due to the seasonal nature and what is available, Chef Sherman prefers not to print set Vegetarian options, but does have a game plan every day for what Vegetarians and Vegans can eat. For example, the Halibut Sunchoke plate is the Vegetarian option, with Grilled Fennel in place of the Halibut."

                  Also see my note above, about Green Zebra (which is dinner only).

                  >> I'm up for other brunch ideas that take reservations.

                  All of these four places are good too, and they all accept reservations including on Opentable:

                  Perennial Virant -
                  Atwood Café -
                  Sable -
                  Nightwood -

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    Note, I just edited my post above, to provide some additional information and ideas regarding vegetarian options at North Pond and Green Zebra.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Yes, we have reservations at G&TG, Frontera Grill, and Lula Cafe.

                      I do know that Avec does not take reservations which is what I meant by try to get a up and see if we can deal with the wait.

                      Thanks for the info on North Pond, I will reconsider and will also check out all of your other suggestions.