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Jul 22, 2014 04:33 PM

Advance Planning -- returning to the City of my Birth

Yes, I was born in Chicago (at the late, great Michael Reese Hospital), but left at the age of five -- trading in the Gold Coast of the Windy City for the Hills of Beverly in California . . . and although I've been back several times, this is the first time since 1958 that I shall be there for my birthday.

We will be staying at the Omni (676 N. Michigan @ Huron), and are in Chicago for a total of five dinners and four lunch/brunches, Friday through Tuesday. I already have dinner reservations for Girl and the Goat, and at David Burke's. Both accept reservations "waaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyy out" -- we won't be there until November! So what I'm looking for is information . . .

On my tentative brunch/lunch list is: North Pond (Sunday brunch), Purple Pig (we want to go back), and Blackbird (we've been to The Publican and avec). Still have one opening, but no reservations for anything as of yet.

On my tentative dinner list -- which, I know, is way too long already -- is Schwa (spoke with Michael Carlson; he suggested I call back in mid-September), Brindille or NAHA, Trencherman, possibly Moto or G.T. Fish. And somewhere in the mix will be Lou Malnati's (any preferences between Gold Coast and River North locations?). I'm thinking Grace and Alinea will blow the budget, plus I don't think I can go the "ticket" route for either Alinea or The Aviary (though we might try to visit The Violet Hour; what about Big Star?).

Questions: anyone know how far out these places will accept reservations? Anything I should drop off the list, or something I should add?

As we visit rural Mexico fairly often, we're less excited by Rick Bayless' restaurants, unless . . .

Thanks in advance for your insights.


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  1. You have some excellent venues lined up. My favorite brunch/lunch place in the city is Jam; a bit of a trek from the downtown area but such a great meal if you don't mind travelling a bit to the Logan Square neighborhood. Regarding Blackbird, the head chef (David Posey) is leaving at the end of this month, so not sure what impact this will have on them.

    Schwa can be a mind blowing experience but in case you are not aware they do have a tendency to cancel last minute on people so I like to caution people about this considering Schwa as either a special occasion or for out-of-towners. I have dined there three times; two of the three I was cancelled on within a couple hours of my dinner and had to reschedule. Of the three dinners two were among the top 10-15 meals I have ever consumed but one was pretty terrible. A safer bet for a similar experience is El Ideas; similar vibe but a bit more polished/professional and farm more consistent regarding both food, service and not cancelling on you. El has a dinner party like ambiance (all courses are served simultaneously to the entire restaurant); the chefs serve/present all the courses and you can observe/chat with them in the kitchen between courses. Like Schwa they are BYOB and feature a lengthy tasting menu of modern cuisine in an edgy, unpretentious atmosphere.

    Other restaurants I feel are well worth visiting right now would be Grace (if you decide to splurge - I think they have passed Alinea as Chicago's best restaurant), Moto (been one of my favorite venues for a couple of years now), Elizabeth (somewhat like El Ideas/Schwa but even more refined - still casual, whimsical fine dining with an extended tasting menu and an open kitchen - the food is hyper-seasonal with much of the ingredients grown or foraged by the chef) and Boka (unlike the others mentioned Boka is mainly a la carte - tasting menus sometimes accommodated upon request; Chef Wolen is among the most talented chefs in the city and the restaurant is stunning following the recent renovations and the staff is so friendly).

    Boka, Moto and Grace take reservations via Open Table 2-3 months out; Grace you need to call for weekend reservations. Boka and Moto do not generally book up on weeknights to far out, but on weekends good to book at least a couple weeks beforehand (Moto is closed Sunday & Monday as is Grace; Boka is open daily). Elizabeth has tickets but generally does not sell out more than a couple weeks out; the meals are less expensive on weeknights even though it is the same meal you would receive on a weekend. Another amazing restaurant is Goosefoot; reservations can be a bit of a challenge (they are on Open Table but do not generally have much available as past diners tend to book future reservations at the end of the meal leaving little showing on Open Table); if you are able to score a table you are in for a treat - some of the best tasting cuisine I have ever consumed.

    GT Fish is my favorite place in Chicago for seafood; they are open for lunch/brunch so you could squeeze them in there as well. Love Girl & the Goat. Steak wise Bavette's is my favorite venue, but Burke's is a wonderful choice. Balena is my favorite Italian venue in the city and for Asian I would recommend Embeya or Juno (they have been closed for a while because of a fire but are re-opening soon) are fantastic. Embeya has a great lunch deal during weekdays.

    Cocktail lounge my favorite these days is Berkshire Room in River North; not as flashy as Aviary but IMHO better cocktails, less $$$ and no issues with tickets. I do prefer Berkshire as a before dinner cocktail than after as it often is really busy later in the evening and can take on a bit of a clubby ambiance. I recommend sitting up to the bar; such friendly and interesting staff behind the bar; if you enjoy bourbon based cocktails be sure to order a Weston - my favorite cocktail ever.

    1. >> anyone know how far out these places will accept reservations?

      Of the places you mentioned, the only one where a reservation way in advance is needed is Girl and the Goat, so you've got that covered. Reservations aren't too terribly tough to get at Brindille or Naha; they're a bit more in demand for North Pond, Blackbird, and GT Fish, but still not too bad. If you make your reservations at least 4-6 weeks ahead, you'll probably be able to name your time at all of these, and of course it won't hurt to try making them 8-10 weeks out. Also note that all are on so it's easy to make them whenever you want. Except Purple Pig, which doesn't take reservations at all.

      Making reservations WAY in advance isn't really a big thing in Chicago, and is only a concern for fewer than a dozen places (some but not all are among our best); in addition to the ticketing/pay-in-advance places (Alinea, Next, Elizabeth, El Ideas), they include Girl and the Goat, Grace, Gibson's Steakhouse, Topolobampo, and Goosefoot. Other than at those, it's not much of an issue.

      >> Anything I should drop off the list, or something I should add?

      You've already got some of our best places in mind. The problem, as usual in Chicago, is that there are SO many excellent places around. So you can name ten places, and gonzo can name ten more, and I can name ten more, and all thirty are excellent places worth considering. So I wouldn't say there's anything that you should drop off the list. If I had to give additional suggestions besides the ones you mentioned (and considering the caveats you specify), the top places I would add are Sable, for terrific small plates and craft cocktails; Jam, which gonzo also mentioned, IMHO our best breakfast restaurant (note, they don't take reservations, and you can expect 30-60 minute waits to be seated on weekends between 9:30 and 1:00, not bad all other times); Anteprima, a neighborhood Italian bistro in Andersonville; and Garrett's Popcorn for a snack, with several downtown locations as well as at O'Hare. Two more places worth visiting are agglomerations with lots of options: the French Market (a public market in a downtown commuter train station, with various food stalls), and Eataly (for everything Italian).

      Enjoy your visit, and feel free to ask more questions!

      1. The Aviary does take walk-ins! They hold about 50% of the room for them. You could try before or after Girl & the Goat. They're a short walk away from one another anyway.

        We also loved the Berkshire Room and it makes for a nice cocktail crawl if you can pair it with Three Dots and a Dash and/or Sable. Former Sable bartender Fred Sarkis is now at the nearby Celeste (haven't been yet but we adore Freddie).

        We are also big fans of the cocktails and food at both Billy Sunday and Yusho, in Logan Square.

        Serious Drinks has some nice photos and short write ups of these bars and others here:

        Maybe someone else can report differently but the last time we went to Big Star it seemed to have fall off a bit regarding food. Still fun for people-watching, though, and drinking.

        1. Girl and the Goat is fun, casual and boisterous. Some of the dishes are interesting and really addicting others not so much. I prefer Bavettes to David Burke's and had to actually be talked into going there but it is a really great place for steaks and a lot of updated steakhouse classics plus their own modern touches that still feel interesting.
          Haven't been to North Pond for brunch ever or Blackbird for lunch lately but I rarely go more than a few weeks without a stop at The Purple Pig (off hours only to be sure of no waits). The current menu has several of my favorites dishes off the menu but there are plenty of offerings that should satisfy most tastes.
          Schwa offers some amazing food but it can be seriously idiosyncratic and cancellations have been a problem but it is a unique Chicago experience (loud music, air conditioners that drip condensation on you etc etc). Plan an alternative reservation for relatively nearby at either Balena or Boka. I've had three dinners at Boka. The first two a hit and an almost miss but the third visit was just great. Balena has great house made pasta and pizza but it's bar service has been a problem (slow even on a slow night like 20 to 25 minutes to get a cocktail slow so be forewarned ).
          Brindille and Naha offer similar food. Very high quality ingredients cooked expertly at a very high price, particularly at Brindille. Not always inspired but technically pretty flawless and always very good.
          Aviary is a you-gotta-do-it once kinda place. Way over the top but fun in a "isn't this silly and amazing and decadent" sort of way. The potato croquettes are pretty amazing as well.
          Not mentioned much on these boards and an oldie but defiantly worthy of respect kind of place is "MK the restaurant". I hadn't been there for several years but have had two recent meals there that were really delicious. I loved literally everything we ordered both times and I barely managed a taste of my SO's food as he was being pretty territorial about my poaching from his plate. The also serve an amazing aged bourbon Manhattan cocktail that my SO wants me to replicate despite the fact that they barrel age the bourbon and vermouth for something like two months. Needless to say he's dreaming but it costs a walloping $17 per glass so it is a bit like Aviary in that regard. Naha, Brindille and MK are in the same price range so... Pick your poison.
          As far as reservations go Naha, Brindille ,MK,, boka and Balena are readily available even at the last minute except on weekends. Girl and The Goat has to be reserved quite early but walking in at early hours are usually accommodated during the work week. Aviary takes walk ins and Purple Pig is no reservations.