Once known as "hog butcher for the world," Chicago offers simple and basic fare, as well as exotic eating experiences. Restaurants abound to satisfy anyone's appetite or ethnic taste.
[440 S. La Salle St., 40th Floor; (312) 663-8920]
Climb to the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, where you'll find a great view of the city and beyond. The ambiance is classy and romantic with warm lighting in a cream and black interior. Chef-owner Jean Joho's focus is on Alsatian cuisine. He is known for his ability to take everyday ingredients and cook them to a level fit for kings. An example includes a cream of cabbage soup, which is actually a creamy broth of Alsatian sauerkraut ladled over diced vegetables and smoked sturgeon. The wine list is extensive. Some desserts are unusual - they're made from vegetables. Try the parsnip-flavored ice cream.
[222 E. Ontario St.; (312) 649-9010]
For a quiet escape in the Windy City, Les Nomades offers elegant fresh-fare dining in a Streeterville townhouse. Originally a private dining club, former members still frequent the now public restaurant. The refined ambience and exquisite menu have not changed. Traditional dress code is followed; men are required to wear jackets and ties. Two floors differ in decor. The downstairs dining room is crisp white tablecloth service in bright lighting. Salon du Upstairs has a fireplace and cherry paneling. The average dinner entree is $25 and up. Reservations are recommended.
[676 N. St. Clair St.; (312) 202-0001]
Husband-and-wife team Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, in partnership with Rich Melman, invite you to experience a lavish dining experience at Tru, where service is said to be impeccable and the food is described as spectacular. Here, reviewers say "the snob factor hovers close to zero." Art pervades the establishment, from a bright limbless torso sculpture in the bar area and Warhol paintings to the design of the bathroom sinks and kitchen doors. The menu focuses on American Contemporary and French cuisine and is structured around a prix-fixe, three-course meal. However, that can be easily altered to a two-, four- or five-course meal. Reservations are required and prices for the three-course, prix-fixe dinner are $65-$115.
HOT NEW SPOTS
[1723 N. Halsted St.; (312) 867-0110]
Carol Haddix, food editor of the Chicago Tribune, describes this hot upscale North Side spot as where food meets science. The restaurant was booked for months when it first opened one year ago. Acclaimed chef Grant Achatz runs the kitchen and was named one of Food and Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs in 2002, and won the 2003 James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year. You can pick from 8-, 12- and 24-course tastings, priced at $75, $110 and $175; the latter is described as a marathon and takes approximately five hours to complete. Other innovations include snap peas, served on an Irish linen pillow filled with lavender-scented air, and a two-toned spiral of paper-thin cucumber bonded to an equally thin layer of dehydrated mango, perched on a spoon. Pastry chef Alex Stupak is said to create sublime desserts. The wine menu is extensive. Decor is classically minimalist with two levels of dining space. Every day at 5:30 p.m. through May 7 - perfect timing for the FMI Show - a special 17-course menu will be available to highlight the year's most popular fare in celebration of the restaurant's first anniversary.
[702 W. Fulton Market; (312) 850-5005]
If you're in the mood for Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Colombian cuisine, go to Carnivale, where the menu was created by Mark Mendez, who spent time in the kitchens of Spaiggia, Gioco, Harvest on Huron and Patria in New York City. The menu includes rum-glazed pork shoulder with Puerto Rican rice and fried plantains, and grilled skirt steak with rice and beans, onions and chimichurri. Owner Jerry Kleiner, who also co-owns Marche, Opera and Gioco, is known for his over-the-top decor, and this 35,000-square-foot space includes 35-foot drapes, seven-foot light fixtures, a jewel-colored skylight and a second-story wine wall backlit with vibrant colors.
[3324 N. California Ave.; (773) 279-9550]
If you find yourself in a hurry, grab a dog at Hot Doug's. Hot Doug's is the typical Chicago hot dog stand except that it offers a selection of upscale sausages. Up to 18 choices are offered on any given day, including rabbit, boar, pheasant, duck and kangaroo. In addition to these more exotic dogs, Doug's grills the basic char dog and polish sausage. Toppings are plentiful and include a variety of mustards, caramelized and raw onions, chili, cheese, and tomatillo and marinara sauce. Hot Doug's is open Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.- 4 p.m.
SHAW'S CRAB HOUSE
[21 E. Hubbard St.; (312) 527-2722]
A popular River North spot, seasonal seafood is flown in each day from the Atlantic, the Gulf and the Pacific. Shaw's Oyster Bar (formerly Blue Crab Lounge), a New Orleans-themed oyster bar that plays old blues and torch recordings, has walls covered with many of the restaurant's seafood suppliers. The bar seats about 120; the main dining room, pricier and more formal, seats 250. Special attractions include "Oyster Hour," 4:30-6:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, and winemaker dinners pairing seafood with wines. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday are music nights, with blues and jazz primarily, featuring local notables including Greg Rockingham, the eclectic Fabulous Fishheads and harp wizard Matt Skolar's band, A Cast of Thousands (music from 7 to 10 p.m.).
[11 N. Michigan Ave.; (312) 521-7275]
If you're in Millennium Park and start to hear your stomach rumbling, head to this contemporary American restaurant on Michigan Avenue smack in the middle of the park, near "The Bean" sculpture. Park Grill is adjacent to the 16,000-square-foot ice skating rink, which serves as the 300-seat outdoor dining area, Park Grill on the Plaza, in the summer. The restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows and is designed so every table has views of the action outside; the outdoor area has a spectacular view of the Chicago skyline. Enjoy shareable appetizers like fried calamari, barbecue chicken wings and chili-spiced baby-back ribs. Entrees include a double-cut pork chop, bone-in rib-eye and braised lamb shank. Lunch includes salads, pizzas, pasta and sandwiches, such as the signature Park Grill Burger. If you're on the run, Park Cafe, a grab-and-go counter, offers salads and sandwiches as well.
[814 W. Randolph St.; (312) 455-8114]
Innovative coastal Mexican fare with a focus on fresh ingredients is what you'll find here. Located in the trendy Randolph Street Market area, there's an urban yet rustic taqueria feel and energizing Latin music to fill the atmosphere. Pick from 15 innovative taco selections as well as entrees like skirt steak and tequila-marinated pork chops. Beverages include herb-and-fruit concoctions like the banana-dill daiquiri and the strawberry-mint margarita. Try the Jarritos float, made with the popular Mexican soft drink and house-made sorbet for a fun and unique dessert. De Cero no doubt will be a popular place during Cinco de Mayo week, which begins on May 5.
[615 W. Randolph St.; (312) 377-2002]
Are you feeling social and the urge to mingle? Avec, with its communal seating at rectangular eight-seat tables, busy vibe and wine bar atmosphere, may be your answer. Avec, the French word for "with," emulates just that since many dishes are shared, and sitting next to strangers is no strange thing. Owned by the same proprietors of Blackbird, Avec is said to evoke the same quality, but with less formality. Food ranges from bar food and contemporary American, to French, Mediterranean and Spanish. Dishes include Provental fish soup, chorizo-stuffed and bacon-wrapped dates and Mediterranean-style dishes designed for sharing. To avoid feeling like sardines in a can, either go early (open at 3:30 p.m.) or go late (closes at midnight). No reservations are required.
VONG'S THAI KITCHEN
[6 W. Hubbard St.; (312) 644-8664]
Red walls and chocolate-colored banquettes surround the casual atmosphere here. Plenty of natural light fills the space with floor-to-ceiling windows and the Thai-inspired French fusion menu is affordable with the average dinner entree ranging from $8 to $15. Specialties include the "black plate" assortment of appetizers and warm Valrhona chocolate cake. Group "share" dinners are offered at lunch and dinner, and vegetarian menus are available as well.
[666 N. Orleans St.; (312) 337-8500]
You may find yourself dining in the presence of Jay Leno as he's been coming to this spot for over 20 years, according to Chicago celebrity spotters. Mr. Beef's other claim to fame is that the location was shot for a Chevrolet Cavalier commercial featuring Mr. Beef's very own guy behind the counter, Jerry Ponterelli, who pitched Italian sausages as well as the car. Carol Haddix of the Chicago Tribune told SN that this is the place to go for Chicago's very own Italian beef sandwich, and it's best to get takeout. The average dinner entree is under $8, only cash accepted.
HARRY CARAY'S RESTAURANT
[33 W. Kinzie St.; (312) 828-0966]
The late Hall of Fame baseball announcer opened this Italian steakhouse in 1987. Prime rib, aged steaks, Italian specialties and seafood are all on the menu, and the Chicken Vesuvio is a house favorite. Considered the "official home plate of the Chicago Cubs," Harry Caray's is a mix of tasteful baseball memorabilia and white-jacketed servers combing hometown fun with playful elegance. The barroom features a 60-foot, 6-inch bar - the same distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate. When Harry Caray passed away, a tradition began that each night at 7:30 p.m., patrons have a "sing-along with Harry" on the big-screen TV.
[640 N. Wells St.; (312) 664-1707]
The waiter might just jump up and dance on the countertop at this 1950s-style diner. With chili, burgers and wet fries on the menu, this upbeat establishment is just the place to go for traditional American food and a little excitement. The wait staff is taught to mock a bit of rudeness, but that makes for a good party atmosphere. The Windy City Chili is a favorite and patrons can decide what ingredients are added, such as beans, macaroni, cheese and onions. The menu is low-priced, and to go with the theme, a large section of the menu is devoted to milkshakes and malts.
[1301 N. State Parkway; (312) 266-0360]
Since 1938, the Pump Room remains a magnet for movie stars and celebrities. Located in the Omni Ambassador East hotel, patrons can enjoy a five-course tasting featuring lobster cake and Pump Room salad, followed by sterling silver California sturgeon. For the main course, try braised Durham ranch bison short ribs. And the Pump Room teardrop, is a popular desert. Live entertainment takes place Friday and Saturday evenings. No jeans are allowed.
Restaurants for this report were suggested by Carol Haddix, food editor of the Chicago Tribune. Information was derived from the restaurants' own websites and review sites. This is not intended to be a professional review, nor did SN visit any of the restaurants cited.