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Apr 24, 2013 08:31 PM

Chicago = Overrated?

Am I missing something? Is my palate that off? I’ve enjoyed food in many different countries and different states. I just don’t get it. I moved here from San Diego a year ago and have been trying to immerse myself in all the great restaurants that Chicago has to offer. In my opinion, Chicago has a reputation of a great foodie destination just behind New York and San Francisco. Yet, all the hyped establishments have not lived up to their accolades. I am not trying to start anything, I am simply trying to enjoy great food. Good food does not have to equate to fine dining either. Please offer me some establishments that will fit the bill. Just to give you an idea of some of the establishments that I have visited and enjoyed outside of Chicago and ratings for Chicago restaurants.

Foodie Resume
• French Laundry (Napa) – Great food, plating, and service
• Bazaar (LA) – Inexpensive tasting menu that was awesome
• Toque (Montreal) – Foie Gras was great here
• Jean George’s (NYC) – Best service hands down
• Gotham Bar and Grill (NYC)– Fresh and tasty food
• San Tung (SF) – Dry fried chicken wings and black bean sauce noodles!
• Binkley’s (AZ) – Sloppy joe the size of a dime!
• Ink (LA) – Great innovative food
• Cut (LA) – Wagu steak
• Tacos El Gordo (San Diego) – Adobada tacos
• Lotus of Siam (Las Vegas) – Best thai food in the us!
• Oklahoma Joe’s (OKC) – Best bbq

Yum in Chicago (Would revisit)
• Francesco’s Hole in the Wall – Homey atmosphere with great food with a great price
• Gene and Jude’s Red Hot Stand – Taste better than Hot Doug’s but less selection
• Garrett’s Popcorn – Chicago Mix is weird but damn tasty
• Gino’s East – Not a huge fan of deep dish, but if I were to get one this would be it.
• 90 Miles Cuban Café – Puerco Rostizado had such deep flavors, Ropa Vieja was good too
• Millie’s – Fresh juices and great breakfast
• Nhu Lan – Banh Mi
• Chi Café – Tasty cheap chinese food

Eh (overrated) in Chicago (May revisit)
• Alinea – Good and solid food. Service was good, but not great. I thought Jean George’s (NYC), Bazaar (LA), Gotham Bar and Grill (NYC) were all better.
• Tru – Similar to Alinea except with worse service. For that type of establishment service should be outstanding yet I observed servers rolling their eyes at each other due to waiting for each other to serve.
• Hot Doug’s – Duck fat fries were dry and tasteless, hot dogs were creative but nothing special.
• Big Star – Their tacos although good can’t be compared to San Diego tacos.
• Xoco – San Diego Mexican food is better
• Irazu – 90 Miles was much more flavorful.

Yuck in Chicago (Would not revisit)
• Girl and the Goat – Every dish was so salty that the whole meal was comped. Even if the next meal was free, we wouldn’t go back.
• Big Jones – There was no flavor in any of their dishes and the batter for their friend chicken was too coarse. Too much use of corn meal. I mean Mariano’s fried chicken was better.
• Crisp – Bonchon in NYC or LA is far superior

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  1. You haven't been to many of my favorite venues in Chicago yet (or at least you did not list them), but if you were not wowed by Alinea it is hard to predict what would impress you. Restaurants you did not mention that I love include:

    Grace: Only a few months old, but I already consider it Chicago's second best restaurant (after Alinea). Very different experience than Alinea, but wonderful all around - ambiance, service, food quality and presentation.

    Moto: Similar style to Alinea, but more laid back and approachable. They have improved a lot this past year. I also really enjoy Moto's less expensive, more casual sister restaurant iNG - best value in molecular gastronomy around, awesome staff and you get to experience the miracle berry (makes acidic foods taste sweet, so they make most of their desserts with minimal or no added sugar, but they look and taste like regular desserts).

    Goosefoot: Casual fine dining. Probably the best tasting food in Chicago IMHO. Only knocks are reservations are tough and menu changes infrequently.

    Boka: Wonderful cocktails, food and service. Also would fall into the casual fine dining category.

    Sixteen: Tasting menus that change completely each season and tell the story of the season through the progression of courses. Nice views of Chicago (it is on the 16th floor of Trump Tower), Nice mix of modern and classic techniques. Is well on it's way to becoming one of Chicago;'s top few restaurants.

    Next: Alinea's sister venue; menu changes to completely different theme every four months. Have enjoyed some menus far more than others, but always a fun dining experience.

    El Ideas: Very unique venue with casual dinner party like atmosphere, but amazing food. You can hang out in the kitchen between courses.

    Elizabeth: Farm-to-table at it's best. Chef/Owner Iliana Regan plays a large role in procuring much of the food via hunting, foraging, growing or fishing for much of the ingredients she uses. Communal tables and three different tasting menus that change with the seasons.

    There are also a couple of underground dinner clubs I would consider: Feast & Imbibe and Sous Rising I have attended multiple times and find outstanding.

    A brand new venue (opens this weekend) also has a lot of potential - Kabocha (I loved the executive chef/partner's former venue Bonsoiree). This will feature modern Japanese cuisine with some American and French influence.

    Other venues I like a lot include Yusho, Baume & Brix, Senza, Topolobampo and Mexique. Have heard great things about Embeya and the Lobby, but not yet been to them (though will soon).

    For brunches I love Senza, North Pond, and Jam best. Publican, Bongo Room, M Henry are good options as well.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Gonzo70

      You are correct, I have yet to try out any of your favorites. I look forward to trying them out. Thank you for the recommendations! Fingers crossed!

      1. re: Gonzo70

        The Lobby's food has improved dramatically after the arrival of Lee Wolen. The bread and wine service have also improved. Although it doesn't have the panache of a tasting-menu based fine dining restaurant, the execution is certainly at Michelin one-star level.

        For brunch, I also really like Yoshi's Cafe for its Japanese breakfast on Sunday.

      2. Good post, and to the point.

        For foodie destinations in the US, I'd always rated NYC at the top, followed by SF and LA.

        New Orleans used to figure somewhere up there, but heard there'd been some prominent closures and the dining scene is struggling:

        11 Replies
        1. re: klyeoh

          Thank you Klyeoh! I actually have a trip booked for New Orleans in the next few months. Let's see how it goes and I will report back.

          1. re: imalbert

            I think you would like Longman & Eagle in Logan Square. Here is my trip report from last week for New Orleans:

          2. re: klyeoh

            New Orleans has some terrific food, but does not have anywhere near as much variety of different cuisines as most big cities across the country.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              I can totally see that. But having yet to experience it, I can't add my two cents...yet.

              Any good eats you would recommend? And yes, I will do my research prior to traveling. Just thought I would ask.

              1. re: imalbert

                It's been quite a while since I've been there, but my two favorites were probably the two most famous places in town, and they're both still around - Commander's Palace, and the beignets at Café du Monde. :)

                1. re: nsxtasy

                  Commander's Palace is a must-not-miss: food and history intertwined.

                  Some other standouts:

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    >> Commander's Palace is a must-not-miss: food and history intertwined.

                    So is Café du Monde!

                    Commander's Palace - since 1880
                    Café du Monde - since 1862

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      Thank you klyeoh and nsxtasy for the recommendations.

            2. re: klyeoh

              While I agree completely that New Orleans does not have the diversity of cuisine that the big cities named here do (and remember, NOLA is a relatively small city), it has a much more varied food scene than that thread indicates. So far, none of the mentioned stalwarts have closed, but many, imo, are resting on their laurels. OTOH, there are many new and new-ish places--fine and casual--that are terrific. Plenty of choices for those willing to venture farther afield than the French Quarter.

              But as to Chicago: as someone who travels there 2-3 times a year, I think it is a great food city. I admit that we often return to old favorites so don't try as many different places as we should. We love the three Bayless places we've visited over and over, love Naha, Purple Pig, Smoque. Like nsxtasy, prefer Blackbird at lunch--did not enjoy it at dinner last year nearly as much as we did several years ago. My husband adores Cafe Spiaggia and we both love an occasional splurge at Spiaggia, but we've also enjoyed many other delicious Italian and Spanish restaurants and many casual places of all stripes. Urban Belly is a favorite.

              I've hit a number of clunkers over the years, most often on work travel in which I had little or no input, but in general, it's a question of too many places, only so many meals.

              At any rate, I'm saving this thread so I can try some different places on the next trip in a few months.

              1. re: nomadchowwoman

                I can't wait to go and experience it for myself!

                1. re: nomadchowwoman

                  ncw - you are making me want to go back, so badly!!

              2. I disagree right down the line. But it sounds like you have had very little exposure to the best Chicago restaurants, based on the handful you have named.

                For fine dining, you have named only two restaurants, Alinea and TRU.

                Alinea is one of the very best dinner experiences I've been to in my life, for food, presentation, and service. I would easily choose it over Jean Georges (whose food did not impress me much). And while I've been very impressed with Thomas Keller's places on both coasts, I'd still put Alinea above them as well, although they are different kinds of places. Every place else I've tried - most of the best restaurants in the country, including NYC, LA, and SF, all of which I visit frequently - doesn't even compete, with the sole exception of Joel Robuchon in Vegas.

                TRU is solid, with outstanding service and excellent food. However, I also agree with Gonzo that Grace is even better than TRU.

                We have other fine dining restaurants, some of which are excellent, but these three are the best of them. As Gonzo indicated, since you were not wowed by Alinea or TRU, I can't imagine what would impress you.

                Beyond the high-end fine dining category, there are so many, many more restaurants in Chicago that are simply outstanding, and yet you have named none of them. Some of my favorites include Sable, Inovasi, GT Fish, Deleece, Topolobampo, Michael, Tallgrass, Anteprima, North Pond, Piccolo Sogno and Piccolo Sogno Due, Nightwood, Oceanique, Mercat a la Planxa, Café Iberico, La Sardine, Vivere, Campagnola, Parker's, Mexique, Purple Pig, Boka, Perennial Virant, Vie, Han 202, Edzo's, and Naha. That's a veritable assortment of cuisines, price points, and locations, with the unifying characteristic that all serve terrific food. Zero of which you've mentioned, and all of which you should try. Granted, I've also had disappointing meals at some of our most overhyped restaurants, a couple of which you mention, but I doubt that many of us enjoy every single place we try in *any* city.

                You also haven't even mentioned our terrific breakfast scene - places like Jam, M. Henry, M. Henrietta, Southport Grocery, Bongo Room, Batter & Berries, Walker Brothers, and many others. Our breakfast/brunch-focused restaurants are the best collection of such places anywhere in the country.

                As for the restaurants in other cities, other cities have their faults too. San Francisco has some good places, but overall, it's a significant step down in both quality and variety. For every really great dinner I've had in the SF Bay area and environs, I've also had a stinker at a place that is supposed to be excellent. And there are entire segments (e.g. steakhouses, contemporary Mexican) that they either don't do well or are missing entirely. That whole city is incredibly overrated in my book. New York City, too, has its share of so-so places along with the many great ones; you really need to do your research to avoid the clunkers, but there is a tremendous amount of great food there, making it the only place in the country that can equal (and possibly exceed) Chicago for food. And Los Angeles isn't even in the same ballpark as SF or NYC for many types of food, although it has been improving in recent years.

                If you can't find terrific food of all kinds in Chicago, you're just not looking very hard.

                3 Replies
                1. re: nsxtasy

                  I agree with you on certain points and disagree with you on some too. You are correct that I have more to try and these new experiences may flip my opinion on its head. I also agree that not every dining experience can be a positive one. But I have to disagree with you in regards to my effort. Although I have more to try, the handful that I have tried ranging from fine dining down to the hole in the walls have not lived up to their ratings on Yelp, James Beard, Michelin Star, etc. Yes, you will get dealt a bad hand here and there in NYC, Vegas, LA, etc. but I've never been dealt this many subpar cards.

                  Seeing that my daily job is not a taste tester it will take me some time to visit these other restaurants, but I hope I can be a huge Chicago supporter like you. And thank you for your suggestions!

                  1. re: imalbert

                    >> the handful that I have tried ranging from fine dining down to the hole in the walls have not lived up to their ratings on Yelp, James Beard, Michelin Star, etc.

                    Huh? You've been to almost none of the restaurants that have been given James Beard awards or Michelin stars. I think the only winner of the James Beard award for best chef Great Lakes or best restaurant you have named is Alinea. You haven't mentioned North Pond, Naha, Topolobampo, etc. And you've been to only 2 of the 19 restaurants that were awarded Michelin stars this past year, Alinea and TRU (and only 1 of the 64 with the Michelin Bib Gourmand designation).

                    I don't agree with all the Beard or Michelin designations (and there are some glaring omissions in those lists), but if you actually try a bunch of them (not just one or two), you'll be getting exposure to some truly worthwhile places.

                    As for Yelp, well, the problems with relying on Yelp have been written about in way too many places already.

                    1. re: nsxtasy

                      I was just stating sources I used to find "good" restaurants and the accolades that were bestowed upon them.

                2. If I had just moved to a city and I really wanted to enjoy some of the best food around, I'd start by making a list of food categories I'm interested in, and I'd start researching recommendations of the best places in town, and put them into the appropriate categories on that list. Then I'd use that list for ideas when I'm going out to eat. That way, you can vary the places you're going to - after all, most of us don't want fine dining five times a week, or burgers five times a week, either - and still hit some of the best places in town. For example, you might come up with lists for:

                  fine dining (all)
                  contemporary American
                  small plates
                  other sandwiches
                  ethnic (this might include mainstream cuisines like Italian and French, as well as whichever of the other 100+ nationalities/ethnicities of cuisine are of interest, with subcategories for each)

                  Many of these kinds of cuisine have had extensive discussions here on Chowhound. And if you still have questions about which are the best places of any given type, we'll be happy to answer those questions.

                  This would be a much more structured and usable approach than just coming up with one list of dozens of names of restaurants from Beard, Michelin, or any of us here on Chowhound.

                  19 Replies
                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    That's a very good way to go about it! I have been craving a few things and would really appreciate some suggestions. Where can I get a good NYC style pizza, a white pie more specifically, and a really good burger.

                    Thanks for the help ahead of time.

                    1. re: imalbert

                      Jimmy's Pizza Cafe on Foster does a very competent white pie. But order a whole one rather than taking a reheated slice.

                      1. re: imalbert

                        Since you like two of my favorites, Hole in the Wall and Nhu Lan, let me try to help. Here are some eclectic suggestions.

                        La Chaparrita measures up to San Diego tacos, in my book.
                        Make the trek down south to Zaragoza for birria. Also consider Los Gallos #2 for a bowl of carne en su jugo.
                        Do the Beijing duck dinner with a couple of friends at Sun Wah.
                        Polish homestyle cooking at Smak Tak.
                        Neapolitan style pizza at Pizzeria da Nella.
                        Chopped brisket at Smoque BBQ.
                        Vietnamese at Nha Hang Viet Nam.
                        Other places: Aroy Thai, Vie, Santouka ramen at Mitsuwa, Khan BBQ
                        Hope you find some winners in this thread.

                        1. re: camusman

                          I've been trying to go to Sun Wah for a few times but I keep getting there too late after going to Tank :) Thanks for sharing!

                        2. re: imalbert

                          >> Where can I get a good NYC style pizza, a white pie more specifically, and a really good burger.

                          I can't help you on the NYC-style pizza, other than to note that it's been the subject of other discussions here. (Once I tried deep-dish, I was immediately won over, and swore off the NYC-style pizza I grew up with.)

                          There are a LOT of places with great burgers. I particularly love Edzo's, which now has two locations and was recently named one of the best burgers in the country. And you gotta love owner Eddie Lakin, who came from a fine-dining background but wanted to open a restaurant that would let him eat dinner with his family every night, which is why the original Edzo's location in Evanston is only open till 4 pm.

                            1. re: imalbert

                              Oh, and one of the nice things about Edzo's is that you have lots of choices. You can get their standard beef, or from one of their upscale beef providers. Those who prefer burgers that are smashed down on a flat griddle can choose those, and those who prefer burgers that are plump can choose those. They also have the best milk shakes on the planet, their "five dollar shake for which they charge $4", which buys you not only a nice-sized shake in a cup, but also the leftover refill in the metal container in which it was made. Yeah, they make great fries with lots of choices on those, too!

                              Edzo's etiquette: Don't claim a table until after you have placed your order.

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                I'm getting really excited to try it out! Thanks nsxtasy.

                          1. re: imalbert

                            To help you get those lists started, here are categorizations of places that have been mentioned in this topic so far:

                            Fine dining - Alinea, TRU, Grace, Moto, Goosefoot, Sixteen, Next, El Ideas, Elizabeth

                            Contemporary American - inG, Boka, Baume & Brix, Senza, the Lobby, North Pond, the Publican, Deleece, Michael, Tallgrass, Nightwood, Vie, Naha

                            Italian - Anteprima, Piccolo Sogno, Piccolo Sogno Due, Vivere, Campagnola

                            Tapas - Mercat a la Planxa, Café Iberico

                            French - La Sardine

                            Seafood - Oceanique, Parker's

                            Chinese/French - Han 202

                            Small plates - Sable, Inovasi, GT Fish & Oyster, Purple Pig, Perennial Virant

                            Japanese - Kabocha, Yusho, Mitsuwa

                            Contemporary Mexican - Topolobampo, Mexique

                            Burgers - Edzo's

                            Breakfast/brunch - Jam, Bongo Room, M. Henry, M. Henrietta, Southport Grocery, Batter & Berries, Walker Brothers

                            Pizza (white) - Jimmy's Pizza Cafe

                            Mexican (street) - La Chaparrita, Zaragoza, Los Gallos #2
                            Chinese - Sun Wah
                            Polish - Smak Tak
                            Pizza (Neapolitan) - Pizzeria da Nella
                            Barbecue - Smoque
                            Vietnamese - Nha Hang Viet Nam
                            Thai - Aroy Thai
                            Indo/Pak - Khan BBQ

                            I'd add:

                            Pizza - Lou Malnati's (deep-dish), Pizano's (deep-dish), Giordano's (stuffed)

                            1. re: nsxtasy

                              Awesome list! You've been very helpful. Keep up the good work!

                              1. re: nsxtasy

                                This - is - why - I - LOVE - Chowhound, nsxtasy: the presence of people like you, who give to-the-point, no-nonsense, up-to-the-minute recs :-)

                                1. re: klyeoh

                                  Thanks for the kind words!

                                  Of course, it's funny to read that right after I just posted below that I hadn't been to a place that was asked about. :)

                                  1. re: nsxtasy

                                    Well, I'd have been surprised if you'd been to every one! That's what makes our lives interesting - the prospect that we might stumble on some new culinary gem tomorrow.

                                2. re: nsxtasy

                                  nsxtasy, where would Blackbird fit on this list, or did you leave it off because it's not deserving?

                                  Thinking of dining there next time we're in town for Alinea, is why I'm asking ...

                                  1. re: willyum

                                    My opinion of Blackbird is mixed. The food is consistently delicious, and of course that's the most important thing. Negatives include a very loud room, cramped seating (if you're in the banquettes on the left side of the room, you'll be thisclose to the tables on either side), and small portion sizes. Their prix fixe special makes it a great choice for lunch. For dinner, there are a lot of places I like better overall for contemporary American cuisine in the city, including Naha, North Pond, Sable, Perennial Virant, Acadia, Atwood Cafe, and MK. I mentioned the first three of these in my earliest post in this topic, and I would deem those three worthy of consideration for a first-time visitor to Chicago. I would also consider Blackbird in a trip itinerary, but only for lunch. Hope that makes sense.

                                3. re: imalbert

                                  Not NY style, but New Haven style pizza: Piece in Wicker Park -- very authentic (I lived in NH in a former life).

                                  1. re: masha

                                    Never had New Haven style..what makes it such?

                              2. Did I just sign onto Yelp? It's one to thing to say that you've been unimpressed with your food experiences in Chicago, quite another to declare that Chicago is overrated. Unless of course you've been to all of Chicago's restaurants (or at least all the notable ones) more than once. I'm not going to address your likes and dislikes, because everyone has a right to a subjective opinion (although your selection of Gino's East is a stumper - I'd go to any of Chicago's deep-dish specialists before setting foot into Gino's), but having traveled to nearly all of the great eating cities in the US, in my opinion Chicago holds its own quite well.

                                If you haven't paid attention to your own post, you're comparing one-off experiences at restaurants all over the country with a single city. There are few eating cities where you can even do that credibly, but saying "I had a memorable foie gras dish in Montreal" isn't going to effectively rule out all of Chicago's restaurants for providing a comparable experience. For example, I had a near-religious experience with Longman & Eagle's foie gras waffle on a couple of visits last year. That dish is gone and has been replaced on successive menus with preparations that didn't wow me as much as the waffle one. Does that mean that the restaurant that gave me such a memorable experience is now disappointing me? Hardly. There are other great dishes for me to enjoy and new opportunities to explore as they create new menus. It's the enjoyment of shared experiences that makes restaurants great, not nit-picking single meals.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ferret

                                  Thanks for your input. Yeah, my list could have been better but I wanted to throw it out there and start getting feedback. My sentence summary was just to give you an idea of my palate and not the conclusion to the restaurant or a ruling out factor of Chicago restaurants. I could go in more detail, I could list more restaurants, I could do more but l just wanted to get pointed in the right direction. And I agree that the whole experience defines a restaurant but I was simply stating that my experiences haven't lived up to their reputation based on the public (yelp, awards won, etc).

                                  Others have given me a fair amount of restaurants to try so I'm very excited to see how those experiences stack up.