Next -- worth it? Itinerary advice for this week.
Traveling with the hubby who has requested excellent food (and who in his heart also loves excellent beer). In Chicago, we have eaten at Moto, Tru, and Alinea (preferred Moto -- less pretentious), and are a younger couple with adventurous leanings.
We get into town Wednesday night, and I had planned to walk to Au Cheval for a low-key dinner and beers, but I've just seen that there are some very late 2-tops available at NEXT. Is it worth it?
Thursday lunch: Frontera (staying in River North, so xoco also possible -- had an amazing torta there last spring)
Thursday dinner: Grace
Friday dinner: Little Goat + cocktails at Aviary
Saturday: a place with great drafts in Wicker Park? Seeing friends, so they may have a place in mind.
Will we regret missing Next? Will we regret missing the food and drink at Au Cheval? Is there a low key, but classy pub in walking distance of River North or Wicker Park that we should be considering?
Any advice much appreciated!
Next used to be one of my favorite places, but IMHO they have been slipping in quality (food and service) and with their frequent price increases have now become about the worst value in dining in Chicago. I also do not like their lack of flexibility with making substitutions. While the current menu will likely be good and make for a fun dinner, if you are willing to drop $425 for a party for two (not even including beverages) there are many better options.
I am not sure I would classify Au Cheval as low key; great food but it is generally crowded (no reservations and waits can be quite long), is fairly loud and most of the food extremely rich. Definitely some great beers available and the burger is the best I have had anywhere - but low key definitely does not come to mind when I think of Au Cheval.
Grace is phenomenal all around (food, service and ambiance); I am actually heading back there a couple of days after your meal there. Little Goat is enjoyable as well and if you have not been to Aviary before it is well worth a trip (pricey, but unique cocktails that are worth splurging for until you have been a few times and the whimsical/surprise aspect is gone). I love Bayless' food, so Frontera is definitely worth trying for that alone; my only complaint with Frontera is that it is noisy and has a bit of a touristy vibe.
Adjacent to Wicker Park is Bucktown; a venue called The Bristol has a wonderful beer selection and also incredible, reasonably priced food.
My favorite cocktail lounge is in the River North area - the Berkshire Room. Not as flashy as Aviary, but still creative and taste wise I think they are the best in town. If you enjoy bourbon based cocktails make sure you order a Weston (wheated bourbon with house made Dark Matter coffee essence and also house made pipe tobacco essence). The negroni is also a must; aged in Pappy Van Winkle barrels. Really friendly bartenders at Berkshire Room; I highly recommend sitting up to the bar so you can chat with them.
If you are interested in some other possible alternatives for your Wednesday night dinner Girl and the Goat actually has late tables available as does Bavettes (where you could have a wonderful steak dinner for less than half the price of Next and order what you want); if you'd prefer not to dine late great places with availability would be GT Fish & Oyster (River North; wonderful seafood based menu), Sixteen (River North in Trump Tower; expensive but no more so than Next and is a Michelin two star venue serving a tasting menu that tells a story about Chicago's history), Embeya (West Loop; Asian fusion - wonderful food, cocktails and staff), Tanta (River North, new Peruvian venue; loud, club like atmosphere but amazing food) and Publican (West Loop, great beers and nose-to-tail cuisine). Moto's sister restaurant, iNG has an awesome menu right now (tasting menu based on Salvador Dali paintings), but is not showing openings that night. Elizabeth is also exceptional (seasonal tasting menu in a relaxed, down-to-earth environment with extremely creative, often whimsical dishes where the chef/owner grows/forages/hunts/fishes for a lot of the food served - but that is the last night of their winter break, so they would not be available until later in your stay.
Perhaps more casual than what you had in mind, but for a "place with great drafts in Wicker Park," you might consider Piece, http://www.piecechicago.com/index.php. They serve excellent New Haven style pizza (nothing like Chicago style), with their own brews on tap. (Not a "classy pub," however. Rather loud and on the raucus side.)
For beer, and in case your friends don't have suggestions, the Map Room is about as good as it gets when it comes to draft lists in Chicago -- except that they don't serve any food (you can order delivery in, but I doubt that's what you have in mind). Piece, also mentioned, is tasty but I'd expect it to be a madhouse on a Saturday night. Smallbar may work -- the beer is usually well-chosen, but probably priced $1-2 more per glass than I'd like. Food is good but expensive. Bangers & Lace also has great beer but the food menu is limited to smaller plates involving different types of sausages.
If you didn't mind venturing a little outside of Wicker Park, just to the northwest is Revolution Brewing. For me, they're the most consistent and best brewpub in Chicago right now. They typically have 12+ of their own beers on tap and they cover a wide variety of styles and are all pretty consistent. The food is really, really well executed. Not necessarily more than burgers, pizzas, etc. but the ingredients are top notch and, again, they're really well prepared.
Thanks for these excellent and thorough replies! @Gonzo70, your suggestions are invaluable. I didn't realize the situation at Au Cheval, and was basing my "low key" notion on an Eater post by Chicago chefs (of course it would be easy for them to get a bite there after work).
Also great to know about The Berkshire Room, which wasn't on my radar. I'll make a stop there for sure.
HOW did I miss ING? I'm afraid I'll have to come back for that one -- I'm so glad to see Moto has been successful. It was my first molecular meal and has been the standard to which I hold all others.
@Masha, I'm from CT originally, so your New Haven pizza rec sounds spot-on.
@Danielmalarkey, I appreciate your attention to the beer request. Map Room looks great, but I don't know how the timing will work out with ordering in. We liked Revolution when we were in Chicago last year, so it might be time for another visit. And Bangers and Lace sounds intriguing.
I'm much obliged to you all for this last-minute advice!