Nation's Restaurant News attends the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show in full force. Each year, NRN editors, sales managers and event producers hit Chicago for the year's largest foodservice industry get together, which always includes numerous dinners, lunch meetings and after-show drinks.
To help attendees who are looking to take a bite out of the dining opportunities in Chicago, NRN offers its suggestions for the best places to eat in the Windy City.
Robin Lee Allen, executive editor: While I’d still recommend such longtime favorites as Bistro 110, there are several restaurants I’m eager to visit:
- Anything involving Grant Achatz, like Alinea
- M Burger
- Potbelly Sandwich Works
Mark Brandau, senior desk editor, Chicago bureau editor:
- Sable Kitchen and Bar — Heather Terhune’s brand new restaurant at the Hotel Palomar is big on small plates, or what she calls “social plates,” which don’t disappoint. Equally impressive are the cocktails from mixologist Mike Ryan, an alum of the venerated Violet Hour.
- Rockit Bar & Grill and Bull & Bear — These two upscale sports bars in River North make the perfect place to catch the game or network after office hours; the diverse and impressive menus and ace bartenders satisfy any type of social situation.
Elissa Elan, East coast bureau chief:
- Alinea — Culinary wizard Grant Achatz showcases molecular gastronomy at its best
- Spiaggia — Great Italian food, and a favorite of President Obama and the First Lady
- Tru — Rick Tramonto pairs French and global fusion in a fine-dining atmosphere
Paul Frumkin, deputy managing editor:
- Buddy Guy’s Legend — It’s not quiet, but it is CHICAGO in capital letters. A great blues club with tons of atmosphere and pretty good food. If you’re looking to rock between negotiations, it’s the place to go in Chicago. And, who knows, the man himself may pick up an ax while your there.
- Blue Chicago — "Blues, blues and more blues."
Chris Keating, associate publisher:
- Kingston Mines — The greatest bar in America. Live shows don’t start till 10 p.m., and it’s not the, um, cleanest blues joint in town. But if you want to get down-home blues with bottled beer on ice and avoid the tourists, it’s the place to go.
John Kruger, Midwest regional sales and marketing manager:
- The Chicago Firehouse — It’s near the show and easy for a quick getaway. A converted Chicago firehouse just one mile north of McCormick Place, serving lunch and dinner, with a good bar menu for a quick break from the show floor.
- Sunda — for sushi and contemporary Asian; its brand new and really great
- Tavern at the Park — Good bar scene, steps from Millennium Park
- Cocktail bar on the roof of the Wit hotel — great people watching if the weather is cooperating
Alan J. Liddle, managing editor, conferences and special projects:
- Wow Bao — A glimpse of the future? Wow Bao might be one. On the menu are steamed Asian buns, potstickers, bowls, salads and fresh gingerale. Try those items solo for a pick-me-up or in multiples for meals. The repertoire is definitely in keeping with the rise in popularity of portable foods, snack foods and ethnic foods about which some trend watchers and prognosticators like to gush. Then there is the polished but relatively small square footage operating area for lower initial investment and ongoing occupancy expenses, as well the variety in ordering and payment options – counter, kiosk, iPhone or web – to make faster the fast-casual format that appeals to many of the so-called “time-starved” peoples of the planet. What’s it all mean? Some folks might respectfully suggest that it means this slick little Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. concept is probably worth a peek even if you are not in the mood to munch.
Sarah Lockyer, executive editor, NRN.com:
- The Original Gino’s East of Chicago — To keep it real, this spot is deep-dish pizza at its best. Seriously.
- NoMI — To go upscale, this spot will always impress. On the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt Chicago, the views are great and the French cuisine is even better. There is also an outdoor garden when the weather warms up offering small plates and delicious drinks.
- The Weiners Circle — To cap off a great night out with a late-night, Chicago-style hot dog, you can’t miss this local institution. Open until at least 4 a.m., you can imagine what kind of crowd it attracts as the night progresses. Also be prepared for, well, colorful language from the staff — it’s all part of the shtick. There's no official website for this spot, Google it.
Monique Monaco, director of events:
- The best restaurants “in town” during the NRA Show are the MenuMasters awards winners, who each serve there winning dishes during the party at the Drake Hotel on Saturday night. KFC, Burgerville, Outback, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Robin, Au Bon Pain, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Tropical Smoothie Café will be there. Any other dining experience pales in comparison.
Pamela Parseghian, executive food editor:
- Chicago Craft Beer Week — If you want to try something new check out the last few days of the first ever craft beer week in Chicago, which runs from May 17 to May 23. Beer tastings, “Meet the Brewer” nights, beer dinners, brewery tours and beer book signings are scheduled.
- Belly Shack — If you you’re in the mood for a sweet snack, check out Belly Chack’s huckleberry-lime, Vietnamese cinnamon caramel, bacon chocolate chip soft-serve. And their kimchi and noodle topped Belly Dog sounds fun too. The restaurant is closed on Monday.
- Alinea — A good spot if you want to impress a restaurant client with new and interesting food
Ron Ruggless, Southwest bureau chief:
- Blackbird Restaurant — While open since 1997, the sleek décor and modern menu remains current. The name comes from the French slang for the merlot grape.
- Lobby Bar in the historic Palmer House Hilton — I discovered this during last year’s NRA show. It’s a great place to meet for drinks.
Susan Szymanski Vincer, publishing director, NRN.com:
- Big Star — Great tacos, beer and a crowd, so go early or be prepared to stand in line. When the weather is nice, the patio opens up the possibility of great people watching. As an extra bonus, if you get bored you can pop across the street to the Violet Hour
- Hot Chocolate — Mindy Segal’s wonderland. Not saving room for even a little taste of dessert is a grave mistake
- Grocery Bistro — BYOB with great food, a new chef and a blackboard menu. Don’t worry, there is a wine store next door.
- Shaw’s Oyster Bar, especially on Sunday — great for oysters, jazz and an active bar scene and don’t forget the crab slides.
- Any of the Rick Bayless restaurants — Frontera Grill (my favorite), Topolabambo and XOCO. They each offer great service, authentic food, and, wow, who does not want to have breakfast at XOCO? If you get the breakfast empanada you will still surely want churros to curb your sweet tooth. I was lucky enough to get a great tour of Rick’s garden this past fall, as the restaurant grows a lot of its own produce there. I was really impressed by the large hanging butternut squash — who knew you could trellis that vegetable.
- Mon Ami Gabi — Steak Frites, comfortable surroundings, and a walk in the park to burn off the profiteroles.