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Solo dining....historic Chicago restauraunt

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Hello Chowhounds! Headed to Chicago for business for a week later this month. Looking for a historic, typical Chicago spot for a solo dinner on Saturday night. Hotel is in River North. Touristy is okay, but only if food is good. All cuisine is fine with me. Cool small bar ideas too with awesome cocktails! Love history and architecture. Will be in town the whole week, but won't have as much time to commit starting Sunday, but quick, casual suggestions are welcome. Looking for something that I can't find in DC, where I am from. Uniquely Chicago! Thanks!

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  1. i would go to frontera. historic in the sense that it is the launching pad for the great rick bayless. great margaritas.

    1 Reply
    1. re: freshmanjs

      Frontera is also historic in that it was (at least one major) launching pad for fine regional Mexican cuisine in the US in contrast to taco/burrito joints.

      I would be a bit of a "why bother" with any steak house. Chicago hasn't been a meat slaughtering town in many decades and decent steaks can be had anywhere.

      The other notable trend I highly recommend here in town are some of our innovative gastropubs such as The Publican or Purple Pig. Tables are often communal and it's an opportunity to meet and chat with others over dinner if you are so inclined.

    2. A lot of the steakhouses are very accommodating for solo diners. You will probably be close to the River North branch of Morton's, which was always a favorite--they will definitely find you a table for one in the bar even without a reservation, and the atmosphere is pretty relaxed. If you're going to be in the Loop proper, the Exchequer Pub and Miller's Pub (both on Wabash) are excellent solo choices--the Exchequer is known for thin-crust pizzas (if that's your thing) and Miller's is known for its ribs (if you like that). Russian Tea Time near the Adams/Wabash L station is another standby for solo dining. Some people swear by the beef stroganoff, but I usually roll with the pickled herring appetizer followed by the wine-braised chicken liver--they have just about everything on the menu there. I'm assuming that you don't want to go totally native and subsist mostly on sausages and Italian beef sandwiches, so I won't make those recommendations here. Good luck!

      1. I agree with the recommendation regarding Frontera Grill; while it can be quite busy, as a solo you may have luck scoring a seat at the bar. Excellent place and Rick Bayless is definitely quintessential Chicago.

        Other ideas would be Moto if you want to experience modern cuisine/molecular gastronomy (in nearby West Loop neighborhood). Definitely a memorable and unique dining experience with outstanding and highly creative, unique cuisine and a great staff, but expensive (tasting menu only - $175).

        Chicago is also known for steakhouses (as others have recommended); Chicago Cut and Dave Burke's are often considered among the city's best) as well as Deep Dish Pizza (Pizzeria Uno/Due, Pizanos and Lou Malnati's are often considered venues of choice).

        Chicago also has some high quality nose-to-tail venues; near River North would be Purple Pig (Magnificent Mile area) - best to arrive at off hours as waits can be horrendous; in the nearby West Loop is Publican and Girl & the Goat (touristy - but definitely venue associated with Chicago). Publican is easier to get into (they take reservations via Open Table) whereas Girl & The Goat you could hopefully score a seat at the bar.

        If you do not mind a cab ride to the Lincoln Park neighborhood North Pond may be a good choice (Contemporary American cuisine by a James Beard winning chef; the restaurant is located literally within Lincoln Park with views of the skyline - the building itself is beautiful from an architectural standpoint as are the view). If you have time for brunch Sunday this might be the best option for North Pond as it will be dark this time of year for dinner service. They usually become fully booked - so if you want this option book ASAP (can do so via Open Table).

        My favorite cocktail bar is very near River North - the Berkshire Room (just off the Magnificent Mile). Outstanding high end cocktails and great staff. If you enjoy bourbon based beverages be sure to order a Weston (my favorite cocktail I have ever consumed).Three Dots & a Dash (same neighborhood) also has been receiving a lot of buzz, but I have not made it there yet. In the West Loop is Grant Achatz' cocktail lounge, the Aviary (closed Mondays and Tuesdays); expensive but really cool modern cocktails with fun presentations/twists - definitely something uniquely Chicago. They can be quite busy on weekends, but you can try scoring a reservation via e-mailing them; weeknights you have a good chance of walking in or only having a short wait - especially if you arrive early. Also in the West Loop a Japanese venue Kabocha has a good cocktail program and in their bar area they have a $10 special where you receive a bowl of ramen (that is phenomenal) and a Saporro beer.

        1. A question for the locals ... is Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse an option here? Probably some 'history' inside given his long reign as the Cubs' announcer?

          Just wondering because the River North hotel we stay at is across the street and I saw it every time we looked out the window.

          13 Replies
          1. re: willyum

            for the Cubs memorabilia yes but the other places have better food -

            1. re: weinstein5

              I agree; unless the OP has a particular interest in Harry Caray there are much better food options. Only ate there once and while it certainly was not bad, it was a pretty mediocre experience across the board (food/service/ambiance).

            2. re: willyum

              Harry Caray's is a local chain with little local significance. Food is so so. Much like an up scale Bennigans. Unless you really liked Harry or the Cubs, stop for drinks but eat elsewhere. Plenty of better food spots.

              David Burke's is the best place I've ever had a steak. Lawry's is a Chicago original. Good Prime Rib and a throw back to the 50s. Gino's East on Superior is great for deep dish pizza. Fun atmosphere. Frontera and Topolobompo(?) are fantastic. You can also get a fun meal at the original Maggiano's also on Wells.

              1. re: Bigjim847

                Lawry's is a Chicago original? Not really. Lawry's originated in Beverly Hills and that the Chicago location is an outpost. While it is good, you need to go to L.A. to dine at the original.

                I'd agree with you on Burke Primehouse. I would say Gene and Georgetti is probably the most original steakhouse in Chicago. Maybe one of the more original restaurants in the United States.

                1. re: Bigjim847

                  Maybe you were confusing Lawry's with the original (and departed) Blackhawk restaurant in Chicago with its signature spinning salad bowl.

                  I enjoy a good steak, but I don't understand why anyone would go out of his or her way to seek out a steak house in another city, especially a food destination city. In my world they're not unique to any city. Just one poster's opinion, of course.

                  1. re: chicgail

                    Because in many visitors minds, Chicago and beef go together based on its history. I know that those days are gone, but I think many people still link the two and assume the best steaks can be found in Chicago. I, unfortunately, don't think that to be the case any longer. But I think it is why so many posters who are visiting Chicago (much like myself before I started coming regularly for work) ask about it. Based on the posters desire, I would think G&G would be the most historic Chicago steakhouse and I'd probably mention Morton's too. While Morton's is now a chain (like Lawry's!), the original is in the Loop correct?

                    1. re: Db Cooper

                      The only location that I know of is the one in River North on Michigan and Ohio. I wasn't aware that Lawry's started elsewhere, but it's been in the same location most if not all of my life. I have only eaten Prime Rib there. So, it is a landmark and a local institution for all intents and purposes.

                      I'm not into spending lots of money on beef. So, I normally lean toward ethnic cuisines that take a little more skill and effort.

                    2. re: chicgail

                      The spinning salad bowl is alive and well at Lawry's. Never ate at Blackhawk, but I did at Lawry's earlier this year. Don't know if they stole the idea, but the waitress said it was one of their signature dishes.

                  2. re: willyum

                    OK, I don't have a dog in this fight. I haven't dined at any of the places mentioned, though last week I did have a reservation for Topolobampo (I want to dine there eventually), which I had to cancel because of bad weather on the day we flew in ($100 penalty for a no-show, so I cancelled rather than risk it).

                    But out of curiosity I looked up the OpenTable ratings for the restaurants mentioned thus far in this thread (a couple aren't included because they don't take reservations). What I like about OT is the reviews are just from the past 6 months and a reviewer actually had to dine there to write the review. So the reviews tend to be more recent than, say, TripAdvisor (which I also looked up, and which tended to agree with the OpenTable rankings).

                    So here's how 1,187 people who actually ate at these restaurants the past six months and wrote reviews rated them, on a 5 point scale:

                    overall / food (# replies)
                    -------- ------ --------
                    4.4 4.5 (305) Lawry's The Prime Rib
                    4.4 4.5 (327) Topolobampo
                    4.4 4.4 (253) Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse
                    4.2 4.2 (302) David Burke's Primehouse / James Hotel

                    Basically Lawry's, Topolo and Harry Caray's are rated the same 'overall' and within a tenth of a point for 'food'. David Burke's is rated about 5% lower on both.

                    Similar numbers for TripAdvisor (where you don't actually have to even eat there to write a 'review', and where there is no roll-off after 6 months). These have the ranking (out of 8,004 total Chicago restaurants, so no bad ones here), plus the % who 'recommend' the place.

                    62 78% recommend Frontera Grill & Topolobampo
                    96 80% recommend Lawry's The Prime Rib
                    112 81% recommend Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse
                    385 71% recommend Gino's East
                    514 68% recommend David Burke's Primehouse

                    I realize it's just TripAdvisor (Hot Doug's Inc. is # 1, Wildberry Pancakes # 2, Alinea # 3 :) but still ...

                    What I take from all this is that maybe Harry Caray's isn't considered highly here on ChowHound, but a wider range of diners rate it on par with two of the places mentioned and above two of the others.

                    Just sayin' ...

                    1. re: willyum

                      people who go to community colleges rate their satisfaction HIGHER than students who go to Harvard. This is not because the quality is better. it's about expectations. different audiences, different expectations.

                      the cheesecake factory has 4.5* on tripadvisor and 90% recommend. maybe that would be the best choice for a unique chicago experience.

                      i mean, Maggiano's has 4.5 stars on opentable too. Ruth's Chris has 5 stars. Flemings has 4.5 stars.

                      It's a totally ridiculous way to determine which are the best restaurants in a city.

                      1. re: freshmanjs

                        @freshmanjs "i mean, Maggiano's has 4.5 stars on opentable too. Ruth's Chris has 5 stars. Flemings has 4.5 stars."

                        Are you sure? The numbers fluctuate a little bit because every day new ones are added and old ones drop off, but right now (10 minutes after your post) I'm seeing Maggiano 4.2, Ruth's Chris 4.5, Flemings 4.3 ...

                        "It's a totally ridiculous way to determine which are the best restaurants in a city."

                        Actually there's a different way to use OpenTable to find "Best" in a given city, and the names that are on their current Chicago Top Ten look a lot like the ones people mention here ... Goosefoot, Grace, L2O, Les Nomades, Senza etc. A couple are missing (like Alinea) because they don't use OT for reservations, but in general they are the same. So how is that 'ridiculous'?

                        I use all the info I can find when deciding which places to dine at in a new town (or country, like an October trip to Spain that I planned for over a year). A couple of times I went with ChowHound recommendations when the OT numbers were bad and both times I regretted it, so I put a lot of faith in the OT reviews once there are at least 100 or so. There are a lot of posters on ChowHound whose opinions I respect (Gonzo70 is one in this thread) but I still want to look at other viewpoints.

                        You basically have three posters here saying Harry Caray's food is not as good as the places mentioned, and you have over 1,000 people on OT (who actually dined at these places the past 6 months) saying they were roughly as pleased at HC as at Topolo etc. I would consider the OT rankings just another set of data points. And for me, in the past, OT has been a good predictor of how well I'll enjoy a restaurant.

                        1. re: willyum

                          I never said that the food was bad at Harry's. I said I wouldn't go there for a specific dinner. You go there for atmosphere, for memorabilia. It is NOT a destination. But this does not take away from the fact that it has a solid menu. But I have a limited restaurant budget and would not waste my money going to Harry's when there are many better restaurants available.

                          It's like going to Red Robin or 5 Guys or Epic Burger. They all deliver good burgers, but they are all forgettable. If you want something memorable, go to Hot Doug's.

                          This is like reading a movie review. You can't go by what a thousand people say. You usually go with a friend's recommendation or a critic with whom you agree or respect. Most people really don't care enough about what is good food. They want a good meal. Does it taste good, is it warm, delivered quickly, at a reasonable price? If I'm hungry and in the neighborhood, I'd go to Harry's. It's perfectly fine.

                          But if my best friend wants to go out to a special dinner, it's not on the list.

                      2. re: willyum

                        Harry Carays is like Bennigans. It is designed to be good. But you're probably not going to have a memorable meal there. Will you talk about it a month from now? A year from now? I guarantee that will be the case at Lawry's and Burke's. But Burke specializes in "aged-beef". It may be an acquired taste. We also dined with someone who knew the chef and we got a half dozen appetizers and one of each of the steaks. But even an average diner will enjoy themselves. But you really have to like steak.

                        I have not eaten at Topolobampo (could never get in) but I have eaten at Frontera recently. Some may rate these restaurants lower because they serve authentic Mexican food that most Americans are not familiar with. But the food is excellent along with the service and atmosphere. You will remember your dinner. (You may also remember the bill.)

                        I have nothing bad to say about Harry Caray's but it's not an authentic place. It's like a ride at Disneyland. You will have fun, you will enjoy it and when you leave it will be forgettable. The longer it's open the less relevant it will be. Does any Cub fan in their 20s even know who Harry was? I saw Billy Williams walk out of Wrigley field a few years ago and no one asked him for his autograph. But if I was in Chicago for one day it would never make my list of places to visit. I'd rather have a burger at Murphy's Bleachers and I'm sure it would not be as good as the one at Harry's.

                    2. You all have been SOOOOOO helpful! I really appreciate it. Based on your advice as well as a friend...it seems like Lawry's or David Burke will be a great choice. Even though some of you have mentioned Lawry's isn't actually historical Chicago...its definently something I can't get in DC, which is really key. Will they frown on a solo diner though? Are they one of those restaurants that don't have time for you if you're not a group of 4 or 6?

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Ramenismyfriend

                        Most restaurants have space for singles. Often they allow to sit at the bar and eat a full meal. Most have tables for two and have no problem with seating you. Especially if you have a reservation. Which you will need to book early for David Burke's and Lawry's They can be very busy and impossible to get into on short notice.

                        1. re: Ramenismyfriend

                          Lawry's would never be my #1 choice for a single dinner in Chicago BUT, considering location and value, it's occasionally my choice for lunch when I'm in the area. Consider it for a lunch.

                        2. I will be looking into thi Italian Beef sandwich you all mention though...

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Ramenismyfriend

                            Chicago is famous for our junk food. Philly has their cheesesteak, Maryland has their crab cakes and New England has their lobster po boys. We've got hot dogs, bratwursts, and Italian beef! (And more)

                            Get it with sweet and hot peppers with a little gravy. Some places put cheese on it too, but that's not traditional. If you want to talk like a Chicagoan, say "Beef, sweet and hot, easy juice."

                            One of my favorite places is Eastern Style which makes the sandwich on garlic bread with mozzarella. But Al's is great and so is Mr Beef. Make sure you get the fresh cut fries!

                            If you really want a "Chicago Experience", go to Hot Doug's for lunch (not open late). Have a beef sandwich for dinner. Go to BLUES on Halsted for Blues, )starting at 9pm) and then have a midnight snack at the burrito place across the street (open late). If you survive, you will be an honorary Chicagoan.

                            1. re: Ramenismyfriend

                              Italian beef sandwiches don't include cheese of any kind.

                              Everyone has their faves (mine would by Johnnie's in Elmwood Park), but you can most easily sample both a decent Italian beef sandwich and a classic Chicago hot dog easily at Portillos, which is on Ontario and LaSalle.

                            2. Carson's ribs on North Wells-definitely Chicago. Free chopped liver in the waiting area.
                              http://www.ribs.com/menu_locations
                              gene and georgetti's-used to live a few blocks from there
                              http://geneandgeorgetti.com/
                              Definitely Chicago, near North Side, Frankiln Street. Ben there since 1941. Definitely not the standard 'upscale" cahin, a la Morton's Ruth/Chris. Great steaks and good Italian food. Great bone dry martinis, up, with a twist.
                              I like Lawry's too (it did start in LA, but it's not uniqeely "Chicago" (unlike the long gone Blackhawk on Wabash in the Loop had been for years).
                              Hard to believe no one mentioned the Pump Room, at least for drinks, the piano, etc. Definitely a Chicago landmark. Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon was always good for me, but the experience was always great-also easy walking distance from Rush Street, Division Street night life.
                              http://www.pumproom.com/
                              Used to hang out at Miller's Pub (mentioned below, too), but would suggest the Berghof-at least the stand up bar for lunch and beer as equally, if not more "Chicago".
                              http://berghoff.com/
                              Freshly carved hot corned beef made in front of your eyes, pretzels, mustard, their own beer, etc. If you've ever been to McSorley's in NYC, or Lefty O' Doules in San Fran, this is the heartland equivalent. It's been there on West Adams since the 19th century.

                              1. I was solo in Chicago and instead of trying to figure out where to go, I took a friends advice and had drinks at Matchbox and then had dinner at La Scarola. Both places were great and I was treated well, especially at La Scarola. They went out of their way with great customer service. Neither are too far from River North, but you will want to take a cab.