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First time Chicago visit - and only 36 hours at that!

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Self-confessed novice foodies, we are "youngish" first-time visitors to Chicago. Hailing from New Zealand, currently living in Sydney, we will shortly be vacationing in the US, before moving to Singapore next month. Fulfilling a lifelong dream to attend a Bulls-Heat game, we literally only have 36 hours to experience the best food Chicago has to offer. We pretty much eat anything, covering all cuisines, from cheap and cheerful to fine dining. Not impartial to a drop of vino either ;-)

Given our limited time frame, we want to sample "the best of the best" so am seeking local help and advice for Chicago's food scene! There is nothing more upsetting to me than paying money for a bad meal in a place where good food is plentiful!

Staying near Magnificent Mile, we will be availing of public transport and lots of walking to try and combat the waist line effects of our eating enthusiasm. We are willing to make extra effort for "that unforgettable slice of pizza" or "words-cannot-describe donut goodness", and given our limited time frame, eating (or imbibing) will be more important than sleeping.

We arrive Tues afternoon, leave Thurs morning (so at least 5 meals plus snacks!), and welcome all food ideas and itineraries.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. Fine Dining: Tru, Acadia
    Mexican: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo
    Donuts: Glazed and Confused, Do-Rite
    Since you sound ambitious, consider Argyle Street for Vietnamese (Red line train: Argyle stop), especially Nha Hang Viet Nam. Or Double Li in Chinatown for Sichuan. Or awesome tacos at La Chaparrita, southwest of the Loop.
    Pizano's for thin-crust or deep-dish pizza
    Late night dining: Purple Pig, Sable
    West Randolph Street is the hottest area now, with several gems, including Avec and Au Cheval.
    Others will chime in with more.

    2 Replies
    1. re: camusman

      All look amazing and starting to pick and choose which ones go into the spreadsheet (aptly titled "Eating Extravaganza")!

      Purple Pig could be perfect post game... I do love cheese... and don't get me started on cured meats...

      1. re: eatfreaks

        >> Purple Pig could be perfect post game...

        The long waits for seating there tend to last as late as 10:00 or thereabouts, start winding down by 10:30 or so. (The kitchen is open till midnight during the week.) You can always call ahead to ask them how long the current wait is. 312-464-1-PIG (744)

    2. First, just to get an overview of what Chicago has to offer, this discussion tells what foods and places are unique or specialties in Chicago, foods that Chicago is particularly good at:

      first time Chicago - www.chow.com/topics/693477

      If I had 36 hours to spend in Chicago, here's what I would pick, starting with the most "must have" experience and working down from there:

      1. Alinea. Yes, it's expensive ($210+ per person plus beverages/alcohol and tax/tip), and it's dressy. It's also one of the best restaurants in the world and the food experience of a lifetime. They sell advance tickets on their website and lately they're not too terribly hard to snag. Dinner only, closed Mondays/Tuesdays.

      2. Deep-dish pizza, a Chicago specialty. Lou Malnati's, regarded by many as the best in town, has a location at State and Rush near the north end of the Mag Mile and on Wells west of the south end of the Mag Mile. Pizano's has a location on State north of Chicago Ave. The original Uno and Due are near the south end of the Mag Mile. This works for lunch or dinner. 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.

      3. Contemporary Mexican. This is something you don't get back home and isn't found many other places in the States, either. I'd start with Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, both a short walk from the Mag Mile. Since your visit is soon, it's probably too late to get a reservation at Frontera Grill or a dinner reservation at Topolobampo. That leaves the following options. You may still be able to get a lunch reservation at Topolobampo. If you arrive at Frontera Grill 15-20 minutes before they open the doors, you won't have to wait. You can otherwise wait 90+ minutes to be seated at Frontera Grill. Or you can go to one of our other contemporary Mexican options: Mexique, in West Town (take #66 CTA bus two miles west on Chicago Ave); Salpicon, in Old Town (walkable from the north end of the Mag Mile); Mundial Cocina Mestiza, in Pilsen (next to the 18th Street station on the CTA Pink Line); or Mixteco Grill (near the Montrose station on the CTA Brown Line). All of these are open for lunch or dinner.

      4. Garrett's Popcorn. This is a snack you can fit into your schedule; there's a location on the Mag Mile, or pick some up at O'Hare before your flight departure. (Currently open in Terminals 1 and 3, but their store in Terminal 5, the international terminal, won't be open till later this year.) Caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, or the "Chicago mix" of the two.

      5. Breakfast/brunch. Chicago has a huge selection of breakfast-focused restaurants. Jam, near the Logan Square stop on the CTA Blue Line, has the creativity you'd find at the high-end temples of haute cuisine. M. Henry, at the Granville station on the CTA Red Line, has lots of great stuff. Bongo Room, at the 12th/Roosevelt/Wabash station on the CTA Red, Orange, and Green Lines has creative pancakes (e.g. pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce). Southport Grocery, near the Southport station on the CTA Brown Line, has bread pudding pancakes and adult pop-tarts.

      6. North Pond. This is a special place unique to Chicago. They have excellent contemporary American cuisine from James Beard Award winner Chef Bruce Sherman. What makes it unique is its exquisite setting in the middle of the park, facing its namesake pond, with the city skyline looming over the opposite shore. During the week, open only for dinner.

      7. Small plates. Some of our very best restaurants right now specialize in small plates of one sort or another, and are moderately priced. Several are a short walk from the Mag Mile. Sable specializes in contemporary American cuisine and craft cocktails; don't miss the sweet corn creme brulee. GT Fish & Oyster specializes in seafood and craft cocktails. Mercat a la Planxa has tapas. All three of these accept reservations, for lunch or dinner. The Purple Pig has Mediterranean-ish cuisine, but does not accept reservations, and waits for a table are horrendous (120+ minutes at dinner well into the evening, not quite as bad at lunch); if you want to go without a long wait, go mid-afternoon or late at night. After all, with only 36 hours here, you really don't want to spend a lot of time waiting for a table (avoid Avec too for that reason).

      Since you will soon be moving to Singapore, I would absolutely NOT bother with Vietnamese or Chinese food while you are here; either will be way better in Singapore, whereas you won't be able to get good contemporary Mexican (or deep-dish) there.

      5 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        AWESOME! Thank you. Just salivating at my desk now...

        This is exactly the type of information we need - lots of choices but not so many as to overwhelm me and make it impossible to choose. And also reinforcing previous suggestions which is great!

        I do promise a post-trip food report...

        1. re: eatfreaks

          nsxtasy gives you great advice.

          Alinea is one of the top restaurants in the world.

          However, the Bulls vs Heat game is Weds 3/27 starting at 8pm!

          The only Alinea ticket for two on 3/27 is for 9:30pm.

          There is really no way you'll be able to do a fine dining tasting menu experience without missing part of the game.

          If you want to do a tasting menu type of place, it would have to be on the Tuesday you arrive, and you are planning kind of last minute. Some of the places like that in Chicago book 2 months in advance. Though you might get lucky and find a cancellation. I just checked El Ideas and it doesn't have tables on your date.

          I see tables for early on at Topolobampo on 3/27, so you must be somewhat lucky! 5:30pm, 5:45pm... I'd grab that soon.

          One potential itinerary...

          Tuesday night - pizza
          Wed breakfast - Jam
          Wed lunch - Italian beef
          Wed early dinner - Topolobampo
          Bulls game at 8pm
          Weds late night - maybe you could get into the Aviary, Chef Achatz from Alinea's cocktail bar for a drink, then get some small plates at Girl and the Goat nearby, which is known for long waits until 10ish. Purple Pig is good but GATG feels more unique to me. Your mileage may vary.
          Thurs breakfast - Do Rite Donuts, pick up some popcorn at the airport, maybe a Torta from Tortas Frontera for the plane if you are at ORD

          1. re: kathryn

            The Bulls game starts at 7 pm, not 8 pm. You might be able to make that late seating without missing a whole lot of both, unless the game goes into overtime...

            1. re: nsxtasy

              Ah, the Heats' site must be listing it in ET...

              Still, OP will have to choose: basketball or Alinea! And what to do if the game goes into overtime.

              Alinea has a dress code as well, so that will be a factor... Show up to the game in your Alinea clothes, or leave early to go back downtown to change. Jackets are required for men, and whenever we've gone, they've told us no jeans. And if you start at 9:30pm, I'd plan to be there until about 1am.

              Personally, I'd choose Alinea but I'm not a huge basketball person. Alinea is a once in a lifetime sort of meal in my opinion.

              I'd do this...

              Tuesday night - pizza
              Wed breakfast - Jam
              Wed lunch - Frontera lunch, try to get a res, late, at like 2pm or 2:30pm
              Bulls game at 7pm
              Weds - 9:30 tasting at Alinea, die happy
              Thurs breakfast - Do Rite Donuts, Garrett's, Tortas Frontera

              1. re: kathryn

                ^^^Good advice from kathryn. Here's more info.

                >> Alinea has a dress code as well, so that will be a factor... Show up to the game in your Alinea clothes, or leave early to go back downtown to change. Jackets are required for men, and whenever we've gone, they've told us no jeans. And if you start at 9:30pm, I'd plan to be there until about 1am.

                The easiest way to deal with this would be to go to the game dressed up in your Alinea clothes. Then take a cab straight from the game to the restaurant. (Leaving a few minutes before the final buzzer might make it easier to snag a cab.)

                >> Wed lunch - Frontera lunch, try to get a res, late, at like 2pm or 2:30pm

                Here's the info about eating at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. They are at the same location; Topolobampo occupies one dining room inside the Frontera Grill space. Topolobampo is significantly more expensive for dinner than Frontera Grill; prices are similar for lunch. Topolobampo is not quite as casual as Frontera, especially at dinnertime. If you sit at the bar at Frontera Grill, you can order off either menu, Frontera's or Topolobampo's. Topolobampo makes all of its seating available for advance reservations, either by phone or on Opentable.com, starting three months in advance; dinner reservations fill up quickly, but lunch reservations continue to be available up to a couple weeks out (right now there is plenty of availability for 3/27 lunch). Frontera Grill accepts only a handful of reservations, and keeps most of the dining room available for walk-in traffic; it's very popular and long waits to be seated are common, although I suspect they might not be bad for a late seating (e.g. 2 pm).

                Bottom line: You might want to check out the menus on their website, to see if the difference in food is important. But a reservation would eliminate the risk of a long wait. The easiest thing to do at this point would probably be to make a reservation for lunch ASAP for whatever time you want; right now you can do so at Topolobampo, but you would have to call Frontera Grill to find out availability there.

                >> Weds - 9:30 tasting at Alinea, die happy

                LOL!

                >> Thurs breakfast - Do Rite Donuts, Garrett's, Tortas Frontera

                As noted above, Garrett's is for popcorn; in addition to their locations on the Mag Mile and in O'Hare Terminals 1 and 3, they have several locations in the Loop.

                Tortas Frontera is Rick Bayless's restaurant for lighter fare (sandwiches etc). They have locations in O'Hare Terminals 1 and 3. Although this may seem like redundancy in your itinerary, I think it's a good idea, because it's the best meal-type food at the airport (and really isn't a substitute for a full lunch or dinner at Topolobampo or Frontera Grill).

                The airport restaurants (including Garrett's) are inside security. If your flight departs from Terminal 5, this means you would have to go through security twice, so allow time for that; you would have to go through security to get into T1 or T3, go eat or buy food to go, then leave the secure area to take the ATS (Airport Transit System - free shuttle train from outside security, entrances on the ticketing level) to T5 where you would go through security again to catch your flight. (Terminals 1, 2, and 3 all connect so you only have to go through security once for all of them, but Terminal 5 is further away and not connected.)

      2. No visit to Chicago would be complete without tasting an Italian roast beef sandwich. Al's and Portillo's both have locations on West Ontario, a few blocks off Michigan Avenue.

        1. Loving the suggestions and have our Chicago food itinerary "mentally mapped", although will add it to the official spreadsheet by the end of the weekend!

          Thank you all for your input - it's getting us very excited! And loving the NY vs Chicago pizza debate (I have a NY thread going too...).

          Given the rather sizeable amount we just paid for our bball tickets (granted, good seats and have to remind ourselves that these are once in a lifetime experiences...!), I'm guessing that the bf will definitely NOT want to leave the game early! But Girl and the Goat or Purple Pig could be perfect. Cocktails at the Aviary sounds rather appealing too

          And I'm going to ring Frontera and plead my case for a Tuesday night dinner reservation! Hopefully they understand my accent...

          And last question - places to pick up a decent coffee? Bf works in boutique coffee roasting here, understand that American coffee will be "different" (filter-based) and coffee preferences can be a rather personal thing, but welcome recommendations anyway...

          Thanks again!

          10 Replies
          1. re: eatfreaks

            As to coffee, not sure where you are staying, but this recent thread identifies good coffee in the Mag Mile/ River North area: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/892206

            If you are in the central Loop, there is an Intelligentsia shop in the Monadnock Building at the corner of Dearborn and Jackson (about halfway between the Art Institute and the Sears Tower).

            1. re: eatfreaks

              I wasn't that impressed by Intelligentsia, and I drink a lot--A LOT--of coffee. ... But I like Peet's, and I think I had good coffee a few times at the Bongo Room and/or Ann Sather's--during breakfast.

              You might want to check-out the Frango mints at Marshal Field's --er, I mean Macy's-- for the sake of nostalgia.

              Also, if you get stuck with little to do, you might check out the Tea Service at Russian Tea Room or Peninsula.--Although I haven't done that with a male before, only with groups of other girls.. so maybe he wouldn't be game for that.

              **But in reality: you could probably get in line for Garrett's popcorn (Chicago Mix) and then send someone on a coffee run while you are in line. All that really matters is the Garrett's Popcorn.

              AND 100% for deep-dish: get Lou Malnati's. We already ship them to family friends in Idaho, Minnesota, and Florida. They are just that good.

              1. re: GraceW

                I wasn't impressed with Intelligentsia either in the past few years but the last cup I had was brewed from a Chemex. It didn't have the acidity nor the bitterness you get from poorly extracted grounds. So now, I'm a believer again:).

                If you are in the West Loop, Philadelphia based Le Colombe Torrefaction has a roaster there as well and makes excellent coffee and espressos. The Little Goat Bakery or anything that says goat in that strip of Randolph for that matter serves Portland based Stumptown Coffee. Le Colombe, Stumptown and my favorite, Blue Bottle Coffee(unfortunately, not found here in Chicago) also have roasters in New York. I would ignore Asian food here in this city. They are not on par with Sydney nor SG.

              2. re: eatfreaks

                >> places to pick up a decent coffee?

                Intelligentsia is our leading local roaster and widely regarded by most folks as the best in town. They have two coffeebars in the Loop - one on Randolph near Millennium Park and another in the Monadnock Building on Jackson - and they also have one in Lakeview on the North Side. Other local roasters include Metropolis, Dark Matter, Asado, and Dollop, but none of those is downtown.

                www.intelligentsiacoffee.com
                www.metropoliscoffee.com
                www.darkmattercoffee.com
                www.asadocoffee.com
                www.dollopcoffee.com

                These discussions provide more info (the first one is primarily for the north end of the Mag Mile, the other two cover more of downtown):

                Great espresso near Water Plaza? - www.chow.com/topics/803183
                Best Coffee Shop in Chicago? - www.chow.com/topics/753311
                Favorite Cafees / Coffee in Chicago? - www.chow.com/topics/732385

                Don't get Peet's here; it's not as good as it is on the West Coast where it's based.

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  You can get Dark Matter downtown at Do-Rite Donuts!

                  1. re: kathryn

                    There are various cafes and markets where you can get each of the above local coffees. (Do-Rite is only a couple of blocks from the Intelligentsia location on Randolph, so you can easily try them both if you like.)

                    Also, Intelligentsia conducts tours of their roasting works on West Fulton, which is/are a separate location from their coffeebars. The tour is $20 and includes AYCD coffee and a half pound to take with you. More info: www.intelligentsiacoffee.com/content/...

                    1. re: kathryn

                      True, but it's only one variety of Dark Matter's coffee at Do-Rite -- their Do-Rite blend (which is very good, don't get me wrong!). You can buy a pound of that blend to go but the mark up is really high (and may not be worth it). Also, Do-Rite doesn't have much in the way of seating. About 6 2-tops outside but if the weather is uncooperative... Just so you aren't expecting a cafe or anything.

                      But Intelligentsia is very much a cafe - a fair amount of seating, a small selection of pastries, lots of coffee (and tea) options (as well as several options as to how to brew the coffee (Chemx, pour over, French press, etc)).

                      1. re: danimalarkey

                        Hmmm maybe we do b/fast at Intelligentsia with a donut to go! Will see what the weather is doing... I actually don't know how to prepare myself for such cold!!! Maybe it will improve by 3 weeks time!

                        Thanks everyone. I'll give a de-brief after the trip.

                        1. re: eatfreaks

                          >> Hmmm maybe we do b/fast at Intelligentsia with a donut to go!

                          Don't forget, if you want a pastry while you're at Intelligentsia's location on Randolph, Toni Patisserie is right around the corner, and they have excellent croissants and French pastries. The place for donuts is Do-Rite, two blocks west of Intelligentsia.

                          >> Will see what the weather is doing... I actually don't know how to prepare myself for such cold!!! Maybe it will improve by 3 weeks time!

                          It's unlikely that there will be snow three weeks from now. Not impossible, but unlikely. The normal highs here are 40 on March 1 and 53 on March 31. By the end of the month, sunny days in the sixties are much more likely than snowy ones. Check the Chicago weather forecast just before leaving home, so you know what kind of outerwear you'll need to bring.

                          1. re: nsxtasy

                            Nsxtasy is correct about the average temps in late March but beware that there is a lot of variation around that average. I'm sure you've done research but you should know that temperatures in March could run as high as mid-70s during the day (unlikely, but would be wonderful) and as low as low 30s or even upper 20s at night. Although snow accumulation in late March is rare, occasional flurries are not so uncommon. And, our temperatures can fluctuate enormously over the course of a week. Bring gloves, a scarf & a hat; with temperatures likely in the upper 40s or low 50s, the locals may be bareheaded & without gloves but for you it may seem cold. Better to have and not need them, than the other way around.

                2. Ok... I think I have it.

                  Given our limited time frame, I've tried to pick places that are central to where we are staying and around things we want to see/do.

                  Tues Dinner: Lou Malnati's
                  Weds v early Bfast: Do-Rite Donuts (opens 6.30am) + Dark Matter Coffee
                  More coffee: Intelligentsia (bf was familiar with the name so we should give it a whirl)
                  Weds Early Lunch: Frontera Grill
                  Weds Early Dinner: Portillo's
                  Weds Late Dinner: Purple Pig (toss up with Girl and the Goat but this is closest to our hotel)
                  Thurs Brekkie: Tortas Frontera and Garetts Popcorn (snack for the plane)

                  Will also take down the names of the other coffee shops and if we happen past, then it's meant to be!

                  Hopefully that will tick most of the boxes!

                  Will let you know how we get on... now to plan NY where the food opportunities threaten to overwhelm me! (And if only the San Francisco forum was as helpful as this one...)

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: eatfreaks

                    Sounds good to me. Glad you got into Frontera Grill for lunch.

                    Dependent upon when your flight is, I was recommending Tortas Frontera as an option for lunch on the plane, though, but it seems like you have a morning flight?... I will wait for your follow up on the NY board though.

                    For SF, this is a little old but a friend of mine used to go to SF all the time and posted his recs on another board (he has a CH login but rarely uses it):
                    http://forums.egullet.org/topic/13551...

                    1. re: kathryn

                      Last year I ate at Tortas Frontera at O'Hare. I was there around 9:45 and found that they didn't open till 10:00, at which point I placed my order and received my food around 10:15. Assuming that's still when they open (their website doesn't show their hours) and depending on the time of your flight, this may or may not work for you. Oh, and my short ribs sandwich and my corn and poblano chowder were both excellent!

                      The Garrett's Popcorn shops at O'Hare open early (6 am) so timing won't be an issue there.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        I had breakfast at Tortas F at O'Hare (Terminal 1, B Concourse) at about 7:30 am within the last year. Note they are quite popular and meals are cooked to order so there is a wait of at least 10 minutes. So you need to give yourself some time before your flight boards. And, that said, I actually was underwhelmed by my sandwich, although the coffee was excellent.

                      2. re: kathryn

                        I actually managed to get a Frontera Grill dinner reservation for when we arrive. So swapping Frontera and Lou's around... can't wait! And San Fran is sussed now too... thanks everyone for the help.

                        1. re: eatfreaks

                          >> I actually managed to get a Frontera Grill dinner reservation for when we arrive.

                          Congratulations! They're not easy to snag.

                      3. re: eatfreaks

                        I found this list helpful when I planned my trip to SF. It's from the San Fancisco Chronicle which used to be the big newspaper in the Bay area. I blindly chose a couple of spots close to where I was at and none of them disappointed me.

                        http://www.sfgate.com/food/top100/2012/

                        1. re: eatfreaks

                          Yo Eatfreaks:
                          I'm quite surprised to read your comment about not getting help from the SF'ers. It's actually an extremely helpful group. Sometimes, folks are vague in their post, and it's hard to respond. (e.g. "Looking for a great restaurant in SF") If you post again over there, I will be happy to help you out as best as I can.

                          1. re: escargot3

                            You're completely right escargot - I think because it was my first ever chowhound post, I was a little bit vague... I was reading about so many amazing places and just wanted someone to tell me to do! But I wasn't really considering about where/what we would be doing that day... I'm starting to firm up a plan now so will be posting it shortly for some feedback.

                        2. So tell us about your trip. I trust you enjoyed seeing the Bulls end the Heat's winning streak!

                          1. Ok... so just returned from our whirlwind trip today. Had an amazing time and found Americans (esp in San Fran and Chicago) so incredibly friendly and helpful.

                            As for Chicago - first night we did Frontera Grill. Really enjoyed the street eats and shared food, particularly the platter of ceviches. The mains were decent but I wouldn't rave about them - wish we had done more of the shared appetisers and then could have had room for dessert which also looked amazing (we ate so much though that the couple next to us had to comment that they couldn't believe how much we fit in!).

                            Breakfast was a healthy start at the Doughnut Vault. Love it especially the concept of open till it's sold out.

                            Coffee at Intelligentsia which was our favourite coffee spot in the States (shared with Blue Bottle at Mint Plaza in San Fran). Once again, friendly people.

                            Lunch at Lou Malnettis. Wow. Don't think I've had a pizza like it! So much cheese! Delicious and perfect for a freezing day, however I think I would still lean towards "standard" pizza more over the deep dish.

                            NBA Game - WOW! Was such an awesome game to be at, the atmosphere was electric, and the only downside was that it set the bar so high that when we went to the Knicks-Celtics game at Madison Square Gardens, we were underwhelemed!

                            Late dinner at Big Al's. Yummo. Great fries and although the beef rolls were drenched with soggy beef and didn't exactly "look" appetizing ... it totally worked! The staff were incredibly friendly and chatty on a post-game buzz at 11.30pm on a Wednesday.

                            Oh and lastly, Garretts Popcorn.... couldn't bring ourselves to have the Chicago Mix (I hate mixing savoury and sweet) but the caramel pecan, almond and cashew hit the spot nicely and we picked up more in Vegas.

                            And then we rolled out of Chicago early Thursday morning...

                            Thanks everyone for the great advice. Loved Chicago - a beautiful city with friendly people, although would probably like to visit again in Summer time!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: eatfreaks

                              Thanks so much for the reply! Sorry that I didn't give you more time to recover from your journey! ;->