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Trip Report Chicago trip report

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After getting such good advice from Fodorites I thought I would report back from my birthday trip to Chicago asap before life took me in another direction again. In fact I'm at my layover in Toronto airport.

First off...it was a very excellent trip and I just love the city! My impression is that it is world class in so many ways...from the architecture, design, restaurant and museum experiences. I'm only sorry I waited so long to get there.

If you read the other pretrip posts, you will see what my itinerary plans were and I was very happy with them overall.
I will start with my reviews of a few of the restaurants we visited:

The first evening we went to Perennial Virant. It is a very hip busy, active venue with excellent attentive service. We ate on the patio which was great because around the bar the after work crowd was a bit noisy. I enjoyed the energy of the place though and the food was creative and excellently prepared. I would definitely go back here with friends.

Friday evening was the only real disappointment. We ate at the very pricey and very pretentious Henri. Yes, it has a very special ambiance and decor, which I loved. The patio right on Michigan was great to people watch while still elegant with it's white table cloths. So imagine my disappointment when the following ensued. Our waiter was not only distant but completely rude and maybe the worst I have ever had serve me at a fine restaurant. I just ask that the servers are polite and helpful. This young man decided that he would speak in such an affected tone that we could barely hear or understand him even after reminding him about the traffic noise. Then when we asked if vegetables were included he implied we were at fault for not noting in small print that any vegetables or potatoes were another $8 each....the Dover sole for instance was already $50! I had the duck which was presented in three ways on my plate and though it was just ok...not worth the money considering the extra $16 to complete the meal so came to over $50 as well. The whole meal from start to finish was a huge disappointment though it seemed to have such promise. The price would not have bothered us so much if our wait staff had been even a little more into communicating with us in a pleasant manner

More later, my plane is leaving.

Lunch at the Signature Room at the 95th floor of the John Handcock Building was on Saturday so very busy with tourists. There seemed to be mixed reviews of this experience...that it was more about the view than the food, but I have to say that we ordered off the menu and were pleasantly surprised. It was delicious. The view was amazing ( we did have to request a seat change for a better view) and the service was impeccable. I was very happy.

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    Ms, if you ever make it back to Chicago, try The Gage, the-not-so-fine dining next door to Henri, which owned by the same group and shares an executive chef. It's a lot more fun, and reasonable, and tasty to boot.

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    I should add to the Signature Room lunch that since we were dining early that evening, we shared two salads - a tomato/mozzerela caprese style and beet/blue cheese/pecan salad both with wonderful fresh greens and delicate dressings and then we each had the lobster salad...with a trio of sorbets for dessert--very yummy

    Saturday evening dinner was early at recommended Bistro Margot in Old Town. The location was perfect as we needed to be at Second City well before 8pm. We arrived in the middle of a thunderstorm and we were greeted with staff running out to the cab with an umbrella. Now that is service. We chose the cheese plate to share as an appetizer and it was a generous selection of three cheeses. So much so that we were afraid we would not have room for the rest of the meal. The entree again was a generous portion of meat and vegetables perfectly prepared. I love this restaurant for its very French ambiance, welcoming and knowledgeable staff and amazingly delicious food.

    One afternoon at the Art Institute, Terzo Piano, we shared an antipasta platter which was a little disappointing in the variety on the plate. Next time I'd go there only for coffee or drinks while visiting the gallery. Perhaps the main menu is better. The wait staff however were great. It has a nice setting with tables and sofas overlooking Millenium Park and the beautiful Frank Gehry amphitheatre.

    Chicago has so many good restaurants to choose from and I think I was lucky to only have one bad experience. Many people give Henri good reviews and its too bad my experience was anything but.

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    My main reason for choosing Chicago as my birthday destination was for the architecture. I was not disappointed. The tours are plentiful and professional:

    The Thursday morning Architectural Boat Cruise my SO booked turned out not to be the CAF one recommended so I was a little apprehensive. It was a Shoreline Cruise and though I have nothing to compare it to, it was an entertaining, informative filled hour. It was amazing and a great river view of these important building.

    That afternoon we did take the 2 hour CAF Modern Skyscraper walking tour with Delta as our guide. She was amazing, walking quickly to make the most of our time, her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject was inspiring. I would love to go back to take more of their tours. Leave time after your tour to shop at their wonderful store and the cafe next door.

    Friday was reserved for a trip about an hour out of town to Plano for a Mies Van der Rohe, Farnsworth House tour with a company called Off the Map. CAF only offers these tours occasionally. Larry Simon is the owner/guide. There were 7 in our group, with two professors of architecture from Japan which made discussion rich and easy. Larry is very knowledgeable about architecture in general so it was more than a memorized tour. We started at two Mies Van der Rohe buidings on Lakeshore Drive to learn about his theories and then drove to Plano. Farnsworth House itself is a true gem: a small glass house floating within a country setting. The approach to the house isnthrough a wooded path along the river. Each tour group is given exclusive time in and around the house for over an hour. Our guide had the key so there is no other staff in the area of the house. It is a little pricey - a picnic lunch was provided.

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    Thursday evening we took the Metra out to the outdoor Ravinia Festival for the Chicago symphony - a Rachmaninoff concert. Many visitors don't know about this delightful concert setting. It takes 45 minutes and for $7 the train brings you right to the park and picks you up right after the performance. You catch it at the Ogilvy Station at 5:50 pm. There is an attractive restaurant with patio which we ate at. It is buffet style, with different food stations. The food was appropriate for the occasion and the staff was friendly and efficient. The concert was wonderful though had to compete with the noisiest Chicadas (sp?)

    Friday evening was elected to be Blues night so we went to Buddy Guys Legends. I was a full house with blues artists including Magic Slim. He and his band have 'attitude'. Buddy was in the house that night and came up on stage to sing a song or two. When he learned it was my birthday...after midnight...he signed a tshirt, book and I had my picture taken with him. He had his birthday earlier that week and turned 76.....he looks great!

    Saturday evening was spent at the famous Second City Comedy Club. There is a real Canadian connection with this club. Many many famous Canadian comedians helped put it on the map: Dan Akaroyd, John Candy, Chevy Chase, etc etc. It was a very funny evening and did not disappoint.

    I think I can say I was happy with my balance of evening entertainments.

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    Other Stuff:

    At least two hours were spent in the Art Institute of Chicago. It could have been many more. I tried to concentrate on a few areas.
    The Pop Art Roy Lichtenstein exhibition was on and amazing to see all in a few rooms.
    Had to see Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. As with all great art, seeing it in person makes you just shake your head in amazement. There is an impressive collection of the impressionists....many Monets and one of my favourites: Toulouse Latrec
    The Architecture gallery was not available for viewing...darn...
    I was also impressed by the modern and contemporary collection such as Oicasso, Matisse, Kandinsky and Georgia O'keefe.

    Saturday morning took me to the GreenCity Farmers Market. My SO asked why I wanted to see a bunch of vegetables and even he came away impressed. I was just sorry I couldn't stock up while there. We then walked through Lincoln Park and The Gold Coast neighbourhood.

    The rest of my time was spent walking areas such as Navy Pier, Millenium Park..the Bean, riding The L, walking around the Design/Gallery District around Superior Street, and Old Town.

    I have to say I really like this city....even more than I expected to. The people are friendly, helpful and I truely had a rich experience feeling I wanted to come back because there is still so much more to discover.

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    It was delightful to read of your Chicago experience. I live outside of the city, go in several times a year, and love so many aspects of the city that I'm happy you got to appreciate.

    That was wonderful you went to Ravinia. I love going with my friends, with our picnic and wine. It's one of the great parts of summer, and I wish I could go more often. It's fun to see how elaborate some people's "picnics" are.

    I was also glad you liked the Signature Room. I think the food is good too, and lunch prices aren't so bad. Then there's that view of the lake!!

    I agree two hours was not enough time to do the Art Institute properly. Now you will just have to come back.

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    I am going to Chicago in September. To me restaurant and food reports arent helpful or useful. I am not a foodie; KFC and Wendy's... or my fave 5-guys, is fine. I'll take a Gyro for $5 over duck for $50 any time.

    Got some useful info, as to what to see, sites, museums, etc.?
    I got 3 days to site see, so wont be wasting time eating my way thru Chicago.

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    POMAH, when I travel, food and restaurant reports are very important to me. I experience a culture through it's food. I consider myself very fortunate to have been taken to these places for my birthday trip. I live in Canada and was born in Europe. In other countries such as Turkey or Egypt I eat much more economically however I never eat at KFC, Wendy's or MacDoanlds. That is your choice. Last year I drove through 15 US states on the back of a motorcycle for 32 days straight and ate at diners the whole way. My Partner and I shared each meal because the plates were so large. I don't mean to criticize American cuisine, however much of it is fat leaden and we are each responsible for what we put into our body. "We are what we eat" I love to eat and I love to cook so restaurant experiences are a true delight to me. I say this respectfully.

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    POMAH, Got some useful info, as to what to see, sites, museums, etc.?

    I just noticed your ? I only had 4 days as well. If you read beyond the restaurant reviews you will read the tours, activities and sites I enjoyed. Millennium Park seems to be the centre of everything so I would start there, The Bean, Jay Phitzer amphitheatre, and move out to see the city. The Art Institute is amazing, take tours from CAF across the street. Navy Pier is ok but the Tiffany glass museum is the real show stopper there. I did not go, but many people recommend the Shedd Aquarium.

    You don't have to eat but can go to the observation deck at the John Hancock Building. I enjoyed riding The L...get on the Brown Line at Wells and Washington.

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    MsLizzy, I am happy that, on the whole, you enjoyed your trip to Chicago and I hope that you come back again.

    I'm also glad that you considered my suggestion for Buddy Guy's Legends and had a good time there. To others: Normally the ONLY reason why anyone should go to any particular venue is based on the talent performing there. Many of the same blues performers play at various venues around the city. It is downright foolish not to do research into this matter when you'll be paying cover charges (plus drinks, as a rule).

    I'm sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy dining at Henri. All of my numerous visits there, as well as that of the people I personally know who frequent the establishment, have been excellent, and none of us felt that it was pretentious for a fine dining establishment. And it appears that others have had similar experiences from reading the large amount of reviews on Yelp and similar websites. I still stand by my recommendation of this restaurant to others.

    I hope that you will allow me the courtesy of a couple of comments here, since I am the person who mentioned this restaurant to you, although you did not follow my recommendation of the $29 prix fixe lunch: I am completely surprised that you did not know Henri was a la carte (as are the large majority of better and best restaurants). Not only did I myself tell you this in my response on your other thread but I gave you the URL for their website where their menus are posted.

    In addition, had I known that your party was intending to sit outside, I would have said: Michigan Avenue is a very busy, noisy thoroughfare. Eat inside.

    Finally, Henri is considered an expensive restaurant in Chicago. Very expensive restaurants of the highest tier routinely run $100-$250+ per person (not including choice of beverage, tax and gratuity) and Henri would be somewhat under that level. Although you did not mention any budgetary dining restrictions, the types of other activities which you mentioned in your proposed itinerary (especially the architectural tour which you took - plenty of $$ there, I know the price of it), I still thought from the other restaurants you mentioned you still had some considerations. That's why I specifically only mentioned the luncheon at Henri, as well as my other suggestions - which were not in any way the priciest. As another example of one mentioned to you, Sunday brunch at North Pond will run you $33 pp and their seasonal tasting $85 pp, not including beverage, tax and gratuity.

    My suggestions to others: When you have picked out some possibilities for restaurants, please do your research - I try to find at least three other reputable sources. They give you a lot of good information, such as portion sizes, best times to go, a lot of time the total bills (not just entree prices as many professional reviews indicate), etc. Then read the online menus of the restaurant to get a general idea of the prices as well as descriptions of their offerings. If a restaurant serves a la carte, you easily can tell in a couple of different ways: If the entree description doesn't mention sides - and most of the descriptions of these are quite explicit; and if there is a separate section for "sides". *For example, almost all of the city's steakhouse restaurants' entrees do not include sides - you will have to pay extra for potatoes, salads, etc.

    About The Gage: To compare it to Henri is like apples to oranges - The Gage is a gastropub and Henri is fine dining. IMHO, it's OK (and it's very convenient to tourists, if that's what you want) but there are better gastropubs in the city. If you don't believe me, do a little research elsewhere. It always is best.

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    Exiledprincess, your posts are always so helpful, I am really surprised by the tone of this post, especially the " dressing down" you gave Ms Lizzy about Henri. First, 'm from San Francisco, and even at fine a la carte restaurants with side dishes separate, there is often a little something on the plate besides a piece of meat or fish. Second, MsLizzy didn't complain at all about eating outside, except for the waiter who refused to speak up when they said they couldn't hear him. Sorry, but it just wasn't a very nice response.

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    sf, I apologize if that response came across as a "dressing down", as I didn't mean it in that manner. You know that sometimes the written word doesn't come across in the same manner as when spoken.

    That being said, I felt that there were several points of the OP's criticism which were simply not fair. Especially since I personally provided a huge amount more information than is usual when recommending the place.

    As I read it, they complained about 1) service (specifically mentioning noise from the traffic being a factor in their communications - or lack of - with the waitstaff); 2) the product (or specifically lack of certain items which they had anticipated); and 3) the price paid for what they received.

    sf, with all due respect, I simply do not agree with you. A la carte means you pay for every single dish including side dishes such as vegetables, salads, desserts and so forth. However, just please indulge me and take a look at Henri's menu online to see what I'm mentioning next. In the entree section, you do not see any mention of any sides but in the "Plats du Jour" you do. And you'll see that there is a specific section for the "sides". I hope you see my point now.

    For the most part, a better restaurant (of which the OP specifically requested for her birthday) usually goes to great length to describe the meal on the menu, even down to the seasonings which constitute part of the entree. Even a lesser or more casual restaurant will state something about the choice of potato or other sides if they are included with the entree.

    Some of the other comments I've made above are for the many people who just read these threads, specifically trip reports - including the comment I made about not dining outside on Michigan Avenue, menu information and the general pricing for better restaurants in Chicago.

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    exciledprincess, it did sound a little like a dressing down but that's ok. I can handle it. If we all agreed, life would be boring. :)

    However, if you expect people to only like your recommendations and are not allowed their own opinions of their experience then you need to get a thicker skin.

    1) I specifically critized the particular waiter as his attitude really influenced the atmosphere of our experience. A well trained waitstaff, when asked about what accompanied the main dish, should have accommodatingly pointed out it was a la carte and the sides available, not condescending and make one feel they were intellectually challenged. I was the client.

    I quite enjoyed being on the patio, it was festival weekend, that was not our problem.

    2)I have read a couple of other reviews on tripadvisor since saying the food was not all that special there. This was my experience. I agree with sf, in my experience there is usually at least a garnish but that isn't my point. Did I mention the pureed potatoes were so salty they tasted like melted salted butter and were hardly edible more than a few bites? And I usually like salty food.

    3) I don't think I need to defend myself in terms of understanding menus at fine restaurants to you. We have eaten all over the world, in all sorts of restaurants and as I said, from the waiter only expect respect, politeness and to be helpful. He was none of these. We are not afraid to pay well for quality as your rebutle implied, but each dinner without appetizer, which we had, and without wine was simply not worth $66 dollars a plate.

    Your recommendation of Bistro Margot may not be considered a finer restaurant by Chicago standards but the contrast was amazing on all levels and so therefore a much finer restaurant by mine.

    Having said all of this, I don't in any way blame you, exiledprincess for your recommendation or opinion...this is the way reviews work. May when I come back we can have a GTG there? lol Please don't let my opinion stop you from continuing to give them. I have a favourite restaurant in my town that I and most people adore, but I have the odd friend who doesn't agree. That is the way the world goes round and makes it all the more interesting.

    What seems to be getting lost in all of this is that most of my trip report was to say what an amazing and wonderful city Chicago is.

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