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Jun 18, 2013 08:21 AM

Beyond Hockey - recs for Beantown father/daughter road trip?

Bostonian and huge fan of ChiTown food scene needs recs for weekend trip with teenage daughter, a budding chef/foodie. Friday dinner will be later (9 PM?), more casual. Sat dinner - fancier ok. Have done Alinea before; daughter reports desire to attend college so probably not that $$$$ level. Staying in Gold Coast. Not sure how bad Chi scene is for getting reservations 3-4 days out. Appreciate any/all input. Never know - good karma for visitors may help 'Hawks...

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  1. Since your trip is on short notice, you'll be limited to places with availability, assuming you aren't interested in spending hours of your time waiting to be seated without a reservation. Fortunately, there are many, many great places that don't fill up. And many popular places may not have availability at peak hours, but if you're flexible on time - if you can dine at 6 pm or earlier, or 9 pm or later - you'll have lots more choices too. The other good news is that most of our nicer restaurants accept reservations on where you can see availability of all restaurants for any given time with a few clicks on your keyboard/phone. I'll start with restaurant recommendations first, then at the end I'll tell you how availability looks on Opentable for this Saturday night.

    If I had a short trip here on short notice, here's what I would pick, starting with the most "must have" experience and working down from there:

    1. Alinea. You've done this, but I just thought I'd mention it.

    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 in the Gold Coast. Pizano's has a location on State north of Chicago Ave. This works for lunch or dinner. They don't accept reservations, but 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, and they'll seat you when it's ready, so it sort of works like a reservation.

    3. Contemporary Mexican. This is something you don't get back home and isn't found many other places in the States, either. Rick Bayless's Topolobampo and Frontera Grill fill their reservations well in advance, but on short notice, you might find availability at Salpicon (which is in the Gold Coast) or maybe Mexique (two miles away). Mixteco Grill is further away (five miles north) and also excellent, and BYO.

    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.

    5. Breakfast/brunch. Chicago has a huge selection of breakfast-focused restaurants. Unfortunately, our best and most creative places (Jam, M. Henrietta, Bongo Room, Southport Grocery) are some distance from the Gold Coast. The Original Pancake House on East Bellevue is a great choice near where you're staying. None of these accept reservations; good places for Sunday brunch that accept reservations include Café des Architectes (in the Sofitel, near the Gold Coast) and North Pond (see below).

    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. It's also a great choice 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. 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. Province offers contemporary global cuisine. Perennial Virant is contemporary American. All 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. Another good place for tapas, but which does not accept reservations and sometimes has long waits, is Café Iberico, which is walking distance from the Gold Coast.

    8. Finer dining. It's not clear whether or not you're looking for a very nice, upscale restaurant, not quite as expensive as Alinea or other expensive places that run over $200/pp including moderate alcohol and tax/tip, but say in the $100/pp range (obviously less for your no-alcohol teenage daughter). If so, in addition to North Pond (see above), my top recommendation is Naha, which I have found to be consistently excellent. Boka and MK are also very good, but Naha is even better. I'm a bit hesitant to recommend these, just because some of the other recommendations above (such as deep-dish and Mexican) are foods you can't get at home, and our small plates restaurants are pretty darn special, but our finer dining restaurants are excellent too.

    Okay, now let's look at availability on Opentable. I'll look up Saturday night, which is always the toughest reservation to snag; late Friday night or Sunday brunch or Sunday night will undoubtedly be easier. Here's availability of tables for two for the places I've mentioned above that accept reservations:

    Salpicon - availability is wide open
    Mexique - no availability
    Mixteco Grill - availability is wide open
    North Pond - no availability
    Sable - 5:45 or earlier, 9:15 or later
    GT Fish & Oyster - no availability
    Mercat a la Planxa - 6:45 or earlier, 8:45 or later
    Province - availability is wide open
    Perennial Virant - 6:45 or earlier, 7:45 or later
    Naha - 6:00 or earlier, 8:30 or later
    Boka - 5:15 or earlier, 9:15 or later
    MK - 5:30, 9:30 or later

    As you can see, there are some places already booked up, but others where you can find availability even now (and again, you'll find even more availability for meals other than your dinner on Saturday). And you can also find great food at our breakfast and pizza places without reservations.

    Have a great trip, and feel free to ask more questions!

    Website links:

    1. For Saturday my favorite of the fancy but not uber expensive venues for which reservations usually are available on short notice would be Boka (Contemporary American), Elizabeth (farm-to-table, foraged emphasis with modern techniques and artistic presentations) and the Lobby (also Contemporary American). MK might also be worth considering. Naha and Acadia are also loved by a lot of people, but personally I have not had the best experiences at these venues.

      For Friday for a late, casual but excellent meal I would recommend considering Embeya or Yusho (both Asian fusion venues), Baume & Brix (Contemporary American with a fusion of sweet and savory and some molecular gastronomy), Balena (Italian small plates) or GT Fish & Oyster (seafood small plates). iNG (molecular gastronomy and use of miracle berry to make foods taste sweet without sugar) is very fun and one of my favorites.

      If you are staying for Sunday brunch, North Pond is worth checking out; beautiful location (in the heart of Lincoln park with views of the skyline and pond) and excellent food (not always the best service though). It is a lunch rather than breakfast oriented brunch. My favorite brunch in the city with a breakfast emphasis is Jam (run by a former Charlie Trotter chef).

      6 Replies
      1. re: Gonzo70

        Great suggestions. Had checked Bayless places - already full but will look for others. Had a memorable experience at Hot Doug's. Was thinking of going for Sun lunch. Have not checked recent status. Many thanks.

        1. re: ChowMD

          >> Had checked Bayless places - already full but will look for others.

          As noted above, Salpicon is nearby and availability is wide open. I ate there recently and liked it a lot. I've also enjoyed Mixteco Grill recently but it's not as close.

          >> Was thinking of going for Sun lunch.

          There are three basic categories for that. You can go to one of our breakfast-focused restaurants, mentioned above; one downside is no reservations and 30-60 minute waits to be seated. You can go somewhere for brunch with a reservation (North Pond, Café des Architectes, or any of the Mexican or small plates places mentioned above). Or, you can go to a place where their lunch is similar to their weekday lunch/dinner offerings, such as deep-dish pizza.

          >> Many thanks.

          You're welcome! And again, feel free to ask more questions, and we'll try to help!

          1. re: ChowMD

            Hot Doug's is closed on Sundays. One alternative, located in the West Loop, is Publican Quality Meats. Very casual with lots of creative sandwiches as well as some very, very good soups and salads. They tend to run a few additional specials on weekends. For something slightly more formal, consider avec, also in the West Loop. They recently changed their Sunday hours so they open at 11am -- while they are often packed for dinner (and don't accept reservations), the word may not be out yet regarding their earlier Sunday hours and wait times may be more reasonable.


          2. re: Gonzo70

            >> the Lobby (also Contemporary American).

            The Lobby, which is a restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel, has a feature that deserves mention and elaboration, in case it's especially appealing to you and your daughter. On Friday and Saturday nights starting at 9:00 pm, they feature "the Chocolate Bar", an all-you-can-eat buffet of chocolate desserts, in small portion sizes so you can try a lot of them. (I've found that some of them are just okay, but there's a good chance you'll find at least a few that you absolutely love.) I believe it's $38, but only $20 if you also eat dinner there. I've only dined there under the previous chef, when I thought it was very good, and most reports are that their new chef has elevated the restaurant considerably. This could work for your late Friday dinner as well as for Saturday.

            1. re: nsxtasy

              I haven't seen these "most reports" saying that the new Chef Lee Wolen is better than Curtis Duffy was at Avenues—and I thought Avenues was much more worth it than his new Grace—so maybe you're referring to another chef? But I have to repeat that all 6 of us agreed our recent meal at The Lobby was one of the worst in memory.

              1. re: W42

                Curtis Duffy was not the previous chef at the Lobby. His responsibilities at the Peninsula were confined to Avenues, which is now closed. He has moved on to open his own place, Grace, the "best new restaurant of the year" per Chicago magazine, an assessment with which I agree, based on my terrific recent dinner there.

                As for the Lobby under Lee Wolen (who has been there for a full year), Gonzo70 has praised it effusively here on Chowhound. Most of the media reviews have been highly complimentary as well, such as this one in TimeOut Chicago: