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Apr 1, 2014 10:07 PM

Schwa or El Ideas

I live in Silicon Valley. Going to be in Chicago for 5 nights in June. One dinner is taken up by Alinea. We're thinking Publican, Girl and the Goat, and a Chicago style pizza place (Gino's East and Uno and Due seem to be the board's consensus favorites) for three of the other nights.

For the other higher end dinner I'm trying to decide between Schwa and El Ideas. My read of the board is most think they're similar, with the slight edge to Schwa. However, it really turns me off that they have this deliberately obtuse reservation system. (I refuse to go to State Bird Provisions here for that same reason). Also, the risk of cancellation kind of spooks me.

Is Schwa really worth the extra hassle? Or is El Ideas just as good?

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  1. >> Gino's East and Uno and Due seem to be the board's consensus favorites

    Huh? No, they aren't. Not even close. If any pizza place is a "consensus favorite" in Chicago for deep-dish, it's Lou Malnati's. And if you don't want to take my word for it, check this out: http://chicago.eater.com/archives/201...
    That really does represent the consensus of deep-dish fans in Chicago. It's pretty much the same here on Chowhound, with Malnati's on top. Uno and Pizano's also have fans, Gino's East somewhat less so, but Lou Malnati's would undoubtedly be the closest to a consensus pick.

    >> Is Schwa really worth the extra hassle? Or is El Ideas just as good?

    With Schwa, it's not just the hassle, it's the significant risk of cancellation. For a local Chicagoan, if it's not a special occasion, that might not be a big deal, since they could change plans and go some other time. But on a brief visit to Chicago, that could destroy your vacation plans. I wouldn't risk it.

    As for El Ideas, I ate there recently and was disappointed. Now, nothing was *bad*, but there wasn't a single dish that was really great or memorable, either. I know it has its fans, but I sure didn't taste anything praiseworthy during my dinner.

    Instead of either one, if you wanted another high-end dinner in addition to Alinea, Grace would be my first choice. Easily. Grace is superb - yet a very different experience from Alinea, which is also superb. However, Grace is also quite expensive; you'll probably spend as much as Alinea, figure $300-400/person including alcohol (without going crazy) and tax/tip. If you would prefer not to spend that much, then I would strongly recommend Naha, one of our local gems that is too often overlooked. Naha offers the same level of creativity (from James Beard Award winner Carrie Nahabedian) and luxury as the uber-expensive places, but at a lower price point, and without the formality (e.g. business casual okay, jackets not required/recommended for gentlemen).

    1. I agree with Nsxtasy that Gino's East is not generally regarded as one of Chicago's best pizza venues. Stick with Lou Malnati's, Uno/Due or Pizaono's.

      Schwa can be an extraordinary, extremely memorable, mind blowing dining experience, but in addition to sometimes difficult reservations (they do seem a bit better about answering there phone in recent months), they also have some consistency issues (one of my meals there was bleh whereas two were phenomenal) and they often cancel your reservation last minute (has happened two of the three times I have dined there and to numerous friends) - this makes it a poor choice for out-of-towners and for special occasions. I have dined at El Ideas four times and each has been fantastic and memorable. It is similar to Schwa but a little more refined (though still edgy and unique), far more consistent and less sweet flavors (Schwa tends to marry sweet & savory in nearly every course). Another venue I would consider is Elizabeth; also an open kitchen like Schwa and El, similar price point (though not BYOB), lengthy tasting menu, unique & creative cuisine and interaction with the chef. http://www.elizabethtickets.com/#!men...

      Also agree with Nsxtasy that Grace is worth considering; IMHO it has soared past Alinea and has become Chicago's very best restaurant. Had one of my best meals ever there a couple months ago and am heading back for my anniversary in June - but if you do not want another $$$$$ meal, El Ideas and Elizabeth are both outstanding choices and a nice contrast from your other meals.

      1. Have you looked into Goosefoot? It's another BYOB at a similar price. I did Goosefoot back to back with Alinea and found the food at Goosefoot to be all around better and arguably the best meal I've had in Chicago(can't currently comment on Grace, unfortunately).

        Between Schwa and El Ideas, I'd pick Schwa for the food, especially if you enjoy a sweet/savory component in most dishes as others have mentioned. It's a tough sell though since you're running the cancelation risk. I got a reservation first try calling around 1pm on a weekday. No cancellation either, but YMMV on that one based on what others have said. If you know what you're in for, Schwa is worth it for the food. My only issue is our meal was quite short, but no different than Alinea if you're at a 2 top.

        Very solid food at El and the open kitchen concept is really neat. I'd rank it as my 3rd choice but that's not saying we didn't really enjoy our meal.

        I really don't think you can go wrong with any of the choices above as long as you can secure a reservation. I'd also agree Elizabeth is worth looking at. If you can find a table in the $85-100 range and split a wine pairing, it's quite possibly the best fine dining value in Chicago.

        2 Replies
        1. re: pepsican

          One thing worth mentioning about Elizabeth is that, like Alinea and Next, they use a ticketing system for advance reservations. And, if your plans change and you have to cancel, there are no refunds.

          I thought Goosefoot was very good - not exceptional (not among my top ten dinners of the year), but all the courses were solid and the BYO aspect makes it a bit less expensive. We laughed at how every course used microgreens on the plating. Reservations are tough, though (i.e. they fill up way in advance).

          1. re: nsxtasy

            FYI Chef Regan (chef/owner of Elizabeth) does refund tickets for out-of-town guests who's trip is cancelled and they do not have plants to return to Chicago in the near future.

            Here is a link to a nice interview that was done with Chef Regan (that covers this as well as many other topics):