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Feb 25, 2013 11:36 AM

Fast Business Trip to Chicago in 2 Weeks

Hi all - long time reader, first time poster.

I live in Washington, DC and will be in Chicago March 11 - 14 on business. All of my days, and I'm assuming most of my evenings, will be busy but I'd hate to come to town and not eat a few delicious things.

I'm interested in restaurants that are unique Chicago experiences and feature food and service I wouldn't find typically in my hometown.

I'd rather save Alinea for when I'm not dining alone (and probably can't get in anway) and I've already booked myself for graham elliot for 9:30 Wednesday night as Graham's cooking has always intrigued me and it looks like a good place to try lots of modern stuff at not absolutely insane prices.

In case I can get out Monday or Tuesday I'd like to book one more meal, or if the crowd strongly objects to graham elliot, ditching that reservation and finding two more.

My last requirements are easy to get to from the Hotel Allegro on Randolph Street as I won't have a car and will have limited time. <30 min walk or faster cab ride would be ideal. I like beer and cocktails more than wine. Service at 9:30, 10, or later would be good since I'll be working a lot. Since I'm dining alone, any menu that will allow me to taste lots of little things instead of 3 gut busting things would also be a plus.

For reference, my favorite restaurant trips the past 6 months have been Estadio, Little Serow, and Rasika in Washington, DC, and The Breslin and Momofuku Ssam bar in NYC. I like being blown away by big, explosive flavors with fresh ingredients and inventive preparations. My favorite is when I can say "I've never had anything like this before but it is delicious."

So, thoughts? I'll also take recs on traditional Chicago classics like Chicago dogs, deep dish pizza, and beef sammies, but remember my time is limited and I'd rather have a really good version of any of those over the absolute best if it saves me travel time.

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  1. This discussion tells what foods and places are unique or specialties in Chicago, foods that Chicago is particularly good at:

    first time Chicago -

    Quick recs for what you're looking for, foods you can get here and not most other places:

    Lou Malnati's on Wells Street for deep-dish, 5 minutes walk from the Allegro. SInce you're in a hurry, call ahead with your pizza order and they'll have it ready at the time you specify; that way you can avoid waiting 30-40 minutes while seated for it to bake.

    Frontera Grill or Topolobampo for contemporary Mexican (closed Sundays/Mondays), 5-10 minutes walk from the Allegro. Make a res if you can (probably lunch only at this point), otherwise arrive 15-20 minutes before they open the doors to avoid a long wait to be seated. Or, make a reservation at Mexique, 5-10 minute cab ride (3 miles) away.

    Portillo's on Ontario, 5-10 minutes walk, for Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs.

    Garrett's Popcorn (3 blocks east on Randolph) for caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, or the "Chicago mix" of the two.


    >> I'd rather save Alinea for when I'm not dining alone (and probably can't get in anway)

    Alinea uses a system in which you purchase tickets in advance on their website at Lately openings have been readily available, even at close to the last minute, so don't rule it out just because you don't think you can get in. Yes it's expensive, but it's the food experience of a lifetime and worth every C-note. :)

    Also, not unique to Chicago, but close to your hotel, starting with needs for mornings and lunches... A few blocks east of your hotel are Intelligentsia Coffee, our premier hometown roaster ( ); Do-Rite Donuts, hand-crafted not a chain ( ); and Toni Patisserie, a very good French bakery/cafe ( ). A few blocks west of your hotel is Chicago French Market ( ), which has outlets for Vanille Patisserie, barbecue (Lillie Q), and other goodies. In addition to its location in the French market, Pastoral ( ) has a nearby location on Lake; they are our leading cheesemonger and have excellent sandwiches. Other nearby excellent places to consider for lunch/dinner include Naha ( ), Piccolo Sogno Due ( ), and GT Fish & Oyster ( ).

    Many but not all of the above places are open late (i.e. past 10); check their websites for hours.

    5 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Alinea has 9:30pm tables for 2 available still for the 13th and 14th (they are closed the 11th and 12th) but the OP would need to find a dining partner. Their last reservation is for 9:30pm, btw.

      Note: Frontera and Topolobampo are closed Sun/Mon. Topolo is more upscale. Frontera is more casual. Frontera takes a limited number of reservations and leaves tables for walk ins. Frontera is pretty popular though. If you want a dinner time table, you may not be able to get one if you walk in too late, a friend of mine discovered, as they had stopped taking names--the posted closing hours are 10pm at Frontera (9:30pm for Topolo). However, you might want to try for a seat at the bar where you can order from both Frontera and Topolobampo menus, dependent upon what time you are available. But you might be cutting it close.

      The Breslin and Momofuku Ssam are some of my favorite restaurants, and I loved my meal at Rasika a few years ago (thought Estadio was good but not amazing), so while these rec's aren't necessarily Chicago specific, I think they will scratch the bold flavors/close to downtown/small plates itch, while still letting you dine at 10pm:

      Publican* - Chef Paul Kahan, 10 min cab ride from the Allegro. Publican has more of a beer hall atmosphere, lots of wood used in the dining room. Love their oysters with house made saltines, house made charcuterie, sausages, pork rillettes, pork rinds, great uses of local produce, etc. The menu reads a lot like Momofuku Ssam's w/o the Asian influences. I would try to get a seat at the counter if I were a solo diner. The bar only has standing tables. It's quite loud due to people talking loudly and lots of hard surfaces, not really because of loud music. Open until 10:30pm on weeknights.

      Girl and the Goat* - Stephanie Izard of Top Chef fame. 10 min cab ride from the Allegro, usually has long waits but on a Mon/Tues, for 1 person, around 10pm, you should be able to get a bar or lounge seat fairly quickly. Crispy pork shank, goat/veal/pork sugo pasta, grilled broccoli with blue cheese, pig face with a fried egg, shishito peppers with parmesan-miso-sesame, goat specials like confit goat belly with bourbon butter & lobster. Pretty popular but also the restaurant is a good size, and they leave tables for walk ins each night. Open until 11pm on weeknights. One of my favorite places in the entire city.

      Purple Pig - Located downtown, short walk across the river from the Allegro, usually has long waits but on a Mon/Tues, for 1 person, around 10pm, I think it might not be too bad. Their motto is wine and swine, but don't overlook their excellent vegetable sides. Their kitchen is open until midnight on weekdays (and 2am on weekends), so this is a good one to go to regardless, for some late night bone marrow or salumi and cheese.

      If you choose to go to Publican or GATG, you could also go have some molecular cocktails at The Aviary afterwards (open Tuesday - Saturday 6 pm - 2 am, 3 am on Saturdays). After Purple Pig, drop by Sable for a nightcap.

      *nsxtasy will strongly disagree with me on these two but if you loved the Breslin and Momofuku Ssam, which are also casual, boisterous, crowded, use bold/strong flavors, etc, I think you'll love these restaurants. Do a search to see competing reviews.

      1. re: kathryn

        >> Purple Pig - Located downtown, short walk across the river from the Allegro, usually has long waits but on a Mon/Tues, for 1 person, around 10pm, I think it might not be too bad

        You should be aware that the Purple Pig is further east and a somewhat long walk from the Allegro (Google Maps puts it at 0.9 mile, so figure ~20 minutes), compared with half a mile for Naha, GT Fish, and Piccolo Sogno Due. That doesn't mean you can't do it, of course, either walking or by cab, but it's not right across the river (it's significantly further east). And if you don't mind that distance, you could also consider Sable, not because it's several blocks closer, but because of the terrific food (the very best of all of these small places IMHO) as well as the craft cocktails. Standout dishes at Sable include sweet corn creme brulee (a savory riff on the classic dessert), duck sausage with pistachio, and whatever flavor panna cotta they have for dessert that day. Sable has amazingly delicious bold/strong flavors, casual, lively - very much like Momofuku Ssam Bar (although *all* of these places are more upscale than Momofuku).

        The Purple Pig doesn't accept reservations, and waits to be seated are lengthy, even as late as 9:30-10:00, although past 10:30 it winds down. All the other places mentioned here accept reservations. I like Purple Pig a lot - way better than Publican and G&TG, which have disappointed me, although others seem to like them - but if your time is tight and you don't want to risk taking a cab there only to find that you'll still need to wait another 30, 60, or 120 minutes to be seated, you might want to consider going elsewhere (or phoning ahead to ask about the waiting time). If you're interested in dining there without waiting, you can walk right in mid-afternoon (say between 2 and 4).

        One other small plates place, 1.2 miles southeast of the Allegro, is Mercat a la Planxa, which is a tapas place from native Chicagoan Jose Garces (of the restaurant empire in Philadelphia).

        Of the small plates places, GT Fish and Sable and G&TG are open till 11 weekdays and 12 weekends, Publican till 10:30 weekdays and 11:30 weekends, and Mercat till 10 weekdays and 11 weekends.

        Also, although I'm not that familiar with the dining scene in DC, I know it's varied and extensive, so I'm going to guess that there are plenty of similar places there, including some for tapas/small plates, pork, charcuterie, etc., so you are not going to find that these places are all that different from what's available back home. Unlike our places for contemporary Mexican or deep-dish pizza, which are more in line with your original question about what's unique to Chicago.

        When in doubt, check out the sample menus on their websites and see what appeals to you:

        1. re: nsxtasy

          Thanks to both of you so far.

          Many of these names sound familiar and are in the realm I'm thinking of.

          The Rick Bayless places are certainly on my radar, and my only hesitation in taking a trip over to Frontera was that there are some fancy dancy Mexican places in DC and NYC that I find aggresively boring/mediocre. But I realize Chicago has a reputation for being a completely different story. They also look easily walkable or taxiable.

          I will keep the rest of these in mind, though. I have friends who visit Chicago and love G&TG and just browsing through menus now, Sable, Publican, and Purple Pig all look very much up my alley. But I think for now I'll hope for a bar seat at Frontera and cross my fingers and play things by ear in case that doesn't work out or I have some time for other options.

          1. re: iammattr

            BTW, Frontera/Topolobampo have excellent cocktails, so take a look at those menus as well. You might also want to call and ask when the kitchen closes vs. the posted closing time on their site, as they might differ.

            1. re: iammattr

              >> But I think for now I'll hope for a bar seat at Frontera and cross my fingers and play things by ear in case that doesn't work out or I have some time for other options.

              The following tip applies to Frontera Grill as well as any place you intend to go without a reservation. Before you leave the hotel - even if a place is only a ten-minute walk - it would be a good idea to make a quick call to the place and ask them how long the wait is at that moment for a solo at the bar (or, at Purple Pig or Publican, communal tables). That way, you won't be surprised or disappointed if it's more than you'd like.

              At many restaurants you can often find an empty seat at the bar to avoid a long wait, but Frontera Grill isn't usually one of them. Lengthy waits at dinner of 90+ minutes mean that folks often are ready to take whatever they can get, rather than holding out for a two-top. Also, at the bar at Frontera Grill, you can order off either menu - Frontera's or Topolobampo - which is a great option from the standpoint of more food selection (and the ability to eat Topolobampo food without reserving months in advance), but which increases demand for bar seating.

              Good luck, and let us know how it works out!

      2. Hey all,

        So predictably, time was limited but I did go with a buddy to Lou Malnati's and I did a solo trip to graham elliot.

        The pizza was great, not having anything to compare it to. I used to live near New Haven and that style pizza will always be one of my favorite things in the world, but the deep dish I got was undeniably tasty (and really, how could it not be?).

        graham elliot was a mixed bag. I had a couple things that were awesome. The very complex butternut squash dish with Asian flavors was one of the best dishes I've had in my life. Another couple of dishes were just puzzling and not very good. Everything else landed somewhere in between so overall I wasn't thrilled with the meal but still happy I went.

        When I return to Chicago I think many of the other places we discussed will be on my shortlist with the Rick Bayless places near the top.

        Thanks for the help everyone!

        1 Reply
        1. re: iammattr

          Thanks for the helpful feedback - glad you enjoyed it here!