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Need Chicago help!

Hello dear Chowhounders,
I am visiting Chicago for the first time in April and really need some help with my restaurant/food choices.
Obviously there is already a wealth of information on this board and I've read lots of posts, but it's almost too many, there seems to be so much amazing food in Chicago!
To give you some ideas what I'm looking for:
I'll be visiting a friend for 5-6 days and I do want to do some sightseeing but for me it's really about the food. I had my heart set on Alinea, and there was tables available during my stay, but my friend axed it as it's over his budget. I would go alone, but paying for a 2-top alone is definitely out of my price-range, too. As far as I've read there is next to no chance getting a reservation for one, is that correct?
Otherwise I guess I can convince my friend to one splurge fine-dining meal (bit less pricey than Alinea I guess) and a few other mid-range meals, recommendations are welcome. I really wanted to try Girl & the Goat as I loved the chef on Top Chef, but it seems it's harder to get a reservation there than Alinea.
Otherwise I like modern food but not too out there, but also more down-to-earth style. To give pointers to the ones who have been to Spain, Mugaritz had a few too many misses for me but I loved Etxebarri, Azurmendi, Arzak and especially Sant Pau.
I love street-food, too and want to get the real Chicago experience, so what are must-eats?! I guess an Italian Beef, a hot dog and deep-dish pizza (although I love thin-crust Italian pizza)?! What about sweet treats such as donuts etc.?
Please send me your recs for a great itinerary in your eyes for a foodie on their first-time Chicago...I know I'm asking a bit much as I practically like everything want to try all of Chicago's offerings, but please bear with me :-)
Thanks,
Luna

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  1. Chef Steph has opened a diner, Little Goat, next to Girl & the Goat, so you're not out of luck there.
    Spanish: Mercat a la Planxa, Vera
    Donuts: Glazed and Infused, Do Rite
    Finer Dining: Naha, Acadia
    Street food: Xoco and La Chaparrita (Mexican)
    Italian Beef: Al's on Taylor
    Thin-crust Pizza: Pizzeria da Nella, Coalfire, Spacca Napoli
    Cantonese: Sun Wah
    Vietnamese: Nha Hang Viet Nam
    Thai: Aroy Thai

    2 Replies
    1. re: camusman

      Hello camusman,
      Thanks already for your tips, I love Vietnamese so I will definitely check out Nha Hang Viet Nam and good to hear about Little Goat, hope it's easier to get in there...any other advice would be greatly appreciated.

      1. re: Luna2308

        As a pork lover, you might want to look into the Publican.
        Definitely easier to get into Little Goat, and it even serves breakfast.
        You will be staying right next to Acadia, one of our best fine dining destinations.

    2. Where will you be staying, and how will you be getting around?

      >> I guess I can convince my friend to one splurge fine-dining meal (bit less pricey than Alinea I guess)

      Well, there's pricey and there's pricey. Alinea is typically $300+ including wine/tax/tip, and Grace is similar, so I guess that rules both of those out. In the $250ish range TRU (contemporary American), Everest (contemporary French-Alsatian), and Spiaggia (Italian) are all excellent.

      But you don't need to spend that much, either. There are several restaurants which offer terrific food along with a fine-dining experience, but without that high a price tag (and where the dress code isn't quite as formal - e.g. jackets not required for men). Three of these in the $110-140/pp range are Acadia, North Pond, and Naha (although you can spend more than that if you go for the tasting menu and/or high-end wine). Acadia is relatively new (one year old); I loved it when I ordered a la carte, not as much when I had the tasting menu. North Pond is always wonderful, not only for the food, but also for the exquisite setting in the middle of the park, facing the pond with the city skyline looming over the far shore. Naha is outstanding also. Both North Pond and Naha are headed by chefs who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef - Great Lakes.

      For the not-so-expensive meals, it all depends on what you like. I strongly recommend one of our contemporary Mexican restaurants, which is a strength in Chicago and not commonly found in most cities this side of the Mexican border. Of these, the Rick Bayless restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, are both excellent. Topolobampo is probably full for dinner now but you can still get weekday lunch reservations there, including on Opentable. You can try for reservations at Frontera Grill (phone only) but they only accept a handful; otherwise you can arrive 15-20 minutes before they open the doors to avoid long waits to be seated. We have other excellent restaurants offering contemporary Mexican cuisine, too, notably Mexique, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, and Mixteco Grill, all of which accept reservations and they're not hard to get.

      Also in the "not so expensive" price category, some of our very best restaurants, with some of our most creative chefs, offer a small plates format on the menu. These include Sable (contemporary American small plates, craft cocktails), GT Fish & Oyster (seafood small plates, craft cocktails), and Mercat a la Planxa (tapas), all of which accept reservations, including on Opentable. The Purple Pig, with Mediterranean-ish small plates, is also one of our best; however, it doesn't accept reservations, and waits to be seated are horrendous (120+ minutes between 5 and 10 pm); I recommend trying it mid-afternoon or very late at night.

      We also have some terrific breakfast-focused restaurants, the best of which include Jam, Bongo Room, M. Henry and M. Henrietta, and Southport Grocery. Most of these are not in the downtown area where most of the hotels are, although they are easily accessible by public transit (and cabs). If you tell us where you're staying, we can recommend places that are close by, as well as give you public transit directions to those that aren't.

      >> I love street-food, too and want to get the real Chicago experience, so what are must-eats?! I guess an Italian Beef, a hot dog and deep-dish pizza (although I love thin-crust Italian pizza)?!

      Yes, those are the best of our local specialties. Downtown, Portillo's on Ontario is a good place for an Italian beef and a Chicago-style hot dog. Don't miss our delicious deep-dish pizza! Lou Malnati's and Pizano's are the best for the traditional deep-dish "pan pizza"; if you mention where you're staying (or spending time), we can tell you which of their locations is closest.

      >> What about sweet treats such as donuts etc.?

      We have some very good donut shops, as well as some terrific bakeries for pastries, croissants, etc. The Doughnut Vault, Do-Rite Donuts, and Glazed and Infused are our three leading donut shops; the first two are downtown. For pastries, the two best places are right near each other in Lincoln Park: Floriole and Vanille Patisserie. For pastry in the downtown area, Vanille has a satellite location in the French Market just west of downtown, and Toni Patisserie in the Loop is also very good. If you enjoy coffee, our premier local roaster is Intelligentsia; they have coffeebars in several locations, including one on Randolph that's a block from Toni Patisserie.

      For a snack, a stop at one of the Garrett's Popcorn locations is a must. They have caramel popcorn (with or without cashews or pecans), cheese popcorn, and the "Chicago mix" of the two. They have several in the downtown area, and also in Terminals 1 and 3 at O'Hare.

      I find it very helpful to peruse menus on the restaurants' websites to help me decide where to eat:

      www.alinearestaurant.com
      www.grace-restaurant.com
      www.trurestaurant.com
      www.everestrestaurant.com
      www.spiaggiarestaurant.com
      www.acadiachicago.com
      www.northpondrestaurant.com
      www.naha-chicago.com
      www.rickbayless.com/restaurants
      www.mexiquechicago.com
      www.mundialcocinamestiza.com
      www.mixtecogrill.com
      www.sablechicago.com
      www.gtoyster.com
      www.mercatchicago.com
      www.thepurplepigchicago.com
      www.jamrestaurant.com
      www.thebongoroom.com
      www.mhenry.net
      www.mhenrietta.com
      www.southportgrocery.com
      www.portillos.com
      www.loumalnatis.com
      www.pizanoschicago.com
      http://thedoughnutvault.tumblr.com
      www.doritedonuts.com
      www.goglazed.com
      www.floriole.com
      www.vanillepatisserie.com
      www.frenchmarketchicago.com
      www.tonipatisserie.com
      www.intelligentsiacoffee.com
      www.garrettpopcorn.com

      Feel free to ask more questions as your plans get more specific!

      13 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        Hello nsxtasy,
        Thank you so much for your reply, I had seen lots of your posts already and knew you were great for Chicago information.
        I'll be staying with my friend who lives on South Michigan Avenue, just north of East 18th Street I think, not sure if the location is close to a lot of places. He's got a car but has some errands while I'm there, so I will probably be on my own, too. But I don't mind going the distance for a must-eat, be it walking, public transport or by cab...
        I'll check your links and have a look at menus etc., but anything you might feel you could add given that you know my location now, please go ahead.
        One of the Mexican places was definitely on my list, so I'll look into that.
        I forgot to mention that I love anything pork-related and Foie Gras amongst many other things...I'm German (from Bavaria - but hate beer, guess that's why they kicked me out ;-)...) but have been living in the Caribbean for 14 years, that might explain my love for pork.
        I love Spanish food but have been to Catalunya and the Basque Country several times in the past few years, so had a lot of great food there...

        1. re: Luna2308

          Camusman mentioned it above, but if you really want pork, consider the Publican. I don't love it for dining solo (you get seated at a cramped bar-type area) but they are known (rightfully) for their pork. While they are also known for their beer program, the wine and cocktail options are very good, as well.

          For solo dining, I love avec. It's not hard to get a seat at their bar and you get to enjoy the goings-on in their open kitchen. Many plates are available as half-portions, even if the menu doesn't explicitly say so. They aren't quite as pork focused as the Publican but there should be some options to satiate your hunger for pork.

          1. re: danimalarkey

            Hello danimalarkey,
            Thanks for your reply. I guess my pork comment was a little too much, it's not really that I want to eat just pork ;-).
            I guess I really just want to experience Chicago's food as much as I can. I love everything from fine-dining (have had quite a few amazing Michelin meals in Spain in the last 2 years), laid-back, comfort food, ethnic food and street food...just want to really try also to eat things that are typical. A good mix of everything I guess and I know this sounds kind of vague...
            My friend will be joining me often, but not for every meal, so I guess I'll have to figure out which spots to try on my own...just wish Alinea would take reservations from solo diners...

          2. re: Luna2308

            >> I'll be staying with my friend who lives on South Michigan Avenue, just north of East 18th Street I think, not sure if the location is close to a lot of places. He's got a car but has some errands while I'm there, so I will probably be on my own, too. But I don't mind going the distance for a must-eat, be it walking, public transport or by cab...

            Great! That location is about two miles south of the center of the Loop, Chicago's historical and commercial center, and in the neighborhood known as the South Loop, for the obvious reason. (The term "downtown Chicago" usually refers to the Loop and the adjacent neighborhoods on all sides, other than to the east where the lake is.) There are no el stations nearby ("el" refers to our rapid transit trains, both elevated - from whence the name - and underground); however, the #1, #3, and #4 CTA buses run north and south along Michigan Avenue. The #3 goes past the Loop and almost the entire length of the Mag Mile (the mile of North Michigan Avenue north of the Loop, between the river and Oak Street), so you'll be able to take that bus to restaurants in the Loop and along the Mag Mile and adjacent neighborhoods (Streeterville to the east and River North to the west), such as Sable, Purple Pig, Frontera Grill, Mercat a la Planxa, and Naha. You can transfer between buses and el trains; when doing so, make sure you use a CTA fare card, which lets you transfer (up to 2 additional rides within 2 hours for 25 cents), so you don't have to pay separate fares like you would if you paid cash. If you're going to restaurants that are not downtown, you'll probably want to take a bus northbound on Michigan Avenue to the Loop, then transfer to the el. There's also a Metra commuter rail station just east on 18th Street, but it only goes to the Loop and to the suburbs, probably not what you would need. You can get transit information from Google Maps ( http://maps.google.com ) as well as from the CTA website at www.transitchicago.com and the Metra website at www.metrarail.com

            The nearest place for great deep-dish is the Lou Malnati's location at 8th and State, about a mile north of there. As already noted above by camusman, you are only a couple of blocks from Acadia, one of our best fine-dining restaurants. You are also a short walk to Bongo Room, the breakfast-focused restaurant, at Roosevelt (12th) and Wabash. Bongo Room specializes in creative pancake dishes, such as pretzel pancakes with white chocolate caramel sauce. Their standard order consists of three GIGANTIC pancakes, but you can also order one-third and two-thirds portion sizes at reduced prices, which lets you try more than one dish for your meal.

            One of the Mexican places I mentioned, Mundial Cocina Mestiza, is two miles west of there on 18th Street. 18th Street goes all the way through (with a slight jog at Halsted, one mile west), but there's no CTA bus that goes that entire distance on 18th; by public transit you would need to take a bus north on Michigan to the Loop, then catch a CTA Pink Line el to the 18th Street station.

            There's also a very good contemporary American (NOT Mexican) restaurant one mile west of you on Halsted just south of 18th, called Nightwood. Good for dinner as well as Sunday brunch. The area you would be passing through on 18th is industrial/commercial and may not be the most pleasant to walk through for that reason. www.nightwoodrestaurant.com

            >> I forgot to mention that I love anything pork-related and Foie Gras amongst many other things...

            Two of our most pork-specific restaurants are the Purple Pig (see notes above regarding avoiding it during busy hours, since they don't take reservations) and the Publican. We also have some very good barbecue restaurants which of course have pork; one of them is called Smoque, which features a dry-rub smoked style, and is convenient to the CTA Blue Line.

            We have numerous restaurants that have foie gras on the menu, and Acadia is one of them. Incidentally, although Acadia is known as a fine-dining restaurant, you can also dine informally in the bar at the front of the restaurant. They have a menu for bar food, that includes a burger that is highly regarded - and if you wanted to sit in the bar and order a dish from the regular dinner menu (like, for example, foie gras), I'm sure they would be happy to accommodate you. One other thing to be aware of about Acadia - there is NO outdoor signage at all! And the neighborhood is not at all busy at night, either. So if it seems like you're not sure you're in the right place, you probably are. (They have a sign just inside the doorway.) Given where you're staying and what you like to eat, this is a terrific choice, whether you're dining alone or with a friend.

            I have not been to Elizabeth yet, although I've heard good things and I'd like to go. They have three communal tables, one for each of their three tasting menus. One thing to consider is that they use the same advance ticketing system as Next and Alinea. This means that you pay when you make your reservation, so there's a risk involved in that if your plans change, you probably won't be able to get your money back. Just something to be aware of.

            Most restaurants, including high-end fine dining places, are happy to serve solo diners, and I've found that many of them go out of their way to accommodate solos in various ways, such as bringing extra courses, etc. And most of them don't mind if you eat alone at a table or at the bar, and give you either option. One thing to be aware of is that some restaurants do not permit solos to make reservations on the Opentable website (because of the fees that Opentable charges the restaurant), but allow solo reservations over the phone. I know Alinea only accepts even-numbered reservations on their website, but it's possible they may allow solo diners (and only charge for one dinner); if that's something you're interested in, I'd recommend phoning them to ask. I'm pretty sure most or all of our other high-end restaurants (TRU, Everest, L2O, Spiaggia, etc) would be happy to serve a solo diner.

            HTH!

          3. re: nsxtasy

            Have you eaten at Elizabeth yet? I found a few articles about it online and it sounds like quite an interesting concept & story...

            1. re: Luna2308

              Good call--I think Elizabeth could be a very good option for you. Locals are keeping an eye on Michelin to see if a star will be awarded in the next edition; IMO, the food and creativity are deserving. They offer three menus, Owl, Deer, and Diamond, at three different price points. Owl would probably be within budget for your host, Deer and Diamond for you on your own. Given that each menu has its own communal table, I think it would be a lot of fun for a solo visiting foodie. Your tablemates would most likely provide good conversation and be engaging. I also suspect that if you share your story via e-mail or on their FB page in advance of your visit, their talented and congenial chef/owner, Iliana Regan, would look out for you. It would be accessible via public transportation. Most likely your host would direct you to a Red Line train toward Howard, then (a free and on the same platform) transfer to the Brown Line train toward Kimball, exit at Western, and it is about a two block walk.

              1. re: GourmetWednesday

                >> Most likely your host would direct you to a Red Line train toward Howard, then (a free and on the same platform) transfer to the Brown Line train toward Kimball, exit at Western, and it is about a two block walk.

                You can take a bus up Michigan Avenue to Roosevelt (12th), then walk two short blocks west to the Roosevelt/State stop to catch the Red Line underground. The name of the stop where you will get off the Red Line train to transfer to the Brown Line train (on the opposite side of the same platform) is Belmont.

                As another alternative, you can take the bus up Michigan Avenue to Adams, walk one short block west to the Adams/Wabash stop, where you can walk upstairs to catch the elevated Brown Line train all the way to the Western stop. This second option will NOT work from the evening of Friday April 26 through Sunday May 5, due to construction on one of the elevated bridges over the river.

                Other than those dates, either way will work and they're pretty close time-wise. (Using the Red Line would usually be slightly quicker during prime weekday commuting hours when trains are frequent, because the Red Line train runs faster than the Brown Line, but slower at other times when trains are less frequent and you're adding a wait for an extra train to the trip.)

            2. re: nsxtasy

              Hi nsxtasy,

              Just wondering if you've ever had any of the food from Southport Grocery Cafe? I love your posts by the way. I am drooling as I go through the restaurant links. Thanks for taking the time to post them all!

              1. re: TeacherFoodie

                No, I haven't bought any of their packaged food or baked goods. I've only eaten in. Sorry! (And thanks for the kind words!)

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  That's what I meant actually! What do you like there?

                  1. re: TeacherFoodie

                    At brunch, I've particularly enjoyed their sweeter dishes - the bread pudding pancakes (I love those) and the adult pop tarts. I've also liked the savory dishes, although they're not as unusual - sandwiches, salads, etc.

                    They just announced that they will be starting dinner service too, but obviously I haven't been there for dinner yet.

                      1. re: nsxtasy

                        The sweet and savory French toast is a good mix of both, well, sweet and savory!

              2. Don't scratch out Girl and the Goat yet. We went there last Wednesday without a reservation around 8:30 and got a table for two in thirty minutes. Also, they have a bar area that they reserve for walk in clients. It's first come first serve there. If you are not picky with times, I noticed that the restaurant tends to be half empty around 10 or so. It's slightly off prime dining time for Spaniards;).

                1 Reply
                1. re: sunbrace

                  The bar and lounge table areas are first come, first served, but they also have some walk in tables.

                2. If you want to try and dine solo at Alinea, they do try to accommodate solo diners but my understanding is that they often are not able to confirm whether or not you can be accommodated until some time that day. Here is the procedure for requesting a solo dining reservation (taken from their Facebook page): "As fine-dining has a history of honoring single diners we will take those requests via email / phone and try to honor as many as possible. tickets@alinearestaurant.com note 'single diner' in the subject line."

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Gonzo70

                    Another option is to see if another solo diner would split a table for two by checking their Facebook Page.

                    Re: solo diners, I believe they only do 1-2 a night out of 10-20 requests. Priority goes to industry people. So it's a low chance of getting in if you're a non-chef, etc.

                  2. Yusho should be on your radar. They have counter seating facing an open kitchen, and the cocktails are excellent. Reasonably priced for what you get. It is run by a Charlie Trotter veteran cooking Japanese small plates and yakitori, inspired by Asador Etxebarri in Spain.