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Surprise Anniversary Dinner

My partner and I will be traveling from Australia in June to visit some family in Wisconsin. While we're on that side of the planet, we decided to stop down in Chicago for 4 nights with the parents.

I'm from the Midwest and have been to Chicago a number of times, but this will be my partner's first trip to the US. Dinners 1-3 are with my parents, and we will likely hit distinctly Chicago places serving food we can't find in Australia (Mexican, deep dish, etc).

On the fourth night, I want to surprise my partner with a fine dining anniversary dinner for just us two (I love my parents, but...). I have been to Alinea years back and have heard middling reports as of late. Schwa would be a really unique dinner, but organising it via phone from Australia will be near impossible. I'm really tossing up between Grace, Moto, and Restaurant Elizabeth.

Moto is actually most intriguing for me, because I've heard it has gotten better under Chef Farina. My partner isn't that experienced at fine dining, and Moto looks - for lack of a better word - fun. Whimsical dishes who's flavor is starting to catch up. Any word on Moto lately? Any other suggestions? 42 Grams has popped up on my radar, but seems less romantic due to the communal table.

Chicago has spoiled me with choice! Any advice?

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  1. Those are some of my favorite restaurants, so you can't go wrong with any. I would recommend against Schwa; absolutely fantastic when they are on, but in addition to the challenge of making a reservation while out of the country, they too often cancel and decide to close at the last minute.

    Moto, Elizabeth and Grace are all phenomenal, all firing on all cylinders these days and all consistent. Grace is the most traditional fine dining type ambiance of these (extremely elegant dining room and formal yet personable service). Moto and Elizabeth both have a lot of whimsical courses and are more laid back and casual than Grace, especially Elizabeth. Elizabeth has an open kitchen, so if either of you enjoy watching the chefs in action that would be a bonus (Chef Regan often serves and presents some of the courses right at your table). You really cannot go wrong with any of them. 42 Grams also has an extremely talented chef, but you are right that it would not be as romantic since you would be dining with others. 42 Grams is also BYOB; good in that it saves some money, but not good if you are seeking a wine pairing chosen by a sommelier as part of your dinner. Grace is the only of these venues that has a full bar in addition to a wine program if that is a factor for you. Grace also has a bit more flexibility with their menu since they have two different ones at any given time in case either of you are a bit of a picky eater (though with advanced notice Elizabeth and Moto will do their best to accommodate any dietary restrictions or aversions). I have dined at all three of these venues within the past few weeks (was just at Elizabeth last night) and all multiple times within the past several months and they truly are among Chicago's top few restaurants.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Gonzo70

      Happy Anniversary! For elegance and romance, I would lean toward Grace, L2O, or Sixteen, in that order. I also would not rule out Alinea as your partner has not been. Their #15 world ranking on the 2013 San Pellegrino list and 3 Michelin stars were not flukes. The restaurant and, I believe more specifically, the ownership for whom that is important, are not everyone's cup of tea, but in my opinion it is still a very special place and we are lucky to have it in Chicago. For a casual and fun ambiance with outstanding and creative food in a tasting menu format, my favorite is one you did not mention, El Ideas. It is BYOB and likely not near where you would otherwise be, so take a cab or car-share service. I took my husband for his birthday, and I believe we had smiles on our faces all night long; it was that delicious and fun. With that said, I have not been to Schwa, and my one experience at Elizabeth was for my birthday when it was relatively new and when there was only communal seating (turns out I didn't like that setup for a special occasion), so your mileage may vary. I also have not been to Moto, but from what I know, including from Gonzo, whose opinion I highly respect, they might be doing one of the best jobs right now of bridging informal and sophisticated.

      1. re: GourmetWednesday

        Thank you, GourmetWednesday! :)

        I wholeheartedly agree with your Alinea assessment, and it is still on the list. But having been there myself, I'd like to go somewhere new to the both of us!

        I visited El Ideas about a year and a half ago, and it is indeed a fantastic experience. My parents will be going in early May, so I'm going to wait to hear back from them.

        I considered not doing L2O because Australia does amazing seafood. Sixteen is a great suggestion, and one that actually slipped my mind. I know their Chicago-based menu is ending soon, so I'll be interested in what their next theme will be.

        Thanks for the feedback, though! I know there's probably not a right or wrong answer with any of the restaurants, but the discussion is half the fun!

      2. re: Gonzo70

        Wow, great reply Gonzo! I've read your many reports on this site, and somehow knew you'd be among the first to reply :)

        If money was no issue, I assume you'd choose Grace (assuming you haven't been to any of the three)? The one thing about Grace that makes me weary is that it might be too formal. Not from a service standpoint, which I've heard is excellent, but just from an overall feel of the food and setting. Like I said, my partner has never had what I would consider a 2 or 3 Michelin star experience. Would you view Moto as more approachable for a first-timer?

        1. re: Ausconsin

          I think Grace is perfect for what you're looking for, and would not worry over any concerns that it is too formal. The staff is *very* friendly and accommodating. They invited us to tour the kitchen and meet the chefs (including Curtis Duffy), even though we are not FOTH (friends of the house) or VIP's. The food is consistently wonderful - just great food, without the theatrical presentation techniques of some other places. And the setting is not overly formal. From the outside, it's a fairly non-descript building on a dead-end street on the outskirts of the Loop. Inside, the dining room has subdued contemporary styling, and the generous spacing between the tables offers you a sense of intimacy. The overall feel you get is of luxury and being pampered, while never conveying formality or stuffiness. I think it's perfect for a first-time high-end diner, as it shows how luxurious and enjoyable high-end dining can be, without the distractions of places that are more extreme and "out there" with their food and presentations.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Great points, nsxtasy. Grace has been on my list for a while, but just missed its opening because of my move overseas!

            I've heard nothing but great things about it, especially the food preparations. I've been a fan of Duffy's since Avenue's, where I had one of my favourite Chicago meals. Grace seems to be Duffy's food matured and set free. Nothing bad about that :)

          2. re: Ausconsin

            Thanks!

            I mostly agree with nsxtasy; while I consider Grace to be formal in that it is very elegant with a luxurious dining room and polished, highly attentive service - it somehow manages to do this without any stuffiness or pretentiousness and the servers are personable. It ends up being very comfortable and relaxing despite all the elegance. While someone not used to fine dining might take a few minutes to settle in, I think by the second course or so your partner would be relaxed.

            If money was no issue I would opt for Grace; as much as I love Moto and Elizabeth, IMHO Grace has recently became Chicago's best restaurant. Elizabeth would be the best choice if you wanted a casual environment while enjoying phenomenal cuisine and Moto would be the best choice out of the three for a modern fine dining experience, but for the best all around food, service and ambiance Grace comes in first.

            If you do end up choosing Moto I recommend requesting to be seated in their "lab." This is their downstairs dining room that also has an open kitchen prep area in view of the tables; you can watch the chefs plate dishes and sometimes Chef Farina comes out to the area. Also that dining room itself is set up like a chemistry lab with all sorts of interesting equipment and a periodical table shelf.

            1. re: Gonzo70

              Thank you for the input! I'll keep an eye on menu changes in the coming months (I know Elizabeth's is changing soon).

              And great suggestion on the Moto seating. I'm always a sucker for an open kitchen.

        2. >> Any other suggestions?

          Just to further confuse you... :) There are some other excellent restaurants that would also fit your stated situation. TRU is a fine-dining restaurant that is among our very best such restaurants. It features a tasting menu, and the cuisine is contemporary American/global. The room is contemporary, the service exquisite. Yes, it's expensive.

          Three other places are significantly less expensive than Grace and TRU, but offer a similarly fine-dining experience. Naha is every bit as high-end as those, but slightly more casual. The room is contemporary, with cuisine from James Beard Award winner Chef-owner Carrie Nahabedian. North Pond is slightly more casual than Naha, and even a beginner to fine dining can appreciate its exquisite setting in the middle of the park, facing its namesake pond. The cuisine, from James Beard Award winner Chef-owner Bruce Sherman, is contemporary American with an emphasis on local ingredients. Finally, Acadia is worth considering. The room is contemporary and so is the cuisine, from Chef-owner Ryan McCaskey. They offer tasting menus as well as a la carte choices. (This is a recent switch; they had previously only offered the tasting menus.)

          I'm not trying to dissuade you from going to Grace; it's outstanding in every way. But these are worthy choices as well. Especially the latter three, if cost is a consideration.

          www.trurestaurant.com
          www.naha-chicago.com
          www.northpondrestaurant.com
          www.acadiachicago.com

          1. The original comment has been removed
            1. Original poster reporting in!

              Grace will be the restaurant of choice for that particular dinner. Now on to the full itinerary!

              Thursday Lunch: Frontera
              Thursday dinner: Au Cheval or Fat Rice
              - I've read great things on Au Cheval. But how are the dishes other than the burger and egg with foie? My partner is allergic to eggs. Will she still enjoy its egg-centric menu?
              - Also heard great things on Fat Rice. Which would you choose between here and Au Cheval, keeping in mind the rest of my itinerary and the fact that I'll be going with my 2 parents who are in their 50's :) not that their not adventurous eaters, but not huge fans of very loud, cramp spaces.

              Friday lunch: Lou Malnatis
              Friday dinner: Girl and the Goat (reservations already secured. 3 years in the making!)

              Saturday lunch: Hot Doug's or Publican Quality Market or other lunch option?
              Saturday dinner: Grace (reservations to be obtained in April, 2 months prior to the day!)

              Sunday brunch: Any ideas around the James Hotel? Within 30 min walk or short cab ride? Thinking Publican or moving Au Cheval here to fit in both Fat Rice and Au Cheval? Trencherman? Avec?

              Feel free to add comments or answer any of my various questions! Chow and it's longtime members have helped with my Chicago food trips for years, and it seems only proper to run it by you guys once again!

              Cheers,
              Ausconsin

              5 Replies
              1. re: Ausconsin

                Also, does anyone know the specifics of Grace's reservation policy? The website quotes "two months out", but is that two months from the date (e.g., April 2 - June 2, April 3 - June 3, etc.) or is it a general two months (i.e., April 1 opens reservations for all of April, May, and June) à la Alinea?

                Sorry if my question is confusing! But the reservation is for late June; so, if it's the latter case, I'd hate to call end of April only to find the Saturday unavailable since it's been reservable for weeks prior.

                Also, the excitement is killing me! Just want to get the res in and done with :)

                1. re: Ausconsin

                  I don't know the policy at Grace, but I can offer this datapoint:
                  I called on March 27 (30 days out) for a reservation for two on Saturday April 26 at 7:30, and did not have any issues.

                  In fact, for that weekend, at 30 days out, it seems that every restaurant in the City had avaialbility. Of course June might be different than April ....

                  1. re: Markcron

                    >> In fact, for that weekend, at 30 days out, it seems that every restaurant in the City had avaialbility.

                    Some restaurants in Chicago do fill up more than 30 days out, at least for weekend reservations. For example, right now, there are 47 restaurants showing no availability on Opentable on Saturday May 3 for a party of 2 at 7:30. Some of these are for a variety of other reasons - a restaurant may be booked for a private party, or temporarily closed for remodeling, for example - but names on that list that really do consistently fill up more than a month out include Goosefoot, Grace, Topolobampo, and Girl and the Goat. (Gibson's is usually on that list too, but they show a 9:30 opening.) And, of course, there may be others that don't use Opentable, such as Next.

                  2. re: Ausconsin

                    My understanding for Grace's reservations are if it is April 2nd then they are booking through June 2nd; if it is April 10th they would be booking through June 10th etc. If you are booking a weeknight they are available via Open Table, Fridays and Saturdays are over the phone only, closed Sundays and Mondays. I am planning on heading there late June as well.

                    1. re: Gonzo70

                      Then I shall call in late April. Maybe we'll see you there!

                2. Figured I'd continue from my trip thread instead of creating a whole new question!

                  Looking to hit Au Cheval on a Thursday night before a Second City show. It's not too close to the theater, but it looks doable even for a no-reservations busy place like Au Cheval. Plus, we will travel great distances for great food :)

                  Anyway, I've heard there can be 30+ minute waits even as early as 6pm - around when we expect to arrive. What are some good places to go for a drink while we wait for our table?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Ausconsin

                    Maude's Liquor Bar and Lone Wolf are very close to Au Cheval.