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Fodor’s Choice Chicago: Dining

Avant-garde chef Grant Achatz specializes in deconstructing and rebuilding food in a way that is playful and modern, and not for everyone. Serious foodies with creative taste buds appreciate distinctive touches, like dishes that come on lavender-scented pillows or a ginger centerpiece that gets shaved into course six. Menus change frequently and come in 8-, 12-, and 26-courses. 1723 North Halsted Street, Lincoln Park. 312/867-0110. Reservations essential. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Monday and Tuesday. No lunch. $$$$

Couples and suits on expense accounts seem to agree on Ambria. The lush, art nouveau decor sets a sensual stage for updated French food, which might include the likes of blackberry-sauced venison, lobster gazpacho, and rosemary-infused lamb loin. If the a la carte offerings are too much to contemplate, simplify your decision with one of several multicourse dinners. The wine list is encyclopedic. 2300 North Lincoln Park West, Lincoln Park. 773/472-5959. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Sunday. No lunch. $$$

North Pond
Talented chef Bruce Sherman emphasizes organic ingredients, wild-caught fish, and artisan farm products. Menus change seasonally, but order the Midwestern favorite walleye pike if available. Like the food, the wine list seeks out small American craft producers. The food remains top-notch at lunch but the scene, dense with strollers and high-chairs, is far from serene. 2610 North Cannon Drive, Lincoln Park. 773/477-5845. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Monday. No lunch October-May. $$$-$$$$

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060917_CharlieTrotters.jpgCharlie Trotter’s
Plan well in advance to dine at top toque Charlie Trotter’s namesake. One of the nation’s most experimental chefs, Trotter prepares his menus daily from the best of what’s available globally. The results are daring, multi-ingredient dishes that look like art on a dinner plate. Menus follow a multicourse, $135 degustation format ($115 for the vegetarian version). For a worthwhile splurge, order the wines-to-match option. 816 West Armitage Avenue, Lincoln Park. 773/248-6228. Reservations essential. Jacket required. AE, DC, MC, V. Closed Sunday. No lunch. $$$$

Being cramped next to your neighbor has never been as fun as it is at this hot spot. Celebs pepper the see-and-be-seen crowd, which thrives on seasonal dishes like apple-and-almond-stuffed quail or sturgeon oxtail. It all plays out against a minimalist backdrop of white walls and aluminum chairs. Reservations aren’t required, but they might as well be — the dining room is typically booked solid on weekends. 619 West Randolph Street, West Loop. 312/715-0708. Reservations essential. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Sunday. No lunch. $$$-$$$$

Frontera Grill
Devotees of chef-owner Rick Bayless queue up for his distinctive fare. Bayless annually visits Mexico with the entire staff in tow. As a result, servers are exceptionally well-versed on the food, typified by salmon in pumpkin-seed mole, pork in a pasilla-pepper sauce, and chiles rellenos. The reservation policy is tricky: they’re accepted for parties of five or more, though smaller groups can phone in the same day. Otherwise, make like most and endure the two-margarita wait. 445 North Clark Street, River North. 312/661-1434. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Sunday and Monday. $$-$$$

060917_LouMitchIllinoisGovF.jpgLou Mitchell’s
Shelve your calorie and cholesterol concerns. Lou Mitchell’s heeds no modern health concerns. The diner, a destination close to Union Station since 1923, specializes in high-fat breakfasts and comfort food lunches. Start the day with double-yolk eggs and homemade hash browns by the skillet (BYO Lipitor). Later, break for meat loaf and mashed potatoes. 565 West Jackson Boulevard, West Loop. 312/939-3111. AE, V. No dinner. $

Refined Italian cooking is dished up alongside three-story picture-window views of Lake Michigan. Chef Tony Mantuano prepares elegant, seasonal dishes such as veal-filled pasta with fennel pollen, roast Guinea hen with truffle sauce, or Mediterranean bass with wild arugula. For Spiaggia fare, minus the luxury ingredients, try lunch or dinner at the casual Cafe Spiaggia next door. 980 North Michigan Avenue, Near North. 312/280-2750. Reservations essential. Jacket required. AE, D, DC, MC, V. No lunch. $$-$$$$

Leave pretense downtown. Chef Shawn McClain’s artistic but unfussy fish preparations distinguish the sophisticated Spring from the seasonal restaurant. Like McClain’s cooking, the restaurant’s interior design faces east for inspiration, beginning with a rock garden in the foyer. Original white glazed-tile walls hearken back to the space’s former life as a bathhouse. 2039 West North Avenue, Wicker Park. 773/395-7100. AE, DC, MC, V. Closed Monday. No lunch. $$-$$$

060917_BillyGoatTavernF.jpgBilly Goat Tavern
The late comedian John Belushi immortalized the Goat’s short-order cooks on Saturday Night Live for barking, “No Coke! Pepsi!” and “No fries! Cheeps!” at customers. They still do the shtick at this subterranean hole-in-the-wall favored by reporters posted nearby at the Tribune and the Sun-Times. Griddle-fried “cheezborgers” are the featured chow. 430 North Michigan Avenue. 312/222-1525. No credit cards. $

Chef-owner Rick Bayless wrote the book on regional Mexican cuisine, and here he takes his faithfully regional food upscale. Next door to the more casual Frontera Grill, Topolo is the higher-end room, with a more subdued mood and luxury menu, though it shares Frontera’s address, phone, and dedication to quality. The ever-changing offerings showcase game, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and exotic preparations, like tequila-cured salmon. 445 North Clark Street, River North. 312/661-1434. Reservations essential. AE, D, DC, MC, V. Closed Sunday and Monday. No lunch Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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