My wife and I will be visiting Chicago in a few weeks for the first time. I'm not familiar with the restaurant scene at all, so basically I'm a blank slate. Looking for dinner, lunch and interesting places for a drink and some nosh.
I love Italian and am partial to independent restaurants where the focus is squarely on the food, but has a cool scene as well. As a point of reference, when we visit New York we like places like Lupa, Osteria Morini and Stanton Social.
Any help is greatly appreciated.
Chicago has some terrific Italian restaurants. The best in the greater downtown Chicago area are Piccolo Sogno Due, Coco Pazzo, and Café Spiaggia north of the Loop near the Mag Mile; Piccolo Sogno just west of there; the Florentine, Vivere, and tesori in the Loop; and Gioco in the South Loop. If you enjoy dressy, expensive fine dining, Spiaggia is the sole Italian entry in that category. camusman is correct that it helps to know where you're staying and/or spending time, since there are some excellent Italian places away from downtown, including Anteprima in the Andersonville neighborhood on the north side, Campagnola in north suburban Evanston, and Sergio's Cucina Italiana in west suburban Itasca.
Chicago excels in many types of cuisine, and one of the more unusual is at our restaurants serving contemporary Mexican cuisine. Rick Bayless's Topolobampo is excellent; since it's only a few weeks out, it may be difficult to get a dinner reservation, but lunch may still be available. Frontera Grill, its sister restaurant, is also excellent, but they only accept a handful of reservations; arrive 15-20 minutes before they open the doors, otherwise expect waits to be seated of 90-120 minutes or more. Also consider Mexique, in the West Town neighborhood, and Mixteco Grill, in the Lakeview neighborhood.
Someone else recently 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 more 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 (EDIT - closed); 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).