Parking in the Loop and Eating A Nice Dinner Out (with a catch)
August 4, 2011 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Chicago weekend! We're staying in the Loop, but I don't want to pay ridiculous parking prices. I also want to go out for a good meal at a restaurant that can make happy both a vegetarian and a steak-lover (at the same time).

Headed to Chicago next weekend with my boyfriend, and staying Friday-Sunday. We're driving in from Missouri and got a Priceline deal on a hotel on south Michigan Ave. at Balbo Ave., in the Loop.

1) I would like to avoid exorbitant parking fees. I am amenable to parking in the suburbs and taking public transit into the city for the weekend (returning to the car to go home); I slightly prefer cheap but safe parking in the general vicinity of the hotel (willing to walk several blocks). What do you suggest?

2) I also need a restaurant suggestion, probably for Saturday night. (We will have pizza and Portillo's and brunch foods covered already.) I'd like a slightly upscale option, where two people can eat for $50-75 and where we will look ok in dark jeans and black shirts (early-30s hipstery version of upscale).
The catch? We are a vegetarian (dairy or eggs okay; no fish) and a meat-eater. The vegetarian requires a meatless protein option (will settle for cheese); the meat-eater would prefer a good steak. It also should be walking distance to an El stop, and it should not be too hard to get a reservation (for next weekend). Where should we go?

Other suggestions for Chicago activities would be great too. I've read most of the other AskMe threads on this topic & perused the event calendar at the Reader, and I've been to Chicago several times before, but this is my first trip anywhere with my boyfriend (who has not been to Chicago much). We're both geeks in our 30s interested in general/vintage nerdery, music, films, photobooths, photography, radio, and sciencey stuff.

Thank you for your help! I love you all!
posted by aabbbiee to Travel & Transportation around Chicago, IL (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Parking: don't tell anyone, but there are a few (a few) free spots on State Street between 8th and Roosevelt, very close to the State and Roosevelt CTA station (Red, Green, and Orange Line trains) and a mere half mile from your hotel. There are rules about parking there on days when there's an event at Soldier Field (I think maybe 2 hours around the event?), so you should check the events page first. Also, make sure you read all the signs around your parking spot carefully, in case anything has changed since the last time I was there. I think it's the closest you'll get to the Loop for free.

I can also personally vouch for there being ample free, safe parking near the Brown Line Francisco stop. They just did street cleaning, so it's good to go for another month. The Francisco stop is about 40 minutes (and $2.25) away from the Loop. Much closer than the suburbs. I'm sure there are closer places, but none where I personally park my car.

I'm the kind of person who puts bacon in cookies, so I can't help you much on the veg-friendly restaurant front. Dark jeans and black shirts are appropriate for 95% of the places in Chicago.

Have fun!
posted by phunniemee at 2:14 PM on August 4, 2011

A few restaurant thoughts:
Cafe Iberico (I don't know what the prices are like)
Indian's always an option. (Unfortunately, since every possible name for an Indian restaurant occurs somewhere on Devon, I can't keep any of them straight. Devon would be a trek. There are, of course, some closer to you than Devon.)
posted by hoyland at 2:24 PM on August 4, 2011

I was recently at the Chicago Hilton (which I think is one block down from where you are) and the bellman directed us to a parking garage/lot just behind the hotel on Wabash where we could park. It was much, much cheaper than any other parking we saw when we were there. I think it was 721 S. Wabash (the sign in street view says $25/overnight).
posted by la petite marie at 2:25 PM on August 4, 2011

You might want to check out Uncle Fun and American Science and Surplus. There is also the absolutely horrifying and fascinating International Museum of Surgical Science.
posted by hmo at 2:28 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dine at Brazzaz, where they bring you endless meat but the salad bar also includes risotto, upscale cheese, and various bean and chickpea salads.
posted by foursentences at 3:33 PM on August 4, 2011

Don't tell anyone, but the Riverbend Condo building has valet garage parking for $20/night. On Canal just north of Lake St., just south of Kinzie. Just across the river from the Loop. 333 N Canal

If you want to go even cheaper, but there's an uncovered short-term lot on the north side of Kinzie just West of Canal (one block further from Riverbend), with overnight/24 hour parking at about $6.

If you want to try to beat the system, go for it (unmarked spaces, free spots pointed out by locals, etc.). But parking enforcement is EAGLE EYED and will tow you at the first minor infraction they spot!

Have fun in our fair city!
posted by firstcity_thirdcoast at 3:36 PM on August 4, 2011

I'm worried that you may have heard "they bring you a lot of meat". What I said was, "they bring you endless meat". Bottomless steak heap.

You may also like dining at the top of the Hancock Tower, a restaurant called the "Signature Room" -- B+ food, but astonishing view, and approximately your ambiance and price range.
posted by foursentences at 3:38 PM on August 4, 2011

Most good restaurants in Chicago will have a good steak on the menu, but you'll probably want to avoid any of the steakhouses -- you won't have much luck finding a vegetarian entree. I'd recommend Italian -- in particular, Mia Francesca, in Wrigleyville. The caprese salad is amazing, and they always have vegetarian options on the menu. Just down the street from Mia Francesca is Socca, which is also amazing but may have fewer substantial vegetarian options.
posted by devinemissk at 4:08 PM on August 4, 2011

I came in to suggest one of the churrascaria options, like foursentences did. We have a Fogo de Chao (excellent cheese bread), Brazzaz (grilled pineapple), and Texas de Brazil. Our friends go to one every year for around bonus time and stuff ourselves with meat and wine.

Of those three, I'd recommend Fogo over the other two. I think they have the best salad bar option - we've had two vegetarians come with us and both were impressed at Fogo. They also have an organic tempranillo wine that is to die for. Endless meat dinner is $50 per person, $25 per person for the endless salad bar only. Drinks and dessert are additional, but it should still fit into your budget.
posted by youngergirl44 at 4:23 PM on August 4, 2011

I'm surprised that some Chicago commenters are recommending chain restaurants, even though some are local chains.

Try Mercat de la Planxa at 638 S Michigan Avenue, an easy walk from the Loop. There's nothing particularly "Chicago" about it, but the food is excellent. Get the chef's tasting menu, and tell your server that one of you is vegetarian. You won't be disappointed. As a bonus, the restaurant is in the historic and beautifully restored Blackstone Hotel.

Be sure to try Mercat's bacon-wrapped dates.
posted by kim in chicago at 6:17 PM on August 4, 2011

If you can get a reservation (I've only tried at 4 pm on a Saturday for that day, so that was bound to fail) I am very, very partial to Cafe Ba Ba Reeba, a tapas place in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

It's at Armitage and Halsted, a five-minute walk from the Armitage Brown Line stop, half an hour from where you will be staying. The food is equal to Iberico's in my opinion, but if you can get a seat on the large outside patio, the ambiance is much better than at Iberico, where it can often get very loud indoors.

Even if you can't get a reservation, you can actually call and place your name on the list beforehand; unlike many other places, they don't actually require you to be there to put your name on the list.
posted by andrewesque at 6:42 AM on August 5, 2011

Response by poster: I am used to the type of restaurants that are a good compromise between meat-eaters and vegetarians, which is basically anything that isn't American food. Finding American food restaurants that can make us both happy is a bit of a trick everywhere. I do love all kinds of food, and I usually travel just to taste more authentic versions of ethnic cuisines. However, I was hoping that my boyfriend would get to eat a nice traditional Chicago meal.

It seems like there must be a few American-food places or steakhouses in Chicago that can please a vegetarian. I guess I'm willing to eat a stupid iceberg chop salad in the name of a good steak for my boyfriend if I absolutely have to. Do I have to?
foursentences, "bottomless steak" and "salad bar" are not phrases that I generally think of in relation to upscale restaurants... sorry to be skeptical, but I need convincing.

I do appreciate all of your recommendations so far, and especially in regards to parking near the hotel. Do I need to worry about closing times for the garages or lots in the Loop area on weekend nights? Would I have to worry about getting a spot again if I took the car out on Saturday afternoon?
posted by aabbbiee at 7:55 AM on August 5, 2011

So, there's this place called mk that is probably the best restaurant I've ever been to, but is out of your price range. It's definitely awesome, thought, and would please both of you. Their menu is on their website, so you can check it out and see.

A lot of the lots have "in by x:xx, out by x:xx" and overnight deals, so my guess (guess--I only ever street park) is that they stay open pretty late. There are plenty of garages, though, so if that's the route you plan to go, I wouldn't worry about (all of) them being too full or closed.
posted by phunniemee at 8:20 AM on August 5, 2011

"bottomless steak" and "salad bar" are not phrases that I generally think of in relation to upscale restaurants

The churrascaria style restaurants are very good, and the gauchos serving meat on skewers tableside is an experience. Everyone should try one of these places at least once, even if it's not in Chicago. Their atmospheres are more conducive to larger groups than intimate dining, so that is one drawback for a date-night type outing. That being said, I stand by my Fogo recommendation. If you trust Yelp, Fogo gets 4.5 stars (586 reviews) while Mercat de la Planxa gets 4 stars (527 reviews) and a higher distribution of lower ratings.

Answering the question yesterday inspired me to go to Folklore for dinner. I didn't mention it yesterday because I couldn't remember if they had vegetarian options - checking last night, there are a handful on their menu. I've never ordered any of them (STEAK!!), but their salads are always fresh and we've never had a bad meal there, so I imagine these options are good too. The atmosphere is much more intimate than Fogo, they have some outdoor seating, usually a live musician playing the guitar or keyboard, and you will need a reservation for a weekend. Also, their portions are HUGE - I ordered the El Filet last night and received two fist sized fillets and a ton of spinach mashed potatoes. From the loop, you take the blue line north to Division and walk west for about 10-15 minutes. The walk back to the blue line always seems longer because we're full of delicious steak and wine...
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:16 AM on August 5, 2011

Thinking about it, if the meat-eater is set on a good steak and is anything like my boyfriend, tapas is probably not the way to go. The food may be good, but anyone who wants STEAK is not going to be satisfied. I (somehow) got my boyfriend to try it a couple of times, and he'd never be caught dead in a tapas restaurant again.
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:19 AM on August 5, 2011

I don't eat meat, but Lula Cafe is pretty well-regarded among the meat-eaters I know. They have a skirt steak that sounds pretty fancy. It's an absolutely adorable little place, and they have lots of vegetarian options, with and without tofu, with and without cheese. Standouts include the pasta 'yiayia' and peanut satay noodles, as far as vegetarian fare goes.

In the same neighborhood, Longman & Eagle is also really popular among meat-eaters. They don't have a ton of vegetarian options, but they do have an entire separate vegetarian menu you can peruse, and what they have is really good.

The catch is that neither of these places takes reservations. But if you're planning to make an evening out of it, go and grab a cocktail a while before you're hungry and plan to wait a bit and you should be able to get a table without a problem.
posted by booknerd at 9:48 AM on August 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Photography and sciencey stuff: The Museum of Contemporary Photography is right by your hotel and the current exhibit explores human evolution, paleontology, the cosmos, and other good stuff. It's small, but don't miss the second and third floors.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:02 PM on August 5, 2011

I LOVE mk (in fact, I'll be eating there in two weeks when I'm back in Chicago), but it's definitely out of your price range (unless that $50-75 was per person? in which case, mk is not out of your price range but still may not have a substantial meat-free, fish-free entree, and a lot of their menu is seafood heavy, which might make it less of an enjoyable experience for the non-meat-eater).

If the non-meat-eater is OK with having a nice pasta or risotto dish and a good salad/appetizer for their meal, you can go to any number of awesome Chicago steakhouses, keeping in mind that a good Chicago steak is going to run close to $40 all on its own. I love Benny's Chop House, which has a great menu and a great bar menu (they do a lot of their own infusions and cocktail creations). Kinzie Chop House is also great. I would avoid the Chicago Chop House.

As for Fogo/Brazzas/Texas de Brazil, frankly, there are churrascurias in every major city nowadays (for instance, I first went to Fogo in Houston and I've also been to the one in Dallas, and from what I can tell Brazzaz and Texas de Brazil are pretty much identical to Fogo). In other words, if you're looking for a good Chicago experience, I think you can do better than a churrascuria. I also think you'll find a more intimate dining experience at one of the good Chicago steakhouses, and the service is likely to be better, too.
posted by devinemissk at 4:39 PM on August 5, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all. We had a great weekend. We found a public parking lot a few blocks away from the hotel and stayed there. It wasn't a great price but it was about half what the hotel was charging. It was good that we were parked in the early evening on both days, though, especially as there was apparently an event at Soldier Field on Saturday.

For dinner on Saturday, we went to Lula Cafe (a friend suggested it as well) and it was perfect. I had the pasta yiayia and my boyfriend had the skirt steak, and we shared a delicious slice of blueberry cream pie for dessert. We both look back on that meal with a sigh of pleasure. We also didn't have to wait long because of the rain.

Thanks again for all of your advice!
posted by aabbbiee at 2:32 PM on August 16, 2011

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