Out-of-towners visiting in November...recs/advice?
Philly/South Jersey-area couple, planning on spending a 3-day weekend in Chicago before Thanksgiving in order to see the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit at the Art Institute (we're a pair of art "groupies" who frequently travel for such things.) I'd love to use the trip as an excuse to also visit a couple great Chicago restaurants, since I've never been to the city before.
Naturally I would love to do Alinea but there are unsurprisingly no tables for 2 available when we'll be in town (unless something frees up at the last minute). graham elliot was on my short list as I am a bit of a MasterChef junkie, and that does have openings when we'll be in town but I was wondering if it was really worth it. I looked at Girl and the Goat, no openings until late December. Fronterra Grill was also one I'd love to try, but I don't think my sweetie would be willing to do the long wait in line (he's not as patient as I am about going out of his way for great food, nor is he likely going to want to be tied down to reservation times for more than at most Saturday night.)
With that in mind, are there some other places I should look into? Basically I'd like to plan a really nice Saturday night dinner, maybe something not-so fancy or high end Friday night when we get in, and a nice place to lunch on Saturday and Sunday - preferably close to the Art Institute. As a few caveats, I'll add:
- It doesn't have to be the latest/trendy places; I'm actually more happy with some long-time favorites or perhaps hidden places that aren't all the rage but still very good.
- Prefer something other than Italian (which is too much of a staple at home), Greek or Middle Eastern (I usually can't do either because of some dietary issues and intolerances).
- Decent yet reasonable wine list or cocktail selection a plus; not much of a beer drinker.
Ended up having lunch there yesterday while doing the Art Institute all day...great spot for a break, very good and interesting food (we had two of the small plates, a lovely pasta with mushrooms and the grilled cheese.) Good cocktails as well.
I only wish the service had been a little better. It was hard to get our waiter's attention and we ended up skipping a second round of drinks as we couldn't get him to check on us until after we were long finished with our entrees (sad because a glass of red wine would have been much appreciated with the pasta, but I wasn't going to wait until my food was cold.) It could have been that they were just understaffed on a busy Saturday.
Since you mentioned you are an art lover and also mentioned Alinea - a suggestion I have is to try Chef Cantu's restaurant called iNG (sister restaurant of Michelin starred Moto). iNG does a themed tasting menu that changes every few months and starting on November 16th they are actually doing a Salvador Dali themed menu where each course is inspired by a Dali painting. iNG is like a more casual, less expensive version of Alinea and Moto in that it uses modernist techniques, utilizes smells to impact taste, and has artistic presentations. Wonderful staff at iNG (service has always been excellent during my visits) and a nice (but not extensive) bar program. Another fun aspect of iNG is their use of Miracle Berries to make desserts with little to no sugar taste and look just like "real" desserts.
For a more conventional upscale dining experience Boka and the Lobby at the Peninsula would be worth considering. Great wine programs (reasonably priced) and Boka has an excellent cocktail program too. Both have a nice ambiance, the service is polished yet warm and both venues and the food outstanding.
As for a "hidden place" you might want to look into Elizabeth. A lengthy tasting menu is the only option and each course is very artistically plated, whimsical and creative. Some courses almost look too beautiful to eat. The chef/owners plays a large role in procuring lots of the ingredients used via growing produce, foraging, hunting and fishing. Very warm, cozy but casual ambiance (the chef/owner generally presents several courses herself to your table). I have also enjoyed the wines there. At Elizabeth instead of making reservations your purchase tickets (like with Alinea) but generally there is far more availability so long as you do not wait for last minute.
If you enjoy Asian cuisine, my favorites in the downtown area (both are in the West Loop) would be Kabocha (Japanese) and Embeya (modern Asian fusion). Both have excellent beverage programs in addition to outstanding cuisine, friendly staff and nice ambiance.
For lunch/brunch some of the places I like in the downtown area are not open weekends, but GT Fish & Oyster would be a suggestion. If you do not mind a short cab ride Mexique might be worth considering (since you mentioned you had wanted to do Frontera - many consider Mexique to be Chicago's best non Rick Bayless Mexican venue). If you go during non-peak hours Purple Pig (Magnificent Mile area) is a great option for lunch (they do not take reservations and are mobbed at peak times) and the Publican (in the West Loop) is also excellent (somewhat similar to Purple Pig but does take reservations on OpenTable). Purple Pig and Publican are somewhat similar to Girl & the Goat in terms of ambiance/menu.
Graham Elliot I was not impressed by, but in fairness have only been one time. For that kind of money IMHO Chicago has several better options (Sixteen, Grace, Tru, Moto, L2O etc.).
Awesome, thank you so much for the lengthy reply and many suggestions! Grace and Publican were also rec'ed to me by some Chicago-area friends we might try to meet up with while in town, so I will definitely check them out.
iNG also sounds right up my alley - I'm a big Dali fan and we were just in St. Pete earlier this year at the Dali museum. Looks like I have some research to do once I finalize our trip details
If you end up doing iNG, make a reservation for cocktails and snacks at the Aviary next door. This is Grant Achatz's cocktail lounge housed in the same facility as Next Restaurant. Same approach as Alinea but applied to drinks. It's great that they take reservations and would make a good part of your nice/fancier night out.
There are also some creative snacks on the menu. Last time we were there, they were offering things like a foie gras candy bar or raw oysters served in a bag of Coppertone air. Here's some photos from a visit a few months ago:
Aviary just announced today they started a "ticket" system instead of a reservation system. You can pay a $20 deposit to secure a table (the money goes towards your tab, but is not refundable in case of no shows and you cannot cancel) or you can sign up for a 3 or 5 course tasting menu (3 course is drinks only, 5 course is drinks paired with food). Reportedly 50% of seats are being held back for walk-ins.
Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.theaviary.com/user/login
I agree that iNG/Aviary would make a great combination (though a fair amount of alcohol as beverage pairings are included with iNG's dinner price).
Publican is fantastic... especially for brunch. Au Cheval has the most incredible burger in town or anywhere for that matter. Tanta is a new peruvian restaurant. Food is incredible and different. If you get to Frontera 30 minutes before they open, you'd probably get in with the first seating. Makes the wait a lot more tolerable. However, I much prefer the more casual Xoco two doors down. Great spot for lunch. Speaking of casual, I also really enjoy Little Goat. It's been great every time I've gone.
Thank you again for the rec for iNG and the Dali menu - we did it last night and it was a lovely and fun experience all around.
My partner has never experienced "modernist"-type food before and was a little confused the first two (of 10) courses. But when the "Still Life - Fast Moving" course came out with the splatted pear and squash purees he started to "get it" and really enjoy it (the Miracle Berries too). Great pairings to go with everything, I liked that it was a mixture of cocktails, wine and beer. For $240 before tip, for two, it was also IMHO extremely reasonable for the amount of food, drink and creativity - and excellent service! Basically three hours of food as entertainment as well as taste. When I get home I'll write up more about the experience on my blog...
So, we just got back from Chicago and had a great time. Not a bad meal the entire trip, despite a few minor quibbles here and there. We definitely want to go back hopefully next year to spend more time exploring (and eating...it seemed like everywhere we turned there was another restaurant that looked wonderful.)
Quick summary of where we went; I'll be blogging detailed reviews with photos later:
Lunch at Terzo Piano. Very good food and cocktails, especially loved the fried artichokes. Only issue was getting service from our waiter on a busy (and understaffed?) weekend lunch hour.
Dinner at iNG. Fun and creative experience; three hours of surreal entertainment and interesting flavors. My only quibble was the acoustics - it got so loud by the time the restaurant was full that we had to strain to hear our soft-spoken waiter's descriptions of the dishes.
Lunch at Miller's Pub. We just happened to be walking in that direction when we passed by, and were hungry, so we stopped in. My SO loves this kind of place and the Bloody Marys were outstanding to clear the head. The SO devoured a full set of ribs at 11am and I barely got a taste, so I guess he enjoyed them! My beer-battered cod was very good, fries not worth the calories.
Dinner at Publican. Was not crazy about the seating and ambiance at all, would have asked for a two-top in my reservation if I'd known how cramped the communal tables were. We sampled 6 different plates, enjoyed most all of them especially an endive salad with white anchovies and the apple fritter dessert. One off-putting thing was seeing one of the chefs use a tasting spoon twice on a dish that went then straight out to a diner...(we were seated at the very end of the communal table right alongside the front of the kitchen.)
Quick bites between tours during the day, then a drink at the lovely Palmer House bar. Despite my earlier preference for not going Italian, our hotel was right across the street from Siena Tavern and the menu had been tempting me all weekend. We ended up snagging a table for an early dinner before our flight home and everything was outstanding, especially the smoked mozzarella and the squid ink linguine with lobster. Great service with a lot of attention to detail and a very comfortable dining room.
Again, thanks everyone for your tips and recommendations. Now I think I may not eat a thing until Thanksgiving as I've got such a food hangover!