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Three Generations/Four Days in Chicago

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My in-laws, hubby, two teenagers and I will be in Chicago for four days.
As you might imagine, it could be difficult to please everyone, but like moms everywhere - I'm going to try!

In-laws have never been to Chicago. They have heard about Lawry's and Carson's Ribs. I haven't been to Chicago in years and probably was last at Lawry's 25 years ago. Do they still do the whole service with the silver cart, carve at the table, etc.? My MIL would like that. How is the food these days? As for Carson's, never been, any feedback?

Husband and teenagers want pizza (Lou Malnati's), hot dogs (Portillo's)
and Italian Beef (Al's). Any other suggestions?

My only food request is Garrett's popcorn. I will gladly go along with the rest of the crew for everything else.

We will be staying Downtown and are also on the lookout for good breakfast spots.

Also looking for a casual Italian place for dinner.

We will hit the usual tourist spots - Field Museum, Art Institute, Hancock Building, etc. and take a boat tour. Any suggestions for lunches along the way near these landmarks are much appreciated.

Thank you so much in advance for any and all help that you might offer! :0)

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  1. You really can't go wrong with the Bongo Room for breakfast. The South Loop location would be the most convenient for you and is a shortish walk to the Field Museum. There's also a Lou Malnati's in the South Loop that we've visited for lunch when out about about at the Art Institute.

    1 Reply
    1. re: jes7o

      Will definitely try out Bongo Room. Thanks!

    2. >> In-laws have never been to Chicago. They have heard about Lawry's and Carson's Ribs. I haven't been to Chicago in years and probably was last at Lawry's 25 years ago. Do they still do the whole service with the silver cart, carve at the table, etc.? My MIL would like that. How is the food these days?

      Lawry's is still there, and they still do the spinning salad bowl, etc. But it's really an old-fashioned place. Many, many better places have opened in the past 25 years!

      >> As for Carson's, never been, any feedback?

      Carson's has barbecue, including barbecue ribs. I think they're excellent, but there is no consensus on this. Regardless, while Chicago has plenty of barbecue places, I wouldn't include any in a brief first visit here, because there are so many other types of food that we do well.

      >> Husband and teenagers want pizza (Lou Malnati's), hot dogs (Portillo's) and Italian Beef (Al's).

      Those are all good choices. But you can save yourself some convenience by getting your Italian beef while you're at Portillo's; theirs are very good and an excellent representation.

      >> We will be staying Downtown and are also on the lookout for good breakfast spots.

      Where, downtown? The neighborhoods comprising "downtown Chicago" sprawl over an area three miles long, north to south. If you're around the north end of the Mag Mile (North Michigan Avenue), the Original Pancake House on East Bellevue is a good choice. If you're in the South Loop, Bongo Room is excellent. Aside from Bongo Room, our very best and most creative breakfast-focused restaurants are located away from downtown. See specific suggestions below.

      >> Also looking for a casual Italian place for dinner.

      There are many excellent ones. Again, where downtown? If you're in the Loop, I recommend Vivere, tesori, and the Florentine. If you're in the South Loop, Gioco. If you're near the Merchandise Mart (just across the river from the northwest corner of the Loop), Coco Pazzo, Piccolo Sogno Due, and a little west, Piccolo Sogno. Near the north end of the Mag Mile, Café Spiaggia. Any of these is worth including in your itinerary.

      >> We will hit the usual tourist spots - Field Museum, Art Institute, Hancock Building, etc. and take a boat tour. Any suggestions for lunches along the way near these landmarks are much appreciated.

      These lunches would be an opportunity to include Portillo's and deep-dish. Portillo's on Ontario is near the Hancock. For deep-dish, Pizano's on Madison is near the Art Institute, Pizano's on State is near the Hancock, Malnati's at 8th and State is near the Field Museum, and Malnati's at State and Rush is near the Hancock. (Pizano's is similar to Malnati's, so if you do pizza when you're visiting the Art Institute, I'd walk two blocks to Pizano's on Madison rather than eight blocks to Malnati's at 8th and State.) As already noted by jes, Bongo Room at Wabash and Roosevelt (12th) would work as a brunch type place near the Field.

      Our "small plates" restaurants Sable and GT Fish are near the Hancock, and Mercat is near the Art Institute, and are open for lunch. There's also the Purple Pig, which is near the Hancock; for lunch, you can avoid the crowds and long waits by going 1:30 or later, or arriving just before they open the doors at 11:30.

      As for additional suggestions, I think a stop at one of our contemporary Mexican restaurants is worth it on even a short itinerary. See more below.

      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 ):

      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. (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, 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).

      1 Reply
      1. re: nsxtasy

        Wow! I can't thank you enough for all of this fantastic information. I'm going to take all of your suggestions and we'll discuss them with everyone. Will tell the in-law's about the newer steakhouses (compared to Lawry's) and see what they think. Really appreciate all the time you took to answer and will definitely report back when we return. Thanks again!!!

      2. As Nsxtasy has suggested, Lawry's and Carson's are well past their heydays. I've not eaten in either in over 20 years. But, if it's where your in-laws have heart set on eating, you may want to indulge them.

        In any event, it sounds like they are meat and potatoes types, so if you don't go to Lawry's or Carsons, you probably should include a restaurant that features steaks, etc. You've not indicated your budget so, if high-end steak houses are within your reach, consider David Burkes or Gibsons, to indulge their red-meat tastes. If that's too high-end, then Wild Fire is a more moderately priced restaurant with lots of steaks and other red meat options (ribs too, if I recall correctly).

        As to casual Italian, you might want to consider La Scarola, which is an old-school Italian restaurant with reasonable prices and good food. (Some of Nsxtasy's Italian suggestions, while serving excellent food, do not have what I would call a "casual" vibe -- e.g., Tesori, Vivere, and the Piccolo Sogne restaurants, which have good food but perhaps "fancier" than you have in mind. Casual attire yes, but not "casual" in terms of atmosphere.)

        It would probably help us guide you if we knew where you live and the price range that you had in mind. For example, while Nsxtasy is certainly correct that Chicago is not particularly standout when it comes to ribs, if you have your heart set on eating them because you can't get them in your neck of the woods, then we can certainly recommend some rib joints.

        3 Replies
        1. re: masha

          ^^^ Excellent advice from masha!

          1. re: masha

            Thanks Masha. "Old School" is definitely an appropriate term for our needs. My in-laws absolutely fit this category, so La Scarola might fit the bill.
            Carson's was a pick because they used to have a restaurant here in Florida that closed a while back. We used to eat there frequently. Of course that was at least 10 years ago!
            Lawry's was a request just for the show - the silver carts, carving at the table, etc. know the in-laws would enjoy that type of thing, but if the food is really awful, it doesn't make sense.
            If it is reasonably good, however, I'd like to indulge them. My husband and I can always come back to Chicago for a trip more suited to our "foodie" tastes, but this time it's all about them - a bit touristy.
            But along the way, you have all made some great suggestions that we will surely take advantage of! Thanks :)

            1. re: boyzmom11

              >> Lawry's was a request just for the show - the silver carts, carving at the table, etc. know the in-laws would enjoy that type of thing, but if the food is really awful, it doesn't make sense.
              If it is reasonably good, however, I'd like to indulge them.

              I went there a couple of years ago and the food was reasonably good. Especially for those who enjoy prime rib, as that is their specialty and they do a good job with it.

              It's not normally one of my top recommendations - IMHO there are many better, more creative/unusual, and more contemporary places - but if that's what you think they would enjoy, then by all means keep it in your itinerary!

          2. Imho Carsons was never good for ribs. Chicago is justifiably famous for ribs, but the best are out in the neighborhoods on the South and West sides. Everything in the downtown area is "watered down,"

            Chicago also has fabulous and authentic Mexican food. You can stay on the North side and get "white people's Mexican" from Rick Bayless' places, or you can go over to Pilsen (the Mexican neighborhood) and enjoy the same dishes for pennies on the dollar. There's also a wonderful Mexican-American museum in that area.

            Back when Jackie Shen was cooking at Lawry's the food was wonderful, but that's been some time. There's got to be better places in beefy Chicago for prime rib!

            4 Replies
            1. re: ChefJune

              Carson's still makes excellent barbecue ribs. However, different people enjoy different styles of barbecue, so it all depends on what you prefer. Those who enjoy slow-cooked barbecue made by frequently basting the ribs with barbecue sauce as they cook will probably be very happy with the ribs at Carson's. Those who enjoy barbecue that uses a dry rub rather than barbecue sauce, and has more of a smoked taste, may prefer the ribs at Smoque. Those who prefer "fall off the bone" ribs might prefer those at Gale Street Inn. And those who prefer the fattier spare ribs rather than baby backs can find them at Honey 1. Different strokes!

              Regarding Lawry's, it's been many years since Jackie Shen was at Lawry's. Any opinion about their prime rib should be based on a relatively recent visit, such as mine, rather than speculation about how it might (or might not) have changed from many years ago. If anyone else has actually dined there in the past few years, by all means chime in with your opinions!

              As for Rick Bayless, he is one of several creative and inventive chefs serving delicious contemporary Mexican cuisine in Chicago. He's not the only one, but he is the best known for several reasons, and not just his longevity since opening Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in the 1980s. Bayless takes his staff to Mexico every year to investigate new dishes and ingredients; as a result, his cuisine is contemporary Mexican, similar to what the inventive chefs in Mexico City and other big cities south of the border are creating. He has influenced and mentored an entire generation of top chefs here in Chicago. Just to cite a single example of his influence, check out the testimonial by Raul Arreola, founding chef of Mixteco Grill and the newly-opened Fat Rosie's, at www.fatrosies.com/meet-the-chef Those are legitimate reasons why Bayless gets so much press. IMHO he deserves it for the role he has played here.

              That being said, his are not the only restaurants in Chicago turning out delicious, creative contemporary Mexican cuisine. There are others that are also worth a visit, including not only the BYO Mixteco Grill in Lakeview, but also Carlos Gaytan's French-influenced Mexique in West Town, Priscilla Satkoff's Salpicon in Old Town, Eusebio Garcia's Amelia in Back of the Yards, and Jose Luna's Salsa 17 in Arlington Heights.

              There are also plenty of restaurants here serving conventional Mexican cuisine - enchiladas, tacos, etc. Nothing wrong with those too! However, because such fare is found in every American city, those visiting from elsewhere and looking for something different from what they experience back home may be better off trying our contemporary Mexican restaurants. Take a look at the menus on their websites to get a better understanding of what they offer, and then decide for yourself where you'd most enjoy dining!

              www.rickbayless.com/restaurants
              www.mixtecogrill.com
              www.salpicon.com
              www.ameliaschicago.com
              www.salsa17grill.com

              1. re: ChefJune

                My husband and I went to Lawry's 2 summers ago. He is a prime rib freak and wanted to go someplace that specialized in it for his birthday. The dining rooms were very pretty, and the food was very good. I must admit that it is pretty old fashioned. The waitresses wear little hats and matching uniforms and were a little brusque with us. I wasn't a fan of the yorkshire pudding that comes with the prime rib, but the meat itself was very tasty and well cooked.

                1. re: Oboegal

                  Thanks - by that definition, the in-laws will love it! And we won't suffer because a good prime rib is always welcomed. Thanks! :)

                  1. re: boyzmom11

                    I would second the recommendation for Wildfire. It is not only reasonably priced, but, while it is contemporary (in contrast to Lawry's) it is modeled after a 40s/50s steakhouse. The ambiance and food (including prime rib) and atmosphere and price point should hit the spot perfectly.

              2. Lawry's actually has a decent lunch. Hand carved sandwiches.

                1. I would suggest getting on those reservations quickly. You have three nights in the city it appears. I would suggest hitting Lawry's on night one, go to Scarola (I really like it there) on the second and circle back to Wildfire on the third to cover the ribs and a nice steak--they'll love it, wood-fire smell when you walk in and classic casual supper club feel. A good story might be they just re-did the original Carson's restaurant downtown and it just lost something and isn't great (which in my humble opinion it likely lost just after opening).

                  I think you're right, save our other great cuisines for when you can enjoy it. Nothing worse than having to manage family through a meal that they wouldn't normally be into.

                  1. Lawry's and Gibson and beef, oh my, but there is a meat option you might not have thought of---a Brazilian churrasqueria. Fogo de Chao has the best meat but Brazzaz offers a wider variety of extras. For a prix fixe of about $50 pp you have a salad bar you could live on for a week, then costumed waiters bring an endless parade of 12-15 cuts of meat to your table, ad lib. It's mostly beef but also pork, chicken, sausage, and (at Brazzaz) shrimp. Plenty of extras too. There is something nice about having people urging you to have just a little more filet mignon.Both of these places have websites with pictures.

                    1. A fun place for a special breakfast is on the lower level of the Hotel Sheraton, LB's Bistro and Patisserie. For a fixed price of just over $20 pp you get ad lib access to all the chef stations where they will customize your omelets, crepes, pancakes, waffles, eggs any style in any possible combo etc plus there's fruit, pastry, everything. Who knew you could eat that much for breakfast?