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Jun 11, 2013 02:12 PM

Visiting Chicago after a year away--what's new?

Hi, I've been a 2-time a year Chicago visitor for about 8 years, but I recently changed jobs and I haven't been in more than a year. I'm going back in a week. I've been to Alinea, L2O when Laurent Gras was there, Blackbird, Longman & Eagle, Balena, Boka, Takashi, Girl and the Goat, and many more. What have you guys been enjoying recently? Are there any new spots? I know about Grace, and I'd love to try it, but I'm not sure I can expense it as I used to with Alinea (those were the days!). I've never been to Graham Elliot. I ate at Avenues when he was there and loved it. Should I try that? What about Little Goat? What else are people really excited about? I can go solo (I'll ditch the colleagues), so that sometimes makes it easier to get in places with a dining bar that are hard to get in without reservations.

Bar recommendations taken also. Anything really fascinating like Violet Hour or Aviary?


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  1. Opinions on Grace are divided, especially when you consider the price and the caliber of other places it aspires to beat. I would direct you to the first couple pages of this LTH thread as I think it does a pretty good job explaining the raves and the disappointments:

    Surprisingly better, in my opinion as someone who also loved Chef Duffy's Avenues, is Elizabeth, which is "new gatherer cuisine" (think Noma-esque) and opened last fall. They are changing their menus and setup on July 11, but for your upcoming trip, there will still be a choice of 3 menus—using the Alinea/Next ticket system—and communal seating.

    Au Cheval opened last February and it's been packed, with the burger winning national accolades (and if you haven't been to Brendan Sodikoff's Maude's Liquor Bar or Gilt Bar—they are awesome for both food and drinks). Sodikoff, himself having worked at The French Laundry and for Alain Ducasse, also opened Bavette's Bar and Boeuf last August, which is a Europeanized steakhouse with good drinks. Jeff Pikus, an Alinea vet has helped Sodikoff open the food side of all these places and is working on other projects for him.

    Yusho, a casual yakitori/grill spot from the former Charlie Trotter's CDC, is a few months older I believe, but also getting good press and popularity. You didn't list Ruxbin, but that might be one of my favorite places for a very tasty and farily creative meal that doesn't cost a lot.

    For real casual fare, Parsons Chicken & Fish (from the Longman & Eagle team) and Fat Rice are both brand new and have long lines already.

    I've not been to Little Goat, but mostly because I've heard it's not as good as Girl & Goat and a step down from other comparable places too.

    Not new, but El Ideas and Schwa are very much in the category of places you seem to like on the more creative cutting edge.

    Finally, my reservations aren't until next month, but I've also heard pretty good things about the current Vegan menu at Next from people who are not even remotely vegetarian and it's usually possible now to find someone selling tickets. Ask to get into the Office if you go to Next or the Aviary.

    2 Replies
    1. re: W42

      Thanks for the recs. A lot here that I haven't heard of, but sounds up my alley. Parsons Chicken and Fish I'd like to try. Au Cheval also sounds great. And I haven't been to either of Sodikoff's restaurants. I think there's plenty to choose from. I'd really like to go to Next. I've been to Aviary and tried to get in from there to Next, but have never succeeded. I guess I can keep trying, but I'm pretty sure they don't take solos.

      What's the Office?

      1. re: MikeFree9

        If you're interested in Next, someone on their Facebook Page may be looking to fill an empty seat. The whole "waiting at Aviary to get into Next" thing didn't work for us when we tried. Our server said it only works sometimes, if it's late into service, and the kitchen hasn't been slammed, and they feel up to it, and it's not a weekend night, etc. Lots of if's.

        The Office is a speakeasy in the basement of the Aviary. It only seats 16 people max. There is a small bar and some couches and tables.

    2. Clearly you enjoy fine dining! And Grace is absolutely wonderful IMHO, one of the two best restaurants in Chicago. Our group had quite a lively discussion after eating there about whether it's better than Alinea; I consider them to be different from each other because Grace doesn't have the unusual presentation techniques of Alinea. If you want to get an idea of what it's like to dine solo at Grace, check out this article:

      What Is It Like to Eat Alone at a Fancy Restaurant? -

      I ate at El Ideas last month and wasn't overwhelmed. Nothing was bad, but nothing wowed me either. Considering the not-so-great inconvenient neighborhood and the BYO feature, it was still very expensive, with quality that doesn't live up to the price. (Compare vs Goosefoot, which is not so convenient but a better neighborhood, with better food and better service at a lower price point.) And El Ideas doesn't accept solo diners.

      Avoid Schwa. They have a habit of cancelling reservations at the last minute (literally just a few hours before dining). Plus it's very difficult to get them on the phone to make that reservation in the first place.

      I haven't been to Elizabeth yet, but have heard good things. Just be aware that the need to purchase tickets in advance means you're stuck if your plans change. And they don't accept solo diners either.

      In the category of "near fine dining" (somewhat expensive but not very expensive, and jackets not required), Naha, North Pond, and Acadia are all worth considering, and it sounds like you haven't been to these...? Carrie Nahabedian of Naha and Bruce Sherman of North Pond have both won James Beard Awards for Best Chef - Great Lakes, and their food is outstanding. Ryan McCaskey's Acadia has been open since the end of 2011. I've dined there twice, loved it once (ordering a la carte), was not impressed the second time (tasting menu). Nahabedian recently opened a second restaurant, Brindille, serving French cuisine, a bit more upscale/creative than the French bistros which have proliferated.

      As for our more casual places, it sounds like you have not been to many our places with an emphasis on "small plates", and they include some of our very best food and most creative chefs, notably GT Fish & Oyster, Sable, Mercat a la Planxa, and Perennial Virant. You don't mention our delicious local specialty of contemporary Mexican cuisine, at places such as Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Mexique, Salpicon, Mixteco Grill, etc. You also haven't mentioned our many breakfast-specialty restaurants, an area in which Chicago excels; consider Jam, M. Henrietta, M. Henry, Bongo Room, and Southport Grocery. For immediate seating, go on weekdays rather than weekends.

      8 Replies
      1. re: nsxtasy

        Actually, I think that Elizabeth does accept solo and odd-numbered diners. They both occasionally post openings for both on their facebook page and you can call them directly and see if they have space (I did the latter once, though I don't know if this will be true after July 11 when they switch away from communal seating and to a single menu).

        El Ideas has also told me they take odd-numbered/solo diners at their communal table, but I've never done this.

        Nsxtasy always warns people away from Schwa because of the difficulty with reservations, so I should say why it's worth the trouble. Schwa might seem like a divey party but the food might be the best in Chicago and can go toe-to-toe with the great restaurants of the world. My meals at Schwa have never been quite as amazing as Alinea, but I know others who are very well-traveled and think it Schwa is actually better.

        1. re: W42

          >> Actually, I think that Elizabeth does accept solo and odd-numbered diners.

          I've heard that they don't, except occasionally when they have last-minute availability. And from the FAQ on their website: "Tickets are available on the website for parties of 2 or 4. For other party sizes, please call the restaurant at 773-681-0651 or email us at"

          Also note that their policies may be changing, since they have announced that they will offer conventional two-tops and four-tops starting July 11.

          >> El Ideas has also told me they take odd-numbered/solo diners at their communal table, but I've never done this.

          When I ate there last month, they strongly discouraged us when we attempted a reservation for three people. (I don't really blame them, considering the limited seating - 24, I think - and the single seating each evening.)

          >> Nsxtasy always warns people away from Schwa because of the difficulty with reservations

          I think it's important for folks to know when there are unusual circumstances at any restaurant. It's unfortunate when a recommendation is presented without mentioning that your carefully-made plans may be for naught if they cancel at the last minute, as they have done with many, many diners (it's not a "once in a blue moon" phenomenon). Similarly, I post advice about avoiding other surprises at many restaurants - when to go so you will or won't experience long waits to be seated, options to choose or avoid communal seating, etc. When you have more information about places you're considering, you'll be able to make a more informed decision.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            I was Schwa-ed once. I had a reservation during a very busy food convention and they canceled on me day of. This was after a nice conversation on the phone when I made the reservation even listening to their whole conversation about weed when I was "on hold." They said they'd get me in anywhere and then couldn't because of the convention. That's total weedhead bullshit and I have no interest in trying again, unless I have some sort of a guarantee. I'm sure the food's good, but there's no shortage of good food.

            I'm interested in Elizabeth. I'll try to see if I can get in. I'd like to try El Ideas. I couldn't get in last time I was here. I've been to North Pond, of course. Love it for Brunch. I've been to GT and thought it was good, but I don't need to go back this trip. I've also tried Topolobampo and Frontera. I love the mole at Topo, so I could always do that...and I think they're opened mondays which is a plus. You didn't mention the wiener phenomenon, which I've also explored a bit. I couldn't write everything down, but I've been around the block! Thanks a lot for the recs and sharing my ideas on Schwa. I've never written about it before, but it still burns a bit.

            1. re: MikeFree9

              Elizabeth has tickets for a party of 1 on the 21st (Friday) and 22nd (Sat) right now, if you are staying in Chicago that long.

              Looks like El Ideas has some availability next week, looking at their site:

              Seats to fill:

              Wednesday, 6/12 at 7:30 p.m. **
              Friday, 6/14 at 7:30 p.m. – party of 4 or communal
              Tuesday, 6/18 at 7:30 p.m.
              Wednesday, 6/19 at 7:30 p.m.

              Topolo is still closed Mondays:

              Lunch hours: 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday to Friday

              Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5:30 to 10:30 Friday and Saturday.

          2. re: W42

            El Ideas also occasionally tweets that they need someone to fill a seat w/ a solo diner:

            1. re: kathryn

              Yeah, I looked on Elizabeth. I arrive Sunday and leave Wednesday, though, so no availability those dates. I was just about to email El Ideas about Tuesday when I saw someone had responded. Hopefully they can take me. I'll see what they say

              1. re: MikeFree9

                I believe that Elizabeth is only open Tuesday through Saturday, anyway, so Tuesday would have been your only opportunity.

                El Ideas is also only open Tuesday through Saturday.

                Same for Grace.

                1. re: MikeFree9

                  You may want to call El Ideas rather than just emailing. They are good about answering the phone and returning voice mails. Making a personal connection may enhance the chances that they make space for you.