I have been working on this post since we got back from TheBestTripEverOfOurLives in Chicago a few weeks ago, and I think I am going to have to break it up into 2 posts to really cover everything re: Restaurant & Kid Activity Recs. Somehow, even though we really got after it and did all of the things we still never felt run down or overwhelmed. Chicago in the summer, it’s a magical place.
I did a round-up of our favorite restaurants in Chicago before we moved 5 years ago, and it was one of the most popular posts I’ve done, so I thought after eating all of the things in Chicago, it was time for an update. I am not a food critic, so don’t look to these for accurate gastro-terminology, or pearls on the latest trends in fine dining. But I am a lover of food, and I get around,
Also, this post is long, so I am putting in a jump. Now. Hope you enjoy!
One of the most fun nights we had in Chicago, Pete and I met up with our friends one Saturday to do a Logan Square Pub Crawl. When we lived in Chicago, Longman & Eagle had just opened to a huge amount of buzz, and I remember when we checked it out being like, where the hell are we? It seemed so far out of our usual path, now it’s A Place To Be. We started at Lost Lake and walked from there so we could see more of the ‘hood.
Lost Lake: I was pretty hyped up to try Lost Lake. Our favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, had gone up to do a takeover “Texas Tiki” at Lost Lake earlier in the year and I was so bummed to miss it. Between the decor, the kitsch, and just the overall concept I just knew I would be in heaven. And I was. It’s a very small space, and we went early like at 5:00 to avoid the lines. The banana leaf wallpaper, and tiki decor, is so well done. While the drinks are, as expected, really sweet, they are also balanced and delicious. We also tried some of the bar snacks, and the ramen, which was SO GOOD. I really can’t say enough good things about it. Worth the hype, worth the trip.
Billy Sunday: Next we walked to Billy Sunday (we walked past Longman & Eagle on the way so we could stop and put our name on the list). In terms of vibe, it’s pretty much the opposite of Lost Lake, in that it is a classic cocktail lounge/bar. The decor feels like a mix between a speakeasy and a cool mens club, and they are known for their expert takes on classic cocktails. We only had a few small bites, but the food is supposedly really good too. It was nice weather so they had their patio open and the front windows of the bar open as well. Chicagoans appreciate all the good weather they can get, but there aren’t too many places with indoor/outdoor options so this would be a good spot on a pretty day- and also equally cozy in the winter.
Longman & Eagle: This is the place that really started the buzz on Logan Square a few years back when it opened, and then shortly after received a Michelin star. It’s rowdy (i.e. bone marrow) American Fare, which can be intimidating for some people. I am a former picky eater, and this is the type of place I like to go to expand my horizons, and I love it, but I understand that it’s not for everyone. I do think there is something for everyone. We got a smattering of small plates and everything was delicious. I also appreciate that even though it’s a cool-kid spot, the service is always warm and welcoming.
We moved to Chicago when we were 23, but we were already engaged, so while it was prime bar-hopping time I wouldn’t say we were ever experts on the scene. I will always have a place in my heart for Stanley’s and River Shannon (our former Neighborhood bars) but I think my time there has past. Chicago also has a strong mixology cocktail scene, and it was fun to try a few more grown-up cocktail bars on this trip.
Green River [Near North]: Green River is the collaboration between Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon of Dead Rabbit (NYC) fame, and Danny Meyer’s. It is in a super random location- on the 18th floor of an office building in the medical center. But, once you get up in the space you see why, as it has some incredible views of the lake and downtown. If you are staying along the Magnificent Mile, which, because that seems to be the only place people open hotels in Chicago you probably are, I would definitely recommend stopping in. My favorite was the Hinky Dink- which had beet puree in it of all things, so basically it was basically health food.
Sparrow [Gold Coast]: I love the concept of this bar for the location. It is in the Gold Coast which is the fancy shmancy part of downtown Chicago. It’s a classic Chicago lobby bar (though it isn’t actually in a hotel or apartment lobby) and they have created this whole story and world around that idea. The decor is so well done, and the theme elements are just enough to feel fun without being cloying or cheesey. If you are in the area- and again most hotels in Chicago are- I would definitely check this one out.
The Sixth [Lincoln Square]: When we lived in Chicago we became friends with Ben Schiller when he was running the cocktail program at Boka. We were so excited to try his newest endeavor, The Sixth, up in Lincoln Square. So excited, in fact, that I lost myself a little bit and ordered pretty much the entire menu. Ben was bringing the fun back in the day, but seeing what he can come up with when given the room to run was a real thrill. He gave us a tour of the prep areas, and seeing his ice set-up was like…
My pictures are blurry, because it was dark and I was also a little blurry, but if you are into a fun cocktail situation, I could not recommend The Sixth strongly enough.
As innovative as the Chicago food scene can be (see: Alinea, Schwa, Oriole) one of the things I love most about Chicago dining is how well they do the simple classics. For a long time that meant iconic Chicago steakhouses, but more recently Chicago has been a leader in the whole farm-to-table movement focusing on fresh ingredients and classic flavors/techniques. Whatever you want to call it, Chicago does well with refreshingly uncomplicated restaurants where you can eat delicious food that blows your mind by being really excellent rather than ____
Gemini Bistro [Lincoln Park]: Gemini Bistro opened a few blocks away from our house in Chicago when we first lived there, and became a weekly stop for us. Nothing much has changed in the last seven years, and I mean that in the best way. The food is consistently delicious, and they change up the menu enough that things don’t get stale, while holding on to their biggest hits. We used to go here on casual date nights, but this time brought the kids for early dinners. It was so nice to have a place where we could feel comfortable bringing them, and still have a nice meal and a glass or 4 of wine. It’s nice to know in a city where the food scene is always changing, that staples like Gemini can still thrive.
The Blanchard [Lincoln Park]: The Blanchard opened last year in our old neighborhood, started by a Chef that used to cook at Gemini Bistro. It is French food, which I know can be intimidating to some people. As a former picky eater, I get it. There is nothing intimidating about the food at The Blanchard- except maybe trying to pronounce your order which, I mean does any non-French-speaker ever sound slick saying French words? You can either nail the pronunciation and sound like a (smartish) affected dork, go for it with confidence and butcher the words with your lazy American tongue, or awkwardly point to the menu and look at your server with pleading eyes to save you from yourself.
I’m a point-and-pleader and ordered the Ouef Outhier (creamy scrambled egg served in the shell with chive, creme fraiche, and caviar) and the Dover Sole Meuniere. The ouef outhier was no exaggeration one of the best things I have ever eaten. I wanted to order a second for dessert. The sole meuniere was perfectly cooked, light and delicious. Pete got the scallops and the sole and said his food was “perfectly cooked and not too French”. The atmosphere and service were great, we ate with our friends Liz and Dave and were the last to leave the restaurant- but never felt rushed. Overall one of my top 3 meals we had in Chicago, and will definitely be going back on our next visit.
GT Fish & Oyster [River North]: If you were around this blog in our Chicago days, you are familiar with GT Fish & Oyster. Full disclosure, the Chef Giuseppe Tentori (The “G” & the “T” of the name) is one of our friends- but that doesn’t mean I am unfairly playing favorites. See we became friends when Chef Tentori was at Boka- the first, and for a time, only restaurant in the now culinary juggernaut that is The Boka Group. When Chef Tentori opened GT Fish we went, like, 5 times it’s opening week just to support him. Not that he, or Boka, needed our support. They kill it every time and it has been so fun watching their enormous, well-deserved success over the years.
We go to GT Fish & Oyster every trip we are in Chicago. The food is always delicious, the service is on point, and the vibe is just right whether you are going for a business lunch, early dinner with kids, date, or a big night out. Also- stay tuned for Chef Tentori’s next restaurant GT Prime which is set to open next month. We got a tour of the space when we were in town and it looks incredible.
Swift & Sons [Fulton Market]: Speaking of Boka Group- Swift & Sons is one of their new concepts we were excited to try. We went for our first date night in Chicago. The space is gorgeous. I zoned out for several minutes just looking around, noticing, and appreciating their selections. Boka has worked with the New York based AvroKo on their most recent openings, and it is fun to see the ways in which AvroKo tied the design of the physical space, to subtle elements throughout the service and dining experience. And the service was fantastic. As was the food. I wasn’t initially SUPER pumped about the idea of a steakhouse, even though I know they are a Chicago staple, I just generally like a lighter fare for a date night and tend to want to go home and go to bed after a steak dinner.
I got the chilled potato leak soup to start, I don’t recall Pete’s order but both were delightful. Then the kitchen sent out the crudo as a treat- and it truly was a treat. One of the best things I ate in Chicago, actually my mouth is watering just thinking about it. For our main course we split the beef wellington at Pete’s insistence. And I would NEVER order beef wellington. I have never been thin enough in my life to even look at such a thing on a menu as an option. But what my baby wants, my baby gets. And I am so glad we got it. It’s such a throwback dish, that it seems like a random order in a trendy hotspot, but it’s perfection. It’s a really smart, fun take on the American steakhouse, we loved it.
Are you still with me? That is impressive. This has been a lot of words. Probably too many. Sorry about that. Ok, so my final section doesn’t need a lot of explaining. These are the current talk of the town spots that we were lucky enough to try.
Momotoro [Fulton Market]: Boka Groups newest and “riskiest” concept- a take on Japanese cuisine. Also designed by AvroKo, the place is a big departure from the usual Boka aesthetic, and to me at least, it totally works. The space is not at all the spa-like atmosphere favored by so many Japanese restaurants. It’s funky and energetic and fun. We had a big group downstairs in a room off of the Izakaya Lounge, and we felt like we were in a different world. I think we might have tried everything on the menu, which is honestly troubling because the menu is like 8 pages long. I have never been more full in my life. I preferred the hot dishes to the sushi- but that is being picky because everything was great.
Oriole [West Loop]: Probably the meal Pete was most excited about. Chicago has a well-established fine dining scene, and Oriole is in that category, but a departure from the usual tasting menu experience which is obvious from the moment you walk in. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the entry to anyone, but it’s cool. The restaurant is tiny and unpretentious, where every table has a view of the kitchen. A lot of times with a tasting menu, the sum of its parts can’t stand on their own. That was not the case at Oriole, each dish could have been portioned to be an entree and be just as impressive. The service was thoughtful, comfortable, and welcoming. There is obviously a lot of thought and care that goes into every detail at Oriole, but it never takes itself too seriously or gets caught up in the trappings of traditional fine dining.
Alinea [Lincoln Park]: There isn’t much to say about Alinea that hasn’t been said (if you haven’t watched their episode of Chef’s Table, you should. Then watch Massimo Bottura’s) so I’m just going to tell you a little story about our first time at Alinea. When we moved to Chicago I bought us a Zagat guide and started highlighting all of the restaurants we wanted to try. We wanted to go on a special date to celebrate our move, and Alinea was the first restaurant on the list I called. The reservationist picked up and asked me when I would like to join them, and I told her we were celebrating our move and were free that night, or really any time that week. She laughed. Not at all in a rude way, like she was genuinely amused at my ignorance. She sweetly told me that they had about a three month wait for reservations, but that if I was local they could put us on the cancellation list since sometimes guests flying in ran into delays and missed their reservations. I gave her my info.
Three hours later I got a call back that actually, if we could come in an hour someone had just cancelled their table. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, which, I wish is how everyone could walk into Alinea for the first time. Because it does live up to the hype, but the way your mind is blown when you have never even heard of such a dining experience is pretty major. I found these pictures of us from that night:
Babies. Chef Achatz actually did the dessert on our table that night. Looking back I can’t believe that was one of our first dining experiences in Chicago. What lucky fools.
Alinea closed for a few months at the beginning of this year to completely redo the space, menu, and dining experience. I was really curious and excited to see how that came to be. We ate in The Gallery, and I really don’t want to give anything away. If you are more into spoilers, you can read about the reboot here. Otherwise I will say I was glad we went. The old Alinea was magical and mind blowing, but it seems like now they are having more fun which makes it more fun as a guest.
Duck Duck Goat [Fulton Market]: Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s newest concept giving her “Girl & the Goat” spin on Chinese food. Also Boka group, also AvroKo, also delicious. Actually, now that I am writing about it, my mouth is watering. I will definitely go back next time we go. It’s clever, fun, exciting, and my favorite meal I have had at one of her restaurants, though they are all great.
Others worth mentioning:
Big Star [Wicker Park]: I have written about Big Star many times before. Paul Kahan’s hugely popular honky tonk is still one of my favorites.
The Bristol [Wicker Park]: One of our old favorites we hadn’t tried in awhile. It was fun to stop in again, and we are excited to go back now that the original chef will be returning to the kitchen soon!
Juno [Lincoln Park]: Low key, legit sushi.
Stella Barra [Lincoln Park]: I went for a friends birthday, a great neighborhood spot!
Shaman [West Town]: BYOB small plate Mexican, great for a casual night out with a group.
The Promotory [Hyde Park]: Brought to you by the Longman & Eagle guys, we lunched here after taking the kids to the Museum of Science and Industry. Way out of the way, but if you are in the area, I’d recommend.
I hope that was helpful, please feel free to comment with any questions! And if there are any of your favorite Chicago restaurants I didn’t mention but must try, let me know! xoxo