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NorCal Hound would love feedback/ideas on my dining plans

I'm traveling alone on business to Chicago for a very quick 2.5 weekday trip (so no Sunday brunch for me). I will not have a car, but I am willing to taxi it if it's not accessible via the L. I don't mind eating alone, eat everything (though I'm super picky about Chinese food so I think I'd avoid it on this trip), and budget is not an issue.

My problem is that I have some business meals with others, so I have only a few meals on my own: 1 dinner the night I arrive, 2 breakfasts and 1 lunch (has to be less than 2 hours long for both meal and the commute to/from the Loop given other meetings).

I tried, and failed, to get a reservation at some high-end/popular places (Alinea, Grace, North Pond, Naha, Girl and the Goat), though I'm wondering if some of them have bar seating (I know Girl & the Goat mentioned it on their website). I'm thinking of going to Girl & the Goat and trying to snag a bar seat around 8 pm Monday night. Sound feasible? If not, a few friends recommended Purple Pig (no res required, late hours, and I see they have a foie gras smear--haven't had any foie gras since CA banned it), Publican (I love charcuterie and blood sausage), or Maude's (roasted bone marrow, foie gras, salmon tartare all sound good). I saw some recent recs for Purple Pig and Maude's here. I'm planning on grabbing food for the flight home from Tortas Fronteras, so I was going to skip Rick Bayless' other restaurants.

As for breakfast, I love savory breakfasts (not into pastries/pancakes/french toast). I'm considering Little Goat (if I don't get into Girl & Goat, but maybe even if I do as it's 10 minute L ride from my hotel). Jam's menu looks good, but it's a 25 minute L ride. I'd love recommendations that aren't too far from the Loop (just because I get hangry when I don't get food within an hour of waking up!).

Thank you!

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  1. You mention that transportation is an issue. If you could tell us your hotel location, we could work that into our recommendations.
    Meanwhile, you are on the right track with Publican, Maude's, and Tortas Frontera.

    7 Replies
    1. re: Polski

      I'm at the Hotel Allegro. Thanks for any help!

      1. re: smiles33

        Got it. No knockout places right next to your hotel, but if you need a place nearby, Trattoria No. 10 is more than serviceable.
        Otherwise, you've been given lots of good recs below.

        1. re: smiles33

          The Hotel Allegro is extremely close to the French Market; just walk three blocks west on Randolph (crossing over the river), turn left onto Canal, and the entrance is on your right. It's a great place for lunch, because you can see what looks good, and "graze" from booth to booth.

          In my previous post, I mentioned that they have some of the best places of their type in the city. These include Pastoral for cheese and sandwiches, Vanille Patisserie for pastry, Saigon Sisters for banh mi and pho, Lillie's Q for barbecue, Fumare for Montreal-style smoked meat, and more.

          Incidentally, Naha and Blackbird are also only a few blocks away. Nothing against Boka - it's excellent too - but there's really no need to travel 2+ miles to Boka when there are such equally great restaurants within a few blocks of your hotel.

          1. re: nsxtasy

            Already ate at Boka & loved it (foie gras terrine, gnudi, short ribs and peaches and cream). Made res for Naha tomorrow! Maybe will try french market for breakfast?

            1. re: smiles33

              I'm not sure what they have for breakfast, other than pastry (Vanille Patisserie is awesome, and there's also Delightful Pastries) or donuts (Beavers Donuts), and coffee at Lavazza.

              1. re: nsxtasy

                Thanks again for being so helpful! I didn't sleep well so I ended up waking up too late to go to a sit down breakfast. Just picked up a toasted bagel with lox from a bagel shop across the street from my 9 am meeting. Waiting for my food at Naha now!

                1. re: smiles33

                  Great choice!

                  Coincidentally, I happened to be at the French Market early this morning. A lot of the booths weren't open yet, so you wouldn't get the "whole effect".

                  Oh, and while the directions I posted were correct:

                  >> The Hotel Allegro is extremely close to the French Market; just walk three blocks west on Randolph (crossing over the river), turn left onto Canal, and the entrance is on your right.

                  That entrance really isn't labeled for the French Market. It just says Ogilvie Transportation Center and 118 N. Canal. You have to walk in there, which is a concourse for the commuter train station, and the French Market is towards the opposite (Clinton Street) end of that concourse.

                  Hope you enjoyed Naha - maybe the best lunch in Chicago!

      2. >> I tried, and failed, to get a reservation at some high-end/popular places (Alinea, Grace, North Pond, Naha, Girl and the Goat)

        I'm surprised you couldn't get a reservation at Naha, or even North Pond. Great places with amazingly delicious food, but not terribly difficult to snag a reservation, especially for a weekday.

        In case you're trying on Opentable.com , one quirk I've noticed on that site is, some restaurants do not accept reservations there for solo diners. The website will give you a message that there are no tables available, even though there are; you have to call the restaurant to make a reservation for 1. (In fact, I ran into exactly this situation for my dinner tomorrow, albeit in another city.) So if that's the case, you might try calling the restaurant.

        Oh, and Naha is also open for lunch during the week, and is a short walk from the Loop. They have a three-course prix fixe that's quite reasonable. Blackbird is another, similar option.

        At the opposite end of the "fancy vs not" spectrum, the French Market is a great place to visit for lunch, and it's only a short walk from the Loop. Lots of booths including some of the best food of their kind in Chicago. www.frenchmarketchicago.com

        >> I'm thinking of going to Girl & the Goat and trying to snag a bar seat around 8 pm Monday night. Sound feasible? If not, a few friends recommended Purple Pig (no res required, late hours

        I would not recommend either place for dining without a reservation at normal dining hours, not even for a solo. You're going to run into horrendous waiting times to be seated (2+ hours at Purple Pig, 1+ hour at G&TG).

        You should be able to make a reservation at Publican and I think at Maude's too.

        >> I'm planning on grabbing food for the flight home from Tortas Fronteras, so I was going to skip Rick Bayless' other restaurants.

        The menu at Tortas Frontera is entirely different from those of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill - basically sandwiches/chips vs the full range of a meal. I enjoy them all, but wouldn't rule out the latter two based only on a stop at the airport. If you'd like to give this further consideration, you can check out all the menus at www.rickbayless.com/restaurants

        >> As for breakfast, I love savory breakfasts (not into pastries/pancakes/french toast). I'm considering Little Goat (if I don't get into Girl & Goat, but maybe even if I do as it's 10 minute L ride from my hotel). Jam's menu looks good, but it's a 25 minute L ride. I'd love recommendations that aren't too far from the Loop (just because I get hangry when I don't get food within an hour of waking up!).

        Here are some ideas right in the Loop.

        The Wabash location of Heaven on Seven serves a decent breakfast (I think they open at 9). It's on the seventh floor of an office building in the Loop.

        You can also get a light breakfast - think croissant sandwiches with eggs, bacon, etc - at our coffee shops (e.g. Intelligentsia on Randolph or Jackson), pastry shops (Tony Patisserie on Washington), or sandwich shops (Pret a Manger, multiple locations in the Loop).

        I like Meli Café and Bongo Room, recommended below by Gonzo below, a lot. However, depending on where you are coming from, they may be a bit further than you would prefer. Also, Bongo Room's specialty is pancakes, and you mention that your preference is not for sweeter breakfasts.

        1 Reply
        1. re: nsxtasy

          Exceptionally helpful advice here! I suspect it must be the solo diner factor. I'll call when I get off the plane for lunch tomorrow but it's too late for tonight. I procrastinated making by reservations due to some other pressing matters. I will try opentable now as i can't call from the plane.

        2. Little Goat is a good breakfast option for a savory breakfast. Other good venues nearby downtown include Meli Cafe and Bongo Room; both have a combination of savory/sweet options. Not sure exactly where you are staying - might be some other options closer.
          Bongo Room: http://thebongoroom.com/bongo-room-me...
          Meli Cafe: http://www.melicafe.com/chicagobreakf...

          If you are looking for a high end dinner (you mentioned Grace and Alinea), Moto is one of my favorites and often has availability on short notice on weeknights. Like Alinea it is modernist cuisine, but a more casual ambiance. I have been numerous times and the past couple years have had consistently excellent service and food. They are not open Sunday & Monday. No bar seating at Alinea (no bar even) and Grace has a lounge for pre/post dinner drinks, but does not serve food in the lounge. Alinea is closed Mondays & Tuesdays, so no chance of same night/next night tickets; Grace is closed Sunday/Monday.
          Moto: http://motorestaurant.com/

          Girl & the Goat might be possible at 8pm on a Monday, but is no sure thing you could easily secure a bar/lounge seat at that time. If this is a meal you are doing solo it will increase your chance of not having a long wait. Keep your eye on Open Table, as sometimes people cancel reservations as they get close and then they will show up on Open Table - I have scored a Girl & the Goat reservation at a prime meal time just a couple nights out.

          You mentioned a lot of farm-to-table venues (Publican, Girl & the Goat, Purple Pig); assuming this is a style of cuisine you like one place to consider would be Elizabeth. It is out in a neighborhood several miles north of downtown, so would need public transportation or a cab, but is such a unique, interesting, memorable dining experience. Like Alinea Elizabeth sells tickets through their website, but they are much more affordable and generally do not book up far in advance; while they do not sell tickets for solo diners, if you call them they very likely would try to fit you in if at all possible. They are closed Sunday/Monday. Elizabeth serves a lengthy tasting menu with beautiful, artistic presentations and some whimsy featuring cuisine that is locally sources (much is foraged or grown by the chef/owner, Iliana Regan). Lots of unusual foods are incorporated into the meal. Such a fun dining experience and a tremendous value on a weeknight (she charges less on weeknights even though it is the exact same meal on weekends).
          Elizabeth: http://website.elizabeth-restaurant.com/

          Two of my favorite restaurants in Chicago are in Lincoln Park (short cab ride; also can be easily accessed via public transportation) are Boka (Contemporary American) and Balena (Itlaian). Both are open Monday nights and have lively bar areas where you can order off the full menu. The bartenders at both venues are so friendly and outstanding food and drinks.
          Boka: http://www.bokachicago.com/
          Balena: http://balenachicago.com/

          1 Reply
          1. re: Gonzo70

            Just made a dinner res at Boka. Thanks fir the tip!

          2. TRIP REPORT!

            I'm exhausted from a whirlwind trip, but I absolutely loved Chicago and can't wait to return to try other places.

            MONDAY DINNER: BOKA
            This was a wonderful dinner, especially after my plane was delayed on the tarmac upon arrival for 45 minutes due to a late plane still boarding passengers at our gate. By the time I got to my hotel and freshened up, I felt like I really needed a treat! Boka did not disappoint. I love that it is tucked into a charming little neighborhood, as I walked over from the L stop. Wish I lived that close to such a great restaurant.

            Inside, it was almost all couples dining at 9 pm, dimly lit, and a bit overly romantic for a single diner, but I just discreetly people-watched (couldn't quite see what they were dining as the tables were spaced apart nicely).

            Service was lovely.

            I started with the Foie Gras Terrine (unable to eat foie gras here in CA!) and enjoyed it. I found it much tastier than the foie gras smear I had at Purple Pig later in the trip. I also ordered the Ricotta Gnudi, which was a revelation! One of the best tastes of my trip (it *almost* matches the amazing roasted bone marrow at Purple Pig).

            For my main course, I had the grilled beef short ribs. Delicious but not as mind-blowing as the gnudi, nor as highly anticipated as the foie gras.

            Since I was dining alone, instead of wine, I enjoyed a cocktail. I asked the waiter for a rec and per my receipt, it looks like I ended up with a "Date with Divinity." I believe I enjoyed it, as I know the server had great recs for both the cocktail and dessert, but I can't recall enough of this specific cocktail to comment on it.

            I finished with the Roasted Peaches for dessert. I enjoyed the olive oil cake (my first time!) and it complemented the pecan ice cream nicely. All in all, it was a great first taste of Chicago!

            TUESDAY: Lunch at NAHA
            I didn't sleep well at all and had an early morning of meetings, so I ended up just grabbing a bagel with lox from a local chain, Einstein's. Decent breakfast before I had an early lunch at NAHA.

            The space is lovely with huge nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. Yet with a nearly empty restaurant (only two other tables were filled in the hour I was there: one with 2 men in suits and one with 2 women in sundresses), the bright airy space felt a little stark.

            My server was a bit brusque but professional. Combined with the emptiness of the restaurant, it felt a little cold. Yet she broke into a smile once or twice when I commented on something I liked, like the cocktail she recommended (a smoky mescal cocktail, which my receipt says is a Block Dog but it's not on their online menu).

            I opted for the prix fixe lunch, but was immediately informed (at 11:30 am) that they were out of cannelloni. Alas! Ever the trooper, I then went with my second choice, the Armenian “Lahmajoon” (lamb pizza). I thought it tasty, but presentation was more akin to what I would get from a hole-in-the-wall Armenian restaurant.

            It was hot outside (per my sheltered Northern California standards, where anything above mid 70s is hot), so I decided I didn't want a heavy meat course before my afternoon business meetings. That meant excluding the pork shank. I make it a habit to avoid chicken at restaurants (it's far easier for me to secure organic free-range chicken to cook at home than other quality meats) and I don't like most fish, so that left me with the pasta dish. My main course was the Strozzapreti “Twisted Noodles,” Green Asparagus, Rapini and English Peas, Meyer Lemon and Parmesan Reggiano.

            It sounded light and refreshing for a hot summer day, but in execution, I was disappointed. The sauce, what little I got, was bright (thanks, Meyer lemon, for your sacrifice!) but it lacked sufficient body (too thin and watery) and didn't cover the pasta and vegetables. The unbalanced proportions left me with a bland and disappointing dish that lacked the richness a pasta should have.

            Fortunately, I ended with the cheese plate, including a rich creamy goat cheese that gave me the unctuousness I was craving. I don't know that I would go back, at least not for the prix fix lunch.

            "Dinner" Tuesday night was a casual work event with heavy appetizers from a local Mediterranean chain, Roti. Pretty good, and I absentmindedly ate too much while talking with a lot of folks so I never made it out to dinner. Plus, I was exhausted from a 12 hour workday with only about 5 hours of restless sleep.

            WEDNESDAY: Breakfast at LITTLE GOAT
            I woke up at 5 am Chicago time, once again not sleeping well. After an hour of trying to go back to sleep, I decided I might as well get up and head out to a real breakfast. Logged onto Opentable and got a 7:15 am breakfast at Little Goat.

            This was totally worth losing sleep and trekking out to West Loop. Instead of coffee (which I had already chugged back at my hotel), I opted for a Bloody Mary and it was delicious. I also got the Brandade and Belly Benedict. It was better than expected!

            I love how it had the rich, "full-fat" mouth feel of a diner breakfast, but subtle flavor "tweaks" that surprised me and made this a distinctive breakfast. The buttery luscious biscuits made me think of an upscale diner, but the Kimchi, the salt cod flavor in the brandade, and the pork belly clearly told me I was not in any old diner. This was a creative yet still hugely satisfying meal. Many times, I find "creative food" is defined as a one or two bite, highly orchestrated, overly refined piece of art. I loved that this somewhat "messy" plate was full of flavor, full of fat, and yet also challenged me to tease out the various flavors.

            Of course, after finishing this meal, I felt like I waddled my way back to my hotel and lay in bed for another hour before my first meeting (which, thankfully, did not require super brainpower as I was both sleep-deprived and lethargic from the heavy meal).

            WEDNESDAY: Lunch at ARAON
            Sigh. Sometimes you just have to grin and bear it when you go to business lunches at restaurants that others choose. This was a HUGE disappointment. I couldn't find anything on the menu remotely interesting to me and didn't feel confident enough in the restaurant's quality to order sashimi before a flight back to California. So I ended up with a salmon bibimbap. I figured it should be a simple meal you can't really mess up, but they were missing the spicy gochujang (or didn't put enough in). I ate the salmon (about 6 bites worth) and maybe 4-5 bites of rice and left the rest.

            But that's ok, two bites in, I knew I was going to sneak out to Purple Pig after my last meeting and before I headed to the airport. I wasn't going to waste precious stomach space on subpar, overpriced "Asian" food!

            WEDNESDAY - Snacks at PURPLE PIG
            After picking up my roller bag and changing to comfortable airplane-friendly clothes, I headed to Purple Pig (after first calling to confirm there wasn't a wait for 1 diner). I ordered the roasted bone marrow, foie gras smear, and the porchetta panini (which I took to go for dinner on the plane).

            I love roasted bone marrow, but this version was particularly amazing because of the accoutrement. The herbs and capers were a bright contrast to the rich marrow on the delicious grilled bread.

            Foie gras smear was ok, maybe because I had it second and it didn't pack the bright robust punch of flavor that the roasted marrow had.

            At this point, I was getting really full so I was very glad I ordered the porchetta panini to go. I ended up being so full I never even ate it on the plane (had some before bed).

            WED: More Snacks from O'Hare
            I also picked up the Chicago mix from the Garrett's at O'Hare (my co-workers and kids loved it) and a tostada from Tostada Fronteras for my husband (the Pepito). It was good, better than any airport food I typically get, but I had a bite 6 hours after I bought it so maybe it was better fresh.

            All in all, this was a delightful taste of Chicago and I wanted to thank Polski, nsxtasy, and Gonzo70 for your great tips.

            2 Replies
            1. re: smiles33

              Well done. Sounds as if you were a good trooper. Sorry that the lunch at Naha was only so-so.

              1. re: smiles33

                Glad to hear that you had such a great time! Thanks for posting the report - feedback is always helpful.