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quick trip report

I was in for a short visit from San Francisco, and didn't get to choose as many restaurants as I'd have liked. As a result, we had a lot of traditional food and overpriced watered-down drinks close to downtown. It was still a lot of fun.

The good:
Little Goat Diner: the best hip meal we had. My green onion pancake with pork belly and shredded cabbage was great. Demerits for serving a trendy teapot with a tea bag of Earl Grey, me having to ask for milk, which was brought in a non-functional espresso cup, and no spoon. Baked goods looked great. Go early for lunch. It was enjoyable at 11 am, crazy busy and loud by noon.

The cafe at the Art Institute serves perfect macchiato and $1.79 bags of Garrett's popcorn. With outlets to recharge your devices. The new wing of the museum is spectacular. I could have spent the whole week there. I'm not sure why there's a ham by the cafe though.

Nothing was open Sunday for dinner downtown or for drinks after. I had time to kill between the Art Institute closing and Book of Mormon, so I ended up in the Palmer House lobby, ordering off the Lockwood menu.

This has to be one of the best hotel lobbies in the country. My old-fashioned was excellent. Pea soup was lovely. My Mosel Riesling and foie gras were only so so, the latter served too cold. Against my better instincts, I took the advice of my server and got an out-of-season berries and peaches dessert. It was tasty and gorgeous, but I should have known. Next time, stick to cocktails.

We tried to get drinks at Gilt Bar, but they'd closed, so we wound up at Mercadito, which serves till midnight or so. Great margaritas. Decent flautas and really luscious albondigas. Charging $5 for two salsas is preposterous though. Discount to industry folks.

Ming Hin was decent if not stellar for dim sum. It's an easy ride on the El, and a beautiful place with attentive service. Char siu bao was good. A pan-fried scallion dumpling(?) was our favorite.The egg yolk bun and siu mai only so so. Shrimp and chive dumplings were gummy. Inexpensive, and the porridge and whole fish served to the next table looked great. They're open till 2 am 7 days, I think. I'd return, though for dinner.

My favorite meal was lunch at Ann Sather's on a cold rainy day. Cinnamon rolls as big as your head. I had the Swedish savory plate with roast duck, lingonberry jam, excellent sausage, spaetzle, and a meatball. My friend had the Swedish pancake. We went into a food coma after; maybe I didn't need that Swedish coffee. Inexpensive, wholesome atmosphere with beautiful storybook murals. A time warp, but a delicious one.

I dropped in at the Adagio tea store, having ordered their splendid Infinitea brewer from them online, and tasted a few teas, picked up old and new flavors, chatted with knowledgeable staff, and even enjoyed a properly whisked bowl of matcha. I'm glad to know their in-person experience is as positive as their website.

By comparison, I also ordered a matcha latte at Argo tea O'Hare, and managed to get it slightly less tarted up.

We went to Shaw's for seafood, another timewarp in a fabulous wood-paneled bar. Though leaving I saw the jazz band in the oyster bar and wish we'd sat there. Old school, crazy expensive, weak-ish drinks, older male waiters, and of course, a bread basket with flatbread. We enjoyed a few stone crab claws ($8 a piece), grilled fish, their shaved salad (superb!), okay gumbo, decent lobster bisque, and just for good measure, a perfect shrimp cocktail like I remember from special occasions when I was a little girl. And then got the dessert sampler, the best part of which was the fudge sauce. I enjoyed the whole thing. Just wish someone else was paying and I'd gotten the king crab.

I really wanted to get to Frank N Dawgs or UB, but ultimately loved my last meal in town, a Polish at Al's Italian Beef.

Miller's Pub: was meeting a friend and needed a place we could relax and talk. Super service, not expensive, lots of beers on draft. And the ubiquitous bread basket (best roll: cinnamon). Roast lamb with mint jelly and spinach pie. What's not to like?

El Mariachi: party for a friend. Margaritas big enough to wash your hair in, made with mix in plastic jugs. Okay enchiladas. Great private space in the back with two levels.

to the ridiculous:
We went to Mastro's for a late snack because it was close, and she wanted to try the French onion soup. $20 martinis?! A talented band playing much too loudly in a room with a few expense account couples, who despite the crazy prices, managed to be trashed. My $9 glass of red from Barossa Valley was the best thing in the place. A side of Brussels sprouts was inedible, charred and greased beyond recognition. Tartare was fairly tasteless. The broth on the soup wasn't bad though.

Gripe: Midwestern restaurants need to stop selling overpriced, mediocre California wines. Markups were obscene ($15 a glass for $15 bottles). One of my companions told me about southern Illinois wineries.

Cocktails were even worse. If you're going to charge more than $8, it better be strong or have fresh fruit juice. $12.50, $14, and $20 for bad drinks. I hope you're at least collecting a lot of taxes from the suckers who pay this.

Did I mention everyone was ridiculously nice? I gained at least two pounds just from refills on the bread baskets.

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report.
    I agree that Mastro's sucks. Glad you had lots of good stuff elsewhere.

    1. Thanks for posting your report. Very helpful!

      For next time:

      >> Nothing was open Sunday for dinner downtown or for drinks after. I had time to kill between the Art Institute closing and Book of Mormon

      Although some upscale restaurants in the Loop are closed on Sundays, most are open; the best of these include Atwood Café (contemporary American), Petterino's (steakhouse), tesori (Italian), Aria (pan-Asian), the Florentine (Italian), Park Grill (American), and Henri (French bistro).

      2 Replies
        1. re: delk

          Thank you both. I had a Google map with lots of places pinned in West Loop but didn't see much walking around. It helps if you know where to look. The Art Institute coat check attendant suggested Bennigans : )

          I did walk by Tesori, which was open at 5. The show starts at 7:30.

      1. In River North, both Sable and GT Fish & Oyster have excellent cocktail programs. I would have tried the program at Bub City as well (Paul McGee). In the Loop, I've also heard good things about the bar program at Acadia.

        1. The $20 martini is not a Chicago standard, it's more of a steak house standard. Ditto for markups on wine. I think there's a consensus on Mastro's being a bad choice. There are many better options in the area.

          5 Replies
          1. re: ferret

            FWIW, Mastro's is a chain consisting of three restaurants in Arizona, six in California, one in Las Vegas, and one in Chicago. Since most of their locations are in luxury/vacation communities, I doubt that their food and beverage pricing in Chicago is any different. And I hope we can all agree that it makes no sense to jump to conclusions about "Midwestern restaurants" based on a single Chicago outpost of a restaurant chain which started in Scottsdale and most of whose locations are in California, LOL!

            Although there is no consensus on the best steakhouse in Chicago, I have yet to hear anyone make that claim for Mastro's. The places I've heard most frequently nominated for that honor are David Burke's Primehouse and Chicago Cut Steakhouse, although others have their fans too, including Joe's, Gibson's, and Morton's.

            1. re: ferret

              All the cocktails and wine lists at the restaurants I mentioned were overpriced. I realize there are probably better drinks in town at places that specialize, but I was surprised to pay so much more than in San Francisco.

              I don't typically go to steakhouses or places that cater to tourists/expense accounts, but my comments about drinking were not based solely on Mastro's. It was just the most egregious example.

              1. re: Windy

                Again, you were eating like a tourist and visiting spots that are mostly catering to conventioneers (Shaws, Mastros and the Palmer House). If I was in San Francisco and ate at the Fairmont and some high end steakhouses I'd complain about the pricing too.

                (And I presume you weren't claiming that Miller's or El Mariachi were included in the high price category.)

                1. re: ferret

                  Which is exactly what my post says.

                  Shaw's is more like Tadich than the Fairmont. I regret anyone anywhere paying too much for weak drinks. Especially tourists.

                2. re: Windy

                  >> I don't typically go to steakhouses or places that cater to tourists/expense accounts

                  But that's where you spent your time in Chicago, and that's why you reached such an inaccurate conclusion. Try going to steakhouses or places that cater to tourists in San Francisco (say, around Union Square or Ghirardelli Square), and you will find pricing similar to what you found in Chicago. What you erroneously ascribe to "Midwestern restaurants" is, in fact, typical of such places in luxury/vacation communities elsewhere around the country, including San Francisco, Scottsdale (home to three Mastro's), Beverly Hills (home to two), etc.

                  Similarly, if you check out residential neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs away from the hotels in River North and the Magnificent Mile, you'll find food and beverage prices similar to those in residential neighborhoods in San Francisco away from its big tourist areas. Next time you come to Chicago, we would be happy to make recommendations for you of places in those areas, where prices tend to be more affordable. (There are actually some affordable places in downtown Chicago, too, but you have to seek them out, you are not likely to stumble upon them when wandering around River North and the Mag Mile. Miller's Pub, which you visited, is one such example.)