Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Chicago Area >
May 6, 2013 11:09 AM

Impromptu one day trip to Chicago

Something came up last minute and I'll actually be there several days butI'll be flying to Chicago tomorrow and I only have one free day to myself and would like to make the most of it!

What are some must try restaurants that doesn't require a reservation?

What foods are Chicago famous for (besides deep dish pizza and hotdogs)?

Or if there are just any general areas with a good concentration of good food?


  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Which day(s) will you have free to yourself, and which meal(s) are you interested in? Will you be dining solo*? Do you need to eat at prime dining hours (in Chicago, that's roughly 6:30-8:30) or can you consider eating earlier or later? Do you have budgetary restraints or a preference for casual places, or do you prefer expensive fine dining restaurants? Answer those questions and I'm sure we can come up with some specific recommendations, places with great food that you'll be able to get into! I realize your trip is coming up fast (tomorrow!) so if you can answer those questions here, I promise to reply some time later tonight!

    *A note about dining solo - most restaurants are willing to accept reservations for solo diners, but some of them do so only over the phone (not on Opentable), and if you look in Opentable it may show no availability when in fact they would take your reservation by phone.

    >> What are some must try restaurants that doesn't require a reservation?

    Just to understand what you're asking about... Most restaurants don't *require* a reservation, including almost all that *accept* reservations. There are others that don't accept reservations at all. The problem with those that don't accept reservations is that many of the best of them have horrendous waits to be seated, 90-120 minutes or more, which may be an unacceptable way to spend your time during a short visit here. OTOH those lengthy waits can be avoided by going at an off hour, such as mid-afternoon or late at night at Purple Pig, or 15-20 minutes before they open the doors at Frontera Grill.

    >> What foods are Chicago famous for (besides deep dish pizza and hotdogs)?

    Those are the two most famous ones. Also Italian beef sandwiches.

    >> Or if there are just any general areas with a good concentration of good food?

    The greater downtown area - including the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods (Streeterville, River North, West Loop, Greek Town, South Loop) - has a huge concentration of good food. (Is this where you will be staying and/or spending time?)

    For a lot of variety in one spot, the French Market, which is located in the concourse of a commuter train station downtown, has a lot of booths with interesting food.

    For some musts, 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 ( ) - note that some of these places are still pretty easy to snag reservations at, while others book up well in advance:

    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 -

    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. (EDIT: Pizano's also has a location in the Loop, and Malnati's in the South Loop.) 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 - they are 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.) (EDIT: There are also several locations in the Loop.) 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 (EDIT: I meant M. Henrietta), 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. (EDIT: Also open for Sunday brunch.)

    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).

    2 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      Oh my gosh that is really detailed thank you! This reply is probably a bit late but yea I'll be flying solo and my only free day is tomorrow aka the first day I'll get there. I'm staying near the crowne plaza and I'm not too conservative with money but nothing too fancy either?

      Oh and when I say doesn't require a reservation I guess I meant a place where it is possible to get a table without a reservation and hopefully not too long of a wait.

      1. re: AngelSanctuary

        Okay, let's see what information I can give you...

        There are two Crowne Plaza hotels downtown, one in the West Loop at 733 W Madison St, and one just off the Magnificent Mile at 160 E Huron St. I'll try to give you directions from both for various recommendations. And because many of the restaurants are close to the Mag Mile, I'll add a couple of recommendations in the West Loop below.

        I'm looking up reservation availability on Opentable for the places I mentioned above for two people for tonight. That should give you an indication of which ones you should be able to walk in without a reservation, even as a solo. As I noted above, some places don't show availability for solo diners, but are happy to accept them, just not on Opentable. Also, even if you go there without a reservation, if they have availability this morning, you have a good chance of having little or no wait as a walk-in.

        Topolobampo - no availability

        Frontera Grill - if you can dine early, you can usually walk right in. I would advise arriving at 5:00, and you'll likely get seated when they open the doors at 5:20. (5-10 minutes walk from Crowne Plaza Mag Mile, 1.5-mile cab ride from Crowne Plaza West Loop)

        Mexique - AVAILABILITY IS WIDE OPEN (2.0-mile cab ride from either hotel, or take the #66 CTA bus that runs along Chicago Avenue, two blocks north of the Crowne Plaza Mag Mile)

        Salpicon - AVAILABILITY IS WIDE OPEN (10-15 minutes walk from Crowne Plaza Mag Mile, 2.0-mile cab ride from Crowne Plaza West Loop)

        Mixteco Grill - AVAILABILITY IS WIDE OPEN (6-mile cab ride. By public transit from the Crowne Plaza Mag Mile, take the CTA Red Line, change to the CTA Brown Line at Fullerton, take it to the Montrose station; from the Crowne Plaza West Loop, walk to the CTA Brown Line and take it to Montrose)

        North Pond - closed Tuesdays

        Sable - has availability 5:45 or earlier, or 8:15 or later. 5 minutes walk from the Crowne Plaza Mag Mile, 1.5-mile cab ride from the Crowne Plaza West Loop.

        GT Fish & Oyster - availability only at 5:00 or 9:00

        Mercat a la Planxa - AVAILABILITY IS WIDE OPEN. 1 mile south of the Crowne Plaza Mag Mile, 1 mile east of the Crowne Plaza West Loop.

        Purple Pig - waits are horrendous, not recommended for that reason

        In case you're staying at the Crowne Plaza on West Madison in the West Loop, here are a couple more places that I didn't mention above, but are excellent and are within a five-minute walk of your hotel:

        1. La Sardine is a French bistro. The good news is, Tuesdays they have a great special, any three courses for $27.50. The bad news is, they get busy on Tuesdays. They accept reservations only on their own website, so you'd have to use that or call them to determine availability.

        2. Province is another small plates restaurant, serving contemporary cuisine with global influences. AVAILABILITY IS WIDE OPEN.

        Website links: (Topolobampo and Frontera Grill)

        (Sorry I couldn't post this till now; I checked the topic before going to bed, didn't see your reply till this morning!)