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Jun 11, 2014 02:55 AM

best fine dining in Chicago

I have just arrived in Madison for summer school. But school doesn't start until Monday but once it starts I hear that I will be busy until I leave in August. So, I was thinking of seeking out the best restaurant that I can find that is within a "reasonable" distance from Madison. From what I have researched, the best place would be Alinea restaurant in Chicago.

What's the details on this restaurant without giving me any spoilers? This is the best that Chicago has to offer, correct? Is it worth the three hour drive from Madison? Or should I just take the bus since I will have to rent a car? I hear reservations there are done in a strange way? Any other thoughts or even if you think another area or state within a "reasonable" distance has the best restaurant in the area, please let me know. Thank You.

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  1. Alinea does not take normal reservations. They sell tickets. Just like a sporting event or concert.

    MOST importantly, you should know the tickets are for tables of 2, 4, and 6 only. Solo diners are accommodated whenever they can, but they usually don't know in advance. And it's a request sent via email, and waiting for them to respond. It seems risky to me to not know when you can dine until the last minute & need to drive three hours.

    Everything you need to know is on the Alinea site.

    Additionally you seem to be planning very last minute for a fine dining meal, especially if you want a table this coming Friday or Saturday (2-3 days from now). These places book several weeks in advance.

    Similar to Alinea, I don't believe El Ideas or Elizabeth take solo diners unless last minute/filling a gap. I did see some solo tables at Grace for Friday available though. Worth contacting El Ideas if you are free tonight or tomorrow as their web site says they have space.

    See also:


    Alinea is open Wednesday through Sunday and accepts bookings from 5:00 PM to 9:30 PM. Our current tasting menu is approximately 18 courses, but varies by season, product availability, and evening.
    Address: 1723 North Halsted
    Chicago, Illinois 60614
    Phone: +312-867-0110
    Tables may be purchased up to 2 calendar months in advance by going to our Ticket Portal. All ticket sales are final but fully transferable. Wine pairings and other beverages may be purchased when you dine. All patrons will be contacted by phone or email approximately one week before dining to confirm any special needs, preferences, or dietary restrictions. We will do our best to make any and all accommodations including full vegetarian tasting menus that do not compromise the experience.
    Please note that Alinea is a small restaurant with only 64 seats. Tables of 2, 4 and 6 are accommodated. We do not have room for larger parties. Note as well that one or two tables are seated every fifteen minutes until the restaurant is full, so times such as 7:30 or 8:00 PM do not exist.
    Please visit our FAQ page on the Ticket Portal for more information.

    2 Replies
    1. re: kathryn

      Some good info above.
      One convenient alternative would be to hop a Badger Bus to downtown Milwaukee, and walk a mile northeast from the main bus depot to Sanford restaurant. Excellent food and accepting of single diners.

      1. re: Polski

        Good option that is closer than Chicago; my wife dined there recently and loved Sanford. We are hoping to make it up there sometime this summer.

    2. I agree with Kathryn; Alinea is regarded as one of the worlds top restaurants and is very hot right now, so their tables are booking up far in advance. Unless you have connections scoring a table - especially as a solo - on short notice is extremely unlikely. They have a single tasting menu with modern cuisine where dinner is like theater.

      That said Chicago has many phenomenal restaurants. Kathryn mentioned Grace; in my opinion Grace has ascended to a level even higher than Alinea and has become my favorite restaurant in the Midwest (I am heading there for my anniversary later this month). Try calling them if you would like to get in; they do not post Open Table availability for weekends and do accommodate solos, but may already be booked on such short notice. They serve tasting menu only ($205 for the food). Simply incredible food, service and space and would make for a very memorable dining experience. .

      If you like extremely modern food (what Alinea serves) Moto would be a great alternative. Somewhat similar style of food, but less pretentiousness, friendlier service, less expensive ($175 versus $210 to $275 for Alinea) and much easier and customer-friendly reservation process. Request to be seated in the "lab" area - much more fun and great vibe than the main dining room.

      El Ideas and Elizabeth (also mentioned by Kathryn) are also wonderful and worth a trip from Madison. Open kitchens, lots of interactions with the chefs (at El Ideas you can even hang out in the kitchen between courses); unique, creative, beautiful cuisine served in lengthy tasting menu formats. Agree you should try calling them if they seem appealing as they do sometimes accommodate solo diners upon request.

      There are several more excellent, high end restaurants in Chicago, but these are the ones where a reservation on short notice is possible and that would be worth a three hour journey in my opinion.

      1. Here's some advice from someone (me) who lives in Chicago but is also familiar with the restaurant scene in Milwaukee and Madison. I'll try to keep it brief and on point.

        Is Alinea the best restaurant in Chicago? Yes, but it's more than that. Having dinner there is the restaurant experience of a lifetime. I've been fortunate enough to dine there several times. My dinner there a few months ago even surpassed my earlier experiences and was the best dinner in my entire life. However, dining as a solo, and getting a reservation at the last minute, present significant obstacles.

        Are there other choices in Chicago? Absolutely. Grace is outstanding in its own way. Other excellent fine dining restaurants include TRU, Everest, L2O, Spiaggia, and Les Nomades.

        Would I travel all the way from Madison to Chicago for a dinner? Only for Alinea. Not because other restaurants here aren't excellent, but because there are so many excellent restaurants right in Madison, as well as in Milwaukee. Why drive 170 miles to Chicago when you can have great food locally, or 80 miles away in Milwaukee?

        In Madison, L'Etoile is the longtime fine dining top table in town, and it's consistently excellent. (It also may be the only place in Madison that deserves mention as "fine dining".) A notch down on the "fancy" scale are Harvest and Fresco, and I've had excellent dinners at both. Not fine dining, but "finer dining", e.g. white tablecloths but most gentlemen aren't wearing jackets. Another place I've had excellent meals is Eno Vino - a casual place on the west side specializing in small plates and wine.

        Milwaukee has a terrific dining scene. Sanford, already mentioned, is the long time fine dining champ, and is outstanding. Ardent opened recently; I haven't been there yet, but reports are that it's excellent also. In the "finer dining" category, I've enjoyed dinners at Hinterland, Crazy Water, and Pastiche. You might enjoy reading about the top 30 restaurants according to the local newspaper's dining critic, at

        Bottom line: Unless you're going to Alinea (or otherwise need to be in Chicago), I'd check out all the great options in Madison and Milwaukee first.

        You'll definitely want to make reservations for any of these. Many but not all of them, in all three cities, show reservations on which is an easy way to view availability for lots of places easily. But don't overlook those that aren't on Opentable. Note that you'll need to check Opentable separately for Chicago vs for the Wisconsin restaurants.

        10 Replies
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Thank you for the reply. I just received an email from Alinea that they are booked for this week so it will have to be next week or something.

          Another friend also recommended me try Eleven Madison in New York but that is a $400 four flight away. I'm not sure if its worth it. Then again I have never been to New York so maybe...

          As for Madison, I have already tried L'Etoile, Graze, Marigold Kitchen, Himal Chuli, Short Stack Eatery, Tornado Steakhouse, and Pig in a Fur Coat. The only one that was pretty good was Marigold Kitchen. I guess I just don't like Wisconsin style cuisine OR I just don't like dairy.

          That's why I do not wish to eat out here anymore. If I am going to eat out now, I would like to experience the so-called 'best' food that I can get my hands on. Hence why I am considering Alinea and Eleven Madison.

          1. re: bloodboy

            I've eaten at Eleven Madison Park, and at some of the other fine dining restaurants in NYC, including Per Se, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Jean Georges, Marea, and Le Bernardin. Fine restaurants, all. And comparable to the fine dining group in Chicago I mentioned above. However, I don't think there's a single one that would justify a special trip all the way to New York just for dinner. The same way I don't think there's anything in Chicago other than Alinea that would justify a special trip from Madison for dinner. (FWIW, if I had to pick a place for just one dinner in New York, it would be Per Se, not EMP.)

            If you want to go to New York City, by all means do so. But if you do, I would suggest staying for at least 3-4 days (if not longer) and trying a variety of restaurants and price points, and not stake the entire purpose of your trip on a single meal. I recommend the same thing if you come to Chicago. (Although frankly, since you've been that disappointed in the restaurant meals you've had in Madison, I wouldn't be surprised if you found yourself mostly disappointed by meals on trips to Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, or any other city.)

            You can find more information about New York City restaurants on the Chowhound forums for that city, of course.

            1. re: bloodboy

              Just saw your response to me on your other thread--might help others if they knew you were from Hawaii and don't have this same sort of dining scene/access to Mainland restaurants at home.

              What are you looking for in a fine dining experience? EMP is $225pp BTW.

              EMP in NYC can be a tough reservation to get. But if you are flexible you might be able to squeeze in for lunch Thurs-Sat.

              They seem to restrict their OpenTable when reservations open up each morning. The phone lines open for reservations at 9am exactly 28 days (4 weeks including the current day) in advance. Be prepared for a busy signal.

              Also the meal lasts 3.5-4 hours and getting to/from Manhattan and the local airports can be a big hassle, so I would recommend staying overnight if you do dinner at EMP.

              1. re: bloodboy

                Eleven Madison Park (EMP) is amazing - it is currently ranked as the best restaurant in North America by the World Restaurant Ranking. Just had the privilege of stopping in for cocktails there this past weekend. However like Alinea scoring a reservation for dinner (or even lunch) takes work and significant advance planning. Reservations open 28 days out for EMP and book up within hours (and often lots of busy signals when you try and call). While you certainly can get placed on a wait list for EMP, since you are not in New York this would not be plausible. As with Alinea, they do not even have a table for two available until late next month - so your chances of scoring a table there in advance without connections are extremely slim; not zero, but close to it. You can check Alinea's Facebook page; people post there if they need to "sell" their tickets (since tickets are non-refundable), but you would have to either pay for a table for two or find someone to split a two-top with you via this method.

                Another world class restaurant that does not receive as much attention since it is outside of a major city is Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY (about 45 minutes outside of Manhattan). A restaurant that sits on a beautiful farm and has no menu, but serves a tasting menu based on whatever is fresh (they source as much as possible from their own and neighboring farms) and your dietary preferences/aversions. This is both my wife and mine favorite restaurant; the setting alone makes it a majestic experience and the food and staff are as good as they come. Just dined here Sunday and was as amazing as ever; for dessert they even moved us outside to a remote table under the stars set up with all sorts of candles. However even though it is outside of NYC reservations here on short notice also are not easy as they too tend to book up soon after tables are released. You could try calling them to see if they can squeeze in a solo diner; I feel it is as worthy of a special journey as is EMP - but it is such a romantic venue that it is perhaps best enjoyed with a significant other.

                I find Grace to be in the same ballpark (and more to my personal liking) than Alinea and think that is your best bet. It is modern, not at all pretentious and a true all around dining experience. It is nothing like "old school" fine dining where the food is great but service over the top formal and no excitement or energy in the dining room. If I lived in Madison I definitely would be driving in to Chicago for Grace periodically. El Ideas and Elizabeth or not quite the same caliber a Grace, Alinea, EMP and Stone Barns, but are very fun, memorable, unique and interesting experiences that are worth a trip. El Ideas may in fact be the best for a solo diner, as it is set up like a dinner party where the entire restaurant is served food simultaneously and there often ends up being a lot of interaction not just with the chefs, but with people at other tables as well. Moto also would be a very solid option and make for a great time with some incredible, unique, delicious cuisine.

                Assuming you stay over in Chicago you could make the trip even more special by adding a breakfast and lunch; that way you can take in three great venues during a 24 hour stint. Let us know if you decide to come and we can recommend some other venues to enhance your stay if you want more than just an amazing dinner. You also could get a "taste" of Alinea by visiting the cocktail lounge (Aviary) owned by the same people that features extremely modern, artistic cocktails (essentially like an Alinea of beverages).

                You can keep trying for Alinea and look into EMP, but definitely explore other options as these are just not very realistic unless you get extremely lucky. You may stand some chance if you were in Chicago or NY to get in day of, but to secure a spot days in advance is a different story.

                1. re: Gonzo70

                  Love BH@SB but I am thinking it would also probably require an overnight stay even if you were able to get in.

                  Fly to NYC, get to Grand Central Terminal (there's also a privately run airport bus service to GCT in addition to the city bus), then Metro-North from Grand Central to Tarrytown on the Hudson Line, then taxi to the restaurant. Unless you rent a car, too.

                  It's extremely popular during spring and summer (starts to book 60 days ahead) because that's when produce in the area is at its best; much easier to get in during winter.

                  1. re: kathryn

                    Yes, definitely would require an overnight stay. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is the only restaurant I have ever flown to overnight for a meal. That was back when they were offering the kitchen table experience where you ate the entire meal in the kitchen (my favorite meal of all time). Now they try to get as many tables as possible into the kitchen for a course rather than have a dedicated kitchen table.

              2. re: nsxtasy

                I'm not so sure I agree. Having eaten at both in the last two weeks, I would take a drive to Chicago + dinner at Elizabeth over dinner at L'Etoile in a heartbeat. Don't get me wrong, I think L'Etoile is very good, but it's not in the same league as Elizabeth.

                Wholeheartedly agree with your main point that there are many great restaurants in Madison, L'Etoile and Harvest among them (not so sure about Fresco), that the OP should not neglect while in Madison.

                1. re: kellyds

                  Funny, I ate at Elizabeth recently. It was very good (and fun, with its foraging theme) but I wouldn't put the food in the same category as the fine dining restaurants in Chicago. Some of the dishes were great, while others were just okay and nothing special (and a ribeye served almost raw was just an embarrassment). Overall it was pretty good but didn't leave me dying to return. At our best fine dining places (and even our best "finer dining" places), you'll usually find one "wow delicious" dish after another, not hit and miss like at Elizabeth.

                  I can't compare Elizabeth to L'Etoile because it has been many years since I've eaten at the latter. I can compare it to El Ideas, where I also ate fairly recently; I greatly preferred Elizabeth, where at least some of the dishes were great and memorable, while there was nothing of that caliber in my meal at El Ideas. Still, unlike either of those two, I'd instead go back to Alinea, or Grace, or North Pond, in a heartbeat, for one "wow" dish after another.

                  You should try Fresco if you haven't been there. It's on the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Madison, with a view of the Capitol. The food is consistently excellent. Save room for the beignet dish on the dessert menu. Also Eno Vino, which you can think of as Madison's equivalent to Chicago places like Purple Pig and Avec.

                  1. re: nsxtasy

                    I agree that the food in-and-of-itself at Elizabeth is not as consistent as other top tier fine dining venues, but Elizabeth as much about the experience as it is the taste of the food (for me Goosefoot would win for best tasting food). Dining at Elizabeth is a fun event. It is a relaxed, fun environment with a nice view of the kitchen and some interaction with the chefs. Service that is more personable than formal. It is about trying foods you likely have never consumed before (i.e. raccoon, bear). It is about the whimsy (i.e. "Fruit loops" made out of things like scallops; noodles made out of shrimp, bear meat Rice Krispies etc.) and beautiful presentation. It is about the chef taking such pride in procuring much of the ingredients herself via foraging, fishing, hunting and growing. It is about the chef's incredible creativity where every three months the entire menu changes aside from a couple signature dishes. It is about the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients. If we are merely speaking taste of the food there are several venues I would pick over Elizabeth, but for a memorable dining experience that transcends just the quality and consistency of the food Elizabeth is in my top few restaurants in Chicago. And with Chef Regan being relatively new to running a restaurant Elizabeth will keep becoming better and better (I have dined there every season and have definitely observed a lot of growth and improvement). Elizabeth is also IMHO the best value in fine dining in Chicago, especially if you can score some of her reduced priced weekday tickets (where you receive the same full tasting menu as is served on weekends - I am just paying $55 for my meal there next month).

                    To me places like TRU, L2O, Everest and Spiaggia offer great tasting, luxurious, perfectly executed, nicely presented food but are nothing unique, are a bit stuffy, service is not very personable, no energy or excitement in the dining rooms, no view of the kitchen or interaction with the chefs and are merely great meals, but not necessarily memorable dining experiences. Certainly well worth periodically frequenting if you reside in Chicagoland, but not necessarily worth coming to Chicago just for dinner.

                    1. re: Gonzo70

                      Then we'll just have to agree to disagree. Because while I appreciate how Elizabeth is different due to its foraging theme (and how it's a delight watching Ms. Regan oversee the operation), overall the food just isn't anything great. And when I go out to eat, I look forward to the food as well as the experience. I would much prefer to go to a place with great food that's not unique, than one with unique food that's in many cases not particularly delicious or memorable.

                      Based upon the OP's expressed dissatisfaction with restaurants in Madison, I strongly suspect he/she would be severely disappointed by Elizabeth (and perhaps by every other restaurant mentioned thus far as well).

              3. Curious what, if any, decision you made.

                5 Replies
                  1. re: kathryn

                    I like that idea in the NY thread of flying to Vegas. Surely there's a cheaper flight to be found that way instead of to NY. Robuchon, Raku, Savoy. Some pretty good choices there.

                    1. re: bloodboy

                      If you are in the Milwaukee area at some point, you would like this place.
                      Thank you for the interesting thread(s).

                      1. re: bloodboy

                        Maybe, just maybe, you might like this one?


                        It's not the most accessible restaurant in Chicago nor is it fine dining. But it does suit your search for exotic meats.