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Request for Chicago-only Dining Experience

Wife and I are in Chicago for 2 1/2 days in late August. I've been a few times for work; this will be wife's first trip. We live in LA and spend a fair amount of time in major cities, so don't see a strong need to go to fine-dining establishments or gastro pubs that, even if excellent, are generally findable in most major cities.

Instead, we are looking for types of cuisine and/or experiences that you can truly only have in Chicago because it's food that is only prepared (or only prepared authentically in Chicago), the restaurant is in a uniquely-Chicago neighborhood, or something else I’m not thinking of. I’ve read posts about Girl and the Goat, Sable, Alinea, etc and unless they are truly exceptional versus “the best restaurants” in SF, NY, Portland, etc, we’d rather fill our limited meal slots with uniquely Chicago experiences (but let me know if any of those are truly exceptional).

The meal slots we are looking to fill are:

- One late night meal/snack (we land at ORD at 11:30 pm on a Friday)
- 3 breakfasts
- 2 lunches
- 2 dinners

The categories of food/restaurants that leap to mind are:

- Pizza – I’ve been to Gino’s Giordano’s and Pizano’s, and we are planning to hit Lou Maltani’s and Pizza and Oven Grinder on this trip
- Hot Dogs / Sausage – Portillo’s is on the list for this trip, but we love all things cased, so more recs are welcome here

Would welcome comments on the above, but more valuable are recommendations for and in other categories (BBQ? Greek? Meat?) that we should add.

Location isn’t a big deal. We’ll travel as necessary. Open to full spectrum of cuisines and pricing as well.

Also happy to be referred to existing threads on this topic. Didn’t find any at first glance.

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  1. For cased meats that's not of the Vienna type, you can try Hot Doug's or Frank n Dawgs. Both serve a more gourmet version of the usual fare. If you are more adventurous, you can try Frontier in West Town. They serve meats and sausages that are more exotic. I personally have not tried it but have had heard good things about the place.

    For Greek, I like Santorini in Greektown or Melanthios in Lakeview.

    Other things that LA may not have that might be better here could be Polish or Eastern European fare. Unfortunately, I don't have much experience in those so I can't give a good recommendation on it.

    Since this is your wife's first visit and you only have a couple of days to enjoy the city, I would limit my travel to an area close to where you would be doing your sight seeing, unless your better half prefers eating vs taking in the sights. Your other choices look fine. I would avoid Asian or Mexican while here. I think LA does a better job in those categories.

    1. As a native Chicagoan, I can tell you that the foods that are exclusive to Chicago are, as you've noted deep dish pizza. Top of the list for authenticity and - well, goodness (IMO) - would be Unos, Dues, Malnotis and Pizano's. They are all family members and the basic recipe goes back to 1943.

      Italian Beef (order it "wet" with sweet and hot peppers) can be had at Portillos, as can a traditional Chicago-style hot dog.

      What I am going to say next conflicts with an earlier response. I mean no disrespect, but I do have a very different opinion.

      Chicago is also a mecca for regional Mexican cuisine (as distinguished from the usual tacos and enchilada menu). Some of the best examples are the Rick Bayless restaurants. These include Topolobampo (highest end), Frontera Grill (takes few reservations) and Xoco (great street food like sopas and churros). Another really good option is Mexique, which uses French techniques with Mexican ingredients or vice versa.

      Chicago has a very strong Vietnamese neighborhood strip on Argyle with many options. My favorite is Tank for Pho.

      We also have some very authentic Thai, including Sticky Rice (northern Thai), TAC and Spoon Thai.

      Further north on Devon Ave. is an Indian/Pakistani food strip. I can't give you much direction with this because I don't care much for Indian food.

      We do have a Greektown. Many people like Greek Islands. My first choice tends to be The Parthenon because it is a homier, more authentic Greek food.

      As the other poster said, Hot Dougs is awesome for "encased meats," but it's a little out of the way and this time of year you will find long waits out the door, around the corner and down the block. Franks and Dogs is a little more convenient to get to and not as crowded.

      1 Reply
      1. re: chicgail

        I was in Chicago last weekend and we decided to swing by Hot Doug's on Saturday afternoon around 3pm. We figured it might have died down by that point. Uh No. The wait was estimated to be at least an hour. Portillo's or Franks & Dogs will get your fix without the wait because at the end of the day, no encased meat is really worth an hour wait.

        On a personal note, I'd suggest Mr. Beef for Italian Beef. It is our favorite of them all and it's easily walkable from anywhere in River North. Portillo's sometimes feels a bit too "corporate" to me whereas this place has a bit more "grit" to it that I like. It's also open from 11pm to 4am on the weekends so if you need something late, you know where to go.

        Finally, if a steakhouse is something important, Gene & Georgetti's is uniquely Chicago. I know other posters here will say you can find a better steak at Gibson's or Cut and they are as a whole correct. But those places aren't as unique to Chicago as G & G. And you won't need a 2nd mortgage to pay for it. I'm not going to argue the merits of the food, but it is a good solid meal and definitely more unique to Chicago than any others out there.

      2. When my wife and I spent a few days in Chicago, we were seeking the same experiences. I felt that we should go to a Chicago steakhouse and we settled on Gibson's. Some will argue that there is nothing unique about a steakhouse, but when I think Chicago dining, a steakhouse is probably in my top 5 destinations.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Philly Ray

          Both Gibsons and G&G are true Chicago.
          Gibsons = pols, stars, big business and a great steak.
          G&G = used to be connected types, union guys, and a good steak that's not too expensive.

          While I still really like the steak at Chicago Cut just a bit better, 80% of my steakhouse eve's (or afternoons) are at Gibsons.

          Agreed, go to Franks n Dawgs, its really just as good as Hot Doug's in my opinion and I like their waffle fries better than the thin fries. That said, waiting in line at Doug's is fun. Everyone's talking about their orders and exasperated that they're standing in line and yet . . . we do. Think about us crazy Chicagoan's standing in line up to the alley on a cold winter day.

        2. El Ideas for high end experimental cuisine in an atmosphere of: intimate dinner party meets performance art. I'm not sure if there's anyplace exactly like this anywhere.

          Go up to the 95th floor of the Hancock for drinks & spectacular views from high above the city.

          A pastoral dinner in Lincoln Park at North Pond.

          Chicago is home to many subcultures and ethnic groups, some of which are well represented here:
          --Svea in Andersonville, cheap, good Swedish breakfast food in what feels like a small town Midwestern diner. Or Tre Kronor for more ambitious Swedish food. A hundred years ago, Scandinavians were a major ethnic group in Chicago. (They've assimilated and melted into the dominant culture, but can still be found.)
          --Honey One Barbecue or Smoque for ribs & brisket. There is a thriving Chicago barbecue scene, much of it on the South Side.
          --You could spend a lifetime exploring the Chicago Soul Food, Cajun, Haitian, Belizian & African restaurants of the African diaspora. The Illinois Central railroad brought thousands of African-Americans up from the South, in search of a better life. Their restaurants abound.
          --Chief O'Neill's for a cozy Irish pub dinner. Go on a Wednesday night at 8:00 to hear some of the Chicago traditional Irish music scene, which is unrivalled anywhere in the US but for New York or Boston. Some of the greatest Irish musicians in the world call Chicago home.
          --Hang out with Chicago bicycle messengers at the Handlebar, a subculture foreign even to many Chicagoans.
          --Enjoy the LGBT crowd at Hamburger Mary's or at many other places in Andersonville or Boys Town (Halsted/Belmont).

          Enjoy Chicago!

          1. bodhrani's list is well thought out. el ideas, goosefoot, schwa are unique, excellent and hard to get reservations ( 90 days email at midnight)

            fat rice, longman and eagle/ruxbin---all no reservations

            ethnic is where chicago shines--large immigrant population: devon ave indian subcontinent; devon ave; udupi---madras southern vegetarian is a standout
            argyle street vietnamese; we like hai yen
            ukranian village: shokolat --she actually has a light delicate touch with traditional ukranian dishes
            polish-borscht and kielbasa--all up and down milwaukee ave between diversey and belmont
            red sauce italian--gio's on about 28th street just east of halsted
            high qual italian: spiaggia is the best
            bayliss's places: topolabamba /frontera/ xoco are elegant superb/midlevel excellent/streetfood great
            hot doug's
            i don't fancy greek myself but it's there on halsted street
            good ribs--not ole time southern or kansas city--chicago tends to go a bit sweet
            chinatown---the lao restaurants (lao sze chuan, etc. ) are all quite excellent
            tre kronor is unique--a smidge bland but that's northern europe---homestyle country swedish

            that shuls keep you fed for a few days