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Feb 17, 2013 06:20 PM

First time visiting Chicago - Need suggestions

I'm a long time lurker but rare poster here on CHOW, but I'm heading to Chicago for my first time next week and want to make sure I make the most of my time there. I'll be in town from Sat 2/23 - Tues 2/26 and staying in the Loop area. I'll be with the fiancee, and we're both in our mid 20s.

I'm looking for some must experience restaurants (and any other attractions you may suggest) for my time there. I live in Manhattan, so I'm frequently eating out at great restaurants. I don't want any traditional high end options, such as a steakhouse or generic seafood restaurant, nor do I want something standard I can find here. I'm looking for something that is only in Chicago.

A few of the basics I already plan to fit in - A chicago hot dog, pizza at Lou Malnati's and maybe and italian beef sandwich. Other places I'm currently considering are Sable, Publican and Girl and the Goat.

I'd love to come up with options for the following meals:
Lunch: Sat and Sun
Dinner: Sun and Mon
Brunch: Sun.
Obviously there may be some overlap with brunch, and I'm thinking Lou's will be lunch one day.

I'm a big fan of small plates just for the ability to sample a range of options. I'm also a fan of trying any sort of more creative item a chef may throw on a menu. The only cuisines I'm not interested in for this trip are chinese or sushi. Otherwise I'd say anything is fair game. I guess in short my question would be if you were to pick your favorite spots to fit into a long weekend, what would they be?

As a side note, I'll be visiting Hyde Park (Chicago Booth - UChicago) on Monday in the middle of the day. I'd love to spend a bit of time in the afternoon and/or early evening exploring that area as well. Any suggestions for a dinner down there, or maybe just a bar or two worth stopping into before heading back north?

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  1. Especially worthy of your consideration are Rick Bayless's trio of restaurants on Clark Street: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco. The most elegant is Topo, and Xoco has delicious tortas and hot chocolate.
    The restaurant scene has become so eclectic nationally that it's hard to categorize much as unique to Chicago.
    But Hot Doug's is a local institution that amazes with its wide array of "encased meats." It can get very busy during lunch rush, and it is not open for dinner.
    The Argyle Street area has terrific Vietnamese restaurants, like Nha Hang Viet Nam, plus a top Chinese place, Sun Wah, famous for its duck.
    Chicago has some terrific barbecue, including Smoque, Honey1, and Uncle John's.
    I know that others will chime in with more. I will add that Hyde Park is not at all known for its bar scene.

    1 Reply
    1. re: camusman

      Hot Doug's is on vacation until the 26th, reopening on the 27th.

    2. I hope you don't mind waiting for a table, as you are planning last minute & some of the places that are unique to Chicago book months in advance.

      It looks like you really have four meals available:

      Saturday lunch
      Sunday brunch
      Sunday dinner
      Monday dinner

      Since Sat dinner is not available, Saturday lunch is the only chance you'd have to try a Rick Bayless restaurant. They are closed Sundays and Mondays. You could do Xoco (caldos and tortas, though you can find those in NYC if you look hard enough) or Frontera Grill. Topolobampo isn't open for Saturday lunch. If you want to do Frontera, check out their brunch menu (it's not terribly breakfast-y) and plan to get there really early. Before they open. They book up around 8-10 weeks in advance but leave tables for walk ins. You can also eat at the bar.

      If you then do Lou Malnati's for lunch, that only leaves two dinner slots.

      Between Publican, Sable, and GATG, I think GATG has the edge. They are one of my absolute favorites anywhere. I find their cooking more satisfying than Sable's. Publican is great too but you can find elements of their menu across NYC--charcuterie, oysters, pork, local produce, beer, etc. I will caution you that waits can be long if you don't have a reservation (they take them 6 months in advance). You will be a substantial wait though you might be able to grab some bar seats or a lounge table. They serve the full menu at those. I'd do that Monday night, as that may be slower.

      Also Chicagoans eat earlier than NYers. Some restaurants open for dinner at 3:30pm or 4pm. Some people show up at GATG at 4:30pm to snag a beat seat.

      As for the last dinner slot, one of my other favorites is Alinea. You probably don't have a chance at tickets unless you win the same-night table Facebook lottery. It beats the pants off WD-50. And I really like WD-50.

      In the meantime, I would highly encourage reservations at Yusho for dinner. Small plates, Japanese inspired, run by a Charlie Trotter's vet. Great cocktail list. Really creative cooking. It's in Logan Square, a really fun neighborhood for drinking and eating.

      Another restaurant that doesn't really have an equivalent in NYC is Big Jones. Southern coastal cooking.

      1. First of all, your basics are great - deep-dish at Lou Malnati's, and you can go to Portillo's on Ontario for good representations of both the Italian beef and the Chicago-style hot dog. That can cover two of your lunches.

        If you can get a reservation at Alinea, grab it. It's a unique experience of a lifetime, widely hailed as the best restaurant in the country and one of the best in the world. They use a ticketing system on their website. Lately they have had some short-term openings if you're flexible on time of day, although it may be tougher for a table for 2 than for 4 or 6. Unfortunately, right now during your dates I see only a table for six on Sunday. (Got friends here?)

        I agree with the others that you should really go to one of our contemporary Mexican restaurants, because that is something that NYC really does not have. However, of the three Bayless places, I would not recommend XOCO for a meal, because it's more along the lines of Mexican street food, which NYC has. Of the three, stick with Frontera Grill or Topolobampo. However, you won't be able to do Topolobampo for dinner because it fills with advance reservations, but you might be able to get a Tuesday lunch before you leave. As kathryn notes, if you want to do Frontera Grill - either for Saturday brunch or Saturday dinner - get there 15-20 minutes before they open. Otherwise you're looking at horrendous waiting times to be seated, typically 90+ minutes for brunch, 120+ for dinner. We have some other excellent contemporary Mexican places, where you can still get reserverations without difficulty, and which are also open Sundays: Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, Mixteco Grill, and Salpicon. All of these are excellent and worthy of your time during a short trip. Unfortunately they're not downtown - the Bayless places are - but they're worth traveling to. Mexique and Salpicon are both only a couple miles from the Loop.

        Between Publican, Sable, and G&TG, I think Sable has the edge, BY FAR. It's my absolute favorite in the downtown area. I find their food to be much, much better than Publican or G&TG. At Publican and G&TG, I find the dishes vary from very good to not so good, with very few that wow, and desserts at both are just plain awful. At Sable, I've loved pretty much everything I've had there, including the desserts. Don't miss their sweet corn creme brulee, a savory riff on the classic dessert. Other standouts include the duck sausage with pistachio, and whatever flavor panna cotta they have that night. Sable also has terrific craft cocktails from one of the best mixology teams in the city. And you can still get reservations, which definitely won't be the case at G&TG (with three days here, you probably don't want to spend several hours waiting for a table anywhere). Sable is also not as horribly loud as Publican or G&TG, and you won't have to worry about being stuck at one of the communal tables like you might at Publican. And unlike the other two, Sable is open daily for lunch as well as dinner.

        I also strongly recommend one of our terrific breakfast-focused restaurants. We have a plethora of such places, perhaps even better than those in NYC. Jam stands out as the kind of place a truly creative chef with high-end training would open as a breakfast restaurant. Other excellent ones include M. Henry and M. Henrietta, and Bongo Room. Note that none of these is downtown, and none takes reservations, with 30-60 minute waits to be seated typical on weekends, no waiting on weekdays.

        Don't waste your time on Chinese - it's not as good as what you have at home. Vietnamese too - it's okay but nothing special. Same for barbecue. Those are not things that Chicago does better than elsewhere.

        The dining options in Hyde Park are quite limited. These are a couple of discussions you can refer to, but the food options there don't hold a candle to the north and northwest sides:

        What's Good To Eat Near The Museum of Science & Industry -
        Near the University of Chicago -

        Incidentally, the business school also has a new and very active building downtown called the Gleacher Center, and it's surrounded by terrific places to eat nearby.

        >> Also Chicagoans eat earlier than NYers. Some restaurants open for dinner at 3:30pm or 4pm.

        Wow, that second sentence is a total mischaracterization. While it's true that Chicagoans eat earlier than New Yorkers, most restaurants open for dinner between 5 and 6, and only a few open as early as 4:30 (other than those that are open all day, of course). The "prime" reservation time here is 7:30, and slots tend to fill up on both sides of that time; on Saturday nights, many places will have openings at 6 pm and 9 pm but not in between. One other difference from NYC is that our truly high-end restaurants are not open for lunch.

        6 Replies
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Craft cocktails at Sable aren't necessarily a draw for a NYer. GATG has good cocktails as well. OP: do a search before choosing, there are many reviews on here. Nsxtasy is one of the bigger Sable fans on here, but not everybody feels that way. Take a look at the menus, see what appeals.

          Publican opens at 3:30pm with an "afternoon menu." Avec also opens at 3:30pm. GATG opens at 4:30pm. This is rare in NYC.

          1. re: kathryn

            Actually, there are *many* fans of Sable here - like every restaurant, there is no consensus, but still, lots of folks love it. Just look at what others have said about their wonderful sweet corn creme brulee:

            "But the very best thing, not only here at Sable but of the whole trip (including Publican, Ginos East, brunch at Sable, Jam and Meli Cafe) was the corn creme brulee. OMG!!! The ultimate sweet/savory/creamy/ crunchy treat anywhere on the planet. Perfect, unsweetened custard with intense corn flavor and plenty of fresh, crisp corn kernels, topped with a bruleed sugar crust with flecks of coarse salt all over. If you like salted caramel, oh boy! This dish was definitely to die for! It was between a savory and a sweet to a great segue to dessert." - plafield, at

            "Sweet corn creme brulee - outstanding. My wife almost feinted with happiness and she does not normally rave about dishes." - dlpens, at

            "sweet corn creme brulee (lovely salty-sweet combo, dessert wanting to pass itself off as a veg dish, but that was okey dokey!)" - cookingmatterschef, at

            >> Take a look at the menus, see what appeals.

            That's always good advice.

            You might also check to see which places still have availability at the times you want. (If there's one place you feel strongly about and don't see openings on Opentable, you can also phone, since they sometimes can still squeeze you in. But checking the Opentable website will show at a glance where it will be easy.)

            >> Publican opens at 3:30pm with an "afternoon menu." Avec also opens at 3:30pm. GATG opens at 4:30pm.

            Yes, but the few places that open at 3:30 are places where, at that hour, the few people who show up are there to drink and/or snack rather than to eat dinner. That's why the Publican has their afternoon menu, which is similar to the "bar menu" that many places have, rather than their dinner menu, which isn't available till 5:30. In Chicago, people don't generally eat dinner before 5:30-6:00, and even at that hour most restaurants are fairly empty. The main exception consists of the handful of places where it's difficult to get reservations and people eat early to avoid lengthy waits to be seated. People do eat earlier here than in New York, but it's the difference between a 7:30 peak and an 8:30 peak. If you want to see people having dinner at 3:30, you'll have to go to Florida, LOL!

          2. re: nsxtasy

            For what its worth, I haven't been to the Publican in a year or so but what still stands out for me was their waffle dessert. Probably one of the best I've had.

              1. re: lbs

                I've had the waffle dessert. Mediocre and uninspired. I've had better waffles at IHOP.

                1. re: lbs

                  I'd also note that many respected opinions in the food industry (ulterior epicure, for one) also loved the waffle and that the pork cracklins are also outstanding.


              2. If you don't mind a cab ride or a L ride, I'd look at some options in the Logan Square/Avondale areas. Yusho and Fat Rice are great for small plates, though Yusho has a much stronger beverage program and accepts reservations. Yusho is yakitori-ish, though the menu doesn't limit itself to Japanese ingredients/preparations. Fat Rice is Portuguese, Chicago's first, and really nails the wide-ranging flavors and techniques you would expect from a one-time colonial superpower. They opened up pretty recently and are already one of my favorite restaurants.

                Longman & Eagle is another option. The menu is pretty wide-ranging and not dissimilar to Publican. L&E doesn't accept reservations and waits for a table can run long - fortunately, they have an excellent beverage program, including one of the more exhaustive selections of bourbon.

                Just to the west is Scofflaw. Known primarily for cocktails, the food menu is also really good. Though as kathryn suggests, great cocktails and food alone may not be a huge draw for you. But if you're in the Logan Square area already, it would make for a great stop.

                In Hyde Park, there really aren't many places I'd recommend. The only bar worth going to is Jimmy's (aka the Woodlawn Tap; 1172 E. 55th St.). It's a total dive, in every sense of the word, but it's where professors, students and Hyde Park residents have been going for years and years.


                1. Between Sable, Publican and G&TG- would definitely say G&TG is the best of the 3 and a must visit. I like both Publican and Sable but would rank Sable third out of that group. For small plates, I also really like GT Fish & Oyster, which is all seafood small plates.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ms. mika

                    I completely agree, Ms. Mika, but I also have a soft spot in my heart - er stomach - for Publican. The only problem with GATG is getting reservation at this late date.