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some specific requests/questions about Old Town and more

Hello Chicago hounds!

My husband and I will be visiting from Baltimore for most of a week in late September. I've been overwhelmed researching all of the marvelous food Chicago has to offer, and am turning to you for some specific things that the CH archives haven't supplied me with. Thanks in advance for your patience reading my short novel.

Some background: I'm vegetarian, husband is most decidedly not, though he doesn’t care for seafood. Other than those limitations, we’re both very adventurous eaters and especially fond of Middle Eastern food. We prefer eating at restaurants with both meat and veg options (besides salad or a sad perfunctory pasta dish). Mostly trying to limit ourselves to cheaper options, both for budget and attire reasons, and as we’re in our mid-30s, aren’t looking for anywhere with an overly loud/college-esque atmosphere. We'll be renting an apartment in Old Town, a bit north of the Sedgwick Brown line stop. No car but comfortable with public transit and walking. So, here goes with the questions:

*Any suggestions for neighborhood bars or casual restaurants in Old Town? When we go to bars, we generally drink craft beer or bourbon, so bars will ideally have more than Bud/Miller/Coors on tap. Since we’ve got an apartment, takeout places are fine for food.
*Also in the neighborhood, anywhere to get good bread, as well as good grocery stores in general? We’ll definitely be hitting the Spice House and Green City Market.
*Is it worth a special trip to go to the French Market? We’ll certainly go if we happen to find ourselves nearby, but I can’t tell if it’s worth it as its own destination. My sister lives in Philly, so we get to go to Reading Terminal Market a few times a year, and I’m imagining that the French Market is similar but perhaps smaller. We’ve gotten a little spoiled by Reading.
*Going to the last Cubs home game of the season! (Unbelievably excited about this.) Any suggestions for places nearby to get sandwiches to bring in with us? Banh Mi and Nhu Lan are both sounding good.
*Is Hot Doug's worth the trip? My husband's a big fan of hot dogs and sausages, but we'll have just spent a few days in Milwaukee where he will attempt to consume his own weight in Usinger's.
*Planned to go to Maxwell Street Market on Sunday, and then possibly wander through Little Italy afterwards. Are a lot of those businesses closed Sundays?
*Looking for a breakfast/brunch spot for Monday morning, either a short cab ride or easy train/bus trip. Batter & Berries and Southport Grocery both sound amazing. I tend to prefer sweet breakfast items while husband goes for savory, and bonus points would be awarded for exceptional coffee or tea.
*Any good food trucks to watch for?
*Last but certainly not least, any restaurants that would be particularly good for our meat/veg needs? Karyn’s Cooked and Chicago Diner have been suggested as very good for vegetarians, and both look great, but I don’t want my husband to have to eat veg the whole trip. Location not terribly important, anywhere between South Loop and Andersonville is fair game.

Any advice you can share will be fantastic. Thanks!

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  1. Touching on a few things:

    You're situated pretty close to the Goose Island Brewpub, the city's oldest brewpub. Their vegetarian options aren't the most impressive but the beer is generally worthwhile (ask about flights - they don't list them on the menu but they'll do four 4oz. pours @ $10) and it's a comfortable space with warm, friendly service. They also offer tours (call ahead - they can book up), but if you've done one brewery tour before, I wouldn't make a point of going on this one. In Logan Square, about 3.5 miles Northwest, is my favorite brewpub in the city, Revolution Brewing (the bourbon selection is all right, too). It's not the most convenient via public transit but the beer is killer and they nail vegetarian options and meaty options, too. The Logan Square neighborhood is chock full of other bars/restaurants, so you could easily hit up several options while you're around. Longman & Eagle isn't vegetarian friendly, but the cocktails, beer list and bourbon selection is top notch. Lula's could work for dinner or lunch (they have a very veg-friendly, and affordable, cafe menu available all day). Blue Sunday and The Whistler are cocktail bars in the same area and are some of the city's best.

    Closer to Old Town... one idea is the Whole Foods market about a mile West. It's huge and they have a large number of take-out options (the back of the store is basically a food court with eat-in or take-out options, covering diner food to BBQ to Mexican to Italian, etc etc). It's probably not the most exciting option, but it's not bad. They also have a great craft beer bar in the store.

    Is Hot Doug's worth it? Good question and... it depends? If you visit on a Tuesday or Wednesday, maybe around 2pm, I wouldn't expect much of a line (if at all). But especially via CTA, it will take you a while to get up there and only you can decide how much of your vacation you want to spend on a bus or a train. Having said that, I love Hot Doug's. Doug is always smiling and happy to exchange a few words before moving on to the next person. The sausages and fries are great and the atmosphere screams fun. Much closer to where you're staying is Franks 'n Dawgs, another sausage/hot dog emporium. FnD has better buns, hands down, but I think they go a little overboard with the toppings. Still, they're much closer to you and they don't typically experience lines anywhere near as long as at Hot Doug's.

    In Wicker Park, there's a restaurant called mana food bar that's entirely vegetarian/vegan. Even for an avowed meat eater like myself, I can walk out satisfied (tell your husband to fill up on their sliders). They're small, though, and don't take reservations. Nearby is Bangers & Lace, and you could always wait there until your table is ready (or visit afterward). The crowd can get pretty bro-y but they also have great beer and a solid list of sausages and hot dogs. Or, better yet, plan on eating at both and I think all of your bases should be covered.

    1 Reply
    1. re: danimalarkey

      D'oh -- that's Billy Sunday, up in Logan Square. Brain fart.

      Also, you might consider Big Star, in Wicker Park. They do tacos, beer and bourbon in a stripped down, casual space (great music, too - think 1950's Bakersfield, CA on vinyl). Lots of outdoor seating, too, weather permitting. They get very crowded, though -- allows for great people-watching, if nothing else.

    2. I prefer Banh Mi on the southern portion of Broadway(they have 3 branches within a mile of each other) vs Nhu Lan. I find that their sandwiches have a stronger flavor. Also, if you go at the right time, you'll be rewarded with a yummy anise aroma from the pho broth they're cooking:). Within the area as well are La Tacorea for Korean tacos and Falafill for falafel sandwiches.

      For breads, you can try La Fournette on Wells St in Old Town close to the Spice Market or La Boulangerie on Belmont(just east of the Belmont brown line). La Boulangerie also has one in Logan Square just in case you would like to go visit the area. Publican Quality Meats in the West Loop also makes good bread. I'm still dreaming of the olive bread I had from them last year. Speaking of which, Publican, while known more for their meats and seafood, also has several dishes that are vegetarian. So if it's within your budget and atmosphere, you can try that as well.

      Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I would agree with danimalarkey and skip Hot Doug's and probably the French Market.

      For brunch, you can try Jam or M Henry. Both are delicious and serve good coffee. There shouldn't be too much of a wait on a Monday morning.

      1 Reply
      1. re: sunbrace

        For that brunch, if sweets are calling, I would skip Jam and M Henry (I'm a savory girl and love them) and go to either Batter and Berries on Lincoln or the Bongo Room on Milwaukee. While they are both stellar in the sweet department, their savory offerings are also very good.

        Most places in town do very well for vegetarians. You shouldn't feel restricted most places. But I would also suggest you check out Native Food Cafe on MIlwaukee Ave. It's totally vegan disguised as fast food and meat-eaters enjoy it also.

        The French Market is a whisper of Reading. Echoing others, I wouldn't bother with that or Hot Dougs with everything else you are doing.

        Chicago has some odd and restrictive regulations for food trucks so I wouldn't even bother considering them at this point.

      2. Thanks, all, very helpful feedback.

        I had considered the brewery tour of Goose Island, but with your feedback, danimalarkey, I think we'll just stick with a visit for drinks. We did a tour of Lakefront in Milwaukee a few years ago and enjoyed it, but like you said, another one is probably not a must-do, especially since they preselect your tastings and neither of us are IPA fans.

        Sounds like Hot Doug's and French Market will both be a miss, and I'm not too broken up about it. I try pretty hard not to craft itineraries without a ton of extraneous travel time, because no, I don't want to spend multiple hours every day on a bus/train. It's striking me that Chicago is a lot bigger than I realized. (File under "duh"?)

        Love the Wicker Park suggestions. I think we're going to do the food tour there and then spend the rest of that Saturday exploring the neighborhood.

        For brunch, Jam and M Henri both sound great but pretty far from where we're staying, and we're flying out that afternoon, so want to stay a little closer. Batter & Berries is definitely the frontrunner. Any thoughts on wait times for a Monday mid-morning?

        Would also like to get opinions on the better choice for our Sunday plan: Maxwell Street market and Little Italy vs. sleeping in, a walk on the beach, and Andersonville.

        And thanks for the reassurance about being able to get good vegetarian food. We'll likely hit the Native Foods Cafe on Clark Street after we go to the Art Institute. It always strikes me as funny that all of the 6-8 major US cities I’ve visited are all kinder to vegetarians than the one in which I live. Sigh.

        4 Replies
        1. re: guenevere51

          You shouldn't have any wait time for Monday morning. Anywhere.

          1. re: guenevere51

            Without going totally off the rails (and with a great deal of simplification here), when the first Mayor Daley pushed for an outpost of the University of Illinois in the city, he picked the Little Italy/Greektown neighborhoods -- and promptly tore down/condemned much of both neighborhoods in order to build that campus. Point being that these days, I don't think Little Italy consists of more than a few blocks surrounded by University of Illinois buildings.

            Which is a long way of saying that I'd personally suggest Andersonville and the beach. Big Jones is delicious and Hopleaf is worth visiting if you're a craft beer fan. Not necessarily food-related, but the Galleria is a fun "mall" filled with an eclectic mix of local merchants (including some popcorn and chocolate vendors, if memory serves).

            1. re: danimalarkey

              Thanks for the info. That's too bad about Little Italy, I'm a sucker for Italian groceries.

              Andersonville does sound like a lot of fun, and thanks in particular for the tip about the Galleria, that's right up our alley. Hopleaf is definitely happening, as we're both big fans of Belgian beer. How are the mussels there? I know I said my husband wasn't a seafood fan, but that's one notable exception.

              1. re: guenevere51

                There's a fantastic Italian grocery store in the West Loop (and pretty convenient to the Morgan L stop on the Green and Pink lines), J.P. Graziano. They recently started selling gelato that is incredible.
                http://www.jpgraziano.com/

                The mussels at Hopleaf are solid -- certainly one of the more popular dishes (it seems like every other table has an order every time I stop by). They usually have 2-3 preparations available (ie. steamed in a Belgian wit or wine, etc.). Their lunch menu is pretty limited, and doesn't appear to be on their website, for some reason, but I'm 99% sure the mussels are available at lunch, in case you went earlier in the day.

          2. I am really liking the newish Plum Market on Wells near Division. They carry a lot of hard to find ingredients including spicy Calabrian peppers so now I have a second source for these in the city. They have a great cheese section even if the prices are sometimes odd (example reggiano Parmesan is $14.95/ lb. while Grana Padano is a few dollars more per lb. I haven't tried their prepared foods but they look fresher and nicer than those offered at Whole Foods.

            1. Based on your location, you might want to look at Corcoran's (1615 N. Wells) as a casual neighborhood bar/restaurant. They usually have 15 or so beers on tap and loads of options in bottles. The food is mainly pub grub but they do have some tasty vegetarian options. They are just a few doors down from a Treasure Island grocery store which would probably be the most convenient place to get groceries in the area you'll be staying. Further south on Wells is Plum Market, much higher end than Treasure Island but also much more expensive. For bread check out La Fournette Bakery just south of North on Wells, there will are also bakeries selling at the Green City Market. Wells is packed full of restaurants, bars and shops, a good place to wander around if you have the time. If you plan on going to The Spice House you might want to also check out Old Town Oil which is just a few doors north on Wells. Great selection of olive oils and vinegars. There are a couple of middle eastern paces within easy walking distance. Old Jerusalem is located at 1411 N. Wells and Dawali is at 1625 N. Halstead (just north of North).

              http://www.oldtownoil.com/
              http://www.mysticceltchicago.com/Corc...
              http://lafournette.com/
              http://www.dawalikitchen.com/
              http://www.plummarket.com/
              http://tifoods.com/

              1 Reply
              1. re: Coogles

                Coogles wrote regarding Treasure Island and Plum Market:

                "They are just a few doors down from a Treasure Island grocery store which would probably be the most convenient place to get groceries in the area you'll be staying. Further south on Wells is Plum Market, much higher end than Treasure Island but also much more expensive."

                While I agree that Plum Market is much more upscale than TI in terms of selection, quality of items, service and knowledge of staff I have to strongly disagree that it is "much more expensive". That runs entirely counter to my experience. I had to go shopping today anyway so I first went to TI on Wells (I had to go to Plum Market anyway as I needed a few things TI doesn't carry and somethings I would never buy there because their product is so inferior particularly in regard to seafood). This is not a scientific comparison because I was only buying the things I wanted for today and this week. But Plum Market came out almost universally cheaper and in some cases by a significant margin than TI.

                On my list: Sparkling water at TI San Pellegrino was $2.19 per bottle at PM $1.00 per bottle. Pasta, I usually buy DeCecco dried and sometimes Rustichella d'abruzzo. At TI DeCecco ranged from $2.69 for simple spaghetti/linguine to $3.59 for farfalle/fusilli to $5.29 for lasagna (why lasagna was so high is beyond me) PM sold all DeCecco at the flat price of $2.00 but this was a special price all are normally $2.89. At TI rustichella was either $6.98 or $7.98 except for lasagna which cost $5.98. At PM it was, depending on type/shape, $5.39, 5.69 or 6.49.
                Cheese I needed parmesan and Maytag blue At TI reggiano parmesan 2 year aged was $19.98/lb at PM it was $14.98. At TI Maytag blue was cheaper at $15.98/lb compared to $18.99.
                Heavy cream (pasteurized not ultra pasteurized). For years TI was the only store in the neighborhood that carried pasteurized cream - almost everywhere else carries ultra pasteurized. Pasteurized tastes better but it comes with a significantly reduced shelf life. At TI they frequently only sell it in 32 oz containers which is usually more than I need but today they had it 32 oz (Dean's) for $6.19 and in 8 oz size for 1.99. At PM they carried Kilgus Farms (locally produced) pasteurized in 16 oz size at $2.38.
                Canned Tomatoes San Marzano brand and type were $3.85 at TI and $3.59 at PM. A few things I couldn't compare even though for example both carry Nueske's bacon they sell in different weights and styles a 12 oz package at TI was &7.99 but a 16 oz package at PM was $9.99.

                Based on my experience PM is by far and away the better value by any yardstick. TI's seafood selection is so awful I stopped buying there years ago. They carry no live shell fish and no fish with a head on it. When they did carry clams or mussels a lot had to be thrown out because they were dead. I have been shopping at Dirk's for seafood ever since but bought littleneck clams at PM on Friday and they were delicious. They also had live lobsters on sale for $9.99 for a 1lb lobster. I'll be back here for seafood and meats for sure plus their assortment of cheeses makes TI's look sad.