One dinner in Chicago... Where should it be?
I am visiting Chicago for the first time, and am only going to be able to choose one meal while I am there, so I want it to be a good one! I'm partial to Asian, African, Spanish, and interesting American food, so I'd love a suggestion along those lines. If you had to pick one place for one dinner, where would you go?
Someone else posted that they will be in Chicago for 36 hours on a first visit to Chicago. Here's what I posted there ( www.chow.com/topics/892329#7924778 ) and maybe it will give you some ideas:
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).
So, as you see by nsxtasy's post there is a TON of things that we can talk about. To give me an idea of what you'd really like, I traced your one and only post on the Boston Board to what I'd consider an American Gastro Pub and since you love it, may I suggest something similar but different. My favorite restaurant in Chicago right now that serves truly great gourmet interpretations of a diner and fantastic cocktails and beer is Au Cheval on W Randolph. All I can say is the best (imho) hands-down bacon cheeseburger anywhere, a decadent pork chop with foie gras, and even some matza ball soup to wash it down. Oh yeah, the mellifuille (no idea on that spelling) for dessert is also great. No reservations and it seems hipster-ish, but the staff is absolutely great and will get you a spot.
The one restaurant that says "Chicago" to me, more than any other, is Sabatino's in Irving Park. If I had to pick one meal in the city that would be it. BUT NOT BECAUSE OF THE FOOD! The menu is pretty standard fare Italian American classics like veal saltimbocca, lasagna with ricotta, etc. All done well but nothing that will blow you away.
No, the reason to go to Sabatino's is because it's a time warp to an old-school Chicago that largely doesn't exist anymore. You walk in and the first thing you see is a dimly lit wood paneled bar, the kind of place where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin might share a pitcher of martinis. Right next to it is a dimly lit piano lounge where longtime customers are welcome to play. The dining room is - you guessed it - dimly lit, and packed with locals who grew up in the neighborhood. You have musicians strolling around singing in Italian and playing the violin for god's sake.
When the entree arrives, you won't be hungry because it was preceded by multiple free appetizers like breadsticks, pizza bread and spaghetti with marinara. You will try to finish your meal and then give up. The check will arrive, you'll pay it with pocket change and waddle out of the place feeling like all is right with the world as long as places like Sabatino's still exist.
Long live Sabatino's.
Glad you like Sabatino's, I've been once and really thought is was average at best all around. Every single city in the US has this restaurant so I would totally disagree with the recomendation. As you indicate, you don't go because of the food you go because of nostalgia. As such, for a visitor to our wonderful city with some of the best dining in the world, there is absolutely no reason to go there.
We are largely in agreement about the food at Sabatinos, but I must disagree with the statement "Every single city in the US has this restaurant". Not sure where you are from or where the OP is from, but the true old-school Italian red sauce place is a vanishing breed everywhere I have ever lived in the US. There are lots of chains and pretenders, but the real deal is getting harder to find.
Anyway, when someone asks me about having one meal in Chicago, I figure the question is about a lot more than just the food. I feel like I am "in Chicago" when I'm eating an an old-school place packed with neighborhood locals; when I'm at a trendy North side place and everyone in there is a transplant, it just feels like Anycity, USA, even if the food is amazing.
I agree with jbontario. There are old school red-sauce Italian restaurants like Sabatino's in every city in the country, and that is still as true today as it was decades ago (although now every city also offers many more choices as alternatives to old-school Italian). To quote a post here which sounds to me like a perfect description of Sabatino's, "it just feels like Anycity, USA". And on top of that, the food is anything BUT amazing. Chicago has neighborhood places (if someone says they're looking for that), and longtime historical places (if someone says they're looking for that), that are worth considering because they are turning out amazingly delicious food, but Sabatino's isn't one of them. As jbontario aptly summarizes, "for a visitor to our wonderful city with some of the best dining in the world, there is absolutely no reason to go there."