|By Kelley L. Carter, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 7, 2008 - For outsiders, Chicago is the place to come and eat well, as our fair city is considered to have some of the best restaurants in the country. What that means to recent transplants like me is that everyone with plans to visit sends me lists of where they want to eat.
Now, let me stop right here and explain a few things:
A. I like to eat. One look at my hips and you know this is true.
B. Even though I like to eat, I try to keep it somewhat healthy by avoiding red meat, pork and fried foods (wait -- do french fries count?).
C. I love to try new things.
So when two friends said they were coming into town, I was game for trying as many new restaurants as possible. But I was in no way prepared for their list of 32 "must visits" for what was to be a 2 1/2-day trip.
How on earth were we going to even put a dent in this monstrosity of Chicago's favorite food and nightlife haunts?
On the list: Sweet Mandy B's (for desserts), Piece (for pizza), The Drake Hotel, Signature Room at the 95th, House of Blues (for its gospel brunch), Blu 47, J. Alexander's, Small Bar, Pingpong, Grand Lux Cafe, Bob Chinn's Crabhouse, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, Crimson Lounge, Bar Louie, La Pasadita, La Pomme Rouge, Otom, Follia, Victor Hotel, N9NE, Cru Cafe and Wine Bar, The Peninsula Chicago Hotel's Shanghai Terrace, SushiSamba Rio, Japonais, Devon Seafood Grill, David Burke's Primehouse in the James Hotel, Wishbone, Table Fifty-Two, Martini Park, Tango Sur, Exodus, Bandera, Red Kiva, Greek Islands, The Bongo Room, Dixie Kitchen, Aroma and Par-lounge.
We decided to get as much grub as we could in 36 hours.
By following our hunt for near-perfect meals (or how to eat as much Chicago grub as possible without falling into a coma) as well as a few lessons learned, perhaps others could learn exactly how to address the dreams of visiting foodies.
Lesson No. 1: When hosting visitors, prioritize.
Marlon was the first to arrive. His plane landed on Saturday night, right before dinnertime, and, boy, was he ready to eat. We headed to Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop in Hyde Park, hoping for some really good soul food. We got it.
Marlon started off with the peach-glazed chicken wings, I had the fried green tomatoes. Then came the crawfish etouffee and black-eyed peas for Marlon, grilled and blackened chicken breast with two sides for me. And even though we didn't make good on our promise of ordering up one of those divine-sounding desserts (bread pudding with whiskey sauce, pecan pie, peach cobbler), we left sated and satisfied as we squeezed into my economy-size car.
True to the nature of our friendship, we called our friend Crystal and put her on the speakerphone to brag about the good first meal she missed.
She, of course, was jealous. And sick. She sounded so horrible, in fact, that she informed us she would not make her flight the next morning.
Lesson No. 2: Things happen. Plans change. You just have to adjust.
We honored her the next morning by having brunch at The Bongo Room on South Wabash Avenue. The blessing and the curse of being able to pore over a good menu is that you really just don't know what to get. So you order too much.
Not even 20 minutes after we'd ordered, a mountain of chocolate French toast arrived along with scrambled eggs, potatoes and sausage. That was for my friend. For me? I had pumpkin and graham-cracker pancakes, potatoes and an order of Thai chicken ginger sausage.
Thankfully, I didn't have to do that move that we tend to do out in public sometimes (OK, so maybe I'm the only one who does this), where we force ourselves to leave some food on the plate, so as not to look as ridiculously greedy as we really are. I actually was completely stuffed and am very happy to report I left at least half of those pancakes on the plate. Can't say the same for the chicken sausage and potatoes.
We figured it was only right to skip lunch that day. The plan had always been to go to Table Fifty-Two that night for dinner. I'd heard it was tough to get reservations at the Art Smith restaurant (yes, Oprah's chef), so I thought the smart thing to do was to book a table two weeks in advance. I can't lie. My mouth watered as I read Phil Vettel's review and how the meal starts with an order of savory goat-cheese buttermilk biscuits. I wanted in. I needed to taste that biscuit.
After about an hour of enduring busy signals, I finally got through. Then the phone disconnected. So I tried again, and after about another 30 minutes, I was connected to someone. The earliest opening they had was March, she told me. March? This was mid-December.
Lesson No. 3: See No. 2. Adjust.
Grand Lux? SushiSamba? Bandera? They were all on the list. Instead, we opted to go low-key and check out Small Bar. Full disclosure: I'd been there already one time before and knew that my stretchy pants (I mean, come on, I needed them at this point) would be welcome.
It's a cool little place for the Wicker Park hipsters, an easy-to-get-into spot where you can go and order up wings, hummus, burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches. It's a far cry from the dinner we wanted to get into (blast you, Oprah fans), but it was easy on the wallets.
Maybe it was the idea that we were trying to eat ourselves silly that did Marlon in. The plan the next morning was to find a good lunch spot downtown to finish our 36-hour adventure. Instead, he cabbed it to White Castle (he spent $30 trying to get there), to cash in the $10 gag-gift giftcard that I'd given him for Christmas.
Lesson No. 4: Even visiting foodies have their limits.
How to feed a foodie in Chicago
Make a Top 3 (or whatever) list of restaurants to visit: Check it twice -- but don't be afraid to deviate from it.
Call ahead: If there's some frou-frou place that everyone has heard about, chances are great you'll need a reservation.
Don't overplan: The beauty of Chicago is that there are so many great finds. Just head to a neighborhood and you'll surely find some places to slide into.
Go native: They may laugh when they see your tourist-flavored list initially, but talk to native Chicagoans about some of their favorite restaurants and ask for recommendations.
To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com.
Copyright (c) 2008, Chicago Tribune
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email email@example.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA. AMEX:JAX,